Research studies

East Germany: The Second-Class Citizenship and The Identitarian Mobilization


 Prepared by the researcher  : Muhammad Fawzi Ali – Assistant Professor – Ain Shams University – Cairo, Egyp

Democratic Arab Center



The region of East Germany, which emerged from the former GDR, has differences and similarities with the other democracies in the post-communist EU area. The slowdown in economic convergence and the disparagement and stigmatization experienced by many East Germans since democratization have contributed to the formation of a new East German identity and to the electoral success of the right-wing populist AfD party. However, the given country structure offers no institutional equivalent to this identitarian mobilization and therefore limits its potential.

  1. Introduction

East Germany today is a geographically and historically-culturally defined region with some socio-economic peculiarities that emerged from the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In terms of state organization and administrative law, the region is divided into five federal states that were newly founded in 1990 and the federal state of Berlin, which is made up of the former West and East Berlin. East Germany is considered in these meanings in the present chapter.

East Germany differs fundamentally from the other post-socialist states and societies in East Central Europe. In contrast to the successor states of the state socialist federations, the East German federal states were only newly formed by the GDR People’s Chamber at the time of the dissolution of the GDR and directly integrated into the existing West German federal state.

The liberalization and opening of the state socialist political regime in the GDR was decisively influenced by the fact that the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) provided a state and social alternative. The FRG was present via the Western electronic mass media, which was receivable in large parts of the GDR, and offered a perspective to the GDR citizens who were fleeing in large numbers in 1989, which deepened the legitimacy crisis of the GDR regime. By holding out the prospect of a possible German-German reunification shortly after the opening of the GDR border, the federal government strengthened and mobilized its supporters within the GDR. This influence of the federal government, its offer of a monetary union and the massive election campaign support by West German parties contributed to the fact that the party coalition advocating reunification “Allianz for Germany” (AfD) won the first democratic parliamentary elections on March 18, 1990.

The government formed by this coalition opted to adopt the West German institutional system with monetary, economic and social union and the Unification Treaty. In doing so, it refrained from taking up the draft constitution previously drawn up by GDR opposition and regime representatives at the Round Table and making it the basis for domestic institutional reforms. The accession to the Federal Republic of Germany according to Article 23 of the West German Basic Law, which was accepted in the Unification Treaty, also meant that the GDR gave up the idea of negotiating a new, common, all-German constitution with the Federal Republic of Germany.

No other post-socialist state imported the institutions of a single Western model to this extent, and in no other case did the elites active as importers in the post-socialist states receive comparable financial and technical support from foreign actors (Offe 1994, p. 260). West German politicians, civil servants and managers held numerous important leadership positions in East Germany. The parity conversion of currency and income agreed with the FRG led to a massive increase in purchasing power and prosperity among GDR citizens, but at the same time ruined the competitiveness of most East German companies.

Nevertheless, the transformation process in East Germany also has things in common with the other post-socialist transformations in East Central Europe, which justify a comparison and make it analytically interesting (cf. e.g. Segert 2011). Similar to Czechoslovakia, mass protests in autumn 1989 led to the resignation of the state and party leadership. Under the pressure of this protest movement, the new government gave up the political leadership claim of the previously dominant Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) and held democratic parliamentary elections. As in Poland and Hungary, the new SED-led government and the civil rights activists and opposition groups leading the protest movement set up a round table to shape the transitional situation and prevent a violent escalation. From December 1989 to March 1990, this body negotiated, among other things, the organization of democratic parliamentary elections, the dissolution of the GDR secret police (Ministry for State Security) and the main features of a new constitution.

Like other states with planned economy structures, the GDR economic system was in a deep crisis in 1989 and increasingly had to secure the standard of living of the population through foreign loans. The catastrophic economic situation increased the conviction within the GDR elite that only radical reforms could overcome the crisis. In the 1990s, East Germany and the other post-socialist states experienced a transformation-related recession with slumps in production and mass unemployment. The economic policy strategy used to deal with the recession and economic transformation was comparable to the strategies of other post-socialist states in its three basic elements – the liberalization of markets and prices, the opening up of foreign trade and the privatization of state-owned companies.

