Expectations of Alignment and Experiences of Difference: The Challenge of Social Upheaval in Eastern Germany

Text: Claudia Neu, Berthold Vogel

The upheavals experienced in the 1990s still shape society in eastern Germany. The east-west divide appears wider than ever despite the fact that not only have living conditions and social welfare provisions fundamentally improved in eastern ­Germany, but some eastern regions have overtaken the west in terms of the quality of infrastructure and prospects for the future.


When everything gets better and worse all at once

In the course of the past 30 years, living conditions in eastern and western Germany have aligned in various ways. Incomes in the east have risen and infrastructure has been fundamentally and comprehensively modernised to high quality standards. Living conditions and welfare levels have significantly improved. The former ‘new’ German states are barely recognisable compared with how things were at the time of reunification in 1989/1990. Even spatial differences no longer conform to a simple east-west divide. While Leipzig and Jena are becoming towns with magnetic pull, especially for the younger generations, infrastructure in western Germany’s Ruhr region is decaying and people are moving away from rural areas, even in the country’s economically prosperous south. Expectations of alignment have certainly been fulfilled, but nonetheless experiences of difference still dominate both public discourse and the self-identity of many of those affected. The effects of social upheaval are still being felt – even though German reunification occurred some 30 years ago. And this is not without justification. In terms of both structure and lifestyles, east and west are often even more divided than they might appear at first glance. In almost all parts of eastern Germany, outward migration and an ageing society characterise life. And in many places, the breakdown of economic structures in the wake of the radical de-industrialisation of the post-1989 period can still be seen. It defines the east’s collective memory. The social polarisation between postreunification winners and losers is still palpable in everyday living. Paradoxically, over the course of the past 30 years, everything has got both better and worse – in some cases in the same place, or even within the same family.

But the paradox of upheaval also gives rise to interesting new social constellations. Via the example of the Saalfeld-Rudolstadt district, we can show how people – even in deteriorating, economically tough conditions – create social spaces for coming together. Social spaces can stimulate social balance and new forms of cohesion. They respond to experiences of difference.

„Social spaces can stimulate social balance and new forms of cohesion. They respond to experiences of difference.“

Fields of tension caused by social change

What are experiences of difference based upon? There are four main areas of social change which reflect not only polarisation, but also the many mutually reinforcing micro-inequalities that exist. These include fragmentation of the world of work, expansion of ageing social spaces, successive disappearance of civic institutions and erosion of the social heart of local life. The fragmentation of the world of work embraces not only the new range of short-term project-based or temporary work-related employment relationships, which stand in stark contrast to stable careers in industry and the public sector. It also includes the fact that in eastern Germany many employees have to commute great distances to their work. The ageing workforce and lack of young skilled workers also contribute to experiences of fragmentation. Study centres such as Leipzig and Jena attract the young people being sought in less-dynamic rural areas. What remains is a population of elderly people for whom the necessary social structures are absent. This high­lights the third trend in experiences of difference: the gradual disappearance of civic institutions and infrastructure, such as healthcare provision and mobility services as well as pharmacies and local council hubs. With this retreat of civic institutions, the very heart of social life also disappears – skilled workers who not only work during the day as teachers or public service employees, but also train youth football teams or sing in local choirs in the evenings. Against this backdrop, the political principle of equivalent living conditions emerges in even starker light.

Equivalence as a guiding principle

To mitigate social and territorial differences or even prevent them from ever coming to pass, the German government has set the political and constitutional goal of establishing equivalent living conditions for all (Article 72 (2) of the German Basic Law (GG)).1 Here, equivalent does not mean that public goods or services should take the same form nationwide. Rather, it means enabling the same functions, access and opportunities for participation. Civic institutions should be structured in such a way that they meet the very different needs of local people and businesses. Even so, regional differences persist.2 Despite all the public and private investment in infrastructure, despite beautifully restored inner cities and modernised suburbs, despite newly-developed and affordable industrial parks – many small towns simply serve as picturesque backdrops for fewer and fewer people. As the population dwindles, so does the area’s economic and tax-generating pull; faltering economic drive results in infrastructural decline. Equivalent living conditions are thus a core policy and constitutional element both in terms of guaranteeing social participation and equal opportunity and of ensuring social and territorial cohesion.

The University of Leipzig attracts young people being sought in rural areas. Photo: Randy Kühn

Social spaces as a response to social change: examples from the district of Saalfeld-Rudolstadt

Shifts in demographics, a breakdown in economic structures and changing public services also impact upon people’s private lives. Social change calls for new approaches and solutions. Social spaces are one such response. But how do meeting places that give people the opportunity to communicate and give shape to civic life come about? The project “Das Soziale-Orte-Konzept” (the social spaces model) launched in two administrative districts – WaldeckFrankenberg and Saalfeld-Rudolstadt – by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research in 2017 sets out to study and analyse how those spaces function and discover how such places of encounter are created or “produced”.

