The Wall in Our Heads

JLH has translated an interview (published last winter) that focuses on the persistent East-West divide in the minds of Germans.

The translator includes this prefatory note:

This interview is with Frank Wolff, an “historian and academic associate at the Historical Seminar (recent history) and at the Institute for Immigration Research and Intercultural Studies at the University of Osnabrück, Lower Saxony.” In other words, a (converted) Wessi academic, whose doctoral thesis, to be published this Fall by Suhrkamp is entitled “The Wall Society: The Social History of the German-German Migration 1961-1989”

Note how the “before-and-after the Wende” experiences emphasize the older generation’s embrace of the authoritarian GDR, and that the younger generation are traumatized by economic reality in the West.

When Easterners move to the West, they acquire the term Ossi, says the interviewer. Yes but, replies Wolff and proceeds to say that when the newly joined East acquired new leadership, then “suddenly” the term Wessi arose, along with “Besserwessi.”[1] So, no matter what the Ossis may think, they and their leadership are even more responsible for the split feelings.

There is also the problem of City vs. Country, and the almost inescapable conclusion that rural = yokel = rightist = Ossi. Especially since apparently the author had a very uncomfortable youth, when everything around him was overwhelmed by rightists who took over clubs and centers in a way that is reminiscent of the leftist “march through the institutions.”

His suggestion for concentrated German history, especially of the Cold War era, has real possibilities, but his own, well-meant attempt to be objective is weighted in favor of the West, and it is difficult for me to imagine how to identify and assemble the truly neutral people for a commission to agree on a curriculum.

The translated interview from Cicero, the monthly German magazine of politics and culture:

The Wall in (Our) Heads is Being Rebuilt Right Now

The Journalist Chiara Thies interviews Frank Wolff

February 13, 2019

Thies: Mr. Wolff, we are now in the super-election year 2019, with three state legislative elections in the East. Many parties are campaigning with supposedly “East” issues. Does the much-evoked “wall-in-the-head” still exist, West here, East there?

Wolff: It is being built again right now. The Wall is no more, except in various worlds of recall. That is both the advantage and the disadvantage of the discussion. With a leap into the present, we automatically jump forward two generations. Multiple levels of experience are mingled in the present perspective. On one side, that of the older generation which grew up in the GDR and — we must not forget — were to some extent positively inclined toward the state.

And the generation after?

They are on the other side; they grew up in the nineties, and therefore in this extreme economic disruption. They experienced it directly, seeing their parents having trouble finding their footing. The Wall’s fall was less the problem than that the new states were the first subjected to the extreme new liberalization (deregulation), which then occurred later in other European countries. This strongly shaped identities, and so before-and — after-Wende experiences overlap in today’s perspectives.

How did this “Wall-in-the-head” begin?

It was a long process that had begun before the building of the Wall. The division became evident for the entire society with the building of the Wall. In the process, the border — East and West — was forcibly acquired, and with it, a certain pattern of thought. And there was more, for example, in the Cold War, separation as a way of thinking by the West about the East. But this is not just a history of division. At the same time, an increasingly intensive communication developed between West and East. Travel increased greatly after the breaks caused by the Wall. So these two processes of separating and moving toward one another happened simultaneously.

Many people who moved from the East to the West report that they had never before identified as “Ossi,” but in the West they were made into that. So the problem of the East was made by the West and thus made a problem for the East. Can you confirm this subjective perception with you research?

Definitely. But there is also its opposite. As the new positions of leadership in the East were freshly occupied — that is, government, economy, etc. — suddenly the Wessi was created. Then it was the “Besserwessi.” We have these two pictures circling around each other in our heads. What we should not forget in this discussion is that people were very much on the move at that time. It is not only those who live in the East and see themselves as East Germans with a specific experience who actually represent the East German experience.

How do you mean that?

A large part of the East German experience was made in the West, or in the USA or Switzerland. And of course the reverse is true. Many West German experiences are made only when there is contact with their counter identity. Basically, it is all constructs and classifications encountered by a generation which, as older children or young people still witnessed something of the GDR, but then moved out into the world. Not just the remaining, but also the going away, is under those particular conditions a basic East German experience. In recent years, the counter-identities this produced have faded somewhat culturally. But things have changed recently in the East with the rise of the AfD and in a different way in the West. A new East-West stigmatization has arisen. This is very dangerous because allegedly old — but in their ultimate effect completely new — constructs are being created.

To stay for a moment with the term counter-identity — can the differential rise of the AfD in the East and West be explained by that?

These trends are evident above all in rural areas. In cities that is not so much the case. So we must see who lives there [in rural areas]. There are many who never leave the familiar ground of home and job. That is emphatically the case in many regions. In that case, we see only a limited East German or GDR experience. Many of those who shared the experience of “reset” and were used in the founding of the AfD now live elsewhere. The voting behavior on site reflects, rather, a potential for frustration on the part of those who remained. That also includes a never fully-fledged democratization and democratic mode of thinking. That is something we see with hindsight.

So if it seems to boil down to the classic City-Country difference, is the East-West conflict normalizing?

To a certain extent. But this City-Country conflict has an East German hallmark. There are cities like Leipzig or Jena, whose social structure and voting patterns we could find in the West. In Dresden, the situation is different. It is also interesting that the most indebted city in Germany is Pirmasens in the southwest. So we have structural problems everywhere which are evaluated differently by the residents and cause different voting behavior. This Country-City displacement also took place in the nineties, but was not perceived as such at the time. So we talk a lot about the migration from East to West after the fall of the Wall. The greater migration was into the cities. The cities boomed. Those who could not or would not participate in the boom were left behind. That process continued and grew.

What distinguishes this special “East German” character?

Anti-democratic tendencies. When I was young in a rural area in the nineties, I was shocked at how this anti-democratic youth arose. They often pulled the “normal” (democratic) young people along, or silenced them by rightist groups taking over the youth centers, clubs and other organizations. Many who could, left. In a short time, a culture came in which was completely alien to me. This generation now has children of its own who do, or soon will vote. Since the nineties and the reunification, this development has been having an effect on the ultra-rightist developments.

How did this anti-democratic attitude arise?

From the beginning, there were too few basic attempts to pass on and to understand the complexities of the democratic system. That is a long process, which the West has had to learn over decades. That was also possible in the West thanks to the economic miracle [Wirtschaftswunder]. But this economic miracle did not occur in the new federal states. There was also little promotion for this political style, which is very complex, with its parties, long negotiations and all that underlies it. That is a decisive point. So democratization was emotionally identified by many in the new federal states with neo-liberalization. And then ultimately with loss.

Democratization succeeds largely though elucidation. What contribution should schools make?

We need the complete teaching of history. Since Pisa[2], schools have been strongly oriented toward MINT.[3]. That is important, of course, for qualifications. But it is not optimal for passing on democratic thinking. The GDR hardly figures in history instruction, and that is a disaster. It must become more incorporated, but not in the old sense of “the West teaches the East, and that is democracy.” Rather through a thoughtful confrontation of the conflicts inside Germany as well — optimally in the context of a history of the divided land during the Cold War.


1.   Pun on “Besserwisser” — Know-it-all
2.   Pisa is the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Program for International Student Assessment. Every three years it tests 15-year-old students from all over the world in reading, mathematics and science.
3.   Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey

2 thoughts on “The Wall in Our Heads

  1. With all respect MINT stands for mathematics, informatics, natural sciences, and technics.
    Rather than some third world countries.

  2. Thanks. My “research” convinced me it was similar to BRIC. I appreciate the correction.

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