BERLIN—Alice von Samson-Himmelstjerna was 13 years old when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.
She remembers that the street in East Berlin she lived on ended at the wall as if “there was an abyss.” The 12-foot-high concrete wall divided Berlin for almost three decades and cost more than 130 lives of those who tried to escape.
Half of her classmates did not attend school the day after East Germany opened the border since they “had better things to do.” While East Berlin’s citizens were streaming to the West with a sense of bewilderment and joy, the world witnessed a key moment in the fall of communism in Europe.
The family heated their home with coal and they had no running water in the late 1980s. The district of Mitte was a place mostly for worker-families. Samson-Himmelstjerna remembers a grey neighborhood with buildings falling apart, and many children.
Germans commonly call the process that led to the reunification in October 1990 the “Wende,” literally meaning the turning point. For many, particularly for people in the former communist East, things indeed have turned around.
Eastern Germany Today
Today, Mitte has been transformed into the modern center of the German capital, where new buildings and renovation projects abound. Sights, like the Brandenburg Gate that used to be in the death-strip are now flooded with tourists.
As a result, rents in Mitte have risen and changed the demographic considerably. “No old people live here anymore,” says Samson-Himmelstjerna.
She says she doesn’t recognize her old neighborhood anymore and has no contact with any of her former classmates or friends from that time. “The result of the Wende … was a total loss of past.” She says she longs for more opportunities to share about that time.
In restructuring the highly inefficient socialist economy, unemployment rose sharply in the so-called new Länder, the six newly formed states. It was as high as 21 percent in some states until 1999. As a result, disillusion replaced an initial widely shared euphoria.
Additionally, wages were significantly lower in the east, and the health care system needed time to catch up with the west.
Johannes Vatter, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Freiburg, in a recent study looked at the different levels of happiness in Germany from 1991 to the present and how happiness is connected to economic conditions.
He utilized a happiness index based on a survey called self-reported well-being, SWB, on a scale of 1–10.
Due to their worsening economic conditions, it is not surprising that there was a significant gap between east and west in terms of well-being after the Wende. In 1991, west Germans scored themselves at 7.3 and while east Germans 6.0, for a gap of 1.3. For reference, a person who loses his or her job drops on average 0.4 points in well-being.
Since 2004, however, when the job market started to pick up, there has been a trend of convergence, both economically and in terms of well-being.
Unemployment in the eastern new Länder last month fell to a record low of 8.5 percent. Nonetheless, this is still considerably higher than the average 5.7 percent in the old Länder. The eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on the Baltic Sea, which is struggling with a dwindling population and a jobless rate of 11.7 percent, is still a far cry from the economic powerhouse Bavaria boasting companies like Siemens and BMW, and an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent.
Dropping unemployment rates, rising wages, and the inner-German migration, made a big difference to the narrowing of the happiness gap, Vatter said. As a result, in 2011, the difference between the two sides was less than 0.3, the lowest gap since 1991.
However, Vatter says there are still some unidentified causes of the existing satisfaction divide.
One possible explanation is what Vatter calls the “echo of the system.” These are cultural imprints left by decades of living under a communist system that especially affects the generations born before 1965.
“Those generations who not only grew up within the German Democratic Republic [East Germany], but who also spent a considerable share of their working life under the communistic regime are significantly worse off,” says Vatter.
Vatter says it might also be connected to “the anger of having spent irretrievable years under limited freedom, or to durable disappointments about the failure of socialistic policy.” This generation had a harder time adjusting to a free market economy and labor market.
Samson-Himmelstjerna says for her generation, it was relatively easier to adapt to the new system. She was able to go to college, and made many friends who hail from the West. Had the wall not fallen, Samson-Himmelstjerna says she’s certain she would not have been able to get a degree since one’s education and career were largely dependent on whether your parents were affiliated with the Communist Party.
It was very different, though, for the older generations. Soon after reunification, her father and her aunt lost their jobs and have been unemployed ever since.
“The problem is that those who were between 40 and 50 years old in 1989 … were dispensed from the job market,” says Samson-Himmelstjerna.
Even though her aunt was highly educated, and willing to continue her work as an ethnologist, she lost the opportunity to “prove herself.”
The older folks have had a hard time making any friends with people from the West. And while they accept the new democratic system, some complain that west Germany has never shown them recognition or appreciation for what they contributed.
“In the long term, it sucks away your health to be pushed to the edge of society,” says Samson-Himmelstjerna. And certainly takes a toll on one’s sense of well-being.
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