Is there a need for social justice

Long ways of German unity

Everhard Holtmann

Professor (a.D.) for Political Science at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, Research Director at the Center for Social Research Halle e.V. (ZSH) at the University of Halle-Wittenberg. His focus areas include party (system) research, local political research, democracy and participation research, historical political research and transformation research.

Was the GDR the "equal" society? What ideas of justice did the population in East and West Germany harbor at the time of reunification? And how has that consolidated or changed to this day?

Social department store in Erfurt / Thuringia. People associate social justice in particular with good work and carefree living conditions. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa, Martin Schutt)

Social justice: basic human need and political issue

Social justice is a guiding principle that feeds on people's own expectation of a good life. It is traditionally at the top of the value system. According to a survey from 2017, 92 percent considered this value to be important (Hilmer et al. 2017, p. 14f.). Social justice is a desire and a requirement at the same time. The determining yardstick for this is the principle of equality. What is considered socially just is what appears right and cheap in a personal comparison with other people. Anyone who experiences inequality without a convincing justification feels treated unfairly.

Social justice, however, is not only a relational, i.e. based on comparability and social proportionality, but also a deeply moral term. At its core, it is always about questions of dignity, honor, one's own worth, fair cooperation, compensation for disadvantages and appropriate consideration of individual needs and interests. This is understood to mean, on the one hand, a financially adequate lifestyle and, on the other, immaterial, i.e. life opportunities that enable self-development.

On the one hand, social justice is realized (or even denied) through social relationships, e.g. in the form of wages or the distribution of roles in families. As a producer and guarantor of social justice, on the other hand, in traditional welfare states such as Germany, the state has a key position, as it is responsible for labor and social law as well as for the systems of social security. In 2017, around 70 percent of the population said yes, the state should guarantee comprehensive social security (ibid., P. 18).

The benefits of the insurance systems for old age as well as in the case of illness, disability and unemployment are generally measured against the standard of "establishing equal opportunities and distributive justice" (Czada 2008: 199). However, it is difficult to measure: There are no generally valid, objective measures that can be used to precisely determine social justice. This is therefore a result of social negotiation or political consideration, which is subject to correction. Since it is about financial transfer payments on an enormous scale and almost all citizens are somehow affected, the issue is consequently always a political issue.

The issue of social justice unfolds its broad political impact as a collective idea of ​​just politics. People associate social justice in particular with good work and carefree living conditions, equal educational and training opportunities and a performance-based distribution of income and assets.
"Justice" conditions in Germany - social areas ( Graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /

In general consciousness, the desire for social justice, the basic need for security and the desire to correct social inequality are closely related. Depending on how the level of security, equality and justice is weighed up, system satisfaction and trust in the politics involved increase or decrease.

In the following, selected attitudes data will be used to explain what ideas of justice the population in East and West Germany harbored at the time of reunification, what preferences they adhered to, how they assessed reality and how opinion has consolidated or changed up to the present.

Social justice: not listed verbatim in the Basic Law, but a constitutional mandate

Like the term "welfare state", the term "social justice" is not mentioned verbatim in the Basic Law. Although social justice is consequently not a formal constitutional requirement, both terms, which are closely related in terms of content, are to be regarded as constitutional mandates. As such, they develop legal and political effects, which substantiate the democratic and social constitutional state of the Basic Law (Articles 20 and 28).

As with the interpretation of the welfare state postulate, it is up to the Federal Constitutional Court to clarify what is to be understood by social justice according to the constitution. A fundamental judgment is that the state is obliged to "ensure a balance of social contradictions and thus a fair social order" (BVerfGE 22, p.180, 204). According to another judgment, the requirement of the social constitutional state is "particularly geared towards balancing out social inequalities between people" and serves "first and foremost to preserve and secure human dignity" (BVerfGE 35, pp.348 and 355f.). While the state's actions in legislation and administration are obliged to do so, the court also makes statements on the "third-party effect" of social justice. The law falls to the task of "ensuring justice and humanity also in the relationship between citizens" (BVerfGE 5, pp. 85 and 206).

There is no legal guarantee of absolute justice

Legal doctrine agrees that absolute justice cannot be guaranteed in a social state based on the rule of law. Employment law expert Michael Kittner emphasizes that what are "just" or "unjust" features of a social order can neither be logically derived nor precisely determined empirically. Even an approximate description therefore requires evaluation (Kittner, in Alternative Commentary I, p. 1354). It follows from this that "the 'material justice in individual cases' cannot matter at all, but only the systematic justice, which is usually best served with 'legal certainty'" (Bäumlin / Ridder, in alternative commentary I, p. 1355).

