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Of accidental careers and inner emigration

Roland Mischke talks with political scientist Gunnar Hinck about imbalances and incompetences among East German leaders.

Gunnar Hinck, 34, a political scientist living in Berlin, spent two years conducting interviews with East German leaders. They form the basis of his study "Elites in East Germany".

Frankfurter Rundschau: Mr. Hinck, after having spoken to politicians, managers and chief editors in the new Länder - the East German states -, your conclusion is: "Leaders in the East are companions in distress." Why is that?

Gunnar Hinck: Since reunification, power has been shared by West German "reconstruction helpers," East Germans from other fields – think of the many scientists and engineers in politics - and lower-level cadres of the East German Communist Party who managed to find their feet in the new system. The three groups are culturally foreign to one another, and lived in contrasting worlds prior to 1990. They've got little to say to each other.

Why do the elites in East Germany tend to be so much on the defensive?
Because their careers often happened by accident. Take Wolfgang Böhmer for instance, the premier of Saxony-Anhalt. He was a doctor in the GDR and lived in an unpolitical niche. He didn't want to assume any government post, but was pushed to do so. To this day he's got no political gusto or ideas. The collapse of the GDR triggered feelings not only of liberation, but also of uncertainty.

Is that why there's such strong dissatisfaction in the East with the reality of the German Federal Republic, its economic system, institutions, social services and democracy?

It's not due to the economic situation; the living standard of the vast majority of Germans has greatly improved since 1990. Health care, for instance, is today at a level East German citizens wouldn't have dared to dream of. The problem is the inner German power structure. It's the West that determines the country's norms and language. The East German elites could do much more to bring their own experience to bear in the pan-German debate. But so far West Germans are alone as far as that goes.

You consider it a handicap to former GDR citizens that they acquired executive positions through luck or coincidence?

Yes. In East Germany, there's no competition for the best brains. The institutions, parties for example, often search desperately for candidates to fill top spots. The pool of elites is apprehensively small to this day. After 1945, the Soviet occupiers and the Communist Party removed not only Nazis, but also bourgeois entrepreneurs and social-democratic mayors from office. Many families were driven to flee to the West. After reunification, in turn, the SED personnel was in large part phased out. All of this cut immense swaths.

As for PDS (the successor party to the SED or Communist Party - ed) politicians, you write that "conformity was the central factor of their career in the GDR". Is that still the case?

Yes. Cadres of the SED were obedient functionaries – and they continue to be obedient functionaries even in the country of the former class enemy. The mayor of the Berlin district of Lichtenberg, Christina Emmrich, a member of the PDS, was on the executive committee of the FDGB, the trade union federation in GDR times. She confided to me that she'd rather not hoist the Federal German flag in front of her town hall because she doesn't feel this is her country. But she does it, because she has to. With inner rejection and inner emigration.

You have harsh words for West Germans: "The unhoped for reunification helped unblock many a jammed career." Did the West send the wrong people to the East?

That was unfortunately often enough the case. Someone like Kurt Biedenkopf was a stroke of good luck for Saxony, but in administrations the picture looks quite different. Mediocre West German lawyers had no trouble at all finding a job in the civil service. In Bavaria, they would never have had the opportunity they had in Magdeburg. Many quality shortcomings are blatant.

You also criticise the ludicrously high money transfers. Does aid money from the West act as a surrogate in the East?

An absurd logic has developed in this area: A local politician doesn't first come up with a good idea and then think about how he can finance it. First he researches the many support programmes, then constructs whatever there happens to be money for. Market squares paved with granite and well-lit waterfront promenades make up for a lack of sense and identity. The elites of the East are without orientation, their void is filled by support programmes.

When is that going to change?

When younger generations replace the older ones and a climate develops in the East in which problems in the society can openly be talked about.


The interview originally appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau on August 14, 2007.

Roland Mischke is a freelance journalist.

Translation: Claudia Kotte

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