The latest regional election results indicate that the German political system has started to fragment. The differences between Germany’s east and west are the most important challenge for the German political elite. The evolution of German politics will highly affect the European Union’s future, as Germany is the bloc’s de facto leader.

  • After unification, the east wasn’t fully integrated with the west. Different socio-economic dynamics shape the current political challenges and widen the gap between the political elite in Berlin and the rest of the country.
  • The east has never lost its militarism. People in the east and west have different expectations of leadership, as the east is still adapting to Western democracy and the market-based economy.
  • The current regional divisions are a product of Germany’s history. This includes the separation of the country into two states after World War II and the divisions between northeastern Prussia and the regions in the southwest.


We are currently observing the fragmentation of the European Union, with Germany its de facto leader. Here, we will take a deeper look at Germany’s challenges because we consider them to be at the core of Europe’s challenges.

The division between the eastern and western parts of Germany is the most important challenge for the leadership in Berlin. This divide will shape how Germany evolves and defines itself as a European power. However, the current regional disparity is a product of Germany’s past, including the separation of the country into two states during the Cold War. Therefore, for the purposes of this Deep Dive, when we speak of “the east,” we are referring to the regions that were part of East Germany, which was officially called the German Democratic Republic. “The west” refers to the regions of West Germany, officially the Federal Republic of Germany.

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The two were divided for 45 years until 1990. Prior to World War II, German society was divided along different lines. The northeast, dominated by Prussia, was different from the southwest, which encompassed in part the states that are currently called Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. Geography has played the most important role in defining not only German politics and economics but also the multiple layers of differences within German society. Germany has experienced fragmentation throughout its history, and each time was a painful struggle for the country’s leadership and people.

Different Socio-Economic Dynamics 

Berlin’s local elections have revealed two realities in German politics. They confirmed that the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is visibly gaining ground at the national level. They also showed that other non-mainstream parties are becoming more popular and that the German political system is starting to fragment. This indicates, as elsewhere in the European Union, that the gap is widening between the elite and the electorate. Both trends started in the east and are now gaining ground in the west and point to a potential political crisis in Germany.

Some blame the rise of populist movements in Germany on the country’s socio-economic problems and the refugee crisis. But, according to the election map, populism and nationalism have risen faster in the east than in the west. AfD’s greatest level of support is in the east, where it has been popular from the very beginning. While the refugee crisis has clearly contributed to the rapid success of AfD at the national level, this doesn’t fully explain why it has been so popular in the east. The unification process in the early 1990s didn’t solve the existing divisions between East Germany and West Germany. The transition in the east from communism to capitalism is comparable to Eastern European countries’ transition process, in that the east has not yet completely integrated with the west. History also helps explain the current challenges Germany’s leadership is facing when dealing with the two regions’ differences. The east is still influenced by German militarism and struggles to adapt to democracy and the market economy. The west, in contrast, has had six decades of democracy and economic growth and has fully integrated into the Western system.

Throughout the four decades between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War, the west evolved differently than the east. At the end of the Cold War, the geographical borders were redrawn, but the divisions between the east and the west remain. The east needed to reinvent itself as it transitioned from a centrally planned economy to a market-based economy. The west was happy to have a larger workforce but soon discovered that it needed to invest in educating workers from the east, as they had different standards. At the same time, migration to the west has left the east with an unproductive workforce and inefficient industries. Even though the west poured a lot of money into reforms, the gray atmosphere of the eastern industrial cities was not completely erased.

The east remains the poorest part of Germany, with a GDP about 25 percent lower than in the west, and it is suffering the most from the current EU crisis. If you travel from the west to the east, you will notice a difference in architecture and also society. The east resembles Eastern Europe more than it resembles western Germany. The open fields and large farms reflect the fact that agriculture is the largest contributor to GDP in the east. The reliance on agriculture also explains the low population density in the east. Leipzig and Dresden are the exceptions because they are university centers and most of the communist-era industries were concentrated there.

