The Berlin Wall’s great human experiment
November 19, 2014 4:09 AM   Subscribe

 
Very interesting. I note that 3.5 million people who might be inclined to prefer free market systems - those skilled workers who could command a better wage - had already fled over the border from East to West before the wall went up. Might this self-sorting be a significant factor in different opinions on state action?

Also: I wonder how East and West Germans differ in their tendency to lie to researchers asking them what they think about the state...
posted by alasdair at 4:47 AM on November 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


Very interesting article, thanks.

[East Germans] were also more likely to support a robust government program to help the unemployed

I wonder what this means, precisely. I have a very hard time imagining that West Germany is a bastion of Ayn Rand-style politics. What's robust, what's not robust?
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:51 AM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Interesting article. The DDR is interesting to me as a European because I'm never sure how much of the strangeness of the USSR's history was about communism and how much about Russian-ness, whereas the German mentality is much less (though still somewhat) foreign. Of course, it's easy to see the long hand of Stalin in much of what was wrong with the DDR, so the ‘experiment’ is about more than economic arrangements.

As a side point, the journalist's choice of framing is instructive/depressing:
And while no amount of expert understanding would be worth what Germans suffered, there is some consolation in knowing that their experience could someday help the millions of people around the world on whom a similar experiment is still being run.
… as if the minority of people living under overtly authoritarian regimes were the only ones subject to particular economic and political conditions, and we were in some sort of default state of nature – and this right after noting the effect of TV broadcast signal availability in spreading elements of our current ideology (branded goods are desirable; success is proof of effort).
posted by ormon nekas at 4:54 AM on November 19, 2014 [9 favorites]


When I lived in Germany (in the west) for five years, I shared a house with a bunch of East Germans, and my husband's boss and his wife were also East German. I did feel like they were really different from the West Germans I knew in many ways, even though for these people, the wall came down while they were still teenagers or young adults. It is interesting to see research bearing out some of those intuitions.

For example, as a woman, I felt like my East German male friends treated me (and their girlfriends) much more like an equal that seemed to be the default from the other Germans around me. Certainly in political discussions about things like school systems, they were the only men to mention the effect that Germany's half-day system has on women's ability to work outside the home (and they had all noticed the expectations of society that it would be the woman who took part time work. My husband's boss was the only German man I ever met who worked part time to be at home for the kids while his wife worked full days).

Interestingly, what the article says about trust does not match my intuition, although it totally makes sense. My East German friends, colleagues and housemates were all very warm and welcoming almost immediately and I quickly became close to them (hence ending up with East Germans as housemates), while my experience with West Germans was that they took many years to reach the same level of intimacy. The only homes I ever got invited to in the first few years I was living in Germany were those of East Germans. But I wonder whether some of that is a feeling of solidarity with outsiders. The East Germans I knew in the west often said they felt like immigrants to a foreign country.

Finally, I think one problem with this sort of research (which I'm sure the researchers have tried to account for somehow) is the big difference in poverty level and unemployment even today in the two regions. Of course your patterns of consumption, reaction to advertising, and so on are going to be different if you are living in a region with twice the unemployment rate. (Although I believe they are close to catching up finally in the last two years).
posted by lollusc at 5:02 AM on November 19, 2014 [30 favorites]


A poll conducted a few years ago showed that a majority of eastern Germans thought the GDR was pretty ok.

I wonder, as I do thinking about my own political preferences, how much of this is a combination of Stockholm syndrome and youth nostalgia.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:29 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I wonder, as I do thinking about my own political preferences, how much of this is a combination of Stockholm syndrome and youth nostalgia.

I was a teenager when the wall came down. A lot of the information I received about life in East Germany when I was young, especially in school, was straightforwardly propaganda; to this day I'm not really sure how much that was really reflective of life there and how much was not.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:35 AM on November 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


Or technically, Ostalgie, RobotVoodooPower.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 6:40 AM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


The West had Pepsi while the East had bland communist soda is not a very enlightening critique.
posted by destro at 6:55 AM on November 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'd love to hear more experiences and personal opinion from German Mefites...
posted by alasdair at 7:07 AM on November 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


A poll conducted a few years ago showed that a majority of eastern Germans thought the GDR was pretty ok.

Lots of things are pretty OK but become not OK when people are forbidden from leaving them.
posted by ocschwar at 7:37 AM on November 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


I'd love to hear more experiences and personal opinion from German Mefites...

I would too.
posted by freakazoid at 7:51 AM on November 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


Or technically, Ostalgie, RobotVoodooPower.

lol, the editorializing in that article is hilariously unsubtle.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:11 AM on November 19, 2014


A poll conducted a few years ago showed that a majority of eastern Germans thought the GDR was pretty ok.

I would note that phenomena is not limited to East Germany. Lots of former Eastern Bloc countries' publics express fondness for the way that things used to be. Hell, many are even nostalgic for Stalin's reign.

I wonder, as I do thinking about my own political preferences, how much of this is a combination of Stockholm syndrome and youth nostalgia.

A lot of the Eastern Bloc countries have gone through transitions that could be generously described as mixed successes. Take Russia for example. The country is now a neoliberal petro-oligarch gay-bashing Putin-state. There are many things that the USSR can be justly criticized for, but I find it unsurprising that in many respects some that lived under it prefer it as the lesser of two evils. One interesting data point in this regard is the sudden sharp drop in male life expectancy coinciding with the crumbling of the Soviet Union.

