The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago.

I feel weird about where I’m writing this post from. I was expecting to be writing this from Berlin, after visiting the commemorations. But I’m visiting Boston (and New York) right now and the connotation of talking about November 9th as a day of celebration is different from that of Germany, and within Germany the connotation is different in Berlin and elsewhere. The official unification day in Germany is German Unity Day, celebrated on October 3rd; November 9th is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, which is why many (like Elie Wiesel) pushed Germany to pick a date other than Mauerfall.

But in Berlin, where the wall was, Mauerfall celebrations are unavoidable. The Wall itself is unavoidable. One sees it in satellite photos of the northern margins of Mitte. Walking along Bernauerstrasse, one sees the remains of the wall, a park along the Death Strip, the trace of the Tunnel 57 escape route, memorial plaques to the people killed trying to cross. There are historical exhibits farther east of early escape attempts, including one involving a small child whose mother wanted returned but could not get an exit visa to West Berlin lest she defect, leading to a diplomatic spat over who would hand over the child.

As I’m writing this, there’s an exhibit in another escape tunnel, opened to the public for the 30-year anniversary. The mayor of Berlin, a Social Democrat governing in coalition with the Greens and the communist-descended Left, is quoted as saying “One can authentically experience the courage of the women and men who tried to take people to freedom and resisted the East German regime.” This is not a peculiarity of the current mayor or the neoliberal turn of the center-left: then-mayor of West Berlin, future West German Chancellor Willy Brandt dubbed it the Wall of Shame as soon as it came up.

There’s something about the reality of East German communism that turns pacifist social democrats into America Cold Warriors. And that reality is gone now. The immigration debate in the developed world is about entry visas, not exit visas. The communists used to have the world’s second largest political and economic power for inspiration, and today they have a depopulating middle-income country of 30 million.

The Wall fell for East Germany

Branko Milanovic asked five years ago, for whom did the Wall fall?. He was writing from a pan-Eastern European context, one in which a handful of countries prospered, such as Poland and Estonia, while many only tread water, including Russia, and some are poorer than they were in the 1980s, like Ukraine and Serbia.

East Germany must be classified together with Poland in this scheme. Even articles that talk about resentment of the EU and growing racism in East Germany admit that East German economic growth since the end of the Cold War has been impressive. To the extent I can find claims that East Germany has not really been economically integrated, they come from far outside Europe: Paul Krugman argues that former East Germany got massive aid from the West in the 1990s but still depopulated, and a translated Chinese article that I can no longer find, by a cynic opposed to both democracy and the CCP, mocks East Germany for not having gone the Chinese route and not getting Chinese growth rates.

But in reality, there are parts of Berlin, such as the east and southeast sectors coming out of Mitte, where one no longer even notices the Wall. Some Eastern suburbs have high poverty and crime rates; so do many suburbs of entirely Western cities, like Paris. The pattern is that the media likes to focus on high crime rates if those suburbs are populated by ethnic minorities (as in Seine-Saint-Denis) and on the failure of the state to deliver on promised convergence if they’re populated by white people (as in Marzahn).

What of East Germany outside Berlin? The incomes there, according to Eurostat, are better than in most of provincial England and France Spain and in Southern Italy. Brandenburg, which exists as a negative space of suburbs and exurbs around Berlin, is almost as rich as provincial France’s richest regions, Rhône-Alpes and Alsace, and almost as rich as Tuscany, Lazio, and Liguria, all of which are solidly in the rich half of Italy whenever one divides Italy into a rich North and poor South. The poorest former East German state, Saxony-Anhalt, is still richer than Southern Italy and the most deprived parts of Britain, like South Yorkshire and the West Midlands, and comparable to parts of the Midlands and North that are not so often used as metonyms for regional poverty.

The depopulation is real, but should if anything have the opposite effect on incomes: ambitious workers move to the West for the higher wages of Munich and Frankfurt and Hamburg and Stuttgart, retirees and people who cannot work (perhaps because of disabilities) stay in the East and drag the market income down. And yet, with the depopulation, East Germany’s incomes are steadily converging.

Even the racism is not such a big change from before. Under communism, Vietnamese guest workers were deported if they had children. Milanovic himself talks about how beneath the rhetoric of international brotherhood, communism taught people to fear the stranger as a spy or saboteur. Today, the extreme right is getting a lot of votes in most of the East, but is far from a majority, and meanwhile the rest of the political spectrum treats them as illegitimate Nazis; Die Linke governed Thuringia as pro-immigration and froze deportations, and CDU’s record on immigration under Merkel is well-known in and outside Europe.

Cities and integration

A person nearing retirement after a life of low-productivity industrial work building Trabis is not going to have the exact same living standards as a successful engineer. A social state can redistribute incomes through high taxes and transfers; it can compress market incomes through unionization; it can improve income mobility through investment in worker training, free education, and institutions giving people second chances even if they didn’t score well on tests at age 17. Germany has done okay if not amazing well on all three measures.

There’s a rather individualistic way of looking at mobility and integration, focusing on the success of a working-class individual who through hard work, luck, or both managed to make it near the top. But we cannot all be in the top quintile of the income distribution. A better way of looking at integration is to consider the collective range of outcomes of people who grew up in the disfavored group: ethnic minorities, the bottom quintile, East Germany. Integration in this scheme means a combination of income compression and well-mixed percentile ranks within the entire population.

In this scheme, Mauerfall should be considered an unqualified success, and perhaps a model for other cases of integration. This includes interregional inequality in such countries as the UK, Italy, France, and the US, and potentially intraregional inequality in high-inequality areas such as every part of the United States.


