30 years after reunification: are the east and west growing apart?

This October will see the 30th anniversary of German reunification. Three decades after the eastern states joined the Federal Republic, a majority of Germans agree that reunification has been positive. Yet differences between the ‘old’ west German states and the ‘new’ east German states persist – not only do gaps in income and living standards remain, there are increasing gaps in opinions and voting patterns, as well as an enduring feeling of abandonment in the east.

A 2019 Allensbach survey asked respondents what divides people in Germany. Although most people across Germany thought that social class was the biggest divider, closely followed by income, 55% of those in the east thought that whether someone comes from the east or west counts (compared to only 31% in the west). In addition, east Germans are more likely to identify with their region rather than Germany as a whole.

There has also been a negative shift in opinions about reunification in the east. Infratest Dimap found in November 2019 that while a majority of respondents across Germany said that reunification has brought personal advantages, the number of eastern Germans saying there had been a positive change dropped by 7% to 60% compared to 10 years ago.

In contrast, the number for western Germans rose by five points, up to 56% compared to ten years ago.

Celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 2019


Image by Uwe Beier from Pixabay

The reunification of Germany in 1990 was a process which absorbed the old East German states – Mecklenburg Vorpommerania, Brandenburg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia – into the West German Federal Republic. In accordance with Article 23 of the German Constitution, each of the five eastern states (Bundesländer) had to vote to join the Federal Republic. A unification treaty became law on 3rd October 1990, nearly a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A few years after unification, an annual report on the progress of reunification was commissioned and in 2013 a new government post, a commissioner charged with the coordination of the German federal government with regard to the new federal states (the Ostbeauftragter) was appointed. In the 2019 annual report (Jahresbericht der Bundesregierung zum Stand der Deutschen Einheit 2019), the Ostbeauftragter noted that the political goal remains to strive for equivalent living conditions across the country, to reduce existing disparities and to prevent them from solidifying.

The 2019 report noted that harmonisation of economic performance and living conditions between east and west Germany has made great progress; transport, energy and telecommunications infrastructure have been modernised and expanded; the structural condition of the towns and villages has visibly improved; and the large backlog of renovation and modernisation that occurred in the GDR has been largely reduced. The economic power of east Germany increased from 43% of the west German level in 1990 to 75% of the west German level in 2018, almost the same as the European Union average. More than two thirds of people in the new federal states say that their personal situation has improved since 1990.

However, as the report also noted, significant differences remain.

Living standards

According to the Ostbeauftragter, gross wages and salaries and the disposable income of private households in the east are around 85% of the west German level; this gap is reduced, however, if different living costs are taken into account (2019 Government figures showed that monthly disposable household income was considerably higher in the west – 3,617 euros a month, compared to 2,862 in the east). GDP per capita was over 10,000 euros lower in the east and, at 6.9%, unemployment in the east was over two percentage points higher than in the east. At the same time, east Germans work longer hours.

The Deustchlandatlas – a set of 56 maps showing demographic, economic and social trends across Germany – show a clear divide between the eastern and western states in many areas.

In the east, there is lower population density and an ageing population; in many regions of eastern Germany (as well as in the Saarland in the west), and in some larger cities, the proportion of children and young people is relatively low.

Working time (an indicator of economic activity) from 2000 to 2017 has increased in many areas but “the eastern German area outside of the outskirts of Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden and Jena, as well as regions in Saarland, in southern Lower Saxony, eastern Westphalia, northern Hesse, Upper Franconia, the Palatinate and in the Ruhr area, recorded a slight to a sharp decline.”.

Fewer foreigners live in the east: in the eastern states (excluding Berlin), 4.8% of the population are foreigners – significantly lower than the 13.2% in the west.

People are also less likely to vote in elections in the eastern states (although there are areas with average and higher than average turnout).

Many of the differences in economic activity and population distribution can be explained by the demographic changes that followed reunification; there was a massive migration from east to west (this trend was only reversed in 2017, when, for the first time, more people moved from west to east). A Zeit report in 2018 noted that after reunification, nearly a quarter of the original population of East Germany moved to the West:  3,681,649 people left the east for the west, more than a million more than those who moved from the west to the east.   Many of those who migrated were young people – more than a quarter of the eastern German population between the ages of 18 and 30 migrated to the west. 

The migration, together with a fall in the birth rate in the east, triggered  a demographic crisis which has resulted in an ageing population, loss of skilled workers, loss of tax revenues and loss of social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and leisure facilities. 


There are also significant differences in political opinions and attitudes to democracy; and here a growing distance between east and west can be observed.