To paraphrase Chomsky (I can't find the source at the moment), these preferences are "not so much nostalgia for the past as fear for the future." The state under the USSR used to provide guarantees regarding equality, health care, education, employment, etc. (Imperfect assurances though they may have been, of course.) Looking towards the future where all those benefits are uncertain, might you not prefer a system under which they would be reinstated?
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:57 AM on November 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


Somewhat related
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:22 AM on November 19, 2014


Great post, thanks! I thought the differences in gender equality were particularly interesting. I've been living in western Germany (Frankfurt) for the past 1.5 years and while I consider Germans generally to be very progressive and forward-thinking, it seems to me that there don't always seem to be the same career opportunities for women, particularly for mothers. I think stay-at-home mothers are much more common here, and is even expected to an extent if you have younger kids. (on preview, what lollusc said).

Finally, I think one problem with this sort of research (which I'm sure the researchers have tried to account for somehow) is the big difference in poverty level and unemployment even today in the two regions.

I had the same thought, given that the Eastern German states continue to have comparatively high unemployment and low GDP long after reunification.
posted by photo guy at 11:47 AM on November 19, 2014


photo guy: I read a number of things about how East Germany actively and (comparatively) dramatically promoted women in the workforce. The GDR was especially aggressive about supporting working mothers, though there was still pervasive discrimination in promotions — partly because women tended not to join the party, and weren't welcome to do so. West Germany was significantly more conservative than the rest of Europe in its attitude to women working outside the home. In fact, there was an active East-German-led feminist movement after reunification that arose when the more misogynistic West-German policies and attitudes to reproductive health and childcare started to affect women's lives, and a lot of the female leaders in modern Germany grew up in the East where attitudes towards their career aspirations were (at least relatively) more positive.
posted by you're a kitty! at 12:47 PM on November 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


While I am not an east German, I have a very dear friend who was born in '89, in Coswig-Anhalt, a smallish city south of Berlin.
Her parents both worked, and most of all, they loved the freedom to travel abroad once the wall had come down. previously their travel had been limited to eastern bloc nations and cuba. they were taught russian in school, and for this family, the ultimate destination was San Francisco, the place which, through images of the summer of love, best represented what freedom of expression stood for. something they lacked growing up behind the wall.

When she went to uni in the west, she noticed that the wessies definitely separated themselves, made fun of her accent, made her feel like a hick. she's a very gregarious person, makes friends easily and it wasn't a problem , but her closest friends from those days remain her eastern compatriots.

Her generation (those i've spoken to) feel like the east moves at a slower pace, still has rural charm and a strong sense of its identity, even though they have no knowledge of the days 'before'.
They have nothing but disdain for the idea that Bavaria is seen as the cultural center of Germany, to them it's like texas is to americans who aren't from texas.

She lives in Berlin now, in what was the east, and it's one of the most vibrant cities in europe, so there's no place she'd rather be.
posted by OHenryPacey at 5:20 PM on November 19, 2014


I read a number of things about how East Germany actively and (comparatively) dramatically promoted women in the workforce.

One should be careful of reading a lot of Western-centric assumptions here. I'm not that familiar with the two Germanies, but there was a famous incident in the 80s when an American women's group visited the USSR to talk to Soviet feminist groups. The Americans wanted to talk about opportunities to work outside the home, and the Russian women kept trying to tell them "We have work! All the women work! What we want is better maternity leave and domestic violence protection!" It's often cited as a case where using one metric– in this case, women working outside the home– can lead to inaccurate conclusions about broader equality.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:16 AM on November 20, 2014


The underlying premise stated several times in this article, that the two Germanies were "identical" prior to separation is flawed. In addition to the imposition of communist rule, there were and are important regional differences in language, culture, and lifestyle between the various regions of Germany. Maybe confining the focus to Berlin is the best way to illuminate the effects that can be specifically attributed to the East/West division? I'm not exactly an expert on the subject, but I do know that some of those regional differences (particularly in terms of language) were even more pronounced in the 1940s than they are now. These factors should also be considered when making conclusions about the effects of ideology and economics.
posted by snottydick at 9:04 AM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


FWIW, historically, the cultural divide in Germany is North-South, not East-West.
Same is true for the linguistic gradient. That is, dialects are more similar on the same latitude across the former border than they are over longitude within (former) West or East Germany.

Interestingly, this seems to be similar in Korea, where the historical divide is East-West, or across three regions or something.
posted by sour cream at 1:19 PM on November 20, 2014


FWIW, historically, the cultural divide in Germany is North-South, not East-West.

That's largely true, but it's not the whole story and it also illustrates my point since all of Southern (Catholic) Germany was in West Germany.

Even though the major linguistic divisions are the three bands of Upper, Central, and Lower German, ranging from South to North, there are East/West divisions in all three groupings. Also, you have the Rhenish dialects which are closer to standard Dutch than to standard German.

Western Germany had always been more heavily industrialized, urbanized, populated and prosperous than the primarily rural East. The East had nothing to compare with the massive coal & iron deposits, the river network, and the proximity to international markets that made the Rhineland, Ruhr Valley, and Saarland what they were.

Going into the split, East Germany had a small Slavic minority (the Sorbian/Wendish peoples), while West Germany had small Frisian, Danish, Dutch, and Ruhrpolen minorities.

These factors are all worth considering when evaluating the effects of GDR and FRG policies respectively.
posted by snottydick at 1:03 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


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