Youths wait in line for disco tickets in Chemnitz in the early 1980s.
Photo: imago/HärtelPRESS

BerlinThe reunification of Germany resulted in a demographic collapse in the East German states, the effects of which are still felt today. Very little is known about the scope of this problem and it has hardly been recognised by the political class and society as a whole. In the 1990s, male mortality in the “new states” was around three times higher than in western Germany and the birth rate shrank to less than half although the birthrate in East Germany had been significantly higher than in West Germany.

Roughly every second working person became unemployed. Despite having qualifications, workers were unable to gain a foothold in their chosen profession. The dismantling of industry, depopulation and the disappearance of social structures, the invalidation of East German origins and qualifications, unemployment, redundancy and poverty became new factors that influenced illness, mortality and substance abuse.

Furthermore, it became more rare to record drug use, suicide and mortality data separately for east and west. The result was that a cultural conflict caused by unification was not only made taboo, it continued for generations.

Directly following “reunification”, the new eastern states didn’t have a problem with illegal drug addiction. The epidemiologist Renate Kirschner and the psychologist Dieter Kleiber determined with a study performed between 1990 and 1994 that “illegal drug use and experience with illegal drugs were rare in East Germany until the fall of the Wall due to a lack of availability. The virtually impermeable borders and the lack of a convertible currency prevented a market for cannabis products or opiates from developing. Surveys regularly conducted by East Germany’s Central Institute for Research on Youth (Zentralintsitut für Jugendforschung) found no indication of illegal drug use.”

Cigarettes and alcohol

However, East Germans consumed a lot of alcohol and nicotine. According to research by historian Thomas Kochan, an estimated “five per cent of all adults in the GDR were alcoholics” – four times as many as in West Germany at the same point in time.

While  alcohol consumption led to people to become addicts in East Germany, more people got hooked on banned substances in West Germany: “In the 1970s and 1980s, the problem of drug abuse became ever more serious in the Federal Republic of Germany. With an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 drug addicts, the crime rate rose. By the early 1980s there were more addicts in prison than in rehab therapy.” It's a kind of prosperity that was unknown in the east, confirms the cultural and social anthropologist Axel Timmermann.

Kirschner and Kleiber found in their study that despite the upheaval connected to German reunification, the consumption of illegal drugs in the eastern states didn’t rise significantly between 1990 and 1993. “Based on the available data, the breakdown of social relations in eastern Germany after reunification and the resulting destabilisation of social, economic and, to some degree, family structures in particular population groups, did not lead to a dramatic increase in illegal drug use.”

When compared to 60 other cities in 2017, it was found that Chemnitz had the highest concentration of methamphetamine in the wastewater.

European Monitoring Centre

The situation is fundamentally different 20 years later. From the 2000s on, Chemnitz developed into Europe’s crystal meth capital. A study carried out by the “European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction” examined people’s drug use through the analysis of wastewater. When compared to 60 other cities in 2017, it was found that Chemnitz had the highest concentration of methamphetamine in its wastewater.

On the one hand, this finding is incompatible with previous official reports on drug use, but on the other hand, it belies a drastic social transformation following the neoliberal “reforms” that came after 1990. In Chemnitz, the scale of the destruction of what was once East Germany's largest industrial region through the liquidation policy of the Treuhand (the agency charged with privatising East German industry) is particularly great. The systematic anihilation of jobs resulted in mass unemployment. Tens of thousands looked for work in other regions. Many of those who stayed behind were employed in “mini-jobs” (paying no more than €450 per month) and part-time work.

Over a very short time these dynamics triggered drastic changes such as a shift in urban structures, depopulation, a collapse in the birth rate, social decline, a surge in deaths, and, in particular, an increase in male mortality. And substance abuse. Like many other cities and industrial sites in the GDR, Chemnitz mutated from a strong industrial centre into a city of services and tourism, in which long-term unemployment and redundancy became the default state.

The 2019 drug and addiction report produced by the German government’s drug commissioner fails to address the acute drug problem in the east nor does it provide separate findings for eastern and western Germany. Meanwhile, demographic surveys don’t conduct separate studies, even though segments of society are drifting apart in terms of their social behaviour. It's popular to talk about the convergence of the two parts of German society, but this is not confirmed by the data. The result is that the acute problems of the cultural conflict caused by unification are glazed over, still to this day.

Studies on traumatic illnesses show higher susceptibility to stress and a higher mortality rate in the eastern states.

Yana Milev

What remains unexplained by this approach is the rapid growth in illegal drug use in the eastern German states. The problem of addiction must be recognised as the result of the policies of destruction and assimilation that came with unification of east and west. Studies on traumatic illnesses show higher susceptibility to stress and a higher mortality rate in the eastern states. Especially affected are those eastern Germans socialised in East Germany who were born between 1955 and 1975, especially men of working age.

