Gary Bruce: Ich bin ein Ost-Berliner?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Gary Bruce is a history professor at the University of Waterloo. His latest book is The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi.]

Gabriela S., whether she intended to or not, has caused many in Germany to rethink their view of racism. The 49 year-old bookkeeper, originally from East Berlin but now resident in western Germany, sued a Stuttgart firm in the amount of 5,000 Euros (about $6,100), claiming that she was not considered for a job with the firm because of her ‘ethnicity’, because of her ‘East Germanness.’ Her evidence was her CV that had been returned to her on which someone had scribbled ‘Ossi’ – the common and not necessarily derogatory term for an East German. But one of the evaluators had also put a minus sign in front of word. The curious fact that someone would have written anything mildly controversial on a CV that was being returned to the applicant was quickly overshadowed by attempts to explain it away. Rainer E., the owner of the firm, protested that the minus sign referred to the fact that Gabriela S. lacked the necessary qualifications; it was just coincidence that it appeared in front of the ‘Ossi’ designation. He also blustered on about how much he likes East Germans since they rarely get sick. He never explained, however, why it was necessary to point out on the CV that she was from the former Communist East Germany in the first place.

The labor court in Stuttgart was asked to decide whether former East Germans were an ethnic group, and whether Gabriele was therefore the victim of racism. The decision of the court from May of this year was unequivocal: East Germans are not an ethnicity, since they lack common traditions, language, religion, dress, and diet. According to the judge Reinhard Ens, a new ethnic group could not have developed from the formerly united German people in the short 40 year existence of East Germany.

An editorial in the Berlin daily taz from April 11 which called on the court to find in the bookkeeper’s favor, and which hinted that East Germans are the new Turks of Germany, was out of line. It was not Race, but Region, that was the issue here, something that has plagued Germany since its first unification in 1871. The truth of the matter is that regional differences between former East and West Germany are not as pronounced as those between the Protestant north and the Catholic south. During the Nazi era, this division was particularly striking; the Nazi electoral power base was in the Protestant regions of the country, while the Catholics tended to vote for ‘their’ Catholic Centre Party.

In the early 1990s, German TV ran a show about a Bavarian detective who is transferred to a small island off the Baltic coast in former East Germany. A Bavarian on Rügen struck a chord with viewers because of the often hilarious culture clash that ensues. The detective is German, like the local inhabitants, but somehow a different German – more so, I would argue, because he was from Bavaria, not because he was a Wessi.

A Bavarian in West German cities like Hamburg, Bremen, or Kiel could easily encounter the same kind of hurdles as Gabriela S. – but no one would call that racist.

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