After the Berlin Wall: German unity proves elusive

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BERLIN | Most Berliners adore their city and are proud that this former symbol of East-West division has become a modern and united capital, as well as one of the world’s most visited places.

But 20 years after the wall dividing Berlin fell, the country is still not nearly as unified as the capital, many Berliners and other Germans say.

“We all underestimated the challenges,” said Friedrich Merz, a former member of parliament from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union and now chairman of Atlantic Bridge, a nonprofit organization. “It takes much longer to unify a country.”

Political analysts, economists and ordinary Germans point to the rapidity of communism’s fall, the legacy of state ownership and mistakes made at different stages of the reunification process as reasons why parts of eastern Germany remain underdeveloped and are still losing people to the West.

“About 65 percent of the citizens of the West have never been to the East. They haven’t considered it a part of their country,” Geert Mackenroth, outgoing minister of justice in the eastern province of Saxony, said in his office in the state capital, Dresden.

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Mr. Mackenroth, one of many public officials in the East who originally came from the West, said that Saxony has 16 percent unemployment — better than the 25 percent rate a decade ago, but still more than twice the national average, which last month was 7.7 percent. The situation is even worse in the far-eastern provinces, he said.

Mrs. Merkel originally came from East Germany, and when she became chancellor in 2005, hopes were high that more attention would be paid to the East. Four years later, however, many Easterners still have an inferiority complex, Mr. Mackenroth said.

About 63 percent of East Germans polled recently by the Pew Research Center said that “they are better off as a result of reunification,” said Andrew Kohut, the center’s president. “But now, as then, many in former East Germany believe they were overwhelmed by West Germany, that unification happened too quickly, and that the East still lags the West.”

Erland Ritter, a 35-year-old engineer and business consultant who grew up in West Germany and now lives in Berlin, said what took place after the end of the Cold War was not integration but a takeover of the East by the West.

“If you are being overrun, you have resistance,” he said.

Stefan Elfenbein, who was a 25-year-old German newspaper correspondent in New York in 1989 before he moved to Berlin, said many East Germans lost part of their identity when “their country disappeared.” More importantly, he added, “Western Germans didn’t realize their country had disappeared, too.”

In the Pew survey, 67 percent of West Germans said their lives have not been affected by reunification. Still, Mr. Elfenbein said many West Germans resent the billions of dollars in subsidies for the East that they have paid as part of their taxes.

On the eastern side, the economy is the focus of discontent.

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About the Author
Nicholas  Kralev

Nicholas Kralev

Nicholas Kralev is The Washington Times’ diplomatic correspondent. His travels around the world with four secretaries of state — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright — as well as his other reporting overseas trips inspired his new weekly column, “On the Fly.” He is a former writer for the weekend edition of the Financial Times and ...

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