Divided We Stand

In the east German town of Wittenberge, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder faced eggs and rocks thrown by a furious crowd. In dozens of other cities, tens of thousands of protesters have revived the weekly "Monday marches" that brought the communist regime to its knees in 1989. This time, their rebellion is aimed at Schroder and what Brandenburg Gov. Matthias Platzeck decries as his "western" law to cut welfare benefits and turn east Germans into "second-class citizens."

Not since German reunification has the mood in the east been this angry and foul. The east is burning read the headline for the east German tabloid Super-Illu recently. As "Ossis" and "Wessis" (east Germans and west Germans) observe the 14th anniversary of their merger next month, no one seems to feel like celebrating. With eastern unemployment stuck at 20 percent--more than twice the western rate--Schroder's plans to cut benefits will hit the region especially hard. But the protesters are also venting years of growing frustration at the region's continued economic backwardness and lack of jobs, for which they, like Platzeck, often blame the west. Galvanized by the anti-Schroder mood, the communists are surging and right-wing parties are on the rise; in Brandenburg state elections this weekend, polls show the communists actually coming out on top. Elisabeth Noelle, head of the Allensbach polling institute, puts it bluntly: "East and west Germans are growing further apart."

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Unification and the passage of time was supposed to bridge old divides, yielding one nation and one people. Today, that goal seems further away than ever. In 1990 the overnight change to western wages, prices and bureaucratic rules killed virtually all of east German industry. Despite more than 1 trillion euros in subsidies since, the east remains an economic black hole. Now comes Germany's first-ever substantial cut in welfare benefits--hitting Ossis disproportionately hard. Those unemployed for longer than 12 months--almost 1 million people in the east--will no longer receive 57 percent of their last income for life, but a fixed monthly rate starting at about 580 euros for a childless single. For the first time recipients will be needs-tested, and it will be harder to turn down a new job. Labor-market experts say the reform, designed to make the dole less attractive, is long overdue. But east Germans sensibly worry that in today's economy, they won't have jobs to move on to.

Blaming the west has thus become popular. At many of the Monday marches, communists from the Party of Democratic Socialism march with right-wing extremists from the German People's Union. Their slogans are virtually identical. Schroder's cuts are poverty by law, as a PDS poster has it; rightists assail the chancellor's "annihilation of the welfare state." Together, they can count on up to 40 percent of Sunday's vote in Brandenburg--enough to threaten the ruling coalition of Social and Christian Democrats.

These votes will be more protest than ideology, but they reflect a weak identification with the political parties and democratic system imported from the west. According to one recent survey, almost 80 percent of easterners still see old-style socialism as "good." The vast majority say they prefer "equality" over "freedom" and look to the state to provide employment and economic growth, as opposed to free markets. Widespread enough in the west, these attitudes dominate in the east. "Democracy has not grown real roots in east Germany," says Allensbach pollster Thomas Petersen.

Ironically, pouring money into the east seems only to have accentuated its problems. Neither Schroder nor his predecessor, Helmut Kohl, have been willing to implement policies their own advisers tell them will help. (These include cutting entry-level minimum wages in order to spur hiring and reducing monthly benefits that remain high enough for many to afford not to work--between 1,438 and 1,658 euros for a family of four, even after the cuts.) That Germany can spend 4 percent of its GDP on subsidies for the east, year after year after year, testifies to its continued economic prowess. Still, if it could muster the political courage to turn those dead-end payments into productive investments (including low-wage-job subsidies) the country could start growing again and produce jobs. Otherwise the east may turn into "Europe's second Mezzogiorno," warns Hans-Werner Sinn, president of the IFO economic institute, referring to the poor and Third World-like Italian south.

Fortunately, the east contains the seeds for its own revival. Fourteen years of upheaval and change--where 90 percent of workers have job descriptions that didn't even exist before reunification--has left easterners more flexible than west Germans. Frustration at government is turning into healthy disrespect, Allensbach's Petersen reports. "The younger generation is more self-reliant, ambitious and willing to try something new" than their western compatriots. Right now their energies are translating into protest against the west. It's up to Schroder--or the next government that replaces him--to help channel them into something more positive. Maybe someday they will even consider themselves Germans, without any geographical qualifier.

Divided We Stand | News