The Fall of the Wall - a conversation with Dominik Stegmayer

Dominik Stegmayer ©Dominik Stegmayer

On 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. To commemorate the anniversary of this historic date, we talked with Dominik Stegmayer, researcher and PhD candidate from the Research Center for the History of Transformations (RECET), who has recently conducted a study among factory workers from a Publicly Owned Enterprise in former East Berlin.


Mr. Stegmayer, is 9 November – the day the Berlin Wall fell – a day of celebration?


It depends on whom you’re asking. I think that for most people in Germany, 9 November was first of all the day when the border finally opened. So if we consider it as the day when military control at the Inner German border ended, then I’d say it’s definitely a day of celebration. On the other hand, there were at least two other dates in those fast-paced first years of German unification that were also important and symbolic. If we take 3 October 1990, when the unification was formally completed, then the picture might be different, because for some people it meant that their state suddenly disappeared, vanished from the map. And in between, there was 1 July 1990, when the economic, social and monetary union of East and West Germany came into force. So the economic union was there before the legal union, and that day was the beginning of a series of abrupt changes in long-lasting professional careers for many people. For many companies, it was the moment when the labor unit costs skyrocketed, and they saw that they could not keep so many people in employment and maybe not even keep their products on the market. So 9 November gave rise to reasons to celebrate because the border disappeared, but if we take the economic landmarks half a year or a year later then it could be different.


In terms of social transformation, the new economy brought an entirely new system of values. In your articles, you see the neoliberal turn in quite a critical way. Do you think it was successful in Eastern Germany?


The accession to West Germany produced winners but also losers in East Germany. According to my understanding and my studies, the outcome very much depended on who you were in 1990, which job position you had, how old you were, what sex you were, and so on. If you were a 61-year-old man, you were after all quite likely lucky because you experienced a significant increase in the pension that you were soon to receive, because pension claims were integrated into the western pension system.  People did not expect to get much, and four years later, they got more than they were prepared for.

However, if you were a woman between 40 and 55, your chances in the labor market were suddenly pretty low, especially if you were employed in a business that was about to shut down. Until 1989, you weren’t wondering what you were going to do for the next 20 years because it was clear, and suddenly, you had to look for a job in a labor market in a way in which you were not used to. Furthermore, that labor market might have told you that you are basically too old or not attractive anymore.

If you were a well-educated man below 40 than your perspective wasn’t so bad (generally speaking). If you had good training, you were flexible enough, you were maybe willing to change your place of residence and move to the west, than you had good options. Sometimes even in the same business.

So success or disappointment depends very much on your point of view.


How could you characterize the changes that were affecting people the most?


What disappeared was the state as a caretaker of professional career risks. It disappeared overnight, and the labor market was an entirely new paradigm for East Germans in the beginning. People had to get used to it.

We saw a simultaneity of both marketization and deregulation in the former GDR (ed. German Democratic Republic). The switch to a market economy was more or less intended by both the transition governments of 1990 and the voters of the last Volkskammer (ed. unicameral legislature of the GDR) elections in March 1990, who clearly voted for the parties that promised a fast track to market economy.

In the end, people got the market economy they more or less wanted, but I don’t think they voted for a market society. The problem is that it’s usually impossible to have a market economy without the way of thinking of the homo economicus, and without the penetration of the market into the formerly non-marketized spheres of life. That was not something that was clearly planned for many people in 1990. They thought that the borders would open, and maybe they would get better products in their shops, but they could not overlook the vast sum  of changes.


So people were not ready for the change of norms and values in society?


Yes, the change caused a lot of stress and uncertainty in daily lives. During my study, I found an internal newspaper from a factory with headlines like, “what is social insurance?”, “how much do goods cost?”, etc. These were basically lessons in how to deal with the market and market society.

The process of learning needed a kind of unlearning of old habits too. People had to get rid of concepts and understanding of things to which they were well used to. They needed a readiness and openness to embrace the new situation. That took some more time than many people, including politicians, expected.


What adjustment strategies did you see among the factory workers who took part in your study?


They had different strategies. Some saw this situation as a transition period. If they were older, let’s say three to five years until they reached retirement age, they were looking for something to do for this short time until they reached the right age and retired. If they were younger, they usually tried to make the best of what they had. One problem was that social capital was devalued. People who they could rely on and ask for help were not in a position to help anymore.


This kind of uncertainty often comes with a neoliberal turn.


We saw the neoliberal economic reforms in the 1990s and in some places in the world as early as the 1980s: in England with Thatcherism, in the USA with Reaganomics and we saw them in Chile under Pinochet. In continental Europe, these new economic ideas gained ground more easily in Central and Eastern Europe than in the West because everything there was fluid. You had no established market regulation systems, you had no well-established rights of the workforce, etc., so it was easier there to bring forward neoliberal instruments, especially if they were seen as helpful for providing employment and economic growth and profit for companies.


In terms of norms and values, where does Eastern Germany belong today? What are the dominant discourses in the region, in your opinion?


I think that the overall gap is closing. If we take economic parameters, they are on average at 75 to 85% of West German levels. The gap in unemployment rates that was very painful in the 1990s and 2000s has narrowed a bit, as a combined result of emigration, aging of the East German Population and a rise in unemployment in the Western Bundesländer. But gaps remain and are likely to remain for a longer period. I would say that today’s most pressing issues are the aging of the population, lack of manufacturing industry (especially in the more rural areas) and the difficulty of keeping the rural areas alive. This is not a solely East German problem, but it is a problem there. The challenge is to keep these rural areas running, not just in terms of infrastructure.

According to the most recent report on the State of the German Union (ed. Jahresbericht der Bundesregierung zum Stand der Deutschen Einheit 2021), differences in terms of norms and values are tending to become smaller and will increasingly disappear. What seems to remain is increased skepticism and criticism towards politics in the eastern part of Germany. Here, the experience of 40 years of dictatorship seems to last longer than in other parts of life.

The number of people who feel they are second-class citizens is also still higher in the East than in the West (33% vs 25%). It would be interesting to know if these numbers relate to migration background, and what the numbers would be if we deducted people of non-German origin.


So, coming back to our first question, can we regard the unification and the transformation process as a success story?


It was a success story with negative aspects. Not everything is shining and bright, but the living conditions in Eastern Germany today are definitely better overall than they were in 1990.

When I was conducting interviews for my research, I did not meet anyone who would say: oh, I want the GDR back, I want the border back. People in general have this tendency to pick up nice things from the past. So they would, for example, say, “oh, the child-care was better”. Because childcare was available more or less all day long for everyone in East Germany so that women could go to work. And of course, East Germany had to have a childcare system because there was a permanent lack of work force, since numerous workers were running away. The issue is that we can’t take only those selected positive aspects into consideration. As someone else said in one of the interviews: if you want that great GDR childcare back again, you also need to deal with the border control and the Stasi. So, all in all, I think 9 November is a good day to celebrate.



Dominik Stegmayer studied both economics and socioeconomics at the University of Economics in Vienna (WU Wien) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). He also holds a Pedagogics degree in history & sports sciences from the University of Vienna. Since 2016 he is teaching at a Viennese bilingual high school. His doctorate research project "Transformation in Eastern Germany on the example of VEB Werk für Fernsehelektronik" aims to provide a multidimensional view - 'from above' as well as 'from below' - at the economic and social transformation of the former GDR through the case study of the VEB Werk für Fernsehelektronik, until 1989 the largest industrial factory of East-Berlin.


This interview was conducted by Barbara Grodecka-Poprawska and Franz Michalke.