Courtney Flynn Martino (Bertelsmann Foundation North America)
On October 3, 1990, the carefully negotiated Unification Treaty took effect, and over four decades of divided Germany came to a legal end. Reunification also meant the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a socialist workers’ state born out of the Soviet Union’s occupied zone following the Allied division of post-war Germany. The German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, consisted of over 16 million people in five states, which are still known today as the “neue Länder”, or “new states”. During reunification, the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, absorbed these states and their people, who came from an entirely different political, economic, and social system. From that point on, there were no longer meant to be West Germans or East Germans, but simply Germans.
Unemployment is consistently higher in the eastern part of the country, with up to a 10% disparity in the early 2000s — a time when Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s promise of “blooming landscapes” of industry and prosperity in the East should have materialized. In 2010, just 4% of marriages were between eastern and western Germans, well below the number of marriages between Germans and those with migration backgrounds, which was 18.9% in 2007.
Even more illuminating, the 2019 Annual Report of the Federal Government on the Status of German Unity revealed that 57% of residents in eastern Germany felt like second-class citizens, and only 38% of them consider reunification a success, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This sense of “otherness” in eastern Germany has persisted, and so has a distinct cultural identity — partly rooted in geography, and partly in history. “Ostalgia”, or nostalgia for the East, is felt in many parts of eastern Germany today, even by an increasing number of individuals born after reunification. For most, that does not equal a desire to return to the state control of the Socialist Unity Party or the constant scrutiny of the Ministry for State Security (Stasi). Instead, it is a deliberate reminder that there was a distinct set of culture and traditions from the GDR that did not disappear with the unification of East and West. East German identity has outlived the state and still has a foothold in Germany today.
In May 2023, the rural town of Friedrichsroda on the edge of the Thuringian Forest hosted an Ostalgia festival. The event was complete with Trabants, the famed East German car rumored to be made of cardboard that could take up to two decades between ordering and delivery; East German food specialties; crafting with the Young Pioneers, the East German scouting organization that nearly every GDR child belonged to; and closed with a concert of “Ostrock” hits, in homage to the popular “East Rock” genre of the 1970s and 1980s. The event description clearly stated that the day was not meant to glorify the negative aspects of the GDR regime, but instead to enjoy music, culture, and good times — pure Ostalgia, plain and simple.
But Ostalgia is just not relegated to specific events. It is visible on a daily basis, particularly in Berlin, once home to both East and West Germany. The Trabi Safari sightseeing company offers tours where participants can drive their own Trabant through the capital, with information via radio from their guide. Anyone who has been to Berlin has likely seen the line of often brightly colored and patterned Trabants meandering along where the Berlin Wall used to stand, straddling the line of East and West — of past and present. Their next stop might be to one of the Ampelmann shop’s six locations, featuring a variety of wares from clothing to toys to food, all emblazoned with the beloved East German traffic light man, jaunty hat on head. In the shade of the trees on Unter den Linden, on the way to the Brandenburg Gate, there are usually folding tables full of old GDR or Soviet memorabilia for sale — hats, pins, flags, books, and even bullets, often of dubious authenticity. All of this shows that there is a market for Ostalgia, but what does it mean to those who actually lived through the GDR?
Bundestag Senior Policy Advisor Stefan Göhlert, born in 1974 in East Berlin, doesn’t mind the cultural commercialization, but wants to make clear that it is not representative of the East German experience: “It is like a Disney theme park, not real history.” For European Parliament Assistant Stefan Krabbes, born in 1987 and raised in Saxony-Anhalt, Trabi tours remind him of winter mornings spent in the car with his mother, waiting for the heat from the engine to warm the cabin where they sat. But he sets limits on Ostalgia, saying that “there has to be a clear distinction between the GDR life on one hand, and on the other, the political system that suppressed people.”
Both men are part of the so-called hybrid generation in Germany, those who were born to East German families during the GDR, but lived their formative years in the West German, reunified system. Adolescence is a nebulous time for any individual, where one might look to their parents for guidance as to who they are and what they might become. But for the hybrid generation, their parents were also adapting to a period of tumultuous change — both on a personal and professional level.
Unemployment and underemployment were rampant in the East following reunification, with unemployment reaching nearly 20% in the early 2000s — compared to 11% in the West. The GDR’s Ministry of Economics estimated that 40% of East German companies would turn a profit post-1990, but the actual figure was less than 10%. After decades of success measured merely by production quotas, most East German enterprises had difficulty adapting to a business model focused on revenue generation. An additional burden on East German industry was the 1:1 exchange rate of eastern marks to western marks — a decision lauded by many as a clear sign of the value of reunification, both literally and metaphorically. However, this flat exchange, equivalent to a 700% currency appreciation for the eastern mark, caused labor costs to spiral and forced many East German companies to lay off workers — once regarded as the backbone of GDR society. Suddenly, blooming landscapes turned into “illuminated meadows” of barren, concrete eastern commercial parks that remain devoid of industry to this day. Just one of the of the top 40 companies on the German Stock Index, fashion e-tailer Zalando, has its headquarters in the former East, located in Berlin.
