2020 marks 30 years since the formal reunification of Germany — the 3rd of October will undoubtedly be met with festivals and fireworks by most; yet for many Germans, Ostalgie persists. Germany, though legally unified, is still divided in many ways, the former East lagging seriously behind in employment and economic growth, and now plagued by far-right and racist rhetoric. Most would abstractly blame the “attitudes” and “frugality” of socialist East Germany for this downfall, but both statistically and anecdotally speaking, another story emerges. The “reunification” of Germany was simply the absorption of the DDR into West Germany, and the imposition of capitalist economy, laws, and cultures onto the formerly socialist state. Almost overnight, one half of the country saw the loss of their currency, their industry, and even their basic human rights as a quick-and-dirty wave of privatization and sales of businesses to the West occurred. Over 16 million people were suddenly deprived of the financial stability, gender equality, workplace rights, and basic guarantees that they had seen develop and progress over the course of four decades. German reunification, in the manner in which it materialized, was a crime; a crime not only to Germans of the former East, but to Germany as a whole, who saw themselves launched years behind in progress, knee-deep and wading through a rapid counter-current.
The lives of everyday citizens took major leaps backwards when the DDR was formally absorbed into West Germany on October 3rd, 1990. Upon reunification, the vast majority of (formerly public) East German enterprises were sold to Western entrepreneurs, East Germans only receiving 5% of these businesses. This, combined with the blow of resetting the exchange rate between currencies, spelled economic collapse. As East Germans lost the stability provided by state labour laws, West German officials used the East, vacant of trade unions set up to deal with capitalist predation, as a way to circumvent collective agreements with stronger unions in the West, hiring workers from the former East to work in unsafe conditions for lower pay and longer hours. This vacuum has caused an increase in racist sentiment in the former East as well, as workers, struggling to explain their sudden loss of stability, are preyed on by far-right parties like the Alternative für Deutschland.
East Germany, in stark contrast to West Germany, immediately squeezed its citizens through a thorough denazification process beginning in the 1940s. Uprooting and destroying remnants of Nazism and antisemitism ideologically, culturally, and individually, the DDR quickly replaced the vast majority of the country’s lawyers, teachers, and other officials guilty of propagating fascist ideology. Putting those who escaped or were hired by the West on blast, the East’s National Front for a Democratic Germany produced the Brown Book, a directory of former Nazis and their current whereabouts and employment — facts which the West continually denied until after reunification. In comparison, the BRD (West Germany) continued to employ the vast majority of these fascists: in 1957, 77% of the Ministry for Justice’s prime players were former Nazi officials, which was shockingly a higher proportion of Nazis in the justice system than during the Nazi era itself according to a study endorsed by the current Ministry of Justice. Similar facts can be quoted about West Germany’s Ministry of the Interior. To add insult to injury, these officials were paid hefty pensions post-retirement, whereas those imprisoned in Nazi camps and prisons received little to nothing due to “not working” under the Third Reich. In fact, West Germany did not formally move to outlaw hate speech until the 1960s, when the Volksverhetzung was put into place — however, this law simply outlaws “incitement of the public” and does not specify the illegality of ethnic, religious, or racial hatred. Of course, the DDR’s denazification process did not single-handedly root out all traces of Germany’s fascist past (or, in much of the country, its present!), and a number of officials were carried over, but the prerogative of the socialist state was to name and shame, and it was, for the most part, extremely effective — while the BRD shelled out money to “former” Nazis, East Germany was reconstructing synagogues for its ~500 practicing Jews, providing reparations and humanitarian aid, and affirming that “the struggle against racism and anti-Semitism belongs to the anti-fascist tradition of East Germany,” and that they would “never forget that many Jews, together with communists and Social Democrats… were active in the struggle against the Nazi dictatorship.”