The principle of legal certainty means only, but at least, that there must be "factually convincing, reasonable reasons" for unequal treatment (Gramm / Pieper 2008, p. 49). But in legal practice "the degree of justice that the rule of law is able to provide will often only be unsatisfactory when measured against absolute ideas of justice" (ibid., P. 51). In other words: the fact that individuals or parts of society feel that they have been treated socially unjust can never be completely excluded, even in a social constitutional state.

Expectations of justice in East and West Germany after reunification

The initial psychological situation in East Germany after the system change of 1989/90 can be described as follows: The vast majority of the population of the former GDR, who had experienced qualitatively modest but comprehensive services of general interest in the authoritarian welfare state, took it for granted, that state aid will continue to be provided for all the perils of life. In the 1990s, significantly more East Germans than West Germans also made the state responsible for full employment, income equality and statutory wage control (Gabriel / Holtmann 2015, p. 86f.). The reality of the system transformation contrasted all the more sharply with such norms "deviating from the West German welfare state model" (Fuchs 1997, pp. 83, 85), which East Germans took with them from the GDR to the unified Germany. In fact, as a result of the economic and social structural breaks, millions experienced a devaluation of their personal life assets. "In the course of regime change and economic upheaval, professional qualifications, career paths and personal life prospects in eastern Germany have been devalued, broken off and buried in many ways. Many of those affected see this as an act of systemic injustice" (Brachert et al. 2019, p. 101). The social constitutional state of the Federal Republic was not able to satisfactorily absorb the feeling of being treated unfairly and personally neglected in every affected individual case.

Under these circumstances, the question of justice remained very important. "We wanted justice and got the rule of law" - this bitter sentence by the GDR civil rights activist Bärbel Bohley, who experienced a lot of contradiction in the internal German discourse, intuitively names the performance limits of the social constitutional state, which always has only one legal system with limited legal liability can provide, especially under conditions of an abrupt system change. It is a basic problem of any socially responsible rule of law that it cannot generally guarantee individual regulations that are judged to be fair by all those concerned. For the people themselves who in East Germany felt that they were being treated unequally for no reason, for example because their jobs were being redeveloped or supplementary pensions from the GDR were canceled, this basic problem was of course not a question of legal theory and probably not primarily a deficiency in the German legal system, but rather a previous one all an expression of unjust politics. In any case, the trust in the constitutional institutions (courts, police) measured in East Germany from 1994 to 2014 fell only slightly below the comparative value determined for West Germany and even increased moderately over the same period (Gabriel / Holtmann 2015, p. 165). In September 2018, however, there was a trend break: 73 percent of West Germans, but only 50 percent of East Germans shared the opinion that the rule of law in Germany works well all in all (ARD Germany trend September 2018).

The perceived state of social justice

The view of East Germans on their position in the society, economy and politics of the Federal Republic remained ambivalent in the overall picture. On the one hand, after around two and a half decades, the overwhelming majority drew a fundamentally positive assessment of German unity. For 80 percent of the East Germans surveyed in 2014, the advantages of reunification generally outweighed the effects (ibid., P. 139). On the other hand, the subjective system comparison GDR / Federal Republic was less clear from an East German perspective as soon as the question was asked about specific system services: Majorities of different sizes were of the opinion that, compared to life in the GDR, social cohesion (70 percent), the educational system and the Childcare (57 percent each), but also social justice (50 percent) would have worsened (ibid., P. 136). However, the under 35-year-olds, i.e. those who no longer consciously experienced the GDR as a way of life and who, unlike many of their parents and grandparents, have not written down unification-related disadvantageous experiences in their own biography, clearly assessed the Federal Republic, including social justice more positive (ibid).

In survey-based attitude research, social justice is assigned to a three-part set of questions. Two standard questions are whether "it is generally fair or unjust in this country" and whether someone "personally receives my fair share". While these two questions are regularly asked in population surveys, the specific question about the subjective assessment of the status of social justice is asked less often. This may be due to the fact that the respondents' social considerations are always included in system-related and person-related general equity assessments.

Are there generally just conditions?
When it comes to answering the question of whether "all in all things are fair or unfair in Germany", the population has always been divided. As the long-term trend curve shows, the majority opinion changes repeatedly, although since 1990 more East Germans than West Germans have consistently issued a negative declaration of fairness. For example, in spring 2017 44 percent of all German citizens, but 51 percent of East Germans perceived a more unjust development trend (ARD Germany trend March 2017). A population survey from 2018 also confirms that the mood in East Germany is more pessimistic. With the answer variant "it is rather unfair", the east-west gap is 17 percent. Is personal fair participation guaranteed?
Compared to the general equity assessment, the assessment of whether someone personally receives the fair share is clearly more positive. In a 2014 autumn survey, around six out of ten respondents were convinced of this. Almost a third expressed the opposite. The east-west distribution was almost the same. In later surveys, sentiments differ between the two parts of the country. In spring 2016, 28 percent of respondents across Germany, but 40 percent in eastern Germany, said they received less than the fair share (Infratest February / March 2016). A roughly identical regional spread in the denial of personally fair participation - 27.4 percent West and 37.5 percent East - is shown by the above-mentioned 2018 population survey.

