Oddly, for someone reporting for an intellectual magazine like Prospect on Germany 20 years after the events of 1989, Anne McElvoy’s main concern during her “odyssey” through the former GDR seems to have been to avoid “classic bearded intellectual 89ers” (Prospect November 09). But when Monika Maron “smacked the table” so perkily, did she really say that the dissident movement had “perpetrated a downbeat mood?”
The slip is telling: “complaining” has become a crime in McElvoy’s gentrified new east Germany—where the unemployed (currently at 12 per cent, compared to 7 per cent in the West) get by with “decent welfare provisions.” But it is precisely because would-be SPD voters in the East and the West considered 359 euros a month—what a single person gets on Hartz IV—to be not very decent at all that they have been turning away from the party whose brainchild the benefits system was.
Reading McElvoy, one might think that all voters for die Linke live in self-imposed penury in “tenement flats” like something out of a Heinrich Zille cartoon, consumed with “eternal regret”, while the more “adjusted” members of society enjoy the “food markets, antique shops and cafes” of east Germany’s “impressively restored cities”.
Yet “attractive” as eastern German cities might be after their “makeover”, it hasn’t stopped the east German “masses” moving West—2 million fewer people live in eastern Germany today than in 1989. Is it just “moody introspection” when the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports on a survey finding that only one third of young east Germans (not intellectuals, note) today are satisfied with the social system, compared to 72 per cent in 1992? “Intellectuals” loathe Super-Illu—ergo it must be saying something right, is McElvoy’s implication.
But why do they loathe it? Perhaps because while 100 billion euros have indeed flowed eastwards annually since reunification, there is no mention of the fact that that the lion’s share goes on unemployment benefits, pensions and other welfare expenses. Unemployment is, in turn, the enduring result of the hectic privatization of east German assets and firms, sold off on the cheap, more often than not to west German competitors, and of setting the exchange rate at one-to-one when the currency union took place in 1990, which killed off the competitiveness of east German manufacturing in one fell swoop.
McElvoy writes that Merkel’s being “chancellor of all Germans” is “the ultimate tribute to Germany’s reunification.” But that’s a platitude: Merkel’s ascendancy is very much a personal success story, with her unlikeliness precisely the reason for her popularity. Nor should it be forgotten that she leads a coalition government with a party almost invisible in the East, and that her newly announced tax cuts will further eat into public spending. And by the way, Vera Lengsfeld did not run for Berlin Mitte, but for Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg-Prenzlauerberg Ost. You do find some communists there, but the vast majority of votes went to the Green party. And who votes Green? Predominantly western Germans, who pushed up property prices when they arrived in the area, obliging native easterners to move out into the suburbs.
Read Anne McElvoy’s “Twenty years in the making”