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Don't play that song for me: anthem plan highlights German divisions

DRESDEN, Germany (Reuters) - Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bodo Ramelow, premier of the eastern state of Thuringia, thinks it might be time for a new national anthem for a reunited Germany.

A map of European countries is pictured during the election campaign of Arne Lietz, candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) for the upcoming European Parliament elections campaigns in Quedlinburg, Germany, May 4, 2019. Picture taken May 4, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

The proposal is radical, but with most of the former East Germany voting in regional elections this year that will test Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fractious coalition, the eastern Germans’ feelings are uppermost in many politicians’ minds.

“Many East Germans don’t sing it,” said Ramelow, a Westerner who forged a political career in the East but faces a tough re-election fight in October. “I would like to have a truly common anthem. Something completely new that everyone can identify with and say: ‘That’s mine.’”

With Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt also electing new parliaments in September and October, three of the five states that make up the former East Germany - excluding the capital Berlin - are holding votes, or two thirds of its population.

Together, their governments control 12 of the 69 seats in the federal upper house, meaning a possible drubbing for Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners could greatly complicate legislation.

Many were jubilant when, deprived of Soviet backing, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) collapsed after four decades, uniting a few short months later with its western neighbor.

But the manner of that unification, the years of depopulation and job losses that followed, as well as the subsequent erasure from history of a state in which 16 million people lived at its peak, have left a bitter taste for many.

Few took Ramelow’s proposal seriously. A spokesman for Merkel, herself an easterner, said she found Germany’s present anthem “beautiful in both text and melody”. But Ramelow is not the only senior politician to fret at some East Germans’ alienation.

At a recent meeting of her party’s eastern delegates, SPD minister Katarina Barley said the almost unthinkable, reflecting that West Germany should perhaps have abandoned its cherished post-war constitution in 1990 in favor of a fresh document for a reunited Germany.

Alienation has consequences. Some analysts link it to the strength in the east of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has a chance of seizing the mayoralty in Dresden, Germany’s 12th largest city, in coming local elections.

Decades after reunification, the region remains poorer, making nationwide problems like spiraling housing costs even more severe than in the wealthier West.

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But while the SPD advocates slowing rent increases and the CDU suggests law and order measures, the Left party with its promise to end “market radicalism” and the AfD pledging to ban headscarves and tackle immigration are fighting on more existential ground.

For British academic James Hawes, the east - the part of Germany that lay beyond the borders of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago - has always been different, its inhabitants more insecure because more exposed to invasion from the east.

“East Germany isn’t different because it was conquered by the Russians,” he said. “It was conquered by the Russians because it has always been different.”


But others see explanations in the much more recent past. When West Germany swallowed up a decrepit East, it was seen as a crowning western triumph in the Cold War: the Communist police state that imprisoned dissidents and shot escapees was assimilated to its successful, democratic neighbor.

But two thirds of people in the east, including many born after it ended, have a positive picture of the GDR, according to historian Joerg Ganzenmueller.

“There are two memories living in parallel,” says Ganzenmueller. “In public memory they stress the dictatorship. And then you have what people themselves remember from that time.”

A host of indicators - from voting patterns to media consumption and workplace behavior - show a region that preserves many of the marks of the GDR.

More men still take paternity leave in the East than the West, and more women are in senior management - a legacy of the one-party state’s decades-long push to bring women into the workforce when that was a rarity in the west.

“East Germany is remembered in the west as an unjust state, for the people shot trying to cross the Berlin Wall were shot at the Berlin Wall, controlled by the Stasi secret police,” said Stefan Kobus, editor of SuperIllu, a weekly magazine that sells well in the east but is all but unknown in the west.

It was all these things, but “it was also a place where people fell in love, a people where people lived, where people had happy holidays,” he said, adding that denial of this breeds resentment.

In Dresden, a baroque jewel whose outer districts have become home to disaffected supporters of the far right, hundreds, aged from their 20s to their 80s, have paid 20 euros to see the east’s stars perform at a SuperIllu event.


“I’m fed up with having to apologize for the East,” said ageing rocker Dirk Michaelis, whose ballad “When I Went On” made him a superstar in East Germany. “There were some happy times there,” he adds. The audience claps.

Gregor Gysi, a witty, smooth-talking lawyer who, despite being a party member, made his name defending the regime’s dissident opponents in court, is the evening’s main draw.

He led the Communist Party through its transformation into Ramelow’s democratic Left party, becoming the face of the East in the reunited Germany’s media in the 1990s. He argues that the “Ossis” - easterners - have something unique to contribute.

“We have an advantage over the Wessis: we have experienced both systems,” he tells the audience, to cheers and applause.

But memories of the GDR are far from uncritical. When Kevin Kuehnert, leader of the SPD’s youth wing, caused consternation by suggesting BMW be renationalized, some of the harshest criticism came from the east.

The idea played well in his trendy West Berlin milieu, but East Germany, whose slow, stinking “Trabi” car made its auto industry the butt of a thousand jokes, had other memories of nationalization, said Eberhard Brecht, a former SPD mayor of the eastern town of Quedlinburg.

“Nationalization - that’s what we had in the East, and it led to collapse,” said Brecht. “The people floating ideas like that have no experience of East Germany.”

Additional reporting by Paul Carrel; Editing by Giles Elgood