  1. ant6n

    Mmh. Maybe talk to a couple of Easteners. Sure Mauerfall was great, a liberation and emancipation, but Unification didn’t quite bring the promised “blooming landscapes”, maybe now, 30 years later, the economic numbers are converging, but in the meantime there was quite a bit of bitterness.

    • Alon Levy

      The young ones seem to be happy with the Greens, same as in the West? As I understand it the Ostalgists are older people (“alles gut, Boomer”), but maybe I just specifically talked to Easterners from Climate Strike.

      • Herbert

        There’s a big difference between east Germany’s major cities and the rest.

        If you look at “cities whose population has dropped below 100 000” within Germany they fit one of two profiles: old industry. Or east German…

  2. Olivier

    There are some geographers and economists who claim that increasingly in Germany the divide is not between east and west but between north and south, as in many other countries. In this case the south means Baden-Würtenberg, Bavaria, Saxony and Thuringia, the latter two former DDR states. Berlin is of course sui generis, being the capital.

    • Alon Levy

      Wait, Saxony and Thuringia are poorer than just about everywhere in the West, why are they on the same list with Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg?

      (And Hamburg is in the far north and is very wealthy.)

      • Herbert

        The North South divide is a lot older than any east west divide. “East Elbia” was a poor region in the Kaiserreich. Silesia was the only territory of value Germany lost in both world wars, everything else was more of a drag.

        East Germany tried to relocate some industries away from Saxony, building up a shipbuilding and industrial fishery in the north, but the fisheries were never sustainable and the shipbuilding went bust east and west. Lübeck still hasn’t recovered from its Werftensterben.

        But the biggest cleavage is an urban rural one. Hamburg is richer than the Black Forest because Hamburg can trade and build and develop, the Black Forest has cuckoo clocks and tourism…

        • Olivier

          There is a rural vs. urban divide in the East as elsewhere, yes, but for instance Leipzig is booming. It was an industrial powerhouse before the war and is slowly getting back up. It lost a third of its population after the reunification but its population ow surpasses the pre-reunification levels; you can see some graphs here:

          Also, much of the resentment in the East focuses not so much on economic underperformance but on the conditions of the reunification. Specifically the vast majority of eastern German certifications were voided after reunification and lots of people, especially in the “better” professions (law, academia etc) lost their jobs and social position. Regardless of the reasons the outcome was that East Germany was flooded by carpetbaggers from the West like a vulgar colony. The parallels with the Reconstruction are evident and you only need to consider the mindset of the american South a century and a half later to understand that the damage will be long-lasting.

          • Herbert

            The South lost a war. The East got told that they won a revolution.

            Also the Treuhand, tasked with managing all the state owned businesses, somehow managed to leave a mountain of debt after selling it all with many formerly west exporting companies shutting down.

            I’m not sure anybody would like being told “your life’s work is literally worth less than nothing”

          • Brendan Dawe

            Should we expect there to be a whole lot of value in the legal education and certification of a totalitarian state’s lawyers?

          • Herbert

            West Germany had no problem in taking Nazi lawyers after the war…

  3. Herbert

    An aspect of the Thuringia state election that nobody but leftists talks about is that the AfD got less votes among people who were adults during the GDR than among people whose education – such as it is – happened after reunification. Whatever else, the GDR did apparently instill at least some antifascism…

    • Alon Levy

      The exit poll has the following vote totals by AfD by age group: 60+ 16%, 45-59 28%, 30-44 28%, 18-29 24%. Communist education ended in the early 1990s, around when today’s 45-year-olds were finishing secondary school.

      The discontinuity doesn’t scream “socialist education made people anti-fascist.” It screams “retired people are less likely to vote AfD.” This is for two reasons. First, 60+ people are retired, so that electorate covers just about everyone who lived in Thuringia 30 years ago, whereas working-age people have often migrated to Berlin or western Germany, and the migrants are selected for openness, which makes one less likely for the extreme right. And second, Die Linke’s open Ostalgie is more appealing to Eastern retirees: it got 40% among 60+ voters, 27% among 45-59 voters, and 22% among 18-29 and 30-44 voters. The last point is specific to the East – Mélenchon’s voters skew somewhat younger than the rest of the French electorate, and Momentum is a youth movement and I suspect the opposition to Brexit among its members plays a role in pulling Corbyn toward Remain since 2016.

      • Herbert

        It’ll be interesting to analyze the demographics of Spanish fascism and leftism once the results of the election are in. My prediction for Vox is: male, rural, Catholic, car owning. My prediction for Podemos / mas pais: urban, irreligious or religiously noncomforming, owning less cars than the average, more multilingual, less opposed to peripheral cultures in Spain existing

        • Alon Levy

          Maybe I’m overrating relative changes in polls, but it looks like Vox and Ciudadanos are competing for a similar electorate. The commonality is political unionism – as I understand it, Vox’s nationalism goes after Catalans, not immigrants, and the origin of the party is in feeling that Rajoy was somehow not violent enough toward pro-independence forces in Catalonia. Then again, AfD originates in CSU voters who felt Merkel wasn’t harsh enough to Greece and within 5 years turned into the NSDAP…

          • Herbert

            Hating Catalonia has been “a thing” for the Spanish right wing at least since Miguel Primo de Rivera. And Cs originated in Catalonia as an anti independence party. Which is perfect for “polite society” to claim “see, my Catalan friend agrees” when you’re expressing anti Catalan bigotry.

            By the way, PP is the party where all the old Franco guys went. Look up who founded the party…

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