BERLIN — Michael Weber had just turned three when the Berlin Wall fell and doesn’t remember life before communist East Germany reunited with the capitalist West.
Weber’s generation, raised in the rubble of the wall, was expected to grow up without division. They were the children of “die Wende,” as the reunification is known in Germany and which loosely translates as “turning point.”
And yet that’s not quite how things turned out.
“In my head, the wall is still there,” Weber said. “There’s disappointment here. What was hoped for in the last 30 years hasn’t really happened.”
Events celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s demise this week are tempered by soul-searching over continued rifts in society.
While economic divisions between east and west have narrowed, the east still lags behind. And political and psychological divisions, which until recent years had been written off by some politicians as issues of the past, have become increasingly obvious. That’s especially the case within the generation raised after reunification and without memory of the communist state that preceded it.
Only 38% of east Germans think reunification succeeded, according to a government report released in September. That drops to 20% among those under 40, who only experienced East Germany as children or not at all.
Weber and his friends fall into that group. They took a recent day off from the metal factory where they work to attend a “family day” organized by the far-right Alternative for Deutschland in the eastern town of Zeulenroda. Residents queued for sausages and beer as they waited for an appearance by regional AfD leader Bjorn Höcke — a controversial figure who has survived calls within his own party to ban him for anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Weber and his friends brushed off reports of Höcke’s neo-Nazi ties and said the AfD speaks to issues they care about.
The traditional parties, Weber said, “had 30 years to make changes, 30 years to make everything equal, and they haven’t.”
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It was on the evening of Nov 9, 1989, that an East German government official announced — somewhat prematurely, it would turn out — that the state’s citizens would be free to travel to the West.
East Germans swarmed to the Berlin Wall, where they were welcomed by citizens from West Germany. There were euphoric scenes of celebration as the most potent symbol of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe was overrun.
But it was also the beginning of a painful readjustment for many in East Germany.
Reunification gave the 17 million Germans from the east the chance to own property, but many emerging from the communist state lacked the capital to do so. During privatization, factories in the east were shut down or bought up by new owners from the west. Qualifications from the east were rendered invalid.
Two years after reunification, industrial production in the east had slumped by more than three quarters, and more than 3 million people were out of work.
Many people left, resulting in dispiriting depopulation.
Three decades later, the picture is far better, as Germany’s powerhouse economy has lifted both east and west. But disparities remain. Salaries and disposable income in the east now reach about 85% of those in the west, according to government figures. East Germans are underrepresented as leaders in business, academia and politics, despite Chancellor Angela Merkel being from the east.
There’s also an enduring gap in unemployment rates: 6.9% in the east, compared to 4.8% in the west.
The split between east and west is even more pronounced in the realm of politics.
The far-right AfD has found support across Germany in the past five years, winning enough seats in the German parliament to make it the largest opposition party. But its message has particularly resonated in the east, and especially among young people. Whereas the Greens have won the under-30 vote elsewhere in Germany, in the eastern states of Saxony and Thuringia the AfD has come out on top.
The party has benefited from opposition to Merkel’s decision to welcome more than a million refugees. But it has also tapped into resentment over how reunification was handled 30 years ago and into a feeling that Germans in the east remain second-class citizens.
During recent local elections in the east, the AfD promised a “Wende 2.0” to right the wrongs of the process.
“Senior politicians always said that unification is not a topic that is relevant in the young generation anymore,” said Rainer Faus, one of the authors of a study for the Otto Brenner Foundation this year that researched unity among Germans born after the fall of the wall. “We didn’t really believe that.”
The study found that only 33% of young Germans in former eastern states agreed that it makes no difference if you come from eastern or western Germany, compared to 57% in the west who say the same.
“People in the east perceive Germany as less fair,” said Faus. “They believe that people in the east were not always treated in a fair manner after the fall of the wall.”
And those who agree the east has been disadvantaged are more likely to vote for the AfD, Faus said.
Another notable finding: One in five people surveyed in the former East Germany said they feel more “East German” than “German.” There’s no equivalent regional identity in the west, he said.
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Some say they’ve had little choice but to embrace their east German identity, to fight stereotypes that have become more pervasive in recent years.
Valerie Schönian was born on Sept. 25, 1990, a little shy of a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall and eight days before Germany was formally unified. She said she’d never really considered her regional identity growing up.
“For me and a lot of other people my age, I never thought about East and West Germany — that was history for me,” she said. “But then something changed.”
Schönian points to the 2015 refugee influx, which gave rise to the anti-immigrant Pegida party, and later the AfD. Suddenly east Germans were in the spotlight: for being racist and far-right.
The media and Twitter commentators began to look at the east and say, “My God, what’s going on there?,” she said. The emphasis on negative aspects of the region made her want to present a fuller picture.
“Young people like me — who don’t go on the streets for Pegida, or go on the streets for the AfD — also want to talk about east Germany and what’s going on there and what’s cool about east Germany,” said Schönian, who is writing a book on the topic.
On a rainy day in Leipzig, 21-year-old Friederike Feiler points out the church where her parents took part in political protests against communist East Germany. Her father still runs tours there.
Feiler — who is part of an activist group called Aufbruch Ost, or “Departure East” — argues that issues surrounding reunification need to be revisited and discussed. Among the most controversial is the work of Treuhandanstalt, the East German agency created to privatize state companies before reunification in 1990. It closed down many of them.
“It’s about getting more people know about the inequality between east and west, and getting more people talk about it,” Feiler said.
But she worries that focus on political differences is cementing new walls.
“After the elections now, there is a lot of blame on the east Germans,” she said. “The problem is when you point the finger and say, ‘How can you vote for the AfD? You are bad people.'”
Daniel Kubiak, a sociologist at the Humboldt University in Berlin, said it’s important to move on from explaining everything about eastern Germany with East German history. The classic example is when people suggest that Germans in eastern states have an affinity for the far-right because they lived under authoritarian rule.
People shouldn’t overlook events in the 1990s, he said, such as the emergence of anti-immigrant groups and cases of domestic terrorism.
“Eastern Germany has become a construct in its own right, which has a 30-year history after reunification that you first have to look at,” he said.
Despite concerns about enduring divisions, for Schönian, the discussion about reunification’s unfulfilled promises and about what it means to be east German can be seen, in itself, as a sign of German unity.
“It just means that young east German people are so integrated, that it’s not possible to ignore our voice,” she said. For a long time, the east German perspective was ignored in history and the media, she said. “That gets harder and harder. Because of us.”
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The Washington Post’s William Glucroft in Zeulenroda, Germany, contributed to this report.