Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Economy

What can East Germany teach other former Communist countries?


Throughout the Communist period, in addition to the countries now called Emerging Europe, there was another state – the German Democratic Republic, better known as East Germany. What do the politics and society of the five former Communist German Federal States reveal about the impact that communist regimes continue to have on emerging Europe today?

At the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germany, the richest per capita nation in the Warsaw Pact, nevertheless had a much smaller economy than the rest of Germany. During the unification of Germany, the Bundesrat – the country’s federal council – introduced a so-called solidarity tax on all income with the aim of bringing back the standard of living in the five eastern states of Germany – Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia, as well as East Berlin – on par with the rest of the country.

More than 30 years later, and after 330 billion euros were poured into what was once East Germany through the solidarity tax, Germany has now decided to end the controversial tax for all but a small percentage of taxpayers.

Nevertheless, a significant gap remains between the two parts of the country: not only economically but also socially.

Economically, the per capita GDP of eastern Germany is today 20% lower than that of the western part of the country. However, even if Berlin is excluded, the five former East German states still have a higher GDP per capita than any emerging European country, ranging from 27,000 to 32,000 euros in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center.

In the richest country of emerging Europe, Slovenia, the GDP per capita in 2019 was 23,170 euros.

The most revealing comparison between East Germany and emerging Europe is probably with the Visegrád group (Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia), as there are significant similarities between East Germany and the four countries in the way they were governed during the communist era. and in their general living conditions at the end of the Cold War.

Among the four in Visegrád, Czechia had the highest GDP per capita with 20,990 euros in 2019, according to Eurostat.

As a federal republic, Germany records the GRP (gross regional product) of each of its states. According to the Federal Statistical Office, excluding Berlin, in 2019 the five “ new states ” together had a GDP of 435.7 billion euros, which represents only 11% of total GDP German (while constituting nearly 16% of the German population). .)

Still, even without taking Berlin into account, East Germany’s GDP is higher than that of Czechia, which is € 250.7 billion, as shown by World Bank data for 2019. Despite a much smaller population, East Germany’s combined GRP is closer to Poland’s GDP of € 595.9 billion in the same year.

Societal issues

While Germany’s efforts to equalize living standards across the country have been somewhat successful, the eastern regions of the country still face many of the societal problems encountered in most emerging European countries.

Its stagnant and aging population is one of the major challenges that East Germany shares with emerging Europe. While many people in the west of the country complain about overpopulation, in the past 30 years of reunification, more than three million people have left the eastern parts of the country.

Excluding the cosmopolitan city of Berlin, the region now experiences population levels as low as those last recorded in 1905. West Germany’s population, by contrast, has more than doubled since. .

Sabine Rennefanz, political writer for the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, argues that the lack of competitive wages is a major factor in emigration from all of East Germany.

“Even today, if you are a young person in East Germany and want a traditional, well-paying career in a big company, you have to leave your hometown and go to the West,†she writes.

If all the countries of Visegrád, with the exception of Hungary, experience modest population growth, almost all are saturated in the few large cities of the country. Meanwhile, rural areas are sparsely populated, like East Germany if Berlin is excluded.

Likewise, like emerging Europe, East Germany’s population decline is caused not only by low birth and emigration rates, but also by low levels of immigration. .

Although Germany is one of the world’s top receiving countries for migrants, all of its eastern regions except Berlin continue to fail to attract enough immigrants to replace its workforce. in decline.

In fact, the five eastern states are the only ones in all of Germany where more than 90 percent of the population is not from an immigrant background.

Likewise, in the Czech Republic, the emerging European country where the most immigrants live, only 5% of the total population is made up of people from these origins.

Similar attitudes towards immigration

While many see the lower quality of life in East German states as the main reason for its population decline, southern European states such as Italy and Spain, which have GDP per capita similar to East Germany, have experienced unprecedented levels of immigration to Germany. these last years.

As such, others have suggested that a more important reason for these low levels of migration to East Germany are not only the lower wages and overall quality of life, but also the high levels of xenophobia. and discrimination in the former communist regions.

The rise of populism and strong anti-migrant rhetoric in all emerging EU countries, especially since the start of the European migrant crisis in 2015, has also been observed in the former communist regions of Germany, many more strongly than in other parts of the country. .

Even today, the countries of Visegrád continue to make international headlines for their refusal to accept their fair share of refugees, with Budapest, Prague and Warsaw being brought before the European Court of Justice for refusing to accept refugees. .

At the same time, the smallest and politically under-represented conservative East German population has had no say in the country’s open door policy towards refugees, introduced in 2015. Despite this, many refugees arriving in the country are accommodated in the east.

According to a recent study by the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Germans in the West of the country have shown in recent years an improvement in their attitude towards living near refugees and interacting with them. Meanwhile, on the whole, the East Germans have not warmed to their newly arrived neighbors over time.

In the more than 200 East German communities surveyed, negative attitudes towards migration remain common regardless of the number of foreigners living there.

Such attitudes are more easily observed in the different voting models presented in the former communist parts of Germany, where the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is popular, especially in some of its lesser regions. affluent such as the East. Saxony and southern Brandenburg.

Economic convergence is the simplest solution

The success of the AfD in the eastern federal states sparked a nationwide discussion about the alleged backwardness and xenophobia of East Germans, with many West Germans not understanding what cause these extreme attitudes among East Germans more than three decades after reunification.

It is true that during reunification the former residents of East Germany found themselves in a much more favorable environment to rid themselves of the economic and social burden of living under a communist dictatorship for decades. No emerging European country has received as much financial support as East Germany in the post-communist era, while enjoying immediate access to Western education and the benefits of sharing a common cultural sphere with a Western democracy immediately after the collapse of the regime.

At a time when the quality of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe is increasingly questioned by populist politicians and Western academics wonder why a democratic setback is occurring in most post-communist EU member states , East Germany reveals the sheer magnitude of the problems created. throughout emerging Europe during the communist era.

The end of the so-called East German tax, which has lasted for 30 years in Germany, also reveals what has been evident in the Visegrád countries for some time – economic convergence is slow but ultimately easier to achieve than the emergence of a truly democratic social and cultural system. standards after decades of authoritarianism.

This is what remains the greatest challenge for all emerging European societies today.

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