Is the energy crisis causing new divide between eastern and western Germany?

Thirty-two years after German reunification, dissatisfaction with German democracy is on the rise in the former East, while leaders of eastern German states warn that the energy crisis is jeopardizing the successes achieved in rebuilding since then.

A heart, formed from the year 22, symbolises Thuringia's presidency of the Bundesrat and the Day of German Unity on Cathedral Square.
A heart, formed from the year 22, symbolises Thuringia's presidency of the Bundesrat and the Day of German Unity on Cathedral Square. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Martin Schutt

The annual report of Germany’s Commissioner for eastern Germany has revealed that, in the east of the country, discontent with the democracy that was re-established with German reunification is growing rapidly.

In a survey of 4000 people presented in the report, only 39 percent of eastern Germans said they were satisfied with how democracy functions in Germany. Two years ago, this figure was nine points higher. In western Germany, satisfaction also fell during the same period, but only from 65 to 59 percent.

Only 26 percent in the east are satisfied with the federal government’s current policies – and just 23 percent in the east and 33 in the west said they were satisfied with social justice in the country. 

READ ALSO: How your wages in Germany could depend heavily on where you live

Ahead of Unity Day celebrations, leaders of Germany’s former eastern states – Brandenburg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania and Thuringia – have said that the current energy crisis is making many in eastern Germany worried about losing what they have built up since reunification.

Speaking to the Rheinische Post, Brandenburg’s state premier Dietmar Woidke (SPD) and Saxony-Anhalt’s state premier Reiner Haseloff (CDU) talked about the concerns of citizens of the former East German states.

Woidke said that memories of mass unemployment following the reunification in the 1990s are still fresh in the minds of many who live in the former East.

“Therefore, it is also clear that the current situation is perceived with great concern and many are afraid that everything they have painstakingly built up over three decades will fall away,” he said.

Haseloff told the newspaper that the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine is also endangering the successes of the reconstruction of the former East.

READ ALSO: ‘Unity Day’: How October 3rd became Germany’s national holiday

However, Haseloff added that, especially in difficult times, Germans should not allow themselves to be played off against each other: “Today, solidarity and public spirit are more important than ever,” he said.

Thuringia’s state premier Bodo Ramelow (Left Party) also said that, despite problems such as wage differences between east and west, Germans should focus on their common ground. 

The process of growing together is still difficult, he said, but the overall picture is positive. “For me, the glass is half full,” Ramelow said.

Saxony’s state premier Michael Kretschmer (CDU) told the Redaktionsnetzwerks Deutschland (RND) that different views in east and west must be accepted, also with regard to the war in Ukraine.

“This war will be a cut that will go down in the collective memory of the Germans as a common, bitter experience,” he said. Kretschmer added that it was time to stop looking back and work together to shape the new era.

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How big is the divide between eastern and western German states?

Lots of progress has been made since German reunification - but there are still differences and division between east and west, according to a new report.

How big is the divide between eastern and western German states?
Archive photo shows a flag with graffiti that translates to 'easterner or westerner' in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rainer Jensen

Germany’s five eastern states still lag behind western regions economically – but they are catching up, a new study on German unity has found. 

However, the federal commissioner for eastern states has flagged up political differences in the east that he believes could endanger democracy. 

According the annual study released on Wednesday, the economies of Brandenburg, Saxony, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia trail western states by 18 percent.

In total, economic output in eastern Germany is 77.9 percent of the level in western regions, according to the report which is based on 2020 data. Including Berlin, which used to be split into East and West, that number is 82.8 percent. 

The report states that the gap between east and west is gradually closing.

“At the same time, however, the comparisons of figures make it clear that even more than 30 years after the fall of the Wall, there is still a clearly recognisable gap in economic power between east and west,” the authors of the report add. 

Germany reunified in 1990, a year after the Berlin Wall fell. 

READ ALSO: The East/West divide is diminishing but differences remain

In recent years, regional differences across eastern Germany have been increasing. Economic performance in the capital Berlin has caught up considerably in the past five years.

In 2020, Berlin even reached the German average for the first time, with 100.1 per cent of economic output – measured by the GDP per working hour per employed person.

This year Germany started phasing out the ‘solidarity surcharge’ – a contribution that everyone in Germany had to pay – which was meant to help rebuild eastern states and bring them up to the level of western regions.

READ ALSO: Berlin Wall fall: The unbelievable moment that changed the world forever

‘Dangerous to democracy’

Yet political attitudes – at least in a large minority of people – appear to be very different across East and West. 

The federal government’s commissioner for former eastern states, Marco Wanderwitz, said he had observed a “deep and fundamental scepticism” towards politics and democracy in eastern Germany.

An exhibition at the ‘Platz des 9th November 1989’ where the Berlin Wall first opened more than 31 years ago. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

“Of course, it’s a minority – but it’s a minority which is larger than in the western states,” the CDU politician told DPA. ”It’s dangerous to democracy.

“Somehow, we have to convince people of the merits of democracy and the constitutional state.

“We have to find a way to escape this predicament of living in fear before every single east German state election, dreading the moment we will have to look at the results to see how many points the far left and far right have gained.”

Before presenting the annual report in Berlin, Wanderwitz, who was born in East Germany, emphasised the importance of listening to people.

He said the aim was to speak to people more in eastern states “in workshops and seminars”.

Wanderwitz said Germany needed to “listen to them properly and explain to them why certain things haven’t always worked out the way we wanted them to”.

He describes this as a laborious process.

“I’m under no illusions,” he said. “For a certain proportion of those who have come to hate democracy, it’s hard to imagine that this will make any difference to them.”

Wanderwitz recently stirred up some controversy with his statements about people who grew up in East Germany.

“We are dealing with people who have, in a way, been socialised by a form of dictatorship, so that even after 30 years they still don’t feel at home in a democracy,” Wanderwitz told the Germany daily newspaper FAZ in their podcast.

READ ALSO: 10 things you never knew about German reunification

Some of the population, according to the politician, has “chronically undemocratic views”. These suggestions were met with heavy criticism.

But Wanderwitz refused to back down from his statements, reiterating that “we have a situation on our hands where many people in the east have a deep and fundamental scepticism towards politics and democracy”.

However, Wanderwitz said that the process of German reunification had made substantial strides forward. 

“The process of economic recovery has been successful. We have made real progress in settling authorities and research institutions in the new federal states, and structural reforms in the lignite mining regions are on the right track too.

“A whole host of projects are already in the implementation phase.”

Translation by Antonia Harrison