Sibling Rivalry: How Rhizomic Power and Orientalism Figure into the Reunification of Germany

by Shaun Terry


The Berlin Wall’s fall marked a momentous occasion, full of joy—for none perhaps moreso than for East Germans. Quickly, Germany reunited in what was largely an occasion worth celebrating. However, the euphoria only lasted so long.

In this paper, I will consider how the reunification process affected East Germans and how that reunification seems to have followed a neo-colonialist pattern, having left East Germans worse-off materially than West Germans. I will draw on ideas from Deleuze and Guattari, as well as from Edward Said, to help to illustrate how this process might have occurred.


Germany, Reunification, Rhizome, Capitalism, Orientalism


While Germany has historically been culturally, ethnically, and nationally diverse, the resolution of World War II distinguished Germany’s Western and Eastern states, leading to the further differentiation of the two sides (Dalton and Weldon). As East Germany Sovietized, their reality grew quite different from that of people in West Germany, who quickly assimilated into a global capitalist model being propagated by other Western powers (Henke). Hamburg was established as a center for finance capital, and West German industry was highly productive, leading to high living standards in West Germany (Holtfrerich, Henke). East Germans were socialized such that state communism and the products and byproducts of state communism were endemic to East Germans’ daily lives (Henke). I recently heard a joke. It went, What would happen if the desert became a socialist country? Well, nothing for a while… and then, there would be a shortage of sand. East and West Germany grew to be very different places from each other: people’s expectations were different, their educations were different, their resource pools were different, and their attitudes were different (Dalton and Weldon).

When the Berlin Wall fell, many of these differences persisted; apparently, West Germany had little, if any, interest in taking on the policies or ethos of the state communist regime (Henke). The West Germans installed bureaucrats to Westernize East Berlin and the rest of East Germany (Kirschbaum).

Today, many differences between people in former East Germany and people in former West Germany persist. Income levels, demographic differences, and attitudes about the government differ significantly from one side to the other (Dalton and Weldon).

In this paper, I will look at how Cold War legacies have persisted in Germany and how the unification of Germany seems to have created problems of its own. More specifically, I will draw on ideas from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as well as from Edward Said, to show how the reunification of Germany was executed in a manner consistent with the interests of Western capitalistic interests. This follows a neo-colonialistic pattern by which opportunities to open markets and to serve the interests of existing capitalistic regimes have presented themselves and organizational infrastructures have been lain to further those interests.

Rhizomic Power

The political economy of East Germany seems to have taken on a pattern established elsewhere. In many parts of the world, whenever the potential for exploiting a new market has appeared, officials have swooped in to liberalize economies, providing economic freedom to the newly fortunate citizenry. We can examine a couple cases.

In Laura Ogden’s 2011 book, Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades, she highlights how power often operates by appropriating what might otherwise be assumed to be the resistance to power, itself. She draws on the work of Bruno Latour:

It is as if ecological fame making is a process that effaces all other landscape visions from our popular consciousness, turning the landscape into what Bruno Latour called a ‘smooth object.’ Smooth objects, Latour explained, are materialities containing clearly defined boundaries and essences, ‘matters of fact,’ belonging ‘without any possible question to the world of things, a world made up of persistent, stubborn, non-mental entities defined by strict laws of causality, efficacy, profitability, and truth.’ (118-9)

Ogden explains how people living in the Everglades were made into enemies of conservation efforts, while large agricultural businesses were given free rein to drain the Everglades swamp. In the end, this had the effect of moving blame from industry squarely onto residents of the Everglades.

For another example, and one closer to Germany’s backyard, we could think of Poland’s economic reforms, following the fall of the USSR. Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and advisor to the government during its transition from state communism, advocated for “shock therapy”: “to establish free and stable market prices by doing away with price controls, subsidies, cheap credits, vertical relationships, the monopoly power of state-owned enterprises, the obstacles to setting up private business, quota restrictions and high tariffs in foreign trade, and last but not least, by opening up the economy to foreign competition.” (Somogyi 8) This allowed for Western corporations to freely do business with Poland, surely providing Poland with some benefits, but also providing benefits to companies West of Poland. Overnight, Poland went from being a state communist country to taking on policies and institutions that would encourage a sense of (global) consumerism and allow for Western entities to take advantage of Poland’s natural and human resources.

