A Unified Nation's Youth

Germany's political parties fight for the allegience of the young

GERMANY is politically reunified, but its youth remain socially and culturally divided. In the long term, the young people of eastern Germany are likely to follow the path of least resistance, adapting themselves to the prevailing styles and attitudes of their western counterparts. If that is the case, the opposition Social Democrats will have a distinct edge in the emerging political battle for the hearts and minds of the unified nation - a prospect that must certainly frighten Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his conservative colleagues. When the Brandenburg Gate opened in 1989 and the merger of the "fatherland" became a real prospect, most of West Germany's youth were far from enthusiastic. Having grown up isolated from the society on the other side of the Iron Curtain, young Westerners identified their social, cultural, and political heritage with the achievements of the Federal Republic, not with pan-German aspirations. Accustomed to economic prosperity and almost unlimited opportunities for self-determination - yet sensitive to the unique status imposed by Germany's painful history - many young West Germans share a view of the world that is described as "postmaterialistic." The economic efficiency of the Western system is highly regarded, even as an obligation to limit environmental damage, the excesses of industrial growth, and the spread of military conflict also is widely accepted. On a personal level, young West Germans cite "making big money" as a lower priority; what matters is enjoying life, spending more time with friends and family, limiting stress and competition, and experimenting with alternative lifestyles. Where Germany's international image and role is concerned, the postmaterialists are uncomfortable with the national symbols and rhetoric that in the past dragged Germany into disaster and ultimately division. They believe that securing a peaceful future corresponds inseparably with the creation of supranational political entities - such as the European Community and a stronger United Nations - at the expense of German national interests and participation in military missions outside Central Europe. Outside observers react in contradictory fashion to the postmaterialist mind-set of Germany's youth. On the one hand, it is seen as evidence of a positive change in Germany's sense of itself. On the other hand, it can be regarded as the cynical or guilt-ridden reaction of a satiated consumer culture that seeks to avoid the responsibilities of power. YOUNG East Germans - called "Ossis" in Germany - complicate the image even further. For the time being, they appear more obedient, traditional, materialistic, and less tolerant and confident than their brothers and sisters in the West. The satisfaction of pent-up consumer desires characterized their initial approaches to West Germany. Increasingly, however, young East Germans are exploring the previously exotic intellectual and political environment of the West. The simple desire to conform to the dominant West German society and the pressures of a competitive market will force many young East Germans to adopt Western ways of thinking. Beyond that, however, an attempt by East Germans to salvage some positive remnant from their own country's history may lead them to support postmaterialistic policies which favor social, rather than purely economic, goals. The beneficiary of such a confluence in the attitudes of Germany youth may well be the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has remained an opposition force on the federal level since the conservative Mr. Kohl replaced Helmut Schmidt as chancellor in 1982. Recent surveys demonstrate the SPD's increasing national popularity among 18- to 40-year-olds in both East and West. These surveys show SPD leading Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) by 20 percent or more. Successive SPD victories in seven recent Land (state) elections in Germany indicate that the national polls are meaningful. Bjorn Engholm, head of the government of Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany and the new leader of the SPD, is seen by some in the party as the link between its postmaterialist vanguard and more traditional Social Democrats. As his popularity ratings approach those of Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, momentum appears to be building behind Mr. Engholm's candidacy for the German chancellorship. Young Germans are showing increased confidence in the ability of a charismatic Engholm and other young regional SPD leaders to deal with the issues they consider most important: a more coherent reunification process, environmental protection, reduction of unemployment and housing shortages, and a more equal distribution of prosperity between East and West. At the same time, Kohl's CDU is perceived to be short on young leaders and new ideas. This perception, combined with the economic crisis in the East and the CDU's loss of power in many local and regional governments, raises the possibility of an electoral disaster for the CDU in 1994. Americans preparing to deal with the Germany of the future should pay close attention to the attitudes and preferences of the unified nation's youth. Because of their efforts and for their own benefit, the constellation of German political leadership could change dramatically.

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