Is there social justice in Germany?
For the subjective assessment of the extent to which Germany is socially just, expectations of fairness of performance, distribution and opportunities play a role. A recent population survey shows: "In the hierarchy of values ​​and principles of the people is social justice still high up. "In 2017, more than 90 percent of German citizens consider this guideline to be important (Hilmer et al. 2017, p. 15). At the same time, a three-quarters majority see this postulate being less and less fulfilled widespread speech of a "justice gap" perceived by the majority of the population is a clear empirical confirmation "(Kohl 2016: 19).

The time series here only extends up to 2008. At least one can see that the feeling of increasing social injustice was widespread as early as the 1990s. This impression has become common property after the turn of the millennium. The majority perceive "what wages you get for your work" (60 percent) and "how society deals with the weak" (69 percent) as "rather unfair". Strong minorities also see gaps in justice when it comes to coverage in the event of unemployment (35 percent) and how the state deals with Hartz IV recipients (42 percent). Among the critical voices, citizens with poor resources, i.e. those with a formally low level of education and low income, are represented above average (ARD-DeutschlandTrend March 2017).
Assessment of social justice in Germany over time ( Graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /

In the publication to which the graph "Assessment of social justice in Germany over time" refers, the data are not broken down into East-West proportions. Overall, it can be said that the central institutions of the German welfare state are still widely accepted in eastern Germany (Heinrich / Jochem / Siegel 2017, p. 3), but that at the same time in the eastern part of the country people are more sensitive to deficits in social justice stayed. Because it can be proven: "Even a quarter of a century after reunification, the assessment of their own social security among East Germans consistently lags behind that of West Germans" (ibid., P. 21).

Low wages are perceived as unfair, not unequal incomes as such

Income differences regularly trigger social criticism. It is noteworthy that the vast majority of the population with an unequal distribution of income does not have a fundamental problem of equity - provided that low wages are raised and the benefit principle applies to all wage earners. An evaluation of the data from the Socio-Economic Panel shows that since 2005, "between two thirds and three quarters of the respondents perceive their own income as fair" has remained fairly constant (Adriaans / Liebig 2018, p. 808). If, however, "top managers receive high salaries and their performance behavior does not seem to correspond, then this is obviously seen as a violation of the performance principle, which is very firmly anchored in our society" (ibid.).

Sense of justice and political participation

The sense of justice influences participation in politics. As a study published in May 2019 shows, the conviction that injustice happens to you personally is more widespread among non-voters than among voters. This relationship is more pronounced in eastern Germany than in the west of the country.And in East and West, AfD voters in particular feel that they have been treated unfairly.


Adriaans, Jule / Liebig, Stefan (2018): Unequal income distribution in Germany generally accepted, but lower incomes are perceived as unjust, in: DIW weekly report 37-2018, pp. 802 - 808.

Alternative comments: Commentary on the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, Volume 1, Art. 1 - 20, Neuwied and Darmstadt 1984, there the contributions by Michael Kittner (p. 1338 - 1410) and Richard Bäumlin / Helmut Ridder (p. 1288 - 1337) .

ARD-DeutschlandTrend: Monthly surveys by Infratest Dimap, Berlin.

Brachert, Matthias et al. (2019): Final report on the project Political Participation in East Germany, Halle (Saale), -hepherd-political-engagement-is-different.html

Czada, Roland (2008): wrong ways and detours in the new welfare world. In: Heinze, Rolf / Evers, Adalbert (ed.): Social policy. Economization and delimitation. Wiesbaden, pp. 186-207.

Fuchs, Dieter (1997): What kind of democracy do the Germans want? Attitudes towards democracy in united Germany, in: Oscar W. Gabriel (Ed.), Political Orientations and Behaviors in United Germany, Opladen, pp. 81-113.

Gabriel, Oscar W. / Holtmann, Everhard et al. (2015): Germany 25. Social trends and political attitudes (bpb Zeitbilder), Bonn.

Gramm, Christof / Pieper, Ulrich (2008): Basic Law. Citizens' commentary, Baden-Baden.

Hilmer, Richard / Kohlrausch, Bettina / Müller-Hilmer, Rita / Gagné, Jérémie (2017): Attitude and social situation. A search for traces of reasons for right-wing populist orientation, also among union members (Hans Böckler Foundation, Working Paper Research Funding No. 044, August 2017), Düsseldorf.

Kohl, Jürgen (2016): Acceptance of the welfare state. High responsibility, lost trust? Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Bonn,