Beyond “East versus West”
One blind spot derives from the tendency to ascribe the categorical distinction between “East” and “West” to regions and populations without regard to actual patterns of ^//"-identification. Consequently, there is little room for identity practices that seek to transcend and contest the “divisions” it postulates. Once spaces and people have been assigned a priori to different poles of the compass, the very possibility of an “////divided” collective identity is ruled out before the fact. Yet, if we examine the results of social surveys during the first decade or two after reunification, what is remarkable is the degree to which “the old identities of East and West” were being rejected in favor of a more expansive, unmarked (gesamtdeutsch) identity that nominally encompassed all “Germans” regardless of origin or prior citizenship.
To be sure, gesamtdeutsch identification would differ in both trajectory and scope between citizens in the “old” and “new” federal states, respectively. Among respondents in the former, the proportion who reported feeling “more like Deutsche” (Germans) than like Westdeutsche (west-Germans) would steadily increase through the end of the millennium. Indeed, in the earliest polling, the unmarked category was already favored by a clear majority; and, by the year 2000, the share who regarded themselves more as Deutsche than as Westdeutsche had grown to 70 percent. Meanwhile, identification with the latter category experienced a commensurate decline, with the proportion of self-identified Westdeutsche falling to fewer than 25 percent (Noelle-Neumann and Köcher 1993: 486; 1997: 560; 2002: 525). Among former citizens of the GDR, in contrast, the ratio between marked and unmarked identification was more nearly the reverse, and the gap would even widen slightly during the years following reunification. Thus, in a 1992 survey, 60 percent of respondents in eastern Germany indicated that they felt “more like Ostdeutsche” (east-Germans) than “like Deutsche” (Noelle-Neumann and Köcher 1993: 486), with barely more than one in three (35 percent) reporting the opposite; and by 1997, the share of selfdescribed Ostdeutsche had risen to 67 percent (Noelle-Neumann and Köcher 1997: 560), while the unmarked category was selected by just 28 percent.7
As it would turn out, however, “east”-identification had reached its peak in the late 1990s, and it would recede to a bare 53-percent majority by the end of the decade. Yet, by then, the “Wall in the head” had become conventional wisdom. Consequently, few observers took note when the share of former GDR citizens who reported feeling “more like Deutsche” bounced back from its nadir of 28 percent in 1997 to 41 percent by the year 2000 and, less than a decade later in 2006, became the majority response at 54 percent, with just 35 percent selecting the ostdeutsch alternative (Noelle-Neumann and Köcher 1993: 486; 1997: 560; 2002: 525; Köcher 2009: 67). Although the proportion choosing the unmarked category would subsequently fall below 50 percent and has remained there as of this writing, self-identified Deutsche have nonetheless comprised some 42 44 percent of former GDR citizens for more than a decade (Köcher 2009, 2019)?
Taken together, these trends belie the impression of an East- West divide, as far as national identity is concerned. By the end of the first decade after reunification, the overwhelming majority of “old” federal citizens, together with a substantial minority of former GDR citizens, had evidently embraced a common (gesamtdeutsch) understanding of their national identity. If German identity remained “divided,” this had primarily to do with a divergence between marked (ostdeutsch) and unmarked (deutsch) self-identifications among former GDR citizens (cf. Battistella 1996; Piazza and Fasulo 2015; Zerubavel 2018). Figure 1.1 depicts the configuration of identities at this point in time as a Venn diagram, illustrating how identification as “German” overlaps and transcends distinctions of prior citizenship.9
A related limitation of the “Wall in the head” thesis is that the seemingly equitable juxtaposition of marked categories (“East and West”) encourages us to imagine reunification as a more or less symmetric amalgamation of “East and West Germany.” Yet. the contrasting proportions and trends in unmarked identification among the respective populations make a good deal more sense if we recall that “reunification” was less like a merger than an incorporation of the former GDR and its population into (the Federal Republic of) “Germany.” Consequently, its implications for collective identity differed dramatically in each case. For the 63 million previous citizens of the Federal Republic, the GDR's accession to the FRG in October 1990 substantially enlarged the national polity to which they belonged, adding 100,000 square kilometers of new territory along with some 16 million new compatriots. Yet, in many respects, the continuities overshadowed these modifications. Their home country remained intact, its constitution (Grundgesetz) largely unchanged. That a majority of FRG citizens already identified simply as Deutsche (rather than Westdeutsche) is wholly consistent with the long-standing
Figure 1.1 Symbolic Boundaries of German Identity after 1990
doctrine of “sole representation” (Alleinvertretungsanspruch), which accorded the Federal Republic itself exclusive legitimacy as the political representative of the German people, wherever they happened to live (Glaeser 2000: ch. 2). The elimination of its former rival to the east only further reinforced the FRG’s standing as the definitive “Germany.” And, as we saw above, any residual self-identification with "the West” would erode accordingly over the decade to follow.
