Painful years of economic hardship followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 © AFP

Germans in the eastern and western parts of the country are closer than ever in terms of economic performance but drifting apart on social and political issues, the government has warned.

“Many citizens in eastern Germany see themselves as second-class citizens, as left behind,” said Christian Hirte, the government’s special representative for the region. “We cannot simply shrug and move on when so many people lose trust in the state and in politics.”

Many eastern Germans were closer politically to their neighbours in eastern Europe than to the west, Mr Hirte said.

Berlin’s annual report on how far the former communist east has caught up with the richer and more populous west has drawn particular interest this year after a surge in support for the rightwing populist Alternative for Germany in eastern Germany and a series of high-profile far-right demonstrations in the region.

“In economic terms we are — despite all the difficulties — on a good path. But at the same time we notice a greater distance in social and political questions,” Mr Hirte said. “We see that the great political issues of our time are often viewed and discussed differently in the east than in the west.”

Mr Hirte said it was wrong to brand the entire region as leaning towards the far-right and pointed to recent rightwing extremist incidents in the west. But he acknowledged fundamental differences in political outlook, which he said reflected not just four decades of communist dictatorship but also the traumatic years of upheaval and economic hardship after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

“If you look at how our neighbours in eastern Europe view certain political issues you will find that many eastern Germans are politically more closely aligned with their neighbours in eastern Europe [than with the West],” Mr Hirte said. “That does not mean they are enemies of democracy. But in large parts of the population you have a different understanding of what a nation state should be.” 

The report found that economic output per head in the east has reached 73.2 per cent of that in the west, broadly unchanged from the previous year. The catch-up process has slowed markedly: over the past 10 years, the gap in output per head has narrowed by just 4.2 percentage points. 

The difference in job prospects, too, is slowly eroding: unemployment in the east has fallen for 12 years in a row, and stands just two percentage points above the level in western Germany.

Highlighting the comparatively low cost of living in the five eastern federal states, Mr Hirte said: “We won’t be able to be equal in all areas, but the quality of life can be at least as good as in many parts of the west.”

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