THE PULSE OF EUROPE : Germany : The Family Reunion Has Been Largely Overrated
They grope for words, these New Germans. They search for ways to express how 40 years of political division and radically different experiences have turned the two halves of the nation into segments so unlike each other in outlook, expectations, values and psychology.
“The wall in our heads is higher today than ever,” suggests one prominent eastern German politician. “One nation, two different worlds.”
The Times Mirror survey suggests that Germany is a metaphor for Europe as a whole: a continent divided by subtle yet important sociological differences along the same political fault line that was once marked by barbed wire and watch towers.
Nearly a year after unification, Germans feel confident about the strength of their democracy but are torn by deep internal divisions that are straining the country’s social cohesion and are likely to slow economic recovery in the former Communist east.
Younger citizens on both sides of the old political divide have less in common, less mutual interest and are less supportive of unity than those over 60 who remember an earlier united Germany.
The poll finds western Germans to be a people upset with the cost of unity, impatient and estranged from their eastern cousins. It finds eastern Germans eager to accept political pluralism and the free-market economy that unification has brought, yet resentful of being regarded as second-class citizens within a country their revolution helped unite.
Eighteen months of mixing together since the Berlin Wall crumbled has created a widespread awareness of the differences between the two German peoples. It appears to have acted to drive them further apart.
Nowhere is the difference more vivid than on the subject of unity itself.
Nearly 60% of eastern Germans said they still “most often” think of themselves as eastern German rather than simply German.
While both eastern and western Germans expressed undisputed approval for the country’s unification, they did so for completely different reasons.
Most often cited by western Germans as the reason for their enthusiasm is that “the Germans are all together now. . . .” While one in four western Germans mentioned that point, however, only 3.8% of eastern Germans did. Nearly one in two eastern Germans, meanwhile, cited the prospect of a rising standard of living--something mentioned by just 2.2% of western Germans.
Germans are equally divided on their dislikes about what unity has wrought.
For westerners, the worst consequence is the billions of dollars--much of it in higher taxes--required to rebuild the shattered eastern Germany. Forty-seven percent of them gave that response, compared to only 8% of easterners. The toughest pill to swallow for easterners has been unemployment.
The poll suggests that the much-heralded German national family reunion has been largely overrated.
While just over 42% of all eastern Germans questioned listed “freedom for traveling” as unity’s most important benefit, only 3% also counted “family visits in the other part of Germany” on the same list. For western Germans, the figure was a modest 11%.
There has been such a dearth of contact across the old inner-German frontier that the president of the federal Parliament, Rita Suessmuth, recently found herself compelled to urge western Germans to take a greater interest in the eastern region. She urged that they spend vacation time discovering eastern cities such as Leipzig and Schwerin rather than going to London or Paris.
As individuals, eastern Germans are easily the most rosy-eyed people of the former Soviet Bloc. While eastern German factories continue to close with a depressing regularity, eastern Germans express remarkably little concern and continue to demonstrate an almost surreal optimism about their longer-term economic future. By contrast, their western cousins are convinced that the best of times are already behind them.
This eastern German optimism coexists with a larger discontent about unification that has less to do with the region’s economic upheaval than with a powerful sense of social and psychological loss--a loss of dignity, status, lifestyle and country.
Seventy percent of western Germans, meanwhile, said they felt that their lives had been unaffected by unification.
The survey also showed a mounting concern about the influx of ethnic minorities into Germany, with nearly half saying their primary fear is “a flood of refugees coming into our country.” That concern was nearly three times as common as the next two mentioned--a general economic decline and the economic collapse of the Soviet Union.
Despite the strains of unity, Germans appear extremely secure. Those polled were hard-pressed to name a country that posed “the greatest threat in the future.”
At the same time, however, other poll findings suggest that Germans see a certain fragility in their democracy--a weakness not found among their closest Western allies, such a France, Britain and Italy. There is conspicuously strong support for banning “dangerous books” (72% agree) and limiting free speech of fascists (63% agree).
Levels of anti-Semitism in eastern Germany were found to be among the lowest in the former Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe. In Germany as a united country, however, these sentiments were stronger--second only to Poland and equal to the Soviet Union--among those countries surveyed.
A small majority of all Germans questioned (53%) said they had a favorable impression of Jews, compared to 23% who expressed “very unfavorable” impressions. In western Germany, nearly twice as many of those over 60 years of age (40%) voiced unfavorable opinions of Jews as did those under 25 years old (19%).
A series of political events since German unification has shown the problems Germany faces in assuming a political role commensurate with its position as Central Europe’s largest, richest nation.
In Hungary and Bulgaria, the poll found Germany mentioned most often as the most dependable ally, while in Russia, the Ukraine, Lithuania and Czechoslovakia, Germany was mentioned more often than all countries except for the United States.
Only in Poland did historic enmity toward Germany appear to linger. Poles rated Germany as highly as the Soviet Union as a country posing the greatest threat to their future.
Conversely, Germans omitted Poland from a list of countries considered their most dependable allies and mentioned it high on the list of countries posing a threat to Germany in the future.
The Polish-German border in many ways symbolizes the contradictions and challenges for Europe as it struggles toward a better future. The dream of a free, open Europe is impossible without ease of movement across this border. Yet a steady westward flow of Poles and other Europeans seeking the fruits of Western Europe’s economic success could endanger both economic and social stability of Western countries, analysts believe.
Nearly 40% of Germans questioned said that “there are parts of neighboring countries that really belong to us.” Large areas of present-day Poland belonged to Germany for centuries before World War II. Although Germany’s political leadership has formally renounced any claims to these territories, the poll suggests that the claims remain valid for a large minority of the population.