The Corner

Sweet and Sour Krauts: Studies of the Two Germanies

The Boston Globe rounds up comparative studies of how life worked in East and West Germany during their forced 40-year experiment in radically different economic systems. In addition to the clear distinction in financial performance, the division of Germany produced a wealth of information about how similar groups of people, subject to free or totalitarian systems, develop differently in their personal attitudes and social views. The reunification of Germany that began 25 years ago this month has also given a unique look at how the two groups eventually converge, or not.

Nothing here overturns the widely known economic lesson of the two Germanies: that if you divide a country into a market economy and a command economy, the former will become something close to a paradise (West Germany even before unification had the world’s third-largest economy and very robust retail politics) and the latter will slowly starve to death (East Germany was a shockingly barren and brutal surveillance state). This simple lesson is visible today even from outer space, in the heartbreaking satellite image of North and South Korea:

The studies of the two Germanies go into much closer detail about how the two systems affect people’s approach to advertising and propaganda, as well as how quickly products of totalitarianism adjust to higher-trust environments after the walls come down. Some findings:

Economists Helmut Rainer and Thomas Siedler used survey data to try to figure out whether living that way had left a psychological scar. They looked at the results of a Germany-wide survey that had been administered twice a year since 1980: According to their analysis, East Germans were much less trusting toward other people than their counterparts.

Perhaps discouragingly, their mistrust did not lift easily when the Stasi’s reign ended. When the researchers compared survey data collected not long after reunification to data collected in 2002, it was clear that living in a democracy for a decade had not made East Germans significantly more trusting of others.

Other studies have shown additional lasting differences. One found that, because in East Germany women were encouraged to work more than they were in the West, East Germans were significantly more likely to believe that men and women are equal. Another found that, because the East German regime ran official doping programs for athletes, East Berliners were much more accepting than West Berliners of performance-enhancing drugs 20 years after reunification.

The Globe’s Leon Neyfakh doesn’t go into the differences in work ethic, and I always get the sense with these kinds of articles that people are trying to maintain an illusion of academic balance even when it’s obvious that one way of life is preferable to the other. During the discussion of the “debate about whether advertising works at all,” there seems to be an assumption that if you’re not seeing ads for Corn Flakes you’re not seeing ads at all. In fact the Soviet bloc was full of advertising; it’s just that the propaganda was trying to sell people on the vacuum of Communism.

Also, while I couldn’t tell a Bavarian from a Prussian, my impression of Germany has always been that it’s less homogenous than many people, including Germans themselves, would like to believe. It would be interesting to see how these results are influenced by the range of local cultures that Otto Bismarck tried to erase in favor of a unified state. It would also be interesting, and helpful in the present day, to know why the Communist-raised and trained Angela Merkel seems to have a better grasp on how capitalism works and what money means than the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom and France put together.


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