A 2019 Pew Research survey, for example, found that people in the west are more satisfied with the way democracy is working in Germany than people in the east; they are more optimistic about their economic futures; attitudes towards the EU are more positive in the west; and people in the east have more negative opinions about foreigners and more positive opinions about the far-right Alternative for Germany.

An Allenbach survey found even deeper divisions: when the institute asked eastern Germans whether they saw democracy as practised in Germany as the best form of government, only 31% agreed, compared to 53% two years previously. In western Germany, 72% described democracy as the best form of government. 

The 2019 Ostbeauftragter’s report noted, “Dissatisfaction is noticeable in the new states when it comes to political issues. According to a survey recently carried out for the Federal Government, 57% of east Germans feel like second-class citizens. Only around 38% of those surveyed in the east consider the reunification to be successful.”

In the new states, opinions in the east of the country are more similar to eastern European countries than the west of Germany: “Many debates that are being conducted in the east show that some of the people in the new countries, similar to other transformation regions in the sphere of influence of the former Soviet Union, still have a more distant perspective on democracy and a market economy – and thus on cornerstones of society in the Federal Republic of Germany – as their compatriots in the West.”

There is also a residual feeling of abandonment in the east. The FT noted that despite the billions of euros from the west pumped into the east to fund reconstruction and development, the “triumphal narrative, however, fails to account for the personal disappointment and bitterness experienced by millions of eastern Germans in the years after reunification. From one day to the next, much of their experience and achievement was regarded as worthless; millions fell into unemployment, or had to take on jobs that were far below their qualifications; hundreds of thousands were forced to leave their hometowns and find work in the prosperous west. Easterners found themselves thrust into a system whose rules they barely understood, and that many felt ill-equipped to master.”

Similarly, a Handelsblatt article from 2018 argued that the personal stories “are what really set the east apart: They are stories of new beginnings and hope but also of uncertainty and bitter disappointment. Many people responded to the uncertainty as best they could, learning new professions, or setting up their own businesses. All this while forging a new democratic society. Others failed, often through no fault of their own, and felt robbed of their future. Many were traumatised by the factory closures enforced by the Treuhandanstalt, a GDR privatisation agency tasked with transitioning East German state-owned enterprises into the West’s free-market model.”

Different voting patterns

The gap in opinions can be seen in the voting patterns in the east today. Voters in the five former eastern German states are much more likely to vote for the more extreme parties – the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Left Party (Die Linke, which was formed in 2007 out of a merger of the successor of the old East German Communist Party, and a group of trade unionists and former SPD members who left the party under Gerhard Schröder).

The AfD came second in the east in the federal election in 2017, with 21.9%; it came second in all three state elections in the autumn of 2019 too. The Left Party came third with 17.8%, and first in Thuringia in October 2019. In 2017, the CDU won only 27.6% of the vote in the east, compared to 34.1% in the west. The SPD, which came second nationally with 20.5%, came in fourth place, behind the CDU, AfD and Left Party.

% share of votes in eastern German states 2017
% share of votes in western German states 2017

This feeling that easterners are second class was confirmed by a pre-election poll in the state elections in Saxony and Brandenburg in the autumn of 2019: 66%  of voters in Saxony and 59% in Brandenburg agreed that east Germans are second class citizens.  AfD voters had particularly high levels of agreement with this statement.  

The AfD has seized on these issues. Its strategy in the east is to portray unification as a failure and the easterners as the losers.  The party slogan in the 2019 elections was ‘Vollende die Wende’ – Finish the Transition – with the Brandenburg party claiming that, “There is neither equality of living conditions in West and East, nor is there real freedom of expression. Anyone who thinks “differently” today is suppressed just as they were once suppressed under the Stasi……It’s time to finish what was started in 1989.” Despite a recent fall in the AfD’s polling figures nationally, it is still polling strongly in the east (26% in Saxony, 22% in Thuringia, 19% in Saxony-Anhalt and 20% in Brandenburg).

As can be seen, the SPD has hemorrhaged support in the east, sinking to fourth place. In January 2019, in a move to win back lost voters, SPD politicians launched ‘Operation East’. Manuela Schwesig, deputy SPD leader and Minister President  of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, argued that there is too often  a west German perspective in politics and that a big issue for east German citizens is that they finally achieve German unification.  

The idea that unification is not completed is still a big concern. In today’s Cabinet, only two of 16 ministers come from the east (Merkel and Giffey). A study from 2017 found that eastern Germans held just 1.7% of top jobs in politics, the federal courts, the military and business, even though the east accounted for 17% of the population. 

The danger exists that east and west may grow apart rather than together. As Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned last year, the “great fortune that is German reunification” is an ongoing process and cannot simply be “placed in the nation’s trophy cabinet. Rather, it remains unfinished. It challenges us, it demands something from us.”

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