The Search for a New National Identity

Germany Table of Contents

In the aftermath of unification, Germans are searching for a new identity. There appear to be at least two distinct German identities, and obstacles to their speedy fusion seem formidable.

In the postwar period, West Germany became an upwardly mobile, success-oriented society. By 1990 a broad and prosperous middle-class and upper-middle-class society had developed. Although they still worked hard to earn the vacation and working conditions among the best in the world, West Germans sought to create a "leisure society." There was a movement, for example, advocating the adoption of a four-day workweek. Work was intrinsically less important to West Germans than to East Germans; instead, they prized personal fulfillment, recreation, health, and the natural environment.

Through a remarkable transformation, West Germans had rehabilitated themselves, had become internationally oriented, and had assumed a leading role within the larger European community. Members of the older generation, especially those "blessed by a late birth" (too young to be Nazis), were self-assured and proud of the Federal Republic's political, economic, and social achievements. Starting in the 1960s, the younger generation discovered new freedoms and exercised them. In the 1970s and 1980s, youth- and student-led protests were mounted against nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants and in favor of peace, disarmament, and environmental protection.

By the early 1990s, most of the 1960s generation had been assimilated into the German establishment, but its experiences in challenging authority and winning concessions produced evolutionary changes in German society, economy, and culture. This generation's influence could be seen in the huge candlelight vigils staged by people of all ages to protest right-wing violence and xenophobia.

On the other side of the fortified border, East German society was decidedly working class, with comparatively minor class distinctions. Where there were significant income differentials, the extra money was of little consequence in an economy marked by shortages of most consumer goods. The state apparatus provided security in the form of guaranteed employment, free education and health care, and subsidized low rent. Homelessness was unknown in the GDR. Other social ills such as violent crime, drug abuse, and prostitution also were much less prevalent than in the west.

In terms of their attitude toward state authority and the family, easterners manifested values characteristic of westerners in the late 1950s and 1960s. On the factory floor or the collective farm, conditions were often primitive and the workweek long (forty-three or more hours). The workforce, too, was reminiscent of an earlier Germany, with greater numbers employed in smokestack industries or in fields and mines, and far fewer in the services or information sector. One of many revelations after unification was the information illiteracy of easterners.

With few external options or diversions, East Germans identified with home and family more than their counterparts in the west. Deprived of the means and liberty to travel outside communist Eastern Europe, they formed what some sociologists called a "niche society," retreating into an inner circle to find a degree of privacy.

For three generations, East Germans had been indoctrinated in the thought processes of two forms of totalitarianism in succession: nazism and communism. With the collapse of communism, Germans living in the new Lšnder had few values and beliefs, aside from personal ones, with which to identify. Embittered by the seemingly imperialistic imposition of all things West German, some easterners developed "an identity of defiance" (Trotzidentitšt ).

In the initial stage of union, Germans focused on the profound differences that had evolved in the two states since the end of World War II. In the Federal Republic, one of the world's wealthiest countries, quality-of-life issues played key roles in defining one's place and identity in society. Home ownership, travel experiences, and leisure activities of all kinds were translated into powerful status symbols.

In stark contrast, the state owned practically all property in East Germany. Expectations of improving individual or family lifestyles were modest. Overall, the eastern Lšnder were decades behind the west in most categories measuring standard of living. Coming from a society grown accustomed to measuring itself and others by the yardstick of material prosperity, it was not surprising that West Germans felt more in common with their neighbors to the west, in whose countries they frequently traveled.

In some respects, the former GDR stood in relation to the FRG as a colony to an imperial power, and it was not long before westerners and easterners began acting out the roles of "know-it-alls" (westerners) and "whimpering easterners." Within several years of the opening of the Berlin Wall, the former East Germany was transformed from a full-employment society to one having more than 1 million unemployed and hundreds of thousands of part-time workers.

Forced resocialization has weighed heavily on eastern Germans' self-esteem. The cleft between east and west is sufficiently deep and wide to make easterners appear to be foreigners in their own land, or at best second-class citizens. By August 1992, the situation had deteriorated to the point where a headline on the cover of Der Spiegel , the influential weekly magazine, summed it up in three words: "Germans Against Germans."

In modern European history, the merging of two fundamentally different social, political, and economic systems such as those that evolved in the two Germanys has no precedent. Fortunately for the newly united country, most Germans still rely on the traditional traits of diligence, orderliness, discipline, and thrift, and these shared values ultimately should resolve the problems associated with the merger of two states and societies at vastly different levels of development and achievement.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress