East Germany Today

Today I’d like to share a guest post by Florian Wittig. Florian was born in 1987 and grew up in East Berlin – he has some amazing insights from the Eastern side. He already co-wrote this article on the differences between East and West Germany with me. Thank you for another excellent post, Florian!

The East is an area where most villages and cities date back roughly 750 years ago and really flourished during the Prussian era. A typical town there looked like this:

Keep that in mind while you drive through the countryside: 50 years of socialism could not destroy what was build through centuries. So, a lot of what’s happening now is only understandable knowing what was there before.

Politics

The successor party of SED (GDRs socialist union party) was the PDS which is nowadays called Die Linke (The Left), they are the biggest socialist/far left party in Germany. In East Germany, they are a very much accepted player in the political landscape that was and is part of several local governments while in the west they yet have to reach that status.


On the other side of the political spectrum, the fascists (they might not call themselves that, but that’s what they are, fascist pigs) in various forms, most notably the NPD are also an established political power (but on a much smaller scale). They are part of local parliaments on state and communal level. In the west, they are not.

Two remarks here: A Yes, Nazis are a common sight in East Germany, people who want to tell you otherwise are naive. B Just because the “ordinary people” vote left-wing, don’t think they are progressive. In conclusion, they are very conservative, they just are more reliant on the state to fix problems.

Economics
Statistically, East Germany is at about 2/3 of West-Germany in terms of economics. Like in terms of income and economic power and so on. I am not much into numbers, so, I won’t go into detail here.

But let’s get a bit more personal (and subjective for that matter) and maybe you can read about the economics part between the lines.

Feeling part of Germany
Do I feel part of Germany? Phew. I don’t feel part of Germany really, but not because I am from the East, but more because I don’t like the concept of nations and think it’s too arbitrary. Generally, a lot of people have some romantic sentiments about GDR (See: What is Ostalgie?) and I would say that from a mindset and attitude towards life and work etc., most older East Germans prefer their peers to “Wessis”.

For the younger generation, it’s more difficult. First of all, a lot of them migrated to the West because of the horrible economic situation right after the reunification. Second of all, there’s a whole generation of disillusioned mid-twenties/early thirties people who fell in the hole the wall left. They are too young to be part of the old system and too old to blindly embrace the new one.

Quality of Life
This is the core of the whole thing when you ask “how is it to live here?”. This summer I’ve been on numerous weekend trips to Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Sachsen and in Winter I’ve been to Sachsen-Anhalt. Thüringen is still on my list. And I can tell you, it’s wonderful to go there. You have breathtakingly beautiful countryside like this:

Mecklenburg Lake District


Uckermark


Oderbruch

and magnificent cities like this:

Dresden


Neustrelitz


Potsdam

The quality of roads, the renovated castles (seriously, there is a Prussian castle in almost every bigger village) and old towns, the nature marks and everything blend well together to a magnificent melange that is really unique in Germany and the rest of Europe even.

But there is a catch to that: All of these renovations are paid for through the solidarity fund (Solidaritätszuschlag) or for wealthier people from the West. Because most common people in the East cannot afford to live in extremely remote places, most people in the East cannot afford to renovate an old mansion or farm let alone a castle.

The only economic perspective that a lot of counties in the East have, is elite tourism. So, at the moment, you have a lot of poor areas and residents there while the whole country is becoming a bit of spa/wellness spot or a possible utopia for stressed out city dwellers, wealthy folks from Berlin or other cities.

My weekend trips there were absolutely fantastic, you can completely relax, meet awesome people (who will be much friendlier to you, when they realise you are “one of them” and not some rich dude from Swabia) and I am seriously considering moving there in a decade or so. But if you talk with the residents, they have basic problems like making ends meet on 1000€ or less while working shifts in a senior hospice 120 kilometres away.