Due to its career and recruiting function as a cadre and state party, the SED had numerous members up until 1989. However, the penetration of society organized by the political regime had prevented the emergence of a self-organized, pluralistic civil society. Beyond the officially staged political and social commitment, civil society activities were suppressed. The political parties, interest groups and other intermediary organizations that emerged in 1989 only had a small base of members and activists. At the same time, the dissolution of company and trade union structures in the 1990s left a vacuum that was partly occupied by extremist groups (Mau 2020, p. 13). Due to their educational and political socialization, the GDR citizens were characterized by collectivist, egalitarian and paternalistic value orientations. These value orientations have influenced the perception of political events and the understanding of democracy in East Germany in recent decades.

  1. Democracy

The five East German federal states and Berlin have efficient state and administrative structures. No relevant political actor questions East Germany’s national affiliation with Germany. However, the national identity of East Germans, which can be observed in surveys, differs from that of West Germans. In a representative opinion poll from November 2019, 36% of the East Germans surveyed stated that they felt more East Germans and less Germans, while the proportion of West Germans with a primary regional identity was only 16%.[1] Accordingly, 80% of West Germans, but only 59% of East Germans, saw themselves primarily as Germans. However, the East German identity recognizable here is not based on a collective self-image that emerged in the GDR, but only emerged in the 1990s. Its emergence is attributed to the disparagement and stigmatization experienced by many East Germans in the transformation process (Engler and Hensel 2018).

Since 1990, elections to the state parliaments (or the Berlin Senate), the local self-governing bodies, the Bundestag and the European Parliament have been held regularly in East Germany. Most political parties and observers have found electoral conditions fair and/or acceptable over the past few decades, and the integrity of electoral processes has not been questioned. However, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), whose experts observed the 2017 federal elections, the transparency, integrity and accountability of political parties with regard to their funding sources was insufficient. Because the Party Financing Act does not limit the parties’ election campaign income and expenses and does not make any regulations regarding independent candidates or third parties who do not stand for election themselves (OSCE 2017, p. 5).

In August 2019, the Saxon state association of the right-wing populist AfD party complained to the Saxon state constitutional court and to the OSCE about massive obstruction of the election campaign, including by the state electoral committee. While the state constitutional court accepted some of the parliamentary candidates initially rejected by the electoral committee due to their undemocratic nomination, the OSCE explained that it only sends election observers at the invitation of a national authority.[2] The turnout in the eight Bundestag elections since 1990 was on average 5.3 percentage points lower in East Germany than in West Germany and fell from 74.5% (1990) to 64.8% (2009). Since 2013, participation in eastern Germany has increased again to 73.2% (2017) (Deutscher Bundestag 2020).

With the freedom of association, assembly and expression, East Germans have had the political liberties necessary for democratic participation since the political transformation. Since 1990, demonstrations, rallies and other protest actions have taken place in East Germany in relation to the population on the same scale as in West Germany (Hutter and Schäfer 2020). According to this evaluation, 80% of the protests that took place in East Germany between 1990 and 2018 related to the topic of migration (including racism and right-wing extremism), while other protest topics were much more strongly represented in West Germany. The protests of the “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West” (PEGIDA), which opponents of Islam and right-wing populists have been holding regularly in Dresden since 2014, have become particularly well known. At around 36%, the proportion of violent protests was significantly higher than in western Germany. In a cross-country representative opinion poll from 2017/2018, 73% of East Germans stated that they had taken part in demonstrations or were willing to take part (EVS 2020). This proportion roughly corresponded to the proportion of West Germans with demonstration experience or willingness to demonstrate, but was higher than in other East-Central European countries.

In East Germany there is a differentiated and pluralistic media landscape, which is mainly based on the public service broadcasters of the East German states and the regional and local newspapers, but also includes individual media that are geared towards “all of East Germany”, such as the magazine “SUPERillu”. However, the Germany-wide daily newspapers and magazines with opinion-forming status come from West Germany and have their main editorial offices there or in Berlin. The combination of federally differentiated television and radio programs as well as economically broad-based print media ensures that the media system is less susceptible to political and economic concentration of power than in the other East Central European states.