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Neighborhoods with gray apartment blocks, reminiscent of the Soviet era, surround the traditional German downtown core in cities in the east, while industrial sites are usually only partly functional. After unification in 1990, companies and factories in the east had to suddenly compete with their more advanced counterparts in the west and many went bankrupt. Unification also led to high unemployment rates in the east, which are currently at about 10 percent, double the rates in the west. Economic activity in the east has increased since the early 1990s as a result of governmental programs – subsidies and investment in infrastructure – mostly paid for by revenue generated in the west.

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Unlike the multicultural German towns in the west, eastern cities are inhabited mostly by people who are ethnically German. Young people often seek better-paying jobs by migrating to the west or elsewhere in Europe. The people living in the east see the refugee crisis as decreasing the number of job opportunities. It has been hard enough for people to reinvent themselves and survive capitalism after communism. Now, they see the refugee crisis as another challenge.

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In such an atmosphere, nostalgia is growing for the good old days under communism when everyone had a secure job and a home (or at least that was the perception). Socialism doesn’t have the same meaning in the east and west. The slogans of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) are different in both regions to accommodate the greater support for populism and the Left Party in the east. Former members of the Socialist Unity Party (which governed East Germany) have become supporters of the western version of socialism, sometimes without fully understanding the differences. At the same time, the east has seen growing support for nationalist and anti-immigration parties, like the National Democratic Party, AfD and PEGIDA.

Tolerance for foreigners is very low in the east. Statistics show that there are more hate crimes in the east. A recent government report says that attacks on foreigners reached a peak in 2015, as incidents carried out by radicals from both sides of the political spectrum have increased. However, religion is not a factor. The large majority of the population of the east is not religious, while most of the west is Christian – predominantly Catholics and Protestants.

In the east, dictatorship and authoritarianism shaped society for more than six decades. Throughout these years, the state’s constant control over private life gave people a different mentality than that of their western counterparts. People in the east expect more from their leaders – their problems need to be fixed from above, even if they do not expect the solution to be efficient. As is the case for most of Eastern Europe, the market economy and democracy are relatively new concepts. So is multiculturalism. They see no need to accommodate immigrants who pose a risk on multiple levels. The west has had the chance to get accustomed to democracy and the market economy since the 1950s and has already gone through the experience of accommodating migrants. The west understands that there is a cost, as well as a security risk, attached to receiving refugees and it is willing to absorb these costs to a greater extent than the east.

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The Historical Divide and Diverging Ideological Paths

To understand the way political fragmentation can affect Germany and Europe today, we need to look at the way politics developed in the east and west prior to World War II, as well as in East Germany and West Germany during the Cold War. These factors have built the divisions that the current leadership in Berlin is struggling to manage.

At the end of World War II, the Allies decided to dissolve Prussia. Historically, the core of Prussia was East Germany. It was not Prussian culture but Prussian governance and its political model that allowed fascism. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, external powers viewed Prussia positively. The state, founded in 1871, was seen as the best outcome of Germany’s historical evolution, a model for rational administration and economic progress. The Prussian state was perceived to be the liberator of Protestant Germany from the Habsburg Empire and Bonapartist French influence.

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Prussia’s efficient administration and geography were largely responsible for the fact that Germany didn’t go through the transformational processes that France, the U.K. and the Netherlands had gone through in the late 19th century. The “bourgeois revolution” was not necessary for Prussia because it was doing well economically. This meant that traditional elites maintained and increased their influence over what was a military and rural society. These elites were referred to as the Junkers: the noble landowners located east of the Elbe River. They fought back against the liberal tendencies in the German south from Bavaria to western Rhineland.

The Prussian model, through its traditional and militaristic leadership, slowly allowed intolerance and illiberalism to grow as a means of maintaining power. This “special path” that the Prussian state chose allowed the rise of the Nazi dictatorship and led Winston Churchill to say in 1943 that Prussia “is a source of recurring pestilence.” But the cause of this “pestilence” was actually the political system built by the Junkers, who ran the country prior to the Nazi regime.