Two initiatives from the district of SaalfeldRudolstadt in south Thuringia serve by way of example. In terms of settlement structure, the district is highly fragmented: there are many rural communities along with the triangle of the traditional retail and industrial centres of Saalfeld, Rudolstadt and Bad Blankenburg. Between 1989 and 2016, the district lost around one-third of its population (27.5 per cent) – approximately 104,000 people live there today. Since the 19th century, traditional industry and trade has revolved around the steel industry and mechanical engineering, and, in rural areas, glass, ceramics and porcelain manufacture. However, since 1990, in the course of transformative structural change, the district’s seven biggest industrial enterprises have reduced their workforces by between 50 and 80 per cent3. In addition to the trends seen in industry, crafts and trades, tourism also played an important economic role for many decades. It too suffered a heavy decline after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A dwindling population and low business tax revenue severely limited the district municipalities’ scope for action – especially as regards voluntary social assistance and services.

Revitalise the region: the “Tag der Sommerfrische” organised by the future lab Schwarzatal brings the people of the region closer together. Photo: Thomas Müller

Since 2009, the citizens’ initiative “Rudolstadt blüht auf” (RBA) – which roughly translates as “Rudolstadt is blossoming” – has been working to counter the experiences of dramatic structural change such as deindustrialisation, outward migration and infrastructural decay which have had such a tremendous impact on Rudolstadt. Participants include local people, institutions, nursery schools and schools, clubs and associations, businesses and the Rudolstadt town council – all of whom are working to make Rudolstadt greener and more vibrant.4 In recent years, plant containers have been placed around the town centre, wine festivals have been held in local vineyards and clean-up week campaigns have taken place around the town. Over the course of time, not only have public spaces been spruced up but a process has evolved in which environmental protection, landscape maintenance and monument preservation have come to be seen as a social responsibility and job for locals. Despite difficult conditions, the town has succeeded in creating new networks of stakeholders which support the RBA initiative up to the present day. On the one hand, this is thanks to close links to the town council, which promoted the RBA by providing both financial and planning support. On the other, the broad support received from local people and businesses can be seen as an early factor in making the RBA a lasting success.

The tiny, 500-strong community of Schwarzburg has taken a different approach. Hard-hit by structural change, especially in the tourism sector, the community is taking a proactive stance – redesigning local tourist attractions and addressing job vacancies (through collaboration with architecture students and the International Trade Fair for Building and Construction). Local and regional stakeholders participate in the “Zukunftswerkstatt Schwarzatal” (a future lab), which organises a wide range of activities for regional regeneration, such as the “Tag der Sommerfrische”– a festive gathering promoting Schwarzatal as a summer holiday spot – with exhibitions, guided walks and regional dishes being offered throughout the entire area. There are also a wide range of contacts with other (wider-area) networks that focus on regional history and democracy. These include the “Schwarzburger Gespräche” (conversations), a super-regional, scientific and social policy-focused discussion forum, and the “Denkort Democracy” initiative, promoting the town as a place in which democracy is valued and upheld. In this way, the newly-created social spaces not only provide for meeting others and sharing experiences but also address problems (vacancy, tourism, loss of public spaces) and offer scope for action at regional level. What is unusual is that these social spaces are not just about a particular place or project, but initiate processes that go beyond the original intention by addressing a variety of participants and forming networks – and that they rely upon functional civic infrastructure and a local administration that is both efficient and effective.

„Local is the keyword in all of this. This is why the presence of widely-available civic institutions is so important.“

New institutional impetus for policy that promotes cohesion

Going one step further and moving beyond bestpractice examples, we should look at the institutional prerequisites and conducive framework that ensure that social spaces become an everyday reality. First, local people need support to develop their local environment into a needs-based, process-oriented and sustainable place to live. The vital prerequisites here are robust local and democratic institutions that enable local citizens to gain access to public services and be socially included, and make public infrastructures a positive experience – one that gives people space to develop their own ideas so they can then build up new, futurefocused, local-level structures of social cohesion and democracy.

Local is the keyword in all of this. This is why the presence of widely-available civic institutions is so important. It is the only way that the underlying principle of equivalence can be given any substance. The new debate on the common good and equivalence should not get caught up in the assessment of minimum requirements, basic provision, availability, citizens’ buses and village shops. Rather, it is more about reviving the promise of social integration and inclusion enshrined by this guiding principle. De-linking the issue of equivalent living conditions from a policy focus on what is an absolute necessity in the here and now enables a fresh form of cohesion to be put into practice that strengthens both society and democratic thinking.5 Authoritarian nostalgia for uniformity and exclusion must be countered with policy that recognises the need for strong democratic institutions which enable all citizens to participate in social life and give them space to develop their own ideas. This renders public infrastructure a positive experience. A liberal, social and democratic state thrives on the very conditions it must create for itself.


On this and the following, see Kersten, J., Neu, C., Vogel, B. (2012). Demografie und Demokratie. Zur Politisierung des Wohlfahrtsstaats. Hamburg. 47 et seq.
Fink, P.; Hennicke, M., Tiemann, H. (2019). Ungleiches Deutschland. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Bonn.
See Kersten, J., Neu, C., Vogel, B. (2019). Politik des Zusammenhalts. Über Demokratie und Bürokratie. Hamburg.
share page