Critics have seen the West German character and the under-representation of East German journalists in national media organs as an indication that East Germany is neglected in the German media public or is represented by derogatory stereotypes (Bundesregierung 2020, p. 82, Kollmorgen and Hans 2011, p. 152-153, Kowalczuk 2019, p. 235 ff.). Right-wing extremists in East Germany are trying to defame the established media as a “lying press” and to establish “alternative” reporting in social media that conforms to their worldview.

In the parliamentary systems of government in the East German states, the executives are elected by the state parliaments. They are politically responsible to them and dependent on the support of the members of the Landtag (state parliament). Due to the mixed majority-proportional electoral systems, in the first decades of East German democracy, state parliaments with clear governing majorities were formed, which created stable governments. East Germany is more like the Hungarian government model here than the constellations of narrow majorities and frequent changes of government that prevail in Poland and the Czech Republic. Minimum winning coalitions of mostly two parties predominated in the eastern German states, but in Saxony (1990-2004), Thuringia (1999-2009) and Brandenburg (1994-1999) absolute state parliament majorities also made single-party governments possible. A minority government existed only in Saxony-Anhalt from 1994 to 2002. The mostly clear majorities and the dominance of the state executives in the German federal state limited parliamentary government control, even if the parliamentary groups of the parties acted less cohesively than in West German state parliaments (Patzelt 2006; Reutter 2016).

However, the electoral successes of the AfD since 2014 and the parallel loss of votes in the large established governing parties CDU and SPD have led to greater fragmentation of the state parliaments and to three-party coalitions in four of the five eastern German states. In Thuringia, the political stalemate that arose after the 2019 state elections meant that the prime minister was surprisingly elected with the votes of the AfD, which was rejected by all state parliament parties as a coalition partner. Under pressure from the federal party leadership, which, like the other established parties, refused to cooperate with the AfD, he resigned after a few days (Oppelland 2020). The established parties then agreed on a minority government and early elections.

The independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by the Basic Law and respected by the government and administration. Due to the decision to adopt the West German legal system, West German lawyers were given crucial functions in the establishment of an independent judiciary in East Germany in the 1990s (cf., e.g. Dicke 2018). For example, judge selection committees checked whether the previous East German judges or public prosecutors had violated human rights in their work or had cooperated with the Ministry for State Security. Compared to the East-Central European states, West German support promoted the professionalism and integrity of the judiciary. In a cross-country representative opinion poll from January 2020, 68% of those surveyed in East Germany rated judges and courts positively with regard to their independence.[3] While 78% of West Germans shared this view, Polish and Czech respondents expressed greater doubts (only 34% and 56% positive ratings, respectively).

In the course of the transformation to the rule of law, the East German governments and legislators developed procedures and institutions to prevent and combat corruption. The filling of many management positions in business and administration with West German elites also made it more difficult for “old cadres” to develop corrupt networks (Schröder 2019). Although many country comparisons estimate the extent of political corruption in Germany to be relatively low, the existing integrity mechanisms for political decision-makers are insufficient, as a report by the Council of Europe from December 2020 showed (GRECO 2020). For example, federal ministers and parliamentary state secretaries are not obliged to disclose the conflicts between their official duties and private interests that arise during their term of office, as well as their financial interests on an ad hoc basis. The report also criticized the fact that contacts with lobbyists were not published in the run-up to participation processes on new legislation. In January 2020, the public prosecutor’s office investigated a member of the Bundestag from Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on suspicion of having lobbied for Azerbaijan against bribes.[4] Another member of the Bundestag from Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania was suspected in June 2020 of having acted as a paid lobbyist for an American company.

