The Berlin Wall may have gone but East-West tensions are as potent as ever
8 November 2019, 17:08 | Updated: 9 November 2019, 12:42
As the country prepares to mark three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German government has told Sky News that it's still battling significant differences between the East and West of its country - and that the rise of far-right politics was a "strong signal and warning".
Christian Hirte, the federal commissioner for the Eastern region, told me that "the problems in East Germany are bigger than in the West" and said that there needed to be "a new cultural, political point of view in our country".
He told me that "mistakes" had been made during reunification, adding: "Looking back, we could have done better."
Mr Hirte also said that the rise of the far-right AfD political party was "a warning" to politicians in Berlin that voters in the East felt distanced from central government, and some of the Angela Merkel's highest-profile policies in recent years.
AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, which translates as Alternative for Germany) has emerged as an anti-establishment party opposed to immigration, the Euro and centralised power. Its popularity rose markedly after the migration crisis of 2015, when Germany opened her doors to huge numbers of refugees.
Anti-immigration remains the party's drive, but recently, it has spoken more often of wanting to defend the rights of "forgotten voters" in the former East Germany.
"A lot of people in East Germany have a living memory of authoritarian, dictatorial government," said Gunnar Beck, one of the party's members in the European Parliament.
"The East Germans had to wait much longer for democracy. They jealously guard what they won 30 years ago. We are the only party that discusses some of those areas where government decisions are most at variance with people's actual experiences. One is immigration; another is the economic situation."
There is, undoubtedly, a significant difference. Economic growth in the East is slower than the West, incomes and productivity are both lower. Unemployment is higher; none of Germany's big, listed companies are based in the East.
And, crucially, AfD is now polling more strongly in the East than in the West. In recent regional elections, it took nearly a quarter of the vote.
Back in Berlin, Mr Hirte and his colleagues in the ruling Christian Democrats are well aware of what AfD's results mean, about how they mirror a sense of dissatisfaction coming from the country's East.
He told me: "Yes. It's a kind of warning. You have probably in the East more people who are against our immigration politics, or our climate politics, than you do in the West. You have more farmers who feel that their business model is facing problems.
"If you see that we have a strong environmentally driven regulation and it's all about change. And some people don't want any changes.
"They want to stay like it is. And so it is a stronger signal and warning in the East. But you have the same situations, not only in Germany or on the West. You have it everywhere in the world."
Mr Hirte will be taking part in events this weekend to mark the anniversary of the end of the wall, precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union. But he told me that, looking back, there had been "mistakes" in the process of reunification.
"I think that, on economic matters, we could have done better, but I'm not sure it would have been possible on political issues.
"If you say that, yes, it would have been better to have waited to implement all the West German standards - our currency, our laws and our system - then yes, it would have been better to wait a little bit to allow the chance to transform.
"But I think it wouldn't have worked. Even under the circumstances we had, four million East Germans left the homeland. If we had waited, then many more would have gone to West Germany."
Analysis carried out by Mr Hirte's department paints a pretty dismal picture of the success of bringing Germany together.
Only 38% of people in the old East Germany think reunification has been a success. Among those aged below 40, that figure falls to just 20%.
He said: "It is a question of honesty to admit that it is not possible to have equality in every issue in our country. Germany is a unified country but we have difference between east and west - structural differences.
"The east is much more rural, and the people are older. Out of 18 million people, four million left their homeland, especially in the 1990s. And we have to face the consequences of that.
"Most of the successful, big companies in East Germany left after World War Two, when the socialists started. So now in the east you have smaller companies, with lower wages than some of the big, international companies in the West."
Mr Hirte said that he intended to support more infrastructure investment in the East, with money going towards faster broadband, better streets, access to schools and medical facilities. In all these areas, the East lags behind the West.
It is three decades since the wall came down, heralding jubilation, but also the unintended consequences of job losses and lingering division.
The truth is that the passage of time has not taken away the impact of the wall. East and West are still very different regions. The wall is invisible these days, but it's still there.
(c) Sky News 2019: The Berlin Wall may have gone but East-West tensions are as potent as ever