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Germany's new dividing lines

Mark Urban | 11:40 UK time, Thursday, 28 May 2009

BERLIN - On the European election trail, my travels bring me to this city which I first visited 20 years ago.

I count myself very lucky that I was able to see first hand the looking glass world of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) before the Wall fell.

It was the only city in the world where you cleared passport and customs control at the exits of underground railway stations.

Today there are quite a few commemorative exhibits marking the fall of the wall - the protest movement increased in pitch during the course of 1989.

But watching some teenagers go around the open air display in Alexandersplatz it was striking how quickly memories fade.

They were from the Karl Bosch upper school in former East Berlin and their teachers told me the kids had absolutely no understanding of what life in the GDR had been like.

A recent poll across all of Germany revealed that more than half the population did not realise the GDR had been a one party state.

The photos in the Alexandersplatz exhibition show dissidents - greens, Christian groups, and human rights protestors. I am reminded of their bravery and wonder what they would make of this remarkable national amnesia.

Germany, under the spectre of recession, is seeing a drift to the extremes. Both "browns" of the extreme right like the BVU and NPD and reformed socialists of the Linke (or left) PDS are expected to do well in the Euro elections and September's national polls.

In some former areas of the GDR the extreme right and left parties combined are expected to get anything up to one third of the vote.

I met up with Lothar Bisky, a senior figure in the Linke PDS, and onetime leading GDR film maker.

Although prominent in East German society, he was not a party member back then. He explains, that, "we have learned from our history". Mr Bisky is talking about the failures of the East German communist state.

Although some old "Ossis" will clearly vote for his party because they are nostalgic, the Linke PDS is doing well in the polls (with an expected vote of around 10% nationally) because of widespread concern about the failure of free market economics.

Although Mr Bisky is sure that nobody wants to recreate the GDR, he does not appear quite so certain that Germany has learnt from its earlier history.

He voiced great concern about the growth in support for the "browns" of far right as Germany's unemployment climbs.

Most people here believe that the effects of recession are just starting to make themselves felt - that the "tsunami" of unemployment will come later this year or in 2010.

At that point many expect an even more polarised debate here, with a diminished centre, and new battle lines drawn on the far right and left.

UPDATE - 16 JUNE 2009

continentalman - thanks for those insights about the state of play in the former East. I agree with you that the current importance of the "browns" should not be over-played.

hdrafael - thanks for that information about SED membership. I had been told otherwise, but I'm glad you've put the record straight.


  • Comment number 1.

    the nexr great step forward will come from Germany, they are already fed up with the European 'dream'...only they will do something about it...

  • Comment number 2.

    As a Brit who's lived in Germany since 1990 I continue to find Germans & Germany both delightful and perplexing.

    Amnesia or perhaps more correctly general ignorance about the reality of the communist era amongst under-30's in former East Germany is both well documented and astonishing, particularly as the German school curriculum goes to extreme lengths to explain the horrors of the Nazi period.

    However, if you bear in mind that the school curriculum is set locally by each of the 16 German "Bundesländer", and that the vast majority of the teachers and associated bureaucrats in the education ministries in Berlin and the other former East German Bundesländer were in their posts before the wall came down, their unwillingness to denounce their communist past is less surprising.

    In reality, the support for the far right is much smaller and far less significant than that for the far left. Given the natural concerns about the "brown" contingent, the activities of the far right tend to be over-report and over-rated.

    Another factor in the growth of the far left in former East Germany is the undiminished and significant gap in wealth, job prospects and general level of education between former West and East Bundesländer. The spread in yesterday's unemployment figures makes this all too clear, with Berlin above 14%, and the other Eastern Bundesländer not far behind, but Bavaria below 5%.

    The continued drift of German politics to the left and the very high levels of personal taxation frustrates anyone brought up in an Anglo-Saxon culture. But given the current economic climate and the likely collapse into bankruptcy of Opel, which is still seen by many Germans as an iconic National brand, who can blame them ?

  • Comment number 3.

    Lothar Bisky in fact joined the SED in 1963 having left West Germany in 1959 to become a student at Leipzig university.
    See Jesse, E., Lang, J.P. (2008) Die Linke - der smarte Extremismus einer deutschen Partei. Munich: Olzog.

  • Comment number 4.

    The significance of 1989 and 2009 are tied closer then we might want to credit, The European elections then presented the Green Party in England with 15% of the national vote, except it was the last FPTP election and none won a seat. The wall fell and so the various stages of societal change were visible and still are.
    Take 2009, due to the unforseen circumstances of a newspaper expos'e denuding the Governments last integrity, showing that the meperors are not wearing cloth, the Greens are presented with another unique opportunity to win support for their honest and long term policies, this time under PR.

    Both 1989 and 2009 will be remebered for differing reasons, one for the demise of the wall, the other for the demise of its ancient politcal system its entry into the 21st. century.
    But the common factor is the rise of the Green Party when things get pear shaped, a sign for an underlying support and trust that is widely ignored by the media, academia and public alike.

    And no, I am not a member anymore, but an Independent, just in case someone asks


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