State institutions respect and independent courts protect human and civil rights in East Germany. However, human rights organizations and the Council of Europe Committee on Torture Prevention have criticized the police methods used in Germany to return rejected asylum seekers (CPT 2019). As the July 2020 report by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution documents, political extremists committed more crimes in 2019 than in 2018 (BMI 2020). While this report does not systematically differentiate between East and West Germany, data from non-governmental organizations indicate that East Germany is more affected by racist and right-wing violence.[5]

One of the particularly serious incidents from East Germany is the attempt by an armed right-wing extremist to break into a synagogue in Halle (Saxony-Anhalt) in October 2019, during which the assassin killed two passers-by. In August 2018, after a murder committed by an asylum seeker, right-wing extremist groups organized multi-day xenophobic and anti-Semitic demonstrations and riots in Chemnitz (Saxony). In August 2017, a right-wing extremist “prepper group” of police officers and soldiers was discovered in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, hoarding weapons and compiling “death lists” with the names and addresses of political opponents. These incidents are in the context of earlier crimes in East Germany or with an East German connection, in particular the series of murders, attempted murders and bomb attacks committed by a neo-Nazi terrorist group from Saxony and Thuringia from 2000 to 2007.

In addition, right-wing extremist activities are related to the undemocratic attitudes widespread among many East Germans and the electoral successes of right-wing populist and extreme parties. In a representative opinion poll from September 2020, 91% of West Germans described the existing democracy in Germany as a good form of government, while only 82% of East Germans agreed with this statement (Bundesregierung 2020, p. 71). In the European Values ​​Study from 2017/2018, 27% of East Germans but only 19% of West Germans supported a strong head of state who does not have to worry about a parliament and elections (EVS 2020). 28% of the Czechs surveyed shared the visible sympathies for an authoritarian political system, but only 17% of the Poles and 22% of the Hungarians. Right-wing populist attitudes such as xenophobia and Muslim hostility as well as derogatory attitudes towards asylum seekers are more widespread in eastern Germany than in western Germany (Zick et al. 2019).

This resentment is mobilized and articulated by right-wing populist and right-wing extremist parties. Since the 1990s, these parties have received significantly more votes in East Germany. In the 2017 federal elections, the AfD received 11% of the second votes in the western German states and Berlin, but 23% of the second votes in the eastern German states. In all East German state elections since 2016, the AfD has increased its share of the vote to more than 20%, above all by being able to mobilize previous non-voters. Their election campaign slogans “Complete the turnaround” and “Wende 2.0” referred to the political transformation of the GDR and associated the ruling parties CDU and SPD in the grand coalition with the SED regime of the time. The right-wing extremist NPD party, which was able to enter the state parliament in Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania before the AfD was founded, won eight percent of the second votes in eastern Germany in the 2017 federal elections. However, due to its lower share of the vote in West Germany (one percent), the NPD failed to pass the five percent clause.

Strong right-wing extremist and populist parties are a special feature of the party system in East Germany. In addition, the socialist party Die Linke, which emerged from the SED, has a broader and more stable electoral base in East Germany than in West Germany (Jesse 2011). The Linke and the AfD present themselves in their programs and symbols as parties that represent East German interests and embody East German identities. The other parties represented in parliament received proportionally more votes from West Germany in the 2017 federal elections. In the 1990s and 2000s, the two major German parties – CDU and SPD – were initially able to build up stable electorates in East Germany, but lost support in the last two state election series.

This development can be interpreted as a reaction to the grand coalitions that have been in power at federal level since 2013 and their policies in the economic and financial crisis since 2009 and the refugee and migration crisis since 2015. In the wake of these crises, other East-Central European countries also saw growth in right-wing populist parties and losses in the established parties with a Christian or social democratic orientation. However, this shift in power not only reflects the experience of the crisis, but also the greater voter volatility and weaker social anchoring of the parties in East Germany and in East Central Europe as a whole.

East Germans are less involved in political parties and civil society organizations than West Germans (Niedermayer 2020). In the above-mentioned cross-country representative opinion poll from 2017/2018, 18% of East Germans stated that they had done voluntary work in the past six months, while this proportion was 29% in West Germany, 22% in the Czech Republic and 15% in Poland (EVS 2020). Mainly as a result of the GDR’s atheistic orientation, the proportion of citizens who are religious or active in a church is lower in East Germany than in West Germany. Due to their leading roles in the political regime change, some church figures became influential public authorities.

