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After 30 Years, East and West Germans Wonder: How United Are We?

BERLIN — Robert Hellmundt was born in East Germany in 1989, the year that the Berlin Wall fell. Some two decades later, he decided to quit the East after graduating from university, like so many of his generation looking for brighter futures, and move to the capital of a reunified Germany.

But after only three years in Berlin, he moved back to his home state of Thuringia, convinced that it was the best place in Germany for him and his business partner to base their start-up, which offers products aimed at improving hand-sanitizing practices.

“We realized that it was much more advantageous in Thuringia,” Mr. Hellmundt said.

As Germany commemorates three decades as a united country, most people on both sides of the former border consider the reunification project a success. Living standards have risen. The mass exodus from East to West has been halted and even reversed. Chancellor Angela Merkel, an easterner who embodies the values of Western liberal democracy, has led the country for half of its existence.

But while few people call unity itself into question, surveys show that a clear majority living in the East believe the process remains unfinished. Many question whether the expenditure of 1.6 trillion euros, almost $1.9 trillion, to try to raise living standards in the East to those of the West has been worthwhile. Economic growth in the East still lags that of the West, and many easterners are expressing their discontent by supporting the anti-immigrant, far-right Alternative for Germany party.

The German government acknowledges that there is still work to be done.

“The historically unique challenge of bringing together two long separated parts of a country, was tackled through many projects and measures,” the government said this year in its annual progress report on the state of reunification. “Not all of them proved to be successful and sustainable.”

It added: “There was no overall ‘master plan’ for this.”

We looked at some of those projects and measures, what they have achieved, and what still needs to be done.

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Credit…Michael Probst/Associated Press

The start-up founded by Mr. Hellmundt and his partner in the eastern city of Jena received more than 300,000 euros, or $350,000, in public financial incentives, part of an effort to help strengthen the economy in the East by attracting young companies.

After reunification, the East lost a generation of young people fleeing soaring unemployment to seek jobs and a future in the West after 94 percent of state-owned companies in the region were sold or shuttered. Since then, living standards have gradually been catching up with the West, but differences remain.

A full-time employee in the states of the former East Germany, where economic output lags the West by 70 percent, earns 15 percent less on average for the same job as a Western counterpart, according to government figures. None of Germany’s publicly traded companies have their headquarters in the East, and the region trails in investment in research, development, machines and factories.

The population drain stopped in 2013 and has recently begun to show signs of reversing. But the region lost 1.3 million people in the first decades after reunification, a shortfall that will take years to recover from — if ever. Young families remain scarce, meaning there are fewer people paying taxes or having children.

Compounding the problem is a widespread hostility to foreigners in the former East, making it less attractive to asylum-seekers, but also other immigrants looking for work who may have skills that are in demand.

Only 8.2 percent of the people living in the former East are minorities, or have an immigrant background, government figures show. In recent years, there has been a spate of racist attacks, like an assault on a synagogue and kebab shop in Halle last year, and anti-immigrant riots in Chemnitz in 2018.

“Demographic development is the Achilles’ heel of East Germany,” said Klaus-Heiner Röhl, an economist with the German Economic Institute.

To attract more people to the region, the federal government has created thousands of public-service jobs, and is offering incentives to lure entrepreneurs and start-ups like Heyfair, Mr. Hellmundt’s company.

“Because of the lower cost of living, we could hire equally qualified employees at lower salaries there than in Berlin or Munich,” Mr. Hellmundt said. “And be part of a growing scene.”

Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

The biggest disruption to the political landscape since reunification has been the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which has its power base in the former East.

Alternative for Germany is the second-largest party in several eastern states, and in both Saxony and Thuringia it is the most popular among voters under 30.

Six in 10 Germans overall see reunification as a success, according to a YouGov survey of 2,034 people. But more than eight in 10 people in the former East Germany consider reunification incomplete, and one in three see it as a failure.

While Germany as a whole has seen a rise of far-right extremism and activity, the popularity of Alternative for Germany among voters in the East has helped to shift society there as a whole to the right.

It was in the East that the party first won seats in regional legislatures in 2014, and it went on to receive 13 percent of the vote in the 2017 general election, propelled by Eastern voters to become the largest opposition party in Parliament.

Those East Germans who do not view reunification as a success reflect the bitterness that remains three decades after the project came into being on Oct. 3, 1990. Many of them look back with nostalgia at what was lost — state protections like guaranteed jobs and free child care — when their freedom was gained.

Credit…Martin Meissner/Associated Press

While some who lived in the former East Germany now lament what has been lost to reunification, one area where the norms of the East persisted — and traveled West — is in the role of women in society.

East Germany granted women the right to work and equal pay in 1949, and later introduced benefits like a paid year of maternity leave and full-time state-funded child care. But those were ended after West German norms were adopted following reunification.

By contrast, women in the former West Germany have struggled to break from traditional gender roles, with men working and women staying home to care for the family. In the East, 74 percent of women work, compared with 68 percent in the West.

But a recent study by researchers from University College London and Queen Mary University of London found that as women from the East moved west to find jobs, they brought with them the values of the more egalitarian culture into which they were born. The finding reflects a shift in western German society, making it more socially acceptable for women to balance a family with a career.

“We looked at East German women working at firms in the West, and found that they still behaved pretty much like East Germans, despite their environment,” said Anna Raute, an assistant professor at Queen Mary.

Since Ms. Merkel took office in 2005, Germany has made considerable investments in shared parental leave and child care, creating new norms to be shared by the generation growing up in a united Germany.

Just on Thursday, her party announced that it would earmark 500 million euros to expand after-hours care for elementary schoolchildren.

“German reunification, and the peaceful revolution that led to it, is one of the strongest symbols of peace, rationality and reconciliation in the history of the world,” said Mr. Hellmundt, the entrepreneur who moved back to the East. “You would really have to bend reality to not view it as a success.”