The economic upheaval of reunification, combined with questions of how eastern Germans fit into the larger sociopolitical landscape, left many of the hybrid generation to figure out their own place in this new world. West Germans were resentful of having to shoulder financial responsibility for the GDR’s failings and thus, its people. East Germans were resentful that they were absorbed into a West German structure that stripped them of their collective identity and left no room for positive remembrance in the reunified national discourse. A burden on a system they did not ask for, the hybrid generation sought to navigate both of these realities with one foot in the past of their parents, and one foot in the future of a new Germany.
Stefan Göhlert recalls the uncertainty of that time for both him and his family, explaining that: “Seeing your parents lost and broken, unable to give you guidance because they themselves can’t see where the path goes, is frightening.” This uncertainty has ebbed over time, replaced by dismal confirmation that those in the West who were in their 30s and 40s during reunification — who are now preparing for retirement — are simply doing better than their eastern peers. When asked about his parents’ feelings about reunification, Stefan Krabbes believes that more than anything else, his parents want acknowledgement for doing the best they could to navigate a difficult transition. He reiterates their belief that unified does not mean equal. “They are not unhappy, they are not angry, but they don’t feel like winners of reunification. They would be happy with a good salary, some certainty about their future with retirement money and pensions.”
His parents are not alone in this regard; in the late 1990s, pensions for eastern Germans were 40% lower than their western counterparts, as a result of higher unemployment and lower wages overall. By 2025, the East-West pension gap will close, in large part due to 2021 reform legislation establishing a new basic pension. But in the 35 years between 1990 and 2025, millions of former East Germans will have retired at an economic disadvantage, limiting how they are able to spend their golden years. These lower pension payments are the disappointing cherry on top of a lifetime of lower wages, which — despite the lower cost of living in eastern Germany — equates to less disposable income than western households. For Krabbes’ parents, both of retirement age, this has meant limited travel. He explains that they were limited in where they could travel until 1990 due to the political system, but now they are limited by financial constraints. “I want them to see the world with their own eyes,” Krabbes says.
When asked about their own sense of identity today, the answers differ. Stefan Göhlert considers himself “a German and a European, who grew up in East Germany”. Through his work in the Bundestag, Göhlert has insight into the issues that unite and divide the German people, whether by political, societal, or geographical lines. To him, there is no distinct East German identity, but rather a shared experience that stems from history — for which there is not a western equivalent. “There is no West Germany identity because there was no need to form one,” he explains. However, Göhlert does not rule out the possibility of better cohesion in the future, as “it takes longer than one generation to create a national identity.”
Stefan Krabbes believes that there is a distinct East German identity, underpinned by adaptiveness, humility, and care for one’s community. However, similar to Göhlert, he is informed by a larger identity, feeling like both “a European and a ‘Dorfkind’ (village child)”. Now living in Brussels, Krabbes is immersed in a cosmopolitan European environment, juxtaposed with his rural, East German roots. “When I am in the ‘Dorf’ (village), I feel more European. And in Brussels, I think I’m seen as European as well, but I make my points as an East German person. I am probably more European, but I don’t want to give up on my Dorfkind, because if this part was missing, then I would not have the range of what I need in order to see the world with open eyes.”
When asked about the legacy of the GDR, both men pause before giving their answer. Göhlert believes that the harsh realities of the system should not be downplayed, but at the same time, he understands the desire to attach feelings of loss — loss of country, loss of agency, loss of job, even loss of physical markers and buildings — to an Ostalgia made rosier by every Trabi tour, every GDR fest. „Of course it was a dictatorship. But for many, it was their home as well. It was where they lived their lives with the little freedom they had.“
Krabbes is less concerned with how the state is remembered, but rather the people alive today who lived under it; most notably, his parents. “Even if they weren’t on the streets fighting for democracy, they were just simple people living in the GDR and then the Federal Republic of Germany, but they had their own fights — losing jobs, finding jobs, raising children, building a house, not always having money, changing currencies. I want them to be happy and treated in a nice way; I don’t want them to feel like they are losers.”
This article was published in the Bertelsmann Stiftung North America magazine Transponder. You can download the entire magazine here: Transponder_4.