  1. Economic Transformation

The basis of the economic transformation was the monetary, economic and social union agreed between the GDR and the FRG in 1990. It established private property rights to productive assets, free pricing and the free movement of labour, capital and services (Heydemann 2013, p. 114). From 1990 to 1994, the Treuhandanstalt privatized, reorganized and liquidated about 8,500 former state-owned enterprises with about four million employees.[6] In this process, over 40% of East German employees lost their job at least once by the mid-1990s (Mau 2020, p. 15). The insecurity and devaluation experienced subjectively in the socio-economic upheaval led to many East Germans developing skeptical or negative attitudes towards democracy and the market economy.

The social security systems of the GDR were integrated into West German social insurance. The conversion of wages, salaries and pensions to the West German currency DM at a ratio of 1:1 caused “an appreciation of 1 to 4 for the manufacturers of tradable goods” (Heydemann 2013, p. 113). While many East German companies lost their export markets and competitiveness as a result, East German pensioners were able to improve their standard of living.

Since the economic transformation, the level of economic development in East Germany has approached that of West Germany, although the catching-up process has slowed down over the years (Heydemann 2013, p. 120). In its 2020 report on the 30th anniversary of German unity, the federal government found that the per capita gross domestic product of the eastern German federal states reached 69% of the western German level in 2019 (Bundesregierung 2020, p. 87). Since 2010, the difference between eastern and western Germany has decreased by 3.1 percentage points (BMWi 2019, p. 20). In the earlier decades, however, the per capita GDP of the eastern German non-city states had fallen from 33 to 61% (1991–2000) and then from 61 to 67% (2001–2010) of the western German level.[7]

The unemployment rate in eastern Germany reached 18.7% in 2005, its highest level since the early 1990s and fell to 6.4% in 2019. During this period, the western German rate fell to a lesser extent – from 9.9 to 4.7%.[8] However, due to the corona pandemic, unemployment rose again in 2020. The development of the at-risk-of-poverty rate[9] also demonstrates convergence. This indicator fell in eastern Germany (including Berlin) from 19.5 (2009) to 17.9% (2019), while in western Germany it increased from 13.3 to 15.4%.[10]

In a European comparison, the gap between the eastern German states and the EU average has narrowed, but most of the other eastern central European states have converged faster. These different dynamics become visible when examining how GDP per capita in purchasing power standards has developed relative to the average of the 28 EU Member States. The eastern German federal states ranked here at 76-81% of the EU average in 2000 and reached 86-92% of the EU average in 2018. Saxony and Thuringia made the greatest progress during this period, each catching up by 12 percentage points. The Czech Republic, on the other hand, increased its economic performance level from 71% to 90% of the EU average in the same period.[11]

On the one hand, these trends can be interpreted as evidence that economic convergence is ongoing and that the East German regions have not become decoupled. Extensive transfers via the social security systems, the state financial equalization and various state funds to support East Germany helped to cope with the social costs of the radical economic transformation.

On the other hand, it can be argued that further convergence is by no means predetermined and that economic structural factors are counteracting it (Ragnitz 2011). According to the annual report, there is a lack of large medium-sized companies in the eastern German states with extensive in-house research and development activities (BMWi 2019). No well-known international corporation has its headquarters in East Germany, and the few industrial companies producing in East Germany are “more geared towards intermediate products with lower added value than West German [industry].” (BMWi 2019, p. 21) In 2019, 70% of the German Exports to the West German federal states and Berlin, while only seven percent were generated in the East German non-city states. The per capita export volume this year was almost EUR 13,000 in western Germany, but only around EUR 7,400 in eastern Germany.[12]

In addition, the emigration of young and well-educated East Germans limited the economic development prospects of East Germany. From 1990 to 2018, the population in East Germany (including Berlin) fell by 10.9% to 16.2 million inhabitants (BMWi 2019, p. 61). At the same time, the proportion of people over 65 in the East German non-city states increased from 13 .7 (1990) to 25.2% (2017), while 20.9% senior citizens lived in western Germany in 2017 (BMWi 2019, p. 63). In the political discussion, however, these developments are increasingly being addressed in connection with the growing disparities that have opened up between urban boom regions and rural or structurally weak regions as a result of globalization and digitization within East Germany and also in West Germany.