Another thing is, that the countryside of GDR is dying out. One of the reasons I love it there, is the vast emptiness of it all. While people are stuck in traffic jams going to the seaside, I am already jumping into a deep blue lake which I am sharing with about 20 or so people at most. But is just a consequence of the aforementioned labour migration and the demographics. Unemployment, no perspective and low wages are not exactly conducive to a booming population. A lot of villages I saw, seem almost deserted  except for the next supermarket.

So, yeah. What becomes of a beautiful land that flourished when agriculture and and early industrialisation were taking place? A country that was ruled from picturesque castles and today has to compete with the rest of the EU? I would say something melancholic with a lot of beauty but also a lot of darkness. It depends on what you want to see.

What I left out now is Berlin. It’s right in the heart of the former East and it shares a lot of its problems and past but you cannot simply lump it together with the rest of the East, not even together with cities like Dresden and Leipzig. Berlin is Berlin and is writing its history as one of the most liked metropoles of the early 21st century and to tell you how it is to live here needs to be handled in a different question.

National Anthems

The German national anthem used to be Deutschland über alles. Those words were not meant arrogantly – the writer was deploring that Germany was divided into so many warring little kingdoms and dukedoms at the time and he meant “über alles” in the sense that creating a united Germany should be more important than any regional squabbles. Still, the Nazis distorted the meaning and in a post-1945 context, people didn’t want to be represented by “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” anymore.

Germany, Germany above all,
Above all in the world,
When for protection and defense, it always
takes a brotherly stand together.
From the Meuse to the Neman,
From the Adige to the Danish straits,
|: Germany, Germany above everything,
  Above everything in the world! :|

There’s also the matter that the anthem defines borders that would be seen as aggressive today: the Meuse river is today in Netherlands/Belgium, the Neman river is beyond Poland, along the Russian/Lithuanian border, the Adige river is in Italy and then there are the Danish straits… Here’s a helpful map, approximate positions marked in red:

maas bis an memel

At the time, the dream was for Germany to cover all areas where people spoke German, and that included Switzerland, Austria and much of modern-day Poland along the Baltic Sea coast.

Unity and Justice and Freedom

After WWII,  the question was what to replace Deutschland über alles with. The same song has a second and third stanza:

2. German women, German loyalty,
German wine and German song
Shall retain in the world
Their old beautiful chime
And inspire us to noble deeds
During all of our life.
|: German women, German loyalty,
  German wine and German song! :|

3. Unity and Justice and Freedom
For the German Fatherland!
Let us all strive for this purpose
Brotherly with heart and hand!
Unity and Justice and Freedom
Are the Pledge of Happiness;
|: Bloom in the Glow of Happiness,
  Bloom, German Fatherland! :|

The second stanza was deemed rather silly, evoking drunken carousing. Finally, it was settled that the third stanza would become West Germany’s new anthem. The melody stayed the same as for the Deutschland über alles – it was composed by Haydn, which country can boast that?!

This 3rd stanza is as inoffensive as can be, not to say boring. Maybe it represents Germany’s post-war personality that way. Though this anthem is not particularly liked either. People certainly aren’t excited about it or sing it proudly – many Germans don’t even know the words and it’s hard to say whether that’s because they are just not patriotic or because they feel that the anthem doesn’t represent them well.

Risen from Ruins

East Germany had a new anthem created. Since it was created after WWII, I feel that it better represents post-war Germany with themes of

  • reconstruction
  • reunification
  • dealing with the past but looking to the future
  • yearning for peace and international understanding
  • closely tying “serving my country” to doing good rather than evil as under the Nazis
  • enjoining everyone to excel in learning and creating (unlike many countries that talk of heroism)

The text:

1. Risen from ruins
And facing the future,
Let us serve you for the good,
Germany, united fatherland.
Old woes are to be overcome
And we overcome them united
Because we so must succeed,
[So] that the sun beautiful as never [before]
Over Germany shines,
Over Germany shines.

2. Happiness and peace be granted
To Germany, our fatherland.
All the world longs for peace,
Reach your hand out to the peoples.
If brotherly we unite ourselves,
We shall defeat the people’s enemy.
Let the light of peace shine
So that a mother never more
Mourns her son,
Mourns her son.

