In the beginning there was breakdancing. The young Stefan Richter, growing up in communist East Germany, relished the images and beats of early hip-hop culture, as well as the music of Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. There was a Harry Belafonte movie about the gritty lives of African Americans in the south Bronx called Beat Street that the authorities allowed to air on television, probably because it showed not all streets of the west were paved with gold. He says he must have watched that movie about 30 times.
During the first protests for freedom in 1989 in his hometown of Chemnitz, which was then called Karl Marx Stadt, the teenage Richter joined in. He wasn’t quite sure what the protests were all about. But the 15-year-old loved showing off his moves – weaving, bobbing and popping to the delight of the protesters.
Then the East German riot police arrived, first circling the crowd before beating up men and women holding candles, and tossing them into police trucks.
“For me, it broke the picture of the state I was living in,” says Richter, better known now as Trettmann, one of Germany’s most famous rap stars. “I started to go to the protests every day. Even when mama said no.” Within months, the regime propped up by the Stasi and the Soviet Union collapsed, giving new life to the dream of reuniting the two Germanys.
But reunification turned instead into what is now considered a swallowing up by West Germany of the East. Not only the communist system, but all the East’s innovations and creativity, their experiences, unique interactions with popular culture and the world were discounted, ignored and even derided.
Thirty years after reunification, there continues to be a stark distinction between those rooted in the East and West of Germany.
“East Germans feel like second-class citizens,” says Trettman, who lives in Leipzig and continues to visit his hometown as well as other eastern cities and towns.
Three decades later, Germans are reassessing reunification. On the surface, the economies of east and west appear to be slowly evening out. But experts say that’s largely because of a migration toward the west and several large cities of the east that has depopulated huge stretches of eastern Germany.
Voting patterns show a stark shift toward the extreme right by many in eastern provinces. Surveys show twice as much support for far-right parties in east as in the west. Anti-immigrant fervor and violence is more prevalent. What’s more troubling is that many of the people who are voting for the far-right are young people born after reunification.
Salaries in the eastern states of Germany lag behind those in the west by roughly 17 per cent. Surveys show differing views about the future of Germany, with a majority of easterners pessimistic about the future while the majority of westerners are optimistic.
Even the landscape of the capital Berlin – once a divided city – shows glaring differences. A colourful west is filled with organic grocery stories and vegan restaurants. A drab east is dotted with dreary Soviet-era apartment blocks.
“There’s still a lot of difference,” says Marcus Boeick, assistant professor for contemporary history at Bochum University. “There’s an insecurity about the rise of right-wing populism. Many East Germans until today have a very skeptical approach to western liberal democracy.”
In his song, “Grauer Beton”, or Grey Concrete, Trettmann – who frequently raps about life in eastern Germany and performed last year at the celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall – describes the dreariness and hopelessness of the former communist cities. “Behind almost every door, there is an abyss,” he raps. “Just so you know where I'm from.”
The continuing divide between east and west is rooted in decisions made during reunification, which ended up not only wiping out the savings of many East Germans, but also discounting their experiences and lives. Among the most bitter legacies of that time was the Treuhandanstalt, the notorious governmental organisation formed to dispose of eastern assets. For East Germans, it became a symbol of unaccountable power and rampant neoliberal capitalism.
“The westerners had a sense of being winners of history,” says Boeick, who himself grew up in eastern Germany and has conducted numerous surveys among those from the east. “The Cold War seemed to be won. Everything connected to socialism seemed worthless. So the west just tried to transfer their know-how, money and elites to the east.”
In retrospect, there were benefits to the socialist model that was dismantled. There was no fear about survival. There was a sense of collective solidarity. Today, amid worldwide discussions about the efficacy of global capitalism and the increasing disparities between rich and poor, some aspects of the East German system appear appealing. Eastern Germans share nostalgic tales of what one scholar called “a communitarian, less cutthroat” nation.
“There was scarcity in socialism; maybe you had to wait 15 years for a car or a telephone,”says Trettmann. “But everybody could afford the basics. Bread was cheap. Milk was cheap. There was kindergarten. There was good schooling.”
East Germans themselves were partially to blame for what many consider a botched transition, which has had major and possibly avoidable repercussions. They themselves wanted quick access to what they considered a superior system, without considering problems like unemployment, poverty, and social ills. They were in for a rude awakening. “After some months east Germans realised factories will be closed, many people will be unemployed, and they have to adapt to this new culture,” says Boeick. “It was like the poor cousin moving into the rich man’s house.”
Trettmann blames conservative east Germans for bullying a protest movement led by young idealists. “They were older people and they wanted to go to Kurfürstendamm now,” he says, referring to the famous western Berlin shopping district. “This was the biggest mistake they made.”
Amid the economic dislocation caused by the coronavirus, tensions between east Germans and newly arrived immigrants are especially worrisome. Far-right extremists and immigrants have clashed violently in Trettman’s hometown of Chemnitz, where the anti-foreigner Alternative for Germany (AfD) has performed well in elections. Those living in the east are 14 per cent more likely to have an unfavorable view of Muslims and more than twice as likely to have an unfavorable view of Jews than those in the west, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
For Trettmann, it’s no mystery why there is friction. “The refugees are coming. They have swagger. They are happy. They are coming from war zones. They are having a good time,” he says. “They’re in the tram fresh from the barber shop, with new clothes. They all have new mobile phones. The old people are afraid of them. The East German people don’t like that. They are jealous. It’s some simple s**t. They’re jealous.”
A major problem is that east German cosmopolitans have mostly left their hometowns for the west or even abroad. Boeick says that out of 60 people who graduated from his school in the tiny town of Hettstedt, perhaps five remain. Some moved to Leipzig. A few are working as educators in wealthy Bavaria. One is in San Francisco.
“Many East Germans of my generation left as there were no prospects,” he says. “My generation and the generation before my era – these are the people missing now. They all left the rural part of eastern Germany. This is a grave problem. They lack an indigenous elite.” Growing up in Chemnitz during the Communist era, Trettmann says he was inspired by his older brother, a rebellious hippie who listened to Jimi Hendrix and was regularly in trouble with the Stasi. The problem now in those little eastern towns, he says, is that “all those people with long hair left”.