Ahead of German election, nostalgia for communist East grows

A recent report found an "unconscious" feeling of shame or lower status, at least among the young, 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell.

By , Contributor , Staff writer

Berlin – At a market in an east Berlin suburb, Barber Neubert sells health food – and talks about his family on the eve of German elections. His daughter still lives in the former East. But his grandson studies chemistry in Munich.

"The world is open for him. He has chances we never had," says Mr. Neubert.

When the Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago, everyone predicted it would take at least a generation for Germany to fully unify.

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In the current elections, there's still talk of the need for another generation, among analysts and East Germans. One reason often cited is the "nostalgia factor," an often indescribable feeling among East Germans such as Mr. Neubert about the past – that is also manifest in other former Eastern bloc states, particularly among the older residents.

A fruit-seller next to Neubert, for example, remembers how her apples, tomatoes, grapes, and potatoes sold out in an hour in the old days. Now, with more abundance and competition she stays open all day.

In a recent report, Uwe Willmer, a political analyst at Berlin’s Free University, found that the nostalgia phenomenon exists even among younger east Germans. Many of them don’t want to study, and many who do study are reluctant to go west.

He attributes the reason to East German feelings of being a minority – they make up 20 million of Germany's 80 million. But he also finds, at least among the young, some "unconscious" feeling of shame or lower status. There’s also a feeling expressed among Ossies, as East Germans are sometimes called, to the effect that, "You do not know how it was to live in the GDR," as Mr. Willmer says.

When the wall was coming down in 1989 and 1990, the Soviet army was withdrawing and the extensive secret police apparatus was being dismantled – writers like Timothy Garton Ash, a chronicler of the Polish Solidarity movement, argued the east did have something exceptional to share.

The lives lived among peoples that knew the system was wrong, their enforced need to help each other, the experience of dealing with repression and thwarted dreams, and daily survival in regimes not understood in the free west –was its own kind of value, and had meaning, he wrote. Yet in the rush to "catch up“ analysts say, much of this background or experience has been forgotten or ignored.

Willmer talks about "generations" before the east and west will be truly reconciled.

On Sunday, East German votes will count for about one-fifth of the German total. A recent poll by the Allensbach Institute in Mainz shows that the former East German communist party, rebranded as Die Linke, might get 27.5 percent of the vote in the East.

The Christian Democrats, the mainstream conservative German party led by chancellor Angela Merkel, herself from the former East – is polling at 30 percent in the former Soviet-influenced zone.

The contrast between the two parties could not be greater, as Germans vote together, 20 years later.

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