  1. European Integration and Outlook

With the accession to the Federal Republic of Germany, the East German states were also integrated into the European Communities (EC) by expanding the national territory of the EU member state Germany. On October 3, 1990, most of the EC law applicable in the Federal Republic of Germany came into force in East Germany. Transitional regulations and deadlines have been agreed for some sectors (including agriculture, fisheries, environmental protection) (Toepel and Weise 2000). The reunification of Germany contributed to the EC member states taking far-reaching steps to deepen European integration with the founding of the European Union in 1993 and the Economic and Monetary Union in 1999. The West German and French governments in particular wanted to use these reforms to prevent a power imbalance in Europe and anchor the larger Germany in stronger European institutions.

The EU treaty allowed Germany to subsidize East German business enterprises with state aid. In addition, the EU supported the economic development of eastern Germany via the European structural funds. From 1991 to 2020, the EU provided the East German federal states, including East Berlin, with a total of EUR 65 billion in subsidies from these funds (Toepel and Weise 2000, p. 186).[13] Compared to the other East Central European countries, East Germany received extensive aid from the EU as early as the 1990s, even if the EU funds were much smaller in volume than the transfers from West Germany.

Nevertheless, many East Germans are suspicious of the EU. In a representative opinion poll from 2017/2018, only 30% of East Germans said they would trust the EU (EVS 2020). In contrast, 44% of West Germans said they had confidence in the EU. In the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Croatia, these trust shares were as low as in East Germany, while in the other East Central European countries they reached or exceeded the West German level.

The low trust in the EU correlates with a greater skepticism towards state institutions, which is rooted in the experiences with the GDR regime and the transformation. Above all, however, it is the experiences since the regime change that have contributed to the formation of a new East German identity (Engler and Hensel 2018). The AfD presents itself as a representative of this identity and was able to double (Brandenburg, Thuringia) or even triple (Saxony) its share of the vote in the three East German state elections of 2019. The fact that the established parties in these elections were not able to benefit to a greater extent from the positive economic development in East Germany and the greatly reduced emigration speaks for the consolidation of an identitarian basis.

On the other hand, the division of East Germany into federal states means that an East German identity has no institutional equivalent and that East German interests are represented in different party-political constellations and socio-economic problems. In contrast to regional identities in West Germany, the historical-cultural identity resources in East Germany are less pronounced and more connected to individual states such as Saxony. These factors limit the mobilization potential of right-wing populist identity politics.


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[1] ARD Deutschlandtrend, Accessed: 21/8/2022.

[2] Accessed: 21/8/2022.

[3] Accessed: 21/8/2022.

[4] Accessed: 21/8/2022.

[5] Accessed: 21/8/2022.

[6] Accessed: 21/8/2022.

[7] Own calculations based on data from the Federal Statistical Office, Accessed: 21/8/2022.

[8] Accessed: 21/8/2022.

[9] The at-risk-of-poverty rate is the proportion of people whose equivalised income is less than 60% of the median equivalised income of the population (in private households). The equivalised income is a needs-adjusted per capita income per household member calculated on the basis of the net household income.

[10];jsessionid=3C73DE2D7D69131BB1C4C6EFB2861917.internet8721. Accessed: 21/8/2022.

[11] Accessed: 21/8/2022.

[12] Own calculations based on foreign trade statistics, Accessed: 21/8/2022.

[13] Accessed: 21/8/2022.

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المركز الديمقراطى العربى

المركز الديمقراطي العربي مؤسسة مستقلة تعمل فى اطار البحث العلمى والتحليلى فى القضايا الاستراتيجية والسياسية والاقتصادية، ويهدف بشكل اساسى الى دراسة القضايا العربية وانماط التفاعل بين الدول العربية حكومات وشعوبا ومنظمات غير حكومية.

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