Reflections in a broken showcase

The economic gap between western and eastern Germany is shrinking painfully slow, but profound differences in people's mentality persist

Photo: EPA Over 60,000 people attended the anti-right-wingers concert held under the slogan Wir sind mehr (We Are More) in Chemnitz on 4 September.

Some time ago, a fellow journalist said on his own TV programme: “If Germany were a woman, I would want to marry her.” He was referring to western Germany, of course. Everybody loves that part of the country. Though honestly, and going even further back, there was a time when we, in the former eastern bloc, loved East Germany very much. To us, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) seemed like true West - its shops were full of good quality, yet cheap products, its citizens enjoyed some benefits as well.

Working women in the GDR, for example, each month had the right to one additional day of paid leave 'to tend to their monthlies'. They could use the time to rest, or they could clean their windows if they wished. Most did the windows. Anyway, the point is that the living standard there was much higher compared to the rest of the socialist countries. The entire former eastern bloc worked for the prosperity of this country, which was artificially created by the great powers in the aftermath of WWII.

GDR was the showcase of socialism. The idea was for all of us to find our way to it. The system was supposed to make us uniform in the way we live and think, equally subordinate and unfree. Those who dared to be different ended up in jail, or even worse - in labour camps. The bravest fled to the West. Many lost their lives for defying the regime. At the end of the day, we did not become the same. Unfortunately, instead of us changing to resemble the Germans in the GDR, it was them who became more like us.

Then the Berlin Wall fell and the flying debris broke the showcase. All the weaknesses of the socialist system were suddenly reflected in the pieces of glass. As if in a distorting mirror, we saw the ugly side of this otherwise beautiful ideology. For the people of East Germany the shock was much greater. Once the initial euphoria settled, they felt betrayed and abandoned, for a second time. The world they knew, orderly and secure even if unfree, had collapsed along with the Berlin Wall.

In reality, they were not forsaken. Just as the countries of the eastern bloc used to take care of their wellbeing, that duty was taken up by West Germany after the fall of the Wall. In 1991, West Germany introduced the so-called solidarity surcharge (Solidaritaetszuschlag) for its citizens, or “Soli” as it was nicknamed. Every employee in West Germany earning over €1,300 (for married people the threshold was €2,600) was levied with an additional 5.5% income tax. This is pretty significant, considering that, at nearly 50%, the total tax burden in Germany is among the highest in Europe.

Western Germans are not rebelling against Soli. Well, some are already grumbling, but there are no street protests as of yet. The surcharge is scheduled to be discontinued at the end of 2019. But western Germans will continue to pay it if that is necessary. What admirable solidarity! I do not know any Bulgarians who would agree to the idea of giving even a single euro out of their monthly paycheck for 20 years to aid the development of northwestern Bulgaria - the poorest and economically most lagging region not only in the country but in Europe as well.

Official data shows that by 2016 the solidarity surcharge funded over €17bn in reunification projects in the eastern provinces. What is the result, one might ask? Satisfactory, to say the least. The western German TV channel ZDF published the following numbers on Twitter recently: unemployment in eastern Germany is 6.8% compared with 4.8% in western Germany, economic growth is 1.9% and 2.3%, respectively, while the average annual personal income stands at €19,100 and €22,500, respectively. The difference in remuneration, however, is not felt that strongly when the lower prices of some goods and services like rents are taken into account.

What do the eastern Germans have to complain about then? Well, the problem is not limited to money. The truth is that socialism caused irreparable damage to people's mentality. Some of them still want another dose of the same - to dress and think alike, to earn equal pay but regularly. In other words, they are prepared to give up freedom in exchange for security and the belief that things will continue to get better until communism triumphs completely (the phase that comes after socialism and the one we never reached).

It is no coincidence then that right-wingers, neo-Nazis and populists are increasingly gaining support in the eastern provinces of Germany. Examining the country's voting map following the 2017 elections for the new Bundestag (the federal parliament), the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) had its best showing in Saxony, whose administrative centre is Dresden, which is located on the territory of the former GDR.

A whopping number of three terrorist organisations were born in that same province after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As it turned out, the local security agencies underestimated what was happening for a long time. The explanation is simple - there are plenty of people with far-right attitudes in their own ranks too. This is logical, given that those people were born and raised in the same area.

The city of Chemnitz, which made the global newsfeed and brought Germany to the brink of a political crisis with its protests seemingly against refugees, is also located in Saxony. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city was called Karl-Marx-Stadt. People there led a quiet and content existence. There is no evidence of them ever having protested against anything before, let alone the former regime. Why the uproar now? Because the times are hard for them now, and they need an enemy to fight. They need to put the blame for their woes and struggles on someone else. It is the only way for them to rationalise the fact that they are not coping with the situation. In this particular case it is the refugees who are vilified, but it might be someone else the next time. It is easy to ride the wave of discontent of people who are disappointed in their life! But we have already seen this film and know the ending. Germany learnt its lesson the hardest possible way and has paid an immense price for it. It is still paying it. The sense of guilt has deep roots in the minds of millions of Germans. They will not allow the darkest and most sinister period in the country's history to be repeated. The sensible, tolerant, free Germans who do not harbour prejudices are much more than their opposites. They will ensure the prosperity of not only Germany but Europe as well. Only free people, not poisoned by prejudice, can create a better future for themselves and others. In the meantime, we will continue to love this country.

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