For citizens from the former German Democratic Republic, in contrast, the implications were incomparably profound and ambiguous. On the one hand, citizens of the GDR had always numbered among those “Germans” living beyond the jurisdiction of the Grundgesetz who were entitled to claim citizenship in the Federal Republic by right of birth. From this perspective, reunification could be viewed as the collective repatriation of a bordering diaspora to its rightful homeland. On the other hand, their country of residence had ceased to exist with the accession of the GDR (specifically, of its five reconstituted regional states plus eastern Berlin) to the Federal Republic. Although most of the GDR's former citizens still resided in the same cities and towns as before, they now belonged to a different state, and one in which they were a minority by almost four to one. In this respect, they occupied a status in some ways akin to that of immigrants, albeit ones who had never left home (Straughn 2007; cf. Kubiak 2018). Consequently, questions of collective belonging became problematic and open-ended: Were they already simply “Germans” (Deutsche), like their compatriots in the “old” Federal Republic?10 Or did they remain—or had they perhaps become—“east-Germans” (Ostdeutsche) by virtue of their distinctive origin in what was now known as Ostdeutschland (cf. Ahbe 2010; Engler 2002; Kowalczuk 2019)? As signalled in the subtitle of this book, the confrontation with this conundrum would inaugurate a prolonged search for identity that, for many citizens from the former GDR, still continues into the present.
My point of departure thus runs counter to conventional, essentialized depictions of Ostdeutschland and its inhabitants as internally homogeneous entities uniformly distinct from “the West.” If one relies on such images alone, it will appear that former GDR citizens did not really need to “search” for their collective identity after reunification—at any rate, not for very long. On the contrary, it may seem as though the GDR’s former citizens had already embraced “their” identity as Ostdeutsche within a few years of formal unity. Such impressions have been reinforced by the ubiquitous commercial offerings associated with the cultural phenomenon known as Ostalgie, or “nostalgia for the East” (see e.g. Ahbe 2016; Berdahl, Bunzl and Herzfeld 2010; Boyer 2006; Cooke 2005; Hohenstein 2012; Neller 2006; K. Schroeder 2010). Thus, German readers and area specialists will be familiar with many of the recent books, television programmes, and magazine and newspaper articles that thematize “the East” (in reference to the former GDR).” Evidently with good reason, the producers of these books, broadcasts, and articles expect that their products will enjoy mass appeal among “eastern” audiences. That constructs like
ostdeutsch and Ostdeutsche not only continue to exist, but also strike accord with natives of Ostdeutschland, has become a matter of common sense in contemporary Germany and beyond (Kubiak 2018, 2019).
Yet, it would be fallacious to infer that former GDR citizens had collectively embraced a distinct “east-German” identity. Although a bare majority of them do describe themselves as Ostdeutsche, as we saw above, identification with this marked category has remained far from unanimous. Conclusions to the contrary have fallen prey to a groupist fallacy (Brubaker 2004; cf. Wimmer and Schiller 2002) in which individuals are ascribed a priori to specific identity categories, whether or not they view themselves in the same terms. The fallacy easily becomes self-confirming, motivating us to treat a numerical majority (and sometimes substantially less) as representative of the “group” as a whole. Statistically significant differences between predefined regions and populations will then seem to corroborate our assumption that these entities really are qualitatively different, while within-group variability and between-group similarities will be downplayed as exceptional or go unreported altogether. Consequently, the degree to which a particular identity category remains a source of contention, rather than consensus, is concealed by a rounding error.
A central premise of this book is precisely that the groupness of former GDR citizens—qua Ostdeutsche—is itself contested among those so designated. Indeed, for many researchers, it is the very contestedness of categories like Ostdeutschland and die Ostdeutschen that makes them attractive subjects of study in their own right (Ahbe 2010; Flack 2016; Franke et al. 2013; Goudin-Steinmann and Hähnel-Mesnard 2013; Kubiak 2018; Matthäus and Kubiak 2016b; Straughn 2007, 2016). Thus, unlike many similar works, this book does not begin with reunified Germany “as a whole” and ask why “inner unity” allegedly “remains incomplete.” Instead, it seeks to explore the fracture lines of memory and identity in the former GDR, to uncover their origins, and to trace their evolution over a period of two decades. Counter-intuitively, it is by focusing on eastern Germany that we can bring into clearer focus, not only the “internal” divisions among former GDR citizens, but also the gesamtdeutsch commonalities that many of them perceive between themselves and their compatriots in “the West.” By framing the case in this way, we arrive at a rather different empirical puzzle: What accounts for the interior divergences among former GDR citizens in their ongoing search for identity? What has enabled some to feel included as simply Deutsche from the beginning, while so many others perceive themselves, perhaps for the first time, as Ostdeutsche?