Ossis: not really an ethnic group

Twenty years after reunification, problems remain

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On Oct. 3, 1990, Germany celebrated its official reunification; after the emotional destruction of the Berlin Wall, East and West came together as one, blending economies, societies and cultures. But nearly two decades later, differences linger. In a labour court in Stuttgart last week, a judge ruled on a case that cuts to the very core of subtle hostilities that continue to divide the country.

The case, which German media watched closely, concerned Gabriela S., a 48-year-old bookkeeper born in the former East Germany. Arguing that her background made her part of a distinct ethnic group, she claimed that a window manufacturing company’s rejection of her 2009 job application constituted illegal discrimination. For its part, the company, which had scrawled “Ossi”—a sometimes insulting term for East Germans—along with a minus sign on her resumé, denied any ill intent. Insisting that “Ossi” was meant in a positive manner, they said the minus sign referred to her credentials, which were inadequate. But the woman, who has lived in Stuttgart since 1988, remained unconvinced, telling Der Spiegel, “What else can it mean? Even the word ‘Ossi’ is not acceptable in this context.”

On that point, the court echoed her concerns, ruling that “Ossi” does have negative connotations. Ultimately, however, the judge rejected her claim, reasoning that East Germans, identified by their regional origin, aren’t a tribe-like group, and as such, are not covered by the General Equal Treatment Act. Some praised the decision for acknowledging the differences of those who lived in the former German Democratic Republic, but others said it failed to address the discrimination to which former East Germans are still subjected.

Either way, it’s clear that tensions remain. Just last year, a poll showed that 57 per cent of eastern Germans defend the former Communist state. Reunification, no matter how celebrated, can’t change history.

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