Germany enters a new era – but how much will change for inner German unity?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“As in many Western European countries, the Green Party in West Germany has its roots in the protest movements of the 1980s – environmental, anti-nuclear, feminist.”

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Last week a new government formed in Germany, the so-called ‘traffic light coalition’ named according to the colours of the three participating parties: the Social Democrats (SPD – red), Alliance-90/The Greens, and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP - yellow). It is the first time Germany has had a three-way coalition at the federal level, and the first time the Green Party has been in government since 1998-2005, when it governed with the SPD under Gerhard Schröder.

Academics and commentators have analysed the disparities between eastern and western Germany in support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which, alongside southern German states such as Bavaria, also has strongholds in the eastern states of Saxony and Thuringia. These patterns of support raise questions about the continuing impact of the post-socialist past on present-day Germany.

Often overlooked, however, are the role of other parties in shaping these east-west dynamics. The more prominent role of the Green Party in the new government opens a new avenue for understanding Germany’s post-socialist condition. In this year’s federal election, the Alliance 90/The Greens averaged over 15% in western Germany, compared with just under 8% in the eastern states.

This was not always the case. The history of the Alliance 90/The Greens in Germany is marked by the history of German division and unification. As in many Western European countries, the Green Party in West Germany has its roots in the protest movements of the 1980s – environmental, anti-nuclear, feminist. The Party first entered parliament in 1983.

In the first pan-German elections in December 1990, the focus of German voters was on national unity after 40 years of division. Yet one Green slogan in that year was “everyone is talking about Germany; we are talking about the weather”. The campaign was a flop with voters in the West and the Green Party failed to clear the 5% hurdle. In contrast, in the eastern states, the Party – standing in a joint list with Alliance 90 – attracted 6% of the votes and entered parliament. Alliance 90 was a grouping of East German civil society initiatives, many of the members of which had been involved in the protests that had contributed to the collapse of the GDR.

The East and West German Greens merged shortly after the 1990 elections. In 1993, an association agreement was ratified between the Greens and Alliance 90. Alliance 90/The Greens describe this moment as one in which “the country experienced a rare and valuable example of an east-west German union on the level of equals”.

Since that “union of equals”, the fortunes of the Alliance 90/The Greens have been far from equal in the two halves of a now united country. While the Party’s vote share has increased over time in the former West, rising and remaining stable at around 10% between 2002-2017, it has stagnated at around 5% in the former East in the same period. Western German voters are more loyal to the “big two” (CDU and SPD) than eastern German voters, who have shown greater willingness to vote for smaller parties. Yet, while the major parties have lost support in recent years in both east and west; eastern voters have tended to turn to the AfD or the Left Party and western voters to the Greens.

Green politicians on the campaign trail struggled to find resonance in many eastern German cities. The Party is increasingly seen as a party for the elite or middle class or for young people - voters in the eastern states are on average older and poorer.

Addressing the continued feelings of alienation and misrepresentation in the eastern states will be a key task of the new government, especially after the departure of Angela Merkel, the first Chancellor from eastern Germany. This might be a challenge: only two members of the new cabinet come from eastern Germany: the new housing minister Klara Geywitz (SPD) and the environment minister Steffi Lemke (Greens).

Lack of representation in the government risks creating an opportunity for the opposition parties to capitalise on eastern resentment. The AfD has long exploited a sense of alienation from politicians in Berlin in its populist, anti-elite rhetoric. Commentators have already expressed frustration that the same politicians who speak of the need to challenge far-right movements such as those in Saxony have not made space for representatives of these regions in the new government.

At the same time, descriptive representation is not everything. More important is whether the interests of the east substantively represented. The planned coal phase-out promises to affect the eastern states particularly hard, risking more jobs in regions that have already suffered from unemployment and emigration since reunification.

The coalition agreement does, however, suggest a range of policies that may address the continuing socio-economic disparities facing the eastern states. They have already promised an increased minimum wage and a universal basic income.

The agreement has also confirmed the intention to open a “Future Centre for European Transformation and German Unification”. The Centre aims to honour eastern German achievements in the process of transformation. It is one recommendation from the Expert Commission “30 Years of Peaceful Revolution and German Unity”, tasked with investigating the situation of eastern Germans thirty years after the end of the GDR.

The Commission noted the lack of visibility and recognition for eastern Germans and their underrepresentation in leading positions in society and the economy. The proposed Centre may go some way towards correcting those imbalances. But to do so, it will have to remember, recognise and promote the eastern contribution not only to the transformation of the east, but to the transformation of German democracy per se.

In our project Post-Socialist Britain?, we are exploring the ways in which Western European countries exist also in a “post-socialist condition”, as they are transformed by intertwined histories, the collapse of communism, the age of “no alternative”, and the influx of migrant workers from the East of the continent. Those relational histories must also be part of the German conversation, if the strived for “inner unity” is to be achieved.

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