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East Germany

Public Attitudes on National Identity

The extent to which East German citizens have developed a separate national identity is difficult to determine. Generally proof for and against an emerging East German national consciousness is based on the impressions of journalists or scholars who have traveled to East Germany and on a handful of opinion polls and survey samples of questionable reliability.

Those who believe that a new national consciousness has developed or is developing argue that the building of the Berlin Wall forced East Germans to come to terms with political realities and either passively accept the regime or actively seek a place within the system. Meanwhile the economic success of the 1960s and early 1970s gave the people a sense of pride in certain socialist accomplishments. These included an educational system considered to be one of the finest in the world, a package of social services and programs that was relatively impressive, job security, and a standard of living that topped that of other East European countries. Given the acute shortage of labor, many opportunities were available for the person with the "proper" socialist credentials, and those who proved their political loyalty were amply rewarded. Most important, a new generation of East Germans had gradually replaced the older generation. Close to half the population in the mid-1980s had been born since 1945 and close to a quarter since 1960. These young East Germans have been exposed only to communist rule. They have not been allowed to interact extensively with their counterparts in West Germany. And they have been the object of an intensive socialization campaign beginning in the schools and youth groups and continuing through the work organizations.

Opinion polls and surveys to some extent have supported the impressionistic accounts of an emerging national consciousness. Many of the polls from the 1960s revealed that the population showed growing support or loyalty to the regime. Many people felt that they were materially better off since the construction of the Wall. Those under forty years of age were most likely to consider East Germany an independent state and to favor recognition by West Germany.

An equally compelling case can be built, however, against the emergence of a distinctive national consciousness among the East Germans. Proponents of this view refer to the fragility of a loyalty based solely on material well-being. Any worsening of the economic outlook is likely to have a negative impact on popular attitudes toward the regime. Despite official encouragement to measure its own well-being against that of other socialist bloc countries, the population continues to compare its standard of living with that of the people of West Germany, where the quality of life continues to be noticeably higher.

In addition, East Germans have no freedom to choose the political system under which they must live, a fact that undoubtedly colors many citizens' view of the regime. Every year hundreds of persons risk their lives in attempts to escape to the West. The presence of Soviet troops is a constant reminder of dependence on the Soviet Union. Although travel restrictions eased in the 1970s, East German students and the economically active were in the mid-1980s, for all intents and purposes, denied travel to the West except under the strictest of controls, and internal restrictions were placed on citizen contacts with visitors from the West.

In the mid-1980s, common influences on national consciousness continued to exist. East Germans have easy access to Western media, particularly West German television, and the influx of Western visitors since the early 1970s has ensured that at least some sense of a common German identity would be preserved.

Public opinion polls and surveys can be cited to support the arguments of those who believe that as of the mid-1980s a distinct East German national consciousness has not yet been achieved. A study from the late 1970s, for example, found that about 80 percent of the citizens considered themselves part of an all-German nation. Another poll found that over one-half supported eventual unification and that such support was strongest among the young. A poll from 1975 refuted earlier surveys from the 1960s that claimed East Germans were beginning to evince a growing loyalty toward the regime. Like the earlier polls, the 1975 study found that just over 60 percent considered themselves loyal citizens; moreover, only a quarter of the sample claimed to be strongly loyal, while just over a third claimed they had merely accommodated prevailing conditions. The remainder were either opposed or indifferent to the regime. Another poll revealed that some three-fourths of the population supported closer contacts between East Germany and West Germany.

In the mid-1980s, the debate over the deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe led to the reinforcement of an all-German sentiment in East Germany. This debate led citizens of East Germany and West Germany to feel that they had a special role to play in preventing the outbreak of war. However, this feeling of pan-German sentiment was essentially reactive in nature, that is, it was bound up with the specific circumstances of the missile deployment. In general the evidence suggested that East Germans recognized that they were citizens of a separate state but also considered themselves part of a larger German community that included those living in both Germanies.

Data as of July 1987

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