Somogyi further describes what happened in Poland:

Starting on 1 January 1990, the Polish reform programme had most of the ingredients prescribed by Sachs…: prices were liberalised for 90 per cent of transactions; subsidies were reduced from 17 per cent of GNP in 1989 to 4 per cent in 1990; monetary policy became restrictive, average turnover taxes went up from 10 to 20 per cent, a uniform capital tax was introduced, and the state budget was balanced; wage increases in excess of the guidelines were heavily taxed; and, after a somewhat excessive devaluation and with the fixed exchange rate chosen as the nominal anchor, the currency was made convertible for current account transactions (for households a floating rate was applied). (8)

Sachs saw it completely necessary to take drastic measures in Poland. He recalls, in his 1993 book, Poland’s Jump to the Market Economy, “[B]y the end of 1990, more than 1,000 Polish state enterprises were voluntarily subjecting themselves to the popiwek by paying wages above the norm! In the socialist firm, after all, workers might as well maximize take-home pay, even at the cost of punitive taxes on the enterprise’s earnings.” (81) He further exposes the problem: “If privatization proceeds too slowly, there is risk that managers and workers within the enterprise might paralyze the privatization process at some point in the future. As time goes on, the managers and workers may come to view the enterprise simply as their own.” (82)

To help us understand how power might operate in these cases, we can look to an idea first conceived of by Gilles Deleuze and written about extensively in his 1972 book with Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. The idea is that of the rhizome: instead of power always functioning vertically, as in a root, it can operate horizontally, as in a rhizome, or even obliquely (Deleuze and Guattari 3-25). This means that, instead of operating intentionally and transparently from above, power can sometimes function in unexpected ways. Whereas arborescent logic might be that of working through algorithms to determine preferred actions, the rhizome responds to intensities, always adjusting to changing landscapes, not unlike a mathematically complex, adaptive system, and as opposed to something more rigid (Deleuze and Guattari 3-25).

In this case, we might think of the rhizome as sometimes appropriating obstacles in order to use them to achieve the rhizome’s greatest goals. In Ogden’s Everglades, the residents of the Everglades represented an obstacle to industry, as did conservation efforts. By defining Everglades residents as criminal hunters, trespassers, and dangerous to the preservation of the Everglades landscape, industry benefitted, especially as conservationists became occupied with seeing the Everglades hunters as antagonists (Ogden). In Poland, capitalist economics was able to infiltrate social institutions and ensure that benefits to Western industry were codified into law, privileging the wealth of Western businesspeople above the wants and needs of workers in Poland that Sachs seems to paint as naïve and/or lazy (Somogyi). The German case was not entirely different from these and similar cases. Power was expressed through the German unification process, ensuring that the desires of industrialists were addressed through the process.

Orientalism and German Reunification

Whereas in 1956, 65% of West Germans wanted reunification, thirty years later (and leading up to the fall of the USSR), only 25% of West Germans wanted it. (Henke 6) West Germany had been the recipient of significant Marshall Plan assistance, and had flourished under global capitalism (Provan). On the other side of the Iron Curtain, East Germany’s economy was doing relatively poorly (Henke).

When Günter Schabowski, member of the East German government, announced that East Germans could legally pass over to West Germany, they did so in great numbers. However, this did not mean that the East Germans were completely satisfied after German unification.

[M]any East Germans felt that the new system had been imposed on them. To them, it was as if they had to tolerate rather than actively shape the unification. Some critics and a number of East Germans even primarily blamed those politicians who had steered the transformations after 1990 for the problems of the unifications process, instead of accusing those who had plunged East Germany into ruin before 1990. (Henke 8)

This can be compared to aid recipients’ familiar refrain by which aid organizations do not sufficiently involve local authorities in the plans. As Stacy Leigh Pigg puts it, in her 1992 paper, “Inventing Social Categories Through Place: Social Representations and Development in Nepal,” “As long as development aims to transform people’s thinking, the villager must be someone who does not understand. …Hence the village becomes a space of backwardness—a physical space that imprisons people in what is considered an inferior and outmoded way of life.” (507)

In his 1978 book, Orientalism, Edward Said describes the process by which, for the sake of justifying Western aggression, people in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Major are othered by those in the West. By painting people as primitive or otherwise less-than, aggressive maneuvers to properly civilize those people can be justified. Said elucidates the dynamic:

[W]hen Orientals struggle against colonial occupation, you must say …that Orientals have never understood the meaning of self-government the way “we” do. When some Orientals oppose racial discrimination while others practice it, you say “they’re all Orientals at the bottom” and class interest, political circumstances, economic factors are totally irrelevant. (107)

It may seem counter-intuitive to think that West Germans might have painted East Germans as somehow less than West Germans, but in a recent interview, former Brandenburg, Germany mayor Matthias Platzeck indicated that he found the West Germans to have treated the East Germans disrespectfully. When describing the attitudes of the negotiators of the unification process, he claimed, “The rule was: what’s from the west is good what’s from the east is bad.” (Kirschbaum)

While all the ways by which West German benefitted from German reunification might be unknown, some of the ways by which some of them benefitted seem clear, as well as how East Germans lost. Henke illustrates some of the process by which this “shock therapy” took place:

