After Berlin Wall, did West Germany absorb East, or vice versa?

When the Berlin Wall came down, many thought it was East Germany that was being absorbed into the West. But modern Germany has a much more eastern sensibility today than had been expected.

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
People walk past a segment of the former Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz square in Berlin last week. On Nov. 9, Germany will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For East Germans, concerns that capitalist West Germany would subsume their culture when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 were not unfounded. Current Berliners would have to look no farther for evidence of that than a shopping mall at Potsdamer Platz, where a current exhibit about life in a divided Germany is curated right alongside sales of Chanel perfume, Tommy Hilfiger jackets, and Puma tennis shoes.

In most respects, reunification has meant folding the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) into the Western sphere.

Yet, on this weekend's 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall, the Germany that has emerged is in some ways less firmly anchored in the West than former West Germany was in 1989. As the reunited country has risen as an economic powerhouse and European leader, influences from the former East have strongly informed its international and domestic positions – driven most recently by Russia's incursion into Ukraine and a flare-up of anti-Americanism.

“In the beginning the [West] thought that the people of the East had to change and they could just continue as they were living,” says Markus Meckel, the former foreign minister of the GDR. But over time, he says, the East has shaped the sensibilities of a unified Germany – from anti-capitalist strains to anger over the NSA spying scandal to its reflexive pacifism.

Many Germans would say today they don’t distinguish between East and West any more than they might between North and South. But the influence of East has become stronger this year, spurred particularly by the crisis in Ukraine that has tested Germany’s commitment to the West at the expense of isolating Russia. In a summer poll asking Germans where they should stand if there were a conflict between Russia and NATO, more (49 percent) said their nation belonged in the middle between the West and Russia than in the Western axis (45 percent).

The Berlin Wall has always been, to the West, a reminder of Soviet oppression and the US’s unfailing support of Germany, from John F. Kenney’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963 to Ronald Reagan’s admonishment to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” And today, the US ambassador to Germany, John Emerson, challenges those who say Germany is no longer one of the US’s staunchest European allies. “The German-American relationship is front and center on just about everything that we do,” he says, from sanctions against Russia to the response to threats posed by the Islamic State.

But public opinion paints a different picture. This year’s Transatlantic Trends survey of the German Marshall Fund of the US found for the first time that a majority of Germans wanted an approach in security and diplomatic affairs independent from the US. The number, 57 percent, jumped by 17 points from 2013 and put Germany above the European average. Heike MacKerron, the director of the Berlin German Marshall Fund office, says it’s easily explained by spying allegations in a country in which repressive surveillance was the norm for decades.

In the case of Ukraine, some of the German hesitance to punish Russia comes from business interests in Frankfurt and Munich. But Ingo Schulze, a novelist originally from East Germany and author of the acclaimed “Simple Stories” about reunification, says that while the drivers of that sentiment are historic and complex, East Germans shape a more nuanced view of Russia. “To know the country, and the language, to read the literature and to have heard the music, you understand a little bit,” he says.

And while deeply held pacifism, an attachment to social welfare, and a rejection of Anglo-style capitalism are strains that run throughout Germany, they are more deeply rooted in the East, author Dirk Kurbjuweit wrote recently in Der Spiegel.

This factor is reflected politically. Die Linke, the leftist party that evolved from the Communist party of East Germany, now sits in the Bundestag, while the only “free market” party, the Free Democratic Party, lost all its seats in last September’s federal elections.

The eastern imprint even extends to modern-day concerns like daycare, says Ms. MacKerron. Child care is still scarce in West Germany while communist East Germany perfected working motherhood. “They have reminded us that women are able to work and put their child in childcare and still be good mothers,” MacKerron says.

And Mr. Meckel says that East Germany helped reunified Germany identify with nationhood. In the aftermath of World War II, West Germans were ashamed of their Germanness and sought identity in Europe. “The idea of nationhood was very distant,” he says. “In East Germany it was the reverse, we had a very immediate feeling of being German.”

“Germany for centuries was not just linked to the West but also linked to the East,” Meckel says. “West Germany had lost part of its roots.”

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