30 years on from the start of re-unification, new research on the views of young Germans shows how far the nation has come together.

‘I can remember – standing by the Wall’

Germany has just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The heady days of autumn 1989 were marked by mass crossings of the old Iron Curtain border, euphoric hopes for the future and followed – somewhat surprisingly – by an iconic celebratory concert by David Hasselhoff. In the three decades since, many of the wilder predictions about the ‘End of History’ have proved over-optimistic. Yet Germany, and Europe around it, have indeed been completely transformed.  

The heady days of autumn 1989 were marked by mass crossings of the old Iron Curtain border, euphoric hopes for the future and followed – somewhat surprisingly – by an iconic celebratory concert by David Hasselhoff.

That moment marked the end of an era which had seen unprecedented conflict in Europe, followed by decades of Cold War rivalry between the superpowers, and with a fortified border which ran right through the heart of Germany and Berlin. Apart from rival information (Radio Berlin International and Soviet propaganda broadcast from loudspeakers in one direction, BBC World Service, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe broadcast in the other) and diplomatic and cultural missions (organisations like the British Council worked in many parts of Eastern Europe to keep cultural contact and exchange alive, even as the political climate was extremely hostile), Germany was divided into two completely separate political and cultural spheres.  

As well as being politically isolated, people in East Germany had little or no access to much that was taken for granted in the west, from the latest David Bowie pop songs and Levi jeans to all the same high art and literature as their counterparts in the West (at one point in one of the more surreal attempts at cultural relations, copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm were even floated across the border by balloon to evade Communist censorship).  

When the Wall came down, many feared that the scars of such long cultural separation would not easily heal. Yet since the end of the Cold War a new generation has now grown up across a re-unified Germany. 30 years on from the fall of the Wall, reunification is a memory rather than a lived experience for the majority of young people. They have grown up in what has become a prosperous, reunified country that has positioned itself at the heart of Europe, with global political clout across the European Union and beyond. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who at the time of research was planning her resignation by 2021 after 15 years at the helm, has been a shaping force for much of their lives.

To find out more about what this rising generation thinks, the British Council surveyed over 2000 young people aged 18-30 years old from across the country as part of its Next Generation research series. They were asked to share their hopes, fears and reflections on life in Germany and its role in the world today. The results reveal a fascinating snap-shot of the country and its likely future direction.  

The German Way

The research shows a general contentment amongst young people with their individual daily lives, balanced by some overarching shared concerns and uncertainty about what the future holds for themselves, for their peers, and for Germany. Interestingly, it reveals a fairly consistent pattern across the old borders.  

Consistently referencing the desire for a ‘good life’, young people in Germany strongly defined this in relation to their social relationships and to economic security. Individual finances featured heavily as something that contributed to personal success and happiness. 58% of young people emphasised the importance of financial security and its ability to support a healthy work-life balance.

Yet financial concerns and, in particular, housing insecurity are real issues for young Germans. While over 40% saw this as a current concern for young Germans like themselves, over 70% believed it will be a challenge in the future. Interestingly, however, when looking at concerns for the future, there was a general perception that their own lives would continue to improve, with the main concern being for others. What is acknowledged throughout the report is a possible case of ‘optimism bias’, where problems are felt to be more likely to affect others as opposed to themselves.

The ‘German way’ of reliable, high quality engineering was shown to be a source of pride for young Germans, although there were also concerns by many who worry about it becoming slowly outdated, and this impacting on Germany’s ability to stay competitive in a global economy increasingly dominated by rising industrial powers and giant global companies.

Education was seen as an important area in which some of these likely future challenges could be alleviated.To better prepare young people for working life, provide better financial stability, and allow Germany as a whole to stay relevant and competitive in the global economy, many were in favour of an inclusion of technological skills, entrepreneurial thinking, and the incorporation of digital in teaching methods. Additionally, with financial insecurity being the main concern for the majority of young people, and in line with traditional German concern for financial prudence, guidance in schools on how to deal responsibly with money was widely called for. 

The Question of Germany

In general, across the whole of Germany the results revealed a strong sense of pride in German education, society and government, the quality and durability of German products, and cultural strengths of punctuality and stability. Yet they also revealed that these sources of Germanic pride are not necessarily translating into strong sentiments towards the German nation itself. 

There was hesitation in emphasising national pride, with most respondents more likely to identify locally and regionally rather than nationally. Many respondents discussed this in relation to wanting to disassociate themselves from the historical memories of German pride in national identity, potentially tainted by Germany’s difficult 20th Century history, and potentially divisive nationalistic attitudes.

The historical memory of World War II was seen to loom large in the consciousness of young people in Germany. 42% of young people had an acute awareness of the country still being linked to Nazism and World War II, with respondents acknowledging this in particular as an issue when Germany is seen to lead on the global stage. 

There was evidence of significant concern about inward migration, particularly from outside the EU, after Germany welcomed large numbers of Syrian refugees in 2015. Over half of respondents thought these numbers should be reduced. Whilst we see similar concerns across Europe today, what was interesting from this report was that many young people see this as the responsibility of Germany, rather of those arriving in Germany, to lead on integration efforts. A failure to do so is concerning to many young Germans, who see this as a reason for increasing tensions, increased perceptions and experiences of violence, and racist language – all of which many young people see as being normalised by the media and political parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).  

The findings from the research highlighted a general consistency between the former west and east of the country

Perhaps most interestingly given the 30th anniversary, the findings from the research highlighted a general consistency between the former west and east of the country, as well as across the protestant north and catholic south. Given the historic depth and consistency of regional divides in Germany (see, for example, ‘The Shortest History of Germany’, James Hawes 2017), this is particularly striking. Whilst those in East Germany were slightly more likely to highlight financial insecurity as a current challenge (66% in East Germany versus 58% in West Germany), and were slightly less proud of Germany (39%)  than their West-Germany counterparts (45%), most of the results were consistent across the former divide. That divide, as far as the next generation of young Germans is concerned, appears to be fading into a history that – at least in this case – is seen as firmly in the past.