Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Of Ossis and Wessis

A quarter of a century on, Germans are celebrating the unification of Europe’s economic powerhouse, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Of Ossis and Wessis
Of Ossis and Wessis
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Day of German Unity, or Tag der Deutschen Einheit, is an auspicious occasion. It was marred somewhat this year by the Volkswagen scandal that threatened the self-assured tenacity of the unsurpassed success story of Europe.

German chancellor Angela Merkel used the occasion to urge her compatriots and European allies to work with, and not against, Russia. Anyone puzzled by Merkel’s conciliatory attitude towards Russia should look no further than the admirable German attitude towards accepting Syrian refugees.

Germany is expected this year to accommodate one million migrants from Syria, the Middle East at large and Africa. The number is huge and unprecedented.

Conventional wisdom indicates that Merkel’s view, as opposed to the hawkish tirades of British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama, of Russia’s military intervention in Syria is likely to go from strength to strength.

Meanwhile, Obama, Cameron and French President François Hollande have pronounced Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad “a butcher” and may not heed Merkel’s counsel.

Merkel, having rolled the dice on Russia, cannot afford to rest easy. “I understand why he has to do this — to prove he’s a man,” Merkel stated, tongue in cheek, referring to the machismo displayed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. She also openly referred to “America’s decline,” becoming the first Western leader to do so. She is a woman who speaks her mind.

Time is also money for Germany, and Merkel understands that Germany and Russia are doing brisk business and that therefore Germany must remain publicly neutral. Merkel’s campaign of composure is likely to go from strength to strength, much to the chagrin of her allies. However, she needs to start making the economic case for dealing with Russia on an equal footing with her Western partners.

Germany’s partners must also understand, as she does, having been raised in the former East Germany, that acts of violence cumulatively set in motion inevitably lead to military operations. There is still time to avert a disaster, Merkel has assured her allies. Western credibility among the states of the Middle East is at stake.

All this is part of a tale of two different Germanys — the Ossis and the Wessis. It should not be expected that the differences, even after 25 years of unification, would have disappeared.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier met this week with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Both countries have a stake in the prevention of full-scale war in the Middle East. Russia is convinced that the Western strategy can only lead to the spread of chaos, while France and Britain, former colonial powers, are politically obsolete.

The West, including the United States, cannot play a decisive role in the Middle East. Germany understands that it cannot play that role alone either, but it seems happier to let Russia do so.

Meanwhile, Germany is commemorating the 25th anniversary of the reunification of the country, Europe’s largest and most dynamic economy. Ossis, or easterners, and Wessis, or westerners, are no longer at loggerheads.

But separated for decades, the Ossis have had to learn to take advantage of opportunities. The German population is projected to shrink, and anti-establishment rhetoric is driving the German policy of welcoming refugees and economic migrants.

In the background, the European migrant crisis is being debated in corporate boardrooms. Merkel had to show up at several events to commemorate the anniversary of unification, including the deliberate drive to consolidate unification and the reconstruction of the eastern German states.

Merkel has been sounding all the right notes about resolving the Syrian crisis. Demographics, coupled with an ominous undertow of xenophobia, have not stopped Germans from welcoming Syrian refugees. According to the European Commission, the influx of migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East may prove to be beneficial, even if there are far more migrants in the former West Germany.

In the East, migrants make up between four and nine per cent of the population, while in many parts of the former West Germany the figure is as high as 25 per cent. It is small wonder that most immigrants want to head west: it is not difficult for the African and Middle Eastern refugees to figure out that their economic prospects in the former West German states are far better than in the East.

Yet students in the eastern German states still perform better in mathematics, the natural sciences, biology, chemistry and physics, apart from the southern German state of Bavaria, where students perform as well as students in the east. Perhaps this is a result of the legacy of the vigorous, no-nonsense socialist education system of the Marxist former East Germany.

Merkel is also deeply engaged in gender issues in Germany. Only 40 per cent of the rural population in the age group of 18 to 29 years of age are women, an exodus that has been causing much soul-searching. Skilled German women are heading for the cities or abroad, making the female brain drain a serious concern in contemporary Germany.

East-west partnerships are often referred to as “Wossis”, but none of the 30 largest companies listed on the German stock exchange are based in the former East Germany. Twenty-five years on, Ossis and Wessis have not exactly become Wossis.

Many Ossis are constitutionally incapable of following the herd. Between 1991 and 2013, 3.3 million easterners went west, while 2.1 million moved the other way, the Federal Statistics Office reports. And they have good reason to be proud of their Marxist legacy, even if states in the former West continue to be considerably richer than those in the former East.

Ossis earn about two thirds of the average wage in the former West Germany. Owning property was taboo in the East, nicknamed “the gradually disappearing republic” towards its end. But East German products such as Rotkäppchen Sekt, or Red-Riding Hood sparkling wine, Spee washing powder, Radeberger Pilsner and Bautz’ner mustard have become popular in western Germany. The legacy of the socialist system survives in the former East Germany, where childcare facilities, to take one example, are superior to those in the west.

Cars are a conspicuous indication of a German’s wealth. The latest Volkswagen scandal has indicated that in some instances the Wessis seem to have gravitated more towards despair than hope. Posing such questions, Merkel does Germans and friends of Germany a valuable service by providing insight into the inner workings of a united Germany.

Wessis are more likely to drive BMWs, while Ossis make do with Skodas. But there is no way of knowing what the future of Germany holds. With the influx of migrants, it is time for strategic boldness. And Merkel personifies such chutzpah.

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