3. Let us plough, let us build,
Learn and create like never before,
And, confident in immanent strength,
A free generation rises up.
German youth, best efforts
Of our people united in you,
You will become Germany’s new life.
And the sun beautiful as never,
Over Germany shines,
Over Germany shines.

Apart from two lines about the “people’s enemy”, which I would do away with, you might not even know that this was the anthem of a Communist country.

This anthem wasn’t sung much – the GDR government soon decided that reunification was not in their interests, so they didn’t want the reference to a ‘united’ Germany anymore. So the anthem was mostly used in an instrumental version.

United Germany

After the reunification, all of Germany used the West German anthem. I think it was a lost opportunity to create something that really represents modern Germany and that doesn’t make it feel like East Germany has no part in modern Germany (which is basically what happened, they just had to adopt everything West German, including the Basic Law that was specifically intended to be rewritten at the time of reunification). Even using a modified East German anthem would have been preferable for me.

Which anthem is the most beautiful, in your opinion? Comment below.

From Wehrmacht to European Army

After WWII, West Germany was initially not allowed to have a military, nor did it want to – from 1945 till now, some of the biggest inner-German political debates have been about

  • whether it is morally defensible for Germany to ever have an army again
  • whether it is morally defensible for German soldiers to ever step outside Germany
  • whether it is morally defensible for German soldiers to ever participate in a conflict abroad

The Cold War made it desirable for the Western Allies for West Germany to have its own army, so the Bundeswehr was founded in 1955 amid heavy debates and shouts of "Never again Germany". There was also a lot of criticism of the fact that the Bundeswehr re-integrated a lot of Nazi (Wehrmacht and even Waffen SS) officers for lack of any experienced personnel that hadn't fought for Hitler. Chancellor Adenauer replied more or less

NATO won't allow me to have any 18-year-old generals.

An Army Without Discipline or Weapons

The Bundeswehr's self-view was quite different from other armies though (see my earlier post on military service for a broader understanding). The Military Museum in Dresden, one of the biggest worldwide, does not talk about victories or heroes but only of the pain of war, yet it was the military who spent 53 million Euros building this museum. The Bundeswehr was supposed to be a democratic army, where soldiers were obedient to their conscience first and their superiors later. Using compulsory military service, the Bundeswehr should have become a representative sample of the population. This did not quite work out, as it was still mostly the poor, the racist and the desperate that joined the army.

In 1990, with the German reunification, ca. 20,000 soldiers (i. e. ca. 1/7) of the East German army were absorbed into the Bundeswehr. The end of the Cold War also marked the beginning of the efforts to turn the Bundeswehr into a modern army that could be deployed anywhere in the world. Initially, this would only be acceptable in weaponless UN-approved peacebuilding or peacekeeping missions. Later, the criteria for a German involvement became less and less strict. Compulsory military service proved to be unsuitable for a global force, so starting 2011, the Bundeswehr has started a transformation to a professional army – not without difficulties (Friendly Drill Sergeants) .

Distribution of German soldiers abroad, 2014

Distribution of German soldiers abroad, 2014

European Army

Nowadays, the key term is 'European Army'. Politicians have concluded that since European armies are working together in global hotspots like Afghanistan anyway, it would be easier for the EU to have a common army. Germans much prefer the adjective "European" to "German" anyway and this would apply particularly strongly to nouns like "army" or "mission abroad".

Most recently, a brigade of 2100 Dutch parachuters were subordinated to a German division. This was the first time a European country integrated a part of their army into another country's army. A second such integration project (of the 43rd Dutch mechanized brigade into the 1st German tank division) is already on its way, in addition to common military schools. Next, Hans-Peter Bartels, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is thinking of subordinating a German brigade to a Polish division, and of cancelling purchases of expensive new navy ships in favour of cooperating with the Dutch, Danes or Brits. Rather than wait for 28 EU member states to draw up an agreement, he wants to create facts. Is the European Army closer than we think?

Do you think the European Army is a good idea? Leave a comment!