R: Josefstraße taken from Janina’s Grandma’s window in 1991; L: By Maria Hupach-Albrecht

A Tale of Two Countries: Part I

The perceived differences between East and West Germany are not merely rooted in the separation after World War II, but also in the events that followed the Unification. Though unity is an admirable goal, accepting differences may eventually lead to a greater appreciation.
Germany, Western Europe

Story by Janina Cymborski. Edited by Melaina Dyck
Published on December 19, 2020. Reading time: 6 minutes

This story is also available in br de es it kr ru tr

There are two types of Germans: the Ossis (Easterners) and the Wessis (Westerners). German Unification in 1990 brought an end to two separate Germanys, but 40 years of separation left a mark, especially in the East. Ossis, of which I am one, were inhabitants of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and today make up about 15 percent of the German total population. Yet in 2020, Ossis do not hold even 2 percent of elite positions.[1] Their individual wealth is less than half that of Wessis and their unemployment rate is higher. The differences go back to end of World War II, when West Germany was included in a western democratic political and economic alliance, and the GDR was left to an autocratic communist regime behind the iron curtain. When “the wall fell” (as we say in Germany like it somehow passively vanished) many parts of East Germany looked like war had just ended.

I was born a few years before unification. As a child I did not care much about ideologies or nationalities. So when, in 1990, at 7-years-old, I became a citizen of the unified Federal Republic of Germany (FDR) I did not care either. The world around me profoundly changed. The small city of Gräfenhainichen where I grew up seemed abandoned in the mid 90’s. Shops and factories closed. Young people left in hundreds each year. Money became an issue. Unemployment was a constant companion in my family, whereas, in the GDR, unemployment did not exist and money was never an issue.[2] I watched the city slowly die while I was growing up. But, to me, that was just the way things were. 

Unknowingly, I was an eyewitness to history. Unconsciously, I soaked in all the changes. I never questioned the changes because this world in demise was the only world I knew. I later realized what was happening around me: the political incorporation of one country into another. One giant leap for capitalism. Under the Treuhand[3] policy, real estate deals were brokered, factories closed, and competition eliminated, amounting to a radical sell-off of GDR assets at the expense of the future of the Ossis.[4] The glorious revolution from 1989, the first successful revolution to ever take place in Germany, ironically turned Ossis into unemployed losers doomed to stand aside and watch the western elite make their history. That was my lesson in the functioning of capitalism.

For me it became clear that in this world, life was no more than a constant struggle to make money and keep up. It felt like running a marathon with one leg and no chance to actually catch up. My parents spent their best years behind the iron curtain and had to immediately function in a new system with resumes that were not worth a penny, a dialect that was ridiculed, and useless values like trusting others to not cheat them. Like many women from the GDR, my mum went from secure employment to no job. My dad at times worked two jobs, one during the week and the other on weekends. When he finally went to work in construction in West-Germany since there were no jobs in the East, I cried every time he left. And the worst part was knowing that he cried too. That is how it was to grow up in the 90s in East Germany. 

Read Part II of Janina's story here. 


[1] A study found that after 25 years elite positions in justice, economy, politics and administration, military and media are disproportionately held by West-Germans, even in the eastern part of Germany. For more information see: Bluhm, Michael/Jacobs, Olaf (2016): Wer beherrscht den Osten? Ostdeutsche Eliten ein Vierteljahrhundert nach der deutschen Wiedervereinigung, Leipzig: Universität Leipzig, Institut für Kommunikations- und Medienwissenschaft.

[2] The socialist government provided a high level of social security such as affordable living, free child and health care, free education, and employment in East Germany.

[3] Treuhand was a policy first designed by the GDR to secure the national wealth as it was soon clear that the GDR would be incorporated into the Federal Republic. After Unification (3. October 1990) Treuhand was led mostly by West-Germans, who pushed for privatisation. This led to an overall deindustrialisation of the former GDR within a few years, which not focused on rebuilding, modernizing and sustaining, but rather on liquidation. This led to mass unemployment. 80 percent of the East Germans temporarily or permanently lost their jobs. Massive protests erupted all over the former GDR with hunger strikes, demonstrations, and the assassination of the head of Treuhand, Detlef Karsten Rohwedder in 1991. For more information see Roesler, Jorg (1994). Privatisation in Eastern Germany —Experience with the Treuhand. Europe-Asia Studies 46(3): 505-517.

[4] In 1992, a company in East Germany developed the world’s first CFC-free refrigerator. Due to blackmailing from the West the factory was forced to close by Treuhand. Eventually, that product was then produced in West-Germany. The usual mechanism of eliminating competition would be to declare a former nationally owned company of the GDR not working, rate it down, buy it cheap and sell it out.

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Janina Cymborski

Janina Cymborski

Born in East Germany, I still live here, enjoying the freedom of an unconventional life I did not really plan on having. After college, I worked in the travel industry in various positions in sales and at one point I decided that it was not enough. I quit and went back to university. I will be doing my master’s degree in political science hopefully next year and apart from that engage in various activities. I learn Arabic and vice versa support others learning German. I volunteer for different projects, both here in Leipzig and Europe-wide. I lack money, sometimes employment, and certainly I could have chosen an easier path. But so be it. I obviously took the road less travelled  and I hope it will one day make all the difference. As Rosa Luxemburg put it: Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.

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