When the Berlin Wall fell, a tremendous number of people headed for the West, permanently. Between 1989 and 1990, nearly 4 percent of the population of East Germany moved to West Germany. The outmigration rate dropped considerably once the new common German currency was introduced and reunification became an irrevocable fact. But it rose again between 1995 and 2002 when the unemployment rate in the east spiked from nearly 15 percent to 18 percent (twice that of the west). Overall, between 1989 and 2010, over four million people from the east moved to the west.
But not everyone moved from east to west. In fact, over the same period from 1989 to 2010, more than two million people from the west moved to the east. For a brief period, Johannes M. Becker was one of those people. A political scientist, he taught for two years at Humboldt University in East Berlin beginning in 1990. He wrote a book about his time in the east and continues to give public presentations about the experience.
In the 1980s, in addition to his work in academia, Becker was advising a member of the German parliament, Karsten Voigt. It was Voigt who encouraged him in the first place to go east, even before the Berlin Wall fell. In 1988, he told Becker: "We have 570 members of parliament with 2,000 scientific workers in the Bundestag, and there is no scientific knowledge about the GDR and the future of our two countries."
Becker's first approach to Humboldt University was rejected. But after the Wall fell, the West German government set up a program to send professors from the west to the east. Becker signed up. He arrived just as East Germany was about to disappear from the map and watched the impact of reunification on the former country.
"I wrote a small study for Karsten Voigt," he told me in an interview in January in Bonn. "My advice for him and the SPD was: no unification in 1989 or 1990. Instead, there should be a moratorium to give the GDR five more years as a capitalist country. After the spring elections of 1990, it was clear that a big majority of the East German population refused socialism. They wanted to have capitalist structures, and that's what the political class had to accept. We should have given the GDR five years of existence and after those five years to let them decide, and to let us in the West decide also, what should happen between East and West Germany."
That, of course, didn't happen. Johannes Becker continues to focus, in his presentations, on the persistent disparities between east and west -- in terms of wages, leadership positions, percentage of soldiers in the army. "I am astonished about the quantity and the quality of the mistakes that have been made by the government of the GDR before 1989," he concluded, "and by the government of the FRG after 1989."
When the GDR disappeared, how did you feel and how did your students fell about that?
I knew what would happen just after the elections of spring 1990. But my students felt lost. Most of them didn't go to West Berlin for months and years. They refused to go to the West, even though their most beloved professor came from West Berlin. They told me in interviews I did with them and they told their French colleagues when we went to Paris and Nantes a year later that they felt lost. They talked about their parents and the situation of their grandparents. The French, for example, just didn't understand. They couldn't understand how France could disappear as a state. Perhaps people living in Strasbourg could have some sense of it since Strasbourg is on the border between Germany and France. But the people in Nantes, which is near the Atlantic coast, they didn't have deeper interest. It has been a very, very deep black space for my east German students.
How did you feel about the disappearance? You said you anticipated what would happen...
Yes, I did. And I even had an idea of an alternative way. I wrote a small study for Karsten Voigt. My advice for him and the SPD was: no unification in 1989 or 1990. Instead, there should be a moratorium to give the GDR five more years as a capitalist country. After the spring elections of 1990, it was clear that a big majority of the East German population refused socialism. They wanted to have capitalist structures, and that's what the political class had to accept. We should have given the GDR five years of existence and after those five years to let them decide, and to let us in the West decide also, what should happen between East and West Germany. Already at the beginning of 1990, or perhaps in the middle of that year, there was a study by a group of economists from the University of Bremen evaluating the GDR economy. The result was not that bad: 20% of the East German economy could survive under capitalism; another 50% would need investments coming from West Germany, from Japan, from the United States, from Japan, from UK; and only 30% wouldn't survive under capitalist structures. That is why I tried to advise Karsten Voigt and the SPD not to reunify the GDR and FRG. But you know the history. They refused my advice.
Did that proposal have support elsewhere?
No. Some years later I asked Karsten Voigt. "I wrote some studies for you and you paid me not that bad," I said. "Why did you never do what I advised you to do?"
"Yes, you are right," he said. "We never did that. But we discussed it. And it was necessary for us in Bonn to hear what left-wing scientific workers thought about that issue. But you are right. I never decided."
To read the rest of the interview, click here.