Precarious jobs have particularly been confirmed to have lead to a high degree of frustration because the hours are often longer, pay is often below union rates, meaning less money, especially compared to workers in the west. The frustration builds even more when the precarious workers of the east realise that people living on welfare have greater security and more money than they do. The frustration rises even more when precarious workers realise that not only have they been demoted to second-class citizens because they have no possibility for advancement, but because, despite having qualifications, they have to pursue precarious jobs that don’t guarantee a livelihood, let alone security in old age.

On top of that, the new citizens, by opposition to people in other former Eastern Bloc countries, were prevented from accumulating weath in the 1990s, meaning that the downward drift into poverty became irreversible for the majority of people born between 1945 and 1975. With the Hartz welfare laws, they were in effect forced to compete with the impoverished segment of society in the west.

The public silence about the situation exacerbated the social crisis - which gets obscured by newer cultural and immigration-related conflicts. The fact that people born between 1945 and 1975 and socialised in East Germany face structural discrimination and a kind of day-to-day racism, has caused many to become embittered. The Berlin neurologist, psychiatrist and psychotherapist Christoph Seidler calls this process “retroactive ethnisation.”

The social downgrading of East Germans to second-class citizens in the united Germany in the 1990s lead to their ethnisation as a minority

Yana Milev

Significantly, a federally financed research project by the migration sociologist Naika Foroutan popularised the notion that East Germans socialised in East Germany showed migrant-typical behaviour. In short, they were migrants. The social downgrading of East Germans to second-class citizens in the united Germany in the 1990s lead to their “ethnisation” as a minority and, finally, they were “migrantised”, in other words, given a status comparable to Muslim immigrants, for example. Such social strategies only help entrench a cultural conflict that has been ongoing since 1990 in the eastern part of the country.

Death by despair

Since around 2017, “East German migrants” have been the focus of new discourse and media attention, though this made neither a significant contribution to the societal appreciation of East German origins and qualifications, nor increased public awareness of the collective trauma suffered in the “new states” - with all negative health consequences that were triggered by German unification.

The European Drug Report 2019 reveals the patchy research on the consumption, epidemiology and toxicology of psychoactive substances (illegal and synthetic drugs, alcohol, medications) on the national level. Furthermore, the research on substance use in the eastern states since 1990 is utterly simplistic and insufficient. To this day, surveys and studies are performed on the German population as a whole, even though representative sampling suggests that the traumatisation connected to reunification points to a rapid growth of drug use as well as biological and psychosocial risk factors in eastern Germany.

Here, no effort was made to research drug use among youths and children, the “transition kids”. The non-existent addiction research in the wast makes it hard to identify causes for a mortality rate among working-age men that’s twice as high as the rate for men in the west. Although, according to the statistics company Statista, the eastern states of Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony and Thuringia recorded the country’s highest suicide rates in 2018, with 13.7 suicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The failure to perform an epidemiological study on addiction in the east prevents sociological research on the causes of hidden suicides. To this day, heart attacks, poisoning or falls (accidents) were given as the cause of death, neglecting any discussion by politicians and in society on the possible effects of reunification that could have led to “death by despair”.

Yana Milev

Yana Milev was born in Leipzig in 1964 and is a qualified lecturer for sociology at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. In 2017 she founded the company Agio – Gesellschaftsanalyse + Politische Bildung. She is the initiator and director of the research project Decoupled Society. Liberalisation and Resistance in East Germany since 1989/90. A sociological laboratory. Her books Anschluss‘ (2019), Umbau (2020) and Tatbestände (2019) were co-authored with Franz Schultheis. Her latest work, Das Treuhand-Trauma. Die Spätfolgen der Übernahme (2020), was published by Das Neue Berlin.

Foto: Ostkreuz/Sebastian Wells

Illness resulting from trauma and permanently heightened social pressures led to increased vulnerability to stress and illness, but also social aggression and cultural conflicts. Neither the political class nor society as a whole nor health administrators have made a serious effort to solve these perpetuated problems in the eastern states.

If one thinks of the rightwing hash tag campaigns in Chemnitz in 2018, it become clear how much our democracy is failing to meet social needs. Chemnitz is an excellent example of systematic social decline as well as for the rise of drug abuse, illness and mortality. It is of the utmost urgency that we look at the former east - “East Germany” - the same way we look at the new Eastern European members of the European Union, in order to prevent the further stigmatisation of any discussion about the failed policies following the reunification of Germany.


This text is an excerpt from Yana Milev’s book Exil, a work in progress and the third monograph in the series “Decoupled Society”.