LGBT people saw a reduction of rights immediately upon reunification. It seems generous to say that LGBT rights were advanced anywhere in the world in the late 1980s, but East Germany had a much better track record than many. East Germany was the first of both Germanys to decriminalize homosexuality (which they did in 1968), founding a number of state-funded gay and lesbian social groups by the 1970s, and by 1987 the Supreme Court had affirmed equal rights to its gay citizens, formally declaring homosexuality a natural variant in human sexuality. East Germany, according to information compiled by transgender activist Lou Sullivan, also offered state-sponsored gender reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy. By the 1980s, a culture shift had occurred like elsewhere in the world, with the DDR even opening a state-sponsored gay disco, and releasing gay-positive movies like 1989’s “Coming Out”. In West Germany was a different story: those imprisoned by the Nazis under the homophobic Paragraph 175 continued to be imprisoned for their full terms in the BRD, and could even be re-convicted for homosexual acts for the entirety of German division. In fact, after the absorption of East Germany by West Germany during reunification, homosexuality was once again criminalized for all German citizens — including those who had previously enjoyed equal rights in the socialist East — with Paragraph 175 not being repealed until 1995 (and this was not simply a “forgotten” piece of legislation — the previous year, 44 arrests had been made under this law, according to statistics compiled by activist Rainer Hoffschildt).*
For East German women, reunification was also bleak. Encouraging equality between genders, women from the DDR had higher rates of employment than their Western counterparts, and had much greater rates of financial independence. Women from East Germany were more likely than their Western counterparts to pursue both motherhood and full employment in tandem, likely owing to a strong support system and childcare infrastructure, including 18 months of maternity pay. Today, though women in the former East are still more likely to be employed full-time, they have an increasingly difficult time accessing childcare and family planning services — according to interviews conducted by researcher Pamela Fisher, women of the former East frequently cite restricted access to affordable childcare in the now-reunified Germany as a barrier to work and family life, and acknowledge that it leads to workforce marginalization of women. They’ve also seen a minimum 4-month reduction of maternity leave — in fact, this maximum 14 months of pay wasonly implemented in the late 2000s. Additionally, Germany today has a gender pay gap of 21% across the board, but only 7% in the former East — still, this is 7% more than pre-1990. Statistically speaking, it is clear that the reunification of Germany was a traumatizing hit to the rights of German women.
Importantly, the reunification of Germany had devastating impacts in the international sphere. East Germany showed itself to be a consistent ally to the newly-independent states in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, quickly setting up trade relations with countries like Algeria and Mozambique, creating exchange programs to train teachers, healthcare workers, and industrial workers across Africa, training peoples’ liberation armies of Palestine, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, and building infrastructure in exchange for little-to-nothing. From 1970 to 1982, over 50,000 citizens of developing countries were trained by East German personnel in specialized labour, and in 1981 alone, nearly 13,000 students from the Third World began vocational training in East Germany. These figures exclude the nearly 2,100 students enrolled in East German colleges and universities from developing countries. In the same year alone, financial and material support from East Germany to liberation movements and governments of developing countries amounted to over 1.5 billion marks, or 0.78% of their net domestic product. Adjusted for inflation and currencies, this would amount to over $1.83 billion (USD) today. It is worthy to note that, according to Dr. Peter Dietze, Director of the Division for International Economic Organizations and a representative in the DDR’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “[East Germany did] not own a single factory, mine, oil well, or any other natural resources in [these] developing countries.”
The DDR also became a full member of the United Nations starting in 1973, making themselves known as staunch fighters for such causes as peace in the Middle East, the fight against apartheid in South Africa, anti-colonialist struggles in the Third World, for arms limitation and disarmament, and for the expansion of international law to remove limitations on prosecution of war crimes. Though these efforts on the international stage were certainly not in vain — East German training, aid, and participation in the UN lead to the strengthening of peace, infrastructure, health, and education worldwide — after reunification, this peace-seeking state was absorbed into one of the most violent NATO offenders and proponents of imperialism. Since the “collapse” of socialism in Germany, we have seen the rapid deterioration of international relations between European states and the Third World, increased funnelling of money from Germany to Israel, and devastating NATO bombings and interventions in a vast array of countries, among them Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya. Germany now shells out €313 million to NATO each year, and in November 2019 promised to match the United States’ contribution, thus increasing funding by about €33 million. A once justice-seeking nation has, since reunification, been swallowed by the heir apparent to the Third Reich, and thus reduced to another murderous US ally and warmonger.
Though the occasional study is released to claim that Germans from the former DDR report higher levels of life satisfaction post-1990, studies which will undoubtedly gain traction due to the 30-year anniversary of German reunification, it is worthwhile to question what exactly was gained, and what was lost in the process. It is easy to follow the dominant narrative that the wave of popular uprisings and counter-revolution that swept Eastern Europe from 1989 to 1991 led to “democratization” of former socialist states, but is this really the case when women and sexual minorities are stripped of their rights and further marginalized, when Jews are now faced with living in a system that finances their killers, and when the working class sees everything it has built swiftly sold to foreign entrepreneurs? This is hardly democratic. As East Germany was swallowed by the capitalist, NATO-backed West, many lost everything for little to no gain. Thus, on October 3rd, 2020, it is necessary to acknowledge another side of the story, one that acknowledges that German reunification, as it occurred, was an anti-popular, anti-democratic, and anti-progressive crime against not only the former East, but Germany — and the world — as a whole.
*In 1969, Paragraph 175 was “reformed” to apply mainly to acts of “homosexual prostitution” or same-sex acts with adults under 21 (in comparison, heterosexual acts had an age of consent of 14 years). Attempts to repeal the law fully, or even out the ages of consent, were made by parliamentarians in 1973 and 1989, but the law was not repealed until 1995. Young LGBT people continued to be forced underground, their personal lives made illegal, until this time.
This article was written by Bronwyn Cragg, a member of the Canadian Young Communist League (YCL-LJC) in Toronto