The Allies dissolved Prussia in 1947, when they signed a law that officially divided Germany into the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, and the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany. East Germany was a Soviet satellite state during the Cold War. Similar to other states in the Eastern Bloc, East Germany was governed by its version of the USSR’s Communist Party – the Socialist Unity Party. It implemented similar economic policies – central planners set prices and the state ran almost all economic activity.

West Germany included the three Allied Occupation Zones, held by the U.S., the U.K. and France. The Americans really managed the territories and, as Chancellor Konrad Adenauer took office in 1949, West Germany fully aligned with the West. American funding gave West Germany the ability to recover from World War II and become the world’s third largest economy in just a decade after the end of the war. East Germany was the most successful USSR satellite state, but the standard of living was not comparable.

In East Germany, communism replaced fascism – but it didn’t fully eliminate it. Stalin had no reason to do so. In fact, he used it to his advantage. After all, Stalin’s regime was also illiberal and intolerant. Therefore, Moscow encouraged former SS officers to join the Stasi, East Germany’s state security service. The Stasi created an effective network of informants that spied on civilians, with the stated purpose of enforcing the regime’s will. This was completely different than what was going on in West Germany, where the Americans implemented a denazification program to remove remnants of the Nazi regime from public life. While the program was criticized in West Germany for being just a procedure to allow rehabilitation of many Nazi party members, there was no comparable program in the east.

West Germany’s success encouraged many East Germans to migrate there. But once the wall went up in 1961, migration from east to west was almost impossible. East Germans believed that the Americans were responsible for closing the borders, which is what the Soviets told them. This added to the German perception that the U.S. was the true victor of the war – it was really the U.S. entering the war that ended it. Soon, it was the Americans who were responsible for the problems in both East Germany and the USSR. The U.S. became the enemy. There was also anger against the Americans in West Germany, where American troops were seen as occupiers – which they were. But for West Germany, regaining economic stability compensated for the loss of independence.

The anti-American sentiments in East Germany were also fueled by the country’s militarism, which was mostly left intact during the USSR occupation. East Germany was the root of the Prussian Empire – its army was at the core of the establishment of the German state. East Germans grew accustomed to having a strong military and could not easily accept defeat. The transformation of the army into a border police force and the Stasi compensated somewhat, as East Germany had the largest border guard force of the Eastern Bloc countries (47,000 troops).

These differences between East Germany and West Germany are still visible today in a number of ways. First, the idea that Germany needs a powerful military remains a core belief in the east. But the west sees the military more as a security provider and less as an intrinsic part of German culture. Second, anti-American sentiments are still more pronounced in the east than in the west. Third, the east seems as agrarian as it was during the Junkers’ time – something the east holds against the west.

The question, then, is what are the political ramifications of these differences? Because of the weaker economy, the gap between the electorate in the east and the mainstream political elite in Berlin existed before the current refugee crisis and the EU financial crisis. The electorate in the east wants Berlin to address its socio-economic problems. But Berlin’s willingness to absorb more migrants, while the east continues to face these challenges, is a source of friction. The Left Party has been a contender for second place in local elections since the 1990s. Since the AfD was founded, it has taken votes away from both mainstream parties, the SPD and Christian Democratic Union, as well as the Left Party. According to a recent poll released by the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Left Party is the second most favored party for one out of three Germans who vote for AfD. Such political fragmentation can lead to difficulties in governing the country.

Alexander Gauland, one of AfD’s leaders, said that cooperation with the Left Party is possible, in particular when it comes to the euro crisis. Both non-mainstream parties have populist platforms and both understand the population’s nostalgia for the past, whether communist or fascist. This is dangerous for Germany, as such tendencies could spread from the east to the national level. Since Germany is at the core of the European Union, such problems could accelerate the EU’s disintegration.


The continued transition from communism to a free market economy in the east, coupled with deep differences in mentality between the west and east, are the real challenges facing the elite in Germany. Rising nationalism in Europe is natural considering the socio-economic problems countries are confronting. But in Germany, the divide between the elite and the population is a reflection of the divide between the east and the west. The two regions have different views when it comes to social policies, defense and even Germany’s relationship with the U.S. It was easier to reconcile their positions in times of economic growth – it is difficult to do so when faced with both economic and security problems.