Founded in 1990, the ‘Treuhandanstalt,’ as the privatization agency was called, became the central authority restructuring East German economy. Functioning as a state-holding, its task was to either close down, secure, or as in most cases, privatize more than 13,000 East German companies consisting of about 45,000 production sites and four million employees. This enormous conversion task, involving all kinds of alleged or actual scandals, was completed within only a few years. Yet, the outcome was quite different than expected: the initially assumed disposable proceeds of the ‘Treuhand’ of 600 billion DM [Deutsche Marks] faced a final balance of minus 140 billion DM. Even more: 84 percent of the overall purchases of the 35,000 contracts were raised by West German investors whilst only 3 percent were made by East German investors. (14-5)

In essence, the German unification process was arranged so that East German companies would come under capitalism or be dissolved, it was funded by German tax dollars (to the point that the scheme went into debt), and West Germans were the ones who invested in the process and ended with the ownership of the German companies. In another recent interview, Matthias Platzeck invoked the brutality of the Anschluss in order to describe what he experienced in East Germany: “We didn’t want an accession; we wanted a cooperation of equals with a new constitution and a new anthem. We wanted symbols of a real, collective new beginning. But others got their way.” (“Was East Germany Really ‘Annexed?’”) Put simply, it seems that reunification was negotiated as a one-sided affair and one that benefitted West Germany at East Germany’s expense.

Present-day Differences Between East and West Germany

The fall of the Berlin Wall marks a point of arrival for a great number of people, along with all that they introduce to West Germany, to a renewed nation-state. But, it also marks a point of departure for many of the trends in East and West Germany at that time. When the Berlin Wall fell, huge numbers of people left East Germany to escape to “democracy” and “freedom.” However, one of the interesting outcomes of the reunification has been the persistence of the population shifts in East and West Germany. While it is the case that West Germany made concessions in order to try to ensure the successful reunification, people still move to West Germany in higher numbers than to East Germany (Henke, Hennig). To confound the issue, birthrates in West Germany are higher and the number of foreigners relocating to West Germany is higher, too (Sobotka, Noack).

Economic differences remain, as well. West Germans have remained wealthier than East Germans and have enjoyed lower rates of unemployment than in East Germany (Noack). On top of that, workers are more likely to die on the job in East Germany than in West Germany (McLeod, et al.). If reunification had been intended to have helped East Germans as much as it has helped West Germans, this persistent discrepancy might not have been so pronounced for so long. In Russell Dalton’s and Steven Weldon’s 2010 paper, titled, “Germans Divided? Political Culture in a United Germany,” they observe: “As most observers would acknowledge, there remains an economic and policy performance gap between West and East—and this influences public opinion. In other words, the dissatisfaction with the workings of the political process has a basis in political reality.” (16)

Along with the years of socialization that occurred during the formal division, the economic differences have played a role in differing ideas on things like the unification, itself, government’s role, religion, and the role of the family. Dalton’s and Weldon’s research shows that East Germans view Germany as less democratic than do West Germans, see themselves as not having gotten less of their fair share than do West Germans, support socialism in greater proportions than do West Germans, and are more supportive of the idea that government should be responsible for giving citizens more support. (18-20)

One reason why these differences might have persisted could lie in the meritocratic notion that “people get what they deserve” that often seems endemic to capitalism. If West Germans felt that East Germans simply did not deserve material equality to West Germans, then there might be no cause for alarm for West Germans. Some of them might justify differences in people’s material outcomes, as West Germans agreed with the following idea to a greater degree than did East Germans: “such differences ‘are acceptable because they basically reflect what people made out of the opportunities they had.”’ (Dalton and Weldon 20) However, regardless of the problems that might normally come with this kind of meritocratic justification for differences in people’s conditions, it seems that the differences in outcomes for East Germans help to explain why they held different views from West Germans. Dalton and Weldon put it like this, “As most observers would acknowledge, there remains an economic and policy performance gap between West and East—and this influences public opinion. In other words, the dissatisfaction with the workings of the political process has a basis in political reality.” (16)


Germany’s reunification served to benefit a great number of people—perhaps, it even benefitted the vast majority of Germans on either side. However, it seems that there were clear reasons for West Germans who held power to have administered the reunification process in a way that failed to take East German concerns into account. East Germany provided an opportunity. There were valuable resources in the East, and there was no one saying that those resources could not be the property of people from the West. The proposed appropriation of resources presented a challenge, though: how was anyone to be convinced that East German practices and East German voices should be ignored? Maybe it was not that difficult. In fact, West Germany held so much of what East Germans wanted, so in terms of how to do things right, surely the West Germans must have had many of the answers. Instead, some West Germans seem to have held a view of East Germans such that they were able to take over East German institutions and operate in the East in self-benefitting ways. As things stand, East Germans have yet to have fully become equals to the West Germans.


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