BERLIN — German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned Tuesday that although the Berlin Wall came down nearly three decades ago, new walls had emerged in the country “between poor and rich, city and countryside, offline and online.”
Steinmeier was speaking in the southwestern city of Mainz, where he and Chancellor Angela Merkel were celebrating the anniversary of Germany’s reunification 27 years ago.
“New walls have emerged, less visible, without barbed wires and death strips,” he said.
The usually joyous anniversary celebrations have been overshadowed by a strong showing by the nationalist, anti-migrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party in last month’s general election.
The AfD did especially well in rural stretches of eastern Germany, prompting soul-searching in the country as to why so many people there voted for the party.
AfD won 12.6 percent of the vote overall, but captured 22.5 percent in the east. Its success followed a campaign focused on criticism of the chancellor’s decision to open the country’s doors to more than 1 million asylum-seekers over the past two years.
Many East Germans say they feel left behind and that living conditions didn’t improve as much as they’d expected after the unification. At the same time, anti-migrant sentiment is much higher in eastern Germany, even though the actual number of foreigners living in the east is much lower than in the western part of the country.
A survey by the Forsa polling agency conducted in September suggested some 55 percent of easterners don’t feel the two parts of Germany have grown together, compared to 45 percent in the west who felt that way. More than 1,000 people responded to the survey by phone.
Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, voiced her gratitude at what the country has achieved since its reunification, but also said the unified Germany must deal with problems that have arisen since then.
“We can look back and say: much about the German unity has worked out well and that should give us the strength to solve the remaining problems,” Merkel said in Mainz.
Among the lingering problems in the east are a weaker economy, higher unemployment and a decrease in population because many young people leave the east for better opportunities in the west.
Germany was divided into a capitalist west and communist east after World War II. The country was re-unified on Oct. 3, 1990, less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989.