East Germans are the better Germans

If you ask East Germans about their characteristics and behavior, a positive view dominates. In surveys after the fall of the Wall, the East Germans described themselves, you can't put it otherwise, quite bluntly as the better people: as more social, more communal, more honest, more modest, more reserved. West Germans, on the other hand, were more likely to be associated with arrogance, dominance, superficiality or even greed for money. Cultural scientists who approached the two German sub-societies with an ethnological perspective also diagnosed striking differences in behavior in the 1990s, some of which continue to have an effect today. The East Germans would often put the matter before the person, appear modest, use the pronoun “I” less often and instead use the word “man”. In addition, they are reliable and rather cautious.

At that time, the "warmth room GDR" was often opposed to the cold west. In the West, a materialistic individualism has prevailed, people are primarily concerned with their own benefit. In the East, on the other hand, there is a "sense of community" that is now gradually being broken down by market association. One heard and heard again and again: Before 1989 there was more social cohesion, more togetherness. A loss of community is lamented, today everyone only thinks of themselves. For example, one of the people I spoke to said: “Today this is a theater company. Everyone is an actor and everyone is loud. People always have to advertise themselves. "

According to many, the "social sense" of the East Germans has not yet been completely exhausted. Standing up for one another, being humble, not just thinking about oneself are still considered qualities in the East that are particularly at home in the eastern half of the republic. Sometimes you feel morally superior because you don't put yourself above others and do less to set yourself apart from others. Another interviewee said to me ironically: “Why did the Abitur only take place in the West after thirteen years and in our case after twelve? Well, because it took them a year to learn how to sell better. We are still not good at that in the East. ”Then he adds that he actually thinks this is better.

Interestingly, no “community lead” of the East Germans can be proven in experimental studies. Immediately after reunification, game theory experiments on willingness to show solidarity indicated that East Germans were less inclined to share a profit with others than West Germans. Even twenty years later, there was no convergence here. In various studies, East Germans showed a lower level of interpersonal trust, they were more suspicious of strangers and less willing to make social contributions. A special "social sense" of the East Germans could not be proven here, even if many explicitly acknowledged common values. Some researchers even saw the willingness to cheat to be more pronounced in East Germany and attributed this - in my view, one-sidedly overinterpreted - to the fact that dishonesty and a discrepancy between official confessions and actual behavior were inherent in the system under socialism. Of course, one could just as well assume that solidarity would rapidly become disinherited after 1989.

Overall, however, we have a whole range of evidence that the East Germans in reunified Germany look comparatively hard at their own advantage and are less socially generous than the West Germans. This raises doubts as to whether the "social sense" of East Germans, which is often claimed and deeply anchored in self-perception, really carries that far. As a constant social character rather not, if at all, as a specific internal relationship that has developed in the closed and strongly leveled GDR society and survives in remnants. Moving closer together in a niche society seems to have brought about a kind of closeness that also allowed humanity and mutual help to flourish and founded the GDR community myth. If only because people in the economy of shortages were dependent on networks and the different milieus lived close together, separate forms of community emerged, which came under pressure when you could buy anything in the store and no longer had to rely on your neighbors.

It is now clear that East Germans are very keen on their own advantage in market society and often treat others with mistrust. Some things may be rooted in early post-reunification experiences, but some still have to do with the GDR. After all, we were dealing with a homogeneous and highly leveled human community whose solidarity resources were nourished by social similarity.

Today it sometimes seems as if thinking about ownership and territorial behavior are particularly widespread in the east. With regard to the presence of other ethnic groups in the neighborhood, whether Italians, ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe or asylum seekers from the Near and Middle East - East Germans are consistently more negative than West Germans. The willingness to help refugees is less pronounced than in West Germany. This also reveals the limits of this solidarity model: It is more a solidarity among equals than one with strangers, for which recent developments offer a lot of illustrative material. Seen in this way, the GDR was a community of familiarity and close relationships, the downside of which is the often harsh treatment and harsh judgment of strangers and those who are different today.

The author Steffen Mau (51) grew up in Rostock's Lütten Klein district. He is a professor of sociology at the Humboldt University in Berlin. His text is based on the book "Lütten Klein", which was published by Suhrkamp-Verlag.

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