The east German as victim and villain
East Germans are all too often portrayed either as the victim or the villain - as some new data on income shows.
An east German who works a full-time job is twice as likely to be on a low-income salary as someone in the west - that’s the conclusion of a study on wages published on Thursday by the Hans Böckler Stiftung.
The study found that 29 percent of workers in the former east are on a salary defined by the Bundesagentur für Arbeit as “low income.” In hard numbers that means a pre-tax income of €2,284 per month or less. In the states of the former west by contrast, just 15 percent earn under this level.
Of the ten districts nationwide with the highest proportion of rock bottom salaries, every single one is in the east. Lowlight is the Erzgebirge district in Saxony, where 43 percent of workers are in the lowest salary bracket.
At the other end of the list is the west German city of Wolfsburg, the wealthy home of Volkswagen, where just six percent of employees are on low incomes. Other major car manufacturing centres, such as Stuttgart, Munich and Ingolstadt, all make it into the top ten. No east German district is among them.
These numbers outline how wide the gulf in wealth between the west and the east remains.
For some in the east, such figures feed into a sense that they are merely second-class citizens.
As a journalist, one doesn’t spend long on an assignment there before someone complains of how west Germans stripped down their industry or fishing fleets, or gobbled up their land für einen Apfel und ein Ei.
The left-wing Die Linke party, whose shrinking voting base is mainly found in the east, are not shy about stirring the pot. During state elections in Saxony-Anhalt last summer they brought out a campaign poster showing a child dragging a dog on a leash above the tag line “Nehmt den Wessis das Kommando” (take control from the West Germans).
The far-right AfD, meanwhile, insinuate that the people of the east swapped one dictatorship for another. “Vollende die Wende!” implore their posters - ‘finish the revolution!’
These slogans play on a residual resentment towards Besserwessis, but they ignore an important truth - life in the east is getting much better, at least if you measure quality of life in terms of income and employment.
As the Hans Böckler Stiftung study makes clear, salaries in the east are much improved on a decade ago. While three in ten workers there are low wage today, in 2011 that figure was four in ten.
With unemployment in the east down from a high of 19 percent in 2005 to seven percent today, more east Germans are in work than at any time since reunification, and they are taking home a better pay cheque at the end of the month.
The improvement isn’t just seen in terms of jobs, it’s also evident in the modernization of infrastructure and housing. Through the Solidaritätszuschlag, hundreds of billions of euros in taxes have been funnelled towards the Wiederaufbau of the ruins left by the communists.
Could more have been done to eliminate the east-west gap? Perhaps. But the idea that the east simply is a carcass picked over by western vulture capitalists is crude at best.
So are east Germans just a bunch of whinging moaners who don’t know how good they’ve got it? Not entirely. The flip side of the coin is the ‘east German as villain’ narrative encouraged by the west German press.
Reading through the list of districts with the most low-income earners, I was reminded of recent headlines in the west German media about AfD voters spreading the coronavirus.
The headlines came at a time when the virus was ripping through these very same impoverished parts of east Germany, where the AfD happen to be very popular.
The Hamburg-based Der Spiegel ran with the provocative headline “je AfD, desto Corona” - ‘the more AfD, the more Covid’ - citing a study that found a correlation between the popularity of the AfD in a district and high Covid case numbers.
But for Der Spiegel, this wasn’t just correlation, it was causation: the same conspiratorial mindset that leads east Germans to vote for the AfD makes them act recklessly during a pandemic and endanger other people’s lives.
Of course, the popularity of the AfD could be one factor in the spread of the virus. But other circumstances no doubt play a role. It is striking that seven of the ten districts with the lowest salary levels are all in the rural regions of Thuringia and Saxony that have been hardest hit by Covid.
As the Böckler Stiftung study notes, people on low incomes aren’t working in finance, the public sector, or in the well-ventilated headquarters of a car company. They are much more likely to be employed in sectors resistant to the allure of home office such as logistics or trade.
A little Gedankenexperiment: can one image Der Spiegel reporting on high Covid rates among immigrants with the headline ‘Je Ausländer, desto Corona’? Well, we have the answer. Der Spiegel has reported on just this topic and its headline - “Why do so many people with immigrant backgrounds end up in Covid wards?” - was rather more open minded.
Another recent example of the “east German as villain” genre was seen in reporting on Jewish singer Gil Ofarim’s complaint that he was the victim of anti-Semitic abuse in the foyer of a Leipzig hotel. The accusation fitted neatly into the “terrible things that happen in the east” folder. The problem was that reporting was based on one celebrity’s version of events posted to Instagram, which was soon called into question by CCTV footage. Prosecutors are still to decide on whether to pursue Ofarim’s complaint.
It seems strange that these clichés - the money-hungry Wessi and the ignorant, embittered Ossi - have cemented themselves in public narratives three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But perhaps the disappearance of a physical barrier has also led people to lose their curiosity about one another. That’s the conclusion arrived at by journalist Markus Ziener, who spent much time in the east after the end of the Cold War.
In an article for Deustchlandfunk published on the 30th anniversary of reunification, he remarked that West Germans are particularly uninterested in their eastern brethren:
“We drive over, enjoy the Baltic Sea, the Mecklenburg Lake District, the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. Then we drive back again and hardly take anything home with us. At most we notice that it is still somehow strange over there, somehow east-y.”
Ziener’s hope is that the clichés will begin to disappear when the next generation, who never knew a divided Germany, grow up to be the dominant voices in politics and journalism.