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Exploring the East German Homeland

The Summer Special 2019 focuses on 'Living together': We introduce and interview researchers and try to get very different perspectives, e.g. from sociology, ethnology, economics and natural science.In Episode 2 we talked to Steffen Mau und visited his former city Rostock and did research about the East German mentality.

Steffen Mau
Prof. Dr. Steffen Mau bei einem Interviewtermin. Foto: Martin Ibold

Lütten Klein, the new book by sociologist Steffen Mau, was published by Suhrkamp Verlag in August. The title refers to the housing estate district of the same name in Rostock, where Mau grew up. The book employs a sociological perspective to analyse the changes and continuities of Mau’s home district as well as those of East Germany as a whole – from the 1970s to the present. Professor Steffen Mau is Chair of Macrosociology at Humboldt-Universität.

Professor Mau, what is Lütten Klein about?

My book is about the transformation of the GDR and East German society from the early 1970s up to the present. I explore the composition of East German society then and now, the upheavals it experienced and the conflicts and centrifugal forces it faced. In doing so I combine two perspectives: on the one hand, looking at social-structural changes, that is, questions of social stratification, social mobility and demography and, on the other hand, the perspective of the mental bearings and also the cultural baggage of this society.

How did you research the book?

That is somewhat unusual. I brought together the small mosaic stones of existing research with my own findings and insights and tried at the same time to make the book vivid and colourful. The book is called Lütten Klein – the title is taken from the district where I grew up and spent almost 20 years of my life. It is a large housing estate district in Rostock, at the time with almost 40,000 residents. I went there and talked to people who had lived there the entire time, but also to people who had recently moved there and to those who had moved away. Here’s what I wanted to find out: What was particular about life in the GDR and specifically in this residential area? How has it changed? What are the living conditions there today? And then I continually related these questions to the changes in East Germany overall.

On the one hand, a look at your own past, on the other, the distanced perspective of a sociologist. What did you notice?

For me there was always this double experience in the sense that much about the place and about life there was very familiar ­– and yet, of course, things have changed greatly and become less familiar. These housing estate districts have a turbulent history. They were supposed to establish new socialist ways of life with very substantial social-structural mixing and, at the same time, a kind of uniformity. In the 1990s the social status of these districts declined significantly. Nevertheless, many people continued to live there and also identified with the estates. Today these are the successful older people, the “ordinary citizens”, but also many people who live from welfare benefits as well as a smaller group of immigrants and refugees. It was exciting to hear the residents there tell their life stories – including the biographical ruptures of the 1990s, the changes in self-image and in the overall social environment. We see that today Klein Lütten is a place where a kind of normality prevails and that people don’t simply slip into a downward spiral. But we also see that many people had to fight for over 15 or 20 years to be able to feel the ground under their feet again and establish themselves socially. In the lifetime balances, there is a surprising mixture of satisfaction and disappointment, participation and distance.

The cover text states that the social divisions palpable today had their origins in the GDR. What does that mean?

I use the concept of social fractures to bundle together my observations about East German society. The term describes the ruptures or breaks that will probably continue to obstruct social adaptability and dynamics for a long time. We see this in the exodus – before for the fall of the Wall via departure movements, but also afterwards as a result of problems with finding employment and the powerful migration to the West. Many of the older people in Klein Lütten have children or grandchildren who now live in Hamburg and Stuttgart. However, we also see that the GDR was at the end a mobility-blocked society that offered younger cohorts little opportunity for advancement. The GDR was probably one of the few industrialized countries that reduced access to university education over time – so that at the end of the 1980s only half as many people in the GDR per year went to college as in the Federal Republic of Germany. We might imagine that when the Wall falls this mobility blockade disappears because people can now work and study where they choose, because more opportunities exist. Now everyone will rush off to get better positions. However, the opposite actually happened – especially for East German men. Many were not able to retain their position ­– and were also unable to attain the position of their parents’ generation. The system change did not trigger an upwards trend, but instead massive social decline. Thus, from this longer temporal perspective that I investigated, we can say that East Germany formed the “substratum” of West Germany and still does today.

Have your analyses given you any insight into how these fractures could be healed?

That is very difficult because they are of a social-structural nature. We have to consider how the demographic situation and the unequal distribution of resources and social positions could be addressed – for example, through more support for East Germans who want to become part of the social elite. The bond between the general population and people in leading social positions is very tenuous. There is also little engagement in politics or civil society in the East. These are all long-term consequences of the unification process, which focused very clearly on economics, and moreover was accompanied by a powerful predominance of West German actors, with too little demanded of East Germans and too little support for them as well. The idea that privatization and marketization would fix things was simply naïve.

To whom is your book addressed?

I have tried to employ my sociological instruments, findings and knowledge in such a way that they are accessible to a broader reading public, without compromising any of my arguments or theses. We also found beautiful and informative photos for the entire period and used them in the book. I believe that we are still lacking an extensive and critical analysis of the GDR and East German society, including reunification. The discussions that we have frequently circle around questions of recognition and the demand that we have to listen to each other. To this I would oppose that the social fractures go much deeper and are of a structural nature. This is also why they are so incredibly difficult to deal with and to dismantle.

Interview: Inga Dreyer. 

Summer Special: Living Together

Episode 1 with Cultural Anthropologist Silvy Chakkalakal

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