She's Shining a Light on the 'Dark Germany'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she is trying to change Germany's national media narrative on the former East.
By Cristina Burack
German journalist Anne Ramstorf spent her final high school year abroad in Scotland and then two years volunteering in Vietnam. Yet it wasn’t until she moved to the southwest German town of Tübingen to start university that she first realized many Germans saw her as different.
“Ah, so you’re a Zoni,” one of her classmates told her. Ramstorf had never heard the word before and asked what she meant. “You know, you come from the Zone.”
The Zone, as in the post-World War II Soviet-occupied zone — a derogatory term for Communist East Germany.
Seated at her kitchen table in western Berlin, wearing mismatched dangly earrings, Ramstorf laughs lightly with incredulity, recalling the moment as the first time she thought: “Apparently, I am different.”
There are also people in the east — and it’s most people in the east — that support an open and free society.
Ramstorf, 28, was born in the southeast corner of Berlin two years after the Berlin Wall fell, and she grew up there too. Her entire life has taken place in a reunified Germany. Yet she is part of a trend of young people who identify self-assuredly as eastern Germans. In 2018, some 22 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds in eastern Germany said they were eastern German first, a report by the Otto Brenner Foundation found. The corresponding figure for western Germany was 8 percent.
Exploring eastern German identity has also become the inspirational bedrock of Ramstorf’s journalism career, as she tries to upend how her home is portrayed in the media. Last year she launched her podcast Ostwärts: Eine Ode an den Osten (Eastwards: An Ode to the East).
Her work at the regional magazine Super Illu had her traveling around the five German states that had been part of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Following an influx of 1 million asylum seekers, reports on xenophobic, far-right movements rooted in the east, like Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), dominated national media coverage, as did descriptions of eastern Germans as poverty-stricken and dependent, a legacy of reunification. Ramstorf found these uniformly negative reports didn’t reflect the diversity and vibrancy she was seeing around her.
“That’s when I said, We need a platform … to show others that there are also people in the east — and it’s most people in the east — that support an open and free society,” she says.
The stories in Ramstorf’s podcast are of down-and-out towns that have been rejuvenated, grassroots international initiatives helping to fill Germany’s skilled-worker shortfall, recycling Communist-era prefab apartments for climate-friendly construction. Her subjects range from artists to development workers to digital entrepreneurs. What binds them together is that they’re all from eastern Germany — and their positive stories often get overshadowed nationally. Though she has yet to have a story gain significant national traction, her unique framing, rooted in history and geography, provides a fresh perspective on a region that is stigmatized and homogenized.
One reason behind this flattened image of the east is that the national media is largely shaped by perceptions from western Germany. Roughly 17 percent of Germans live in the eastern states, but no nationwide newspaper or publishing house has its primary headquarters there. Reporters parachute in to cover events like state elections or racist attacks, only to depart soon after. For many, the region remains a “Dark Germany,” a place full of reprehensible ideologies, void of success and largely unknown.
Political communication consultant Johannes Hillje says this has led to superficial, one-sided and cliché-filled coverage of the eastern states. They’re treated almost as if they were foreign countries — “ostalismus,” he calls it, a term based on Edward Said’s Orientalism theory. While he thinks a podcast can reach only a limited segment of society, he still believes Ramstorf’s project is a good first step, because she contributes to a more differentiated, holistic picture.
Ramstorf says she can’t reveal her show’s statistics for advertising reasons, but she says each episode has thousands of listeners, mostly in Germany. She works freelance and is paid per episode upon purchase by the Burda publishing house. Work is slated to continue through December, and she hopes to secure more financing to keep her passion project going. “I fall in love with nearly all my protagonists,” she gushes.
Her deep personal motivation comes across to her interview subjects. “I think I said things that I hadn’t thought about before. I believe I learned things about myself,” says Josa Mania-Schlegel, an eastern German journalist whom Ramstorf interviewed for an episode in May. “It’s clearly more than just her job that she has to get done.”
Ramstorf is not afraid to laugh at herself, but she speaks in a distressed tone, gesturing with her hands when she talks about people who are unable to think freely because they live under repressive regimes, like the former GDR. She says people of her parents’ generation have criticized her as being too young to talk about an east-west divide. Others contend that focusing on the positive distracts from the reality that far-right movements, such as the Alternative for Germany, enjoy higher levels of support in eastern states than elsewhere.
She is receptive to such criticism, agreeing that these facts must not be forgotten. But she is firm in her convictions and choices. “If you only show one side and silence the other, you don’t paint the full picture,” she says. “This doesn’t mean that others don’t exist. But they simply don’t have a place in my project. Period.”
OZY’s 5 Questions With Anne Ramstorf
- What’s the last book you finished? The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, by Mark Manson.
- What do you worry about? When I simply look around and see how anti-democratic our world is becoming right now.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Wonderful people, who are there to catch me when it’s all shit and celebrate when it’s good. I’m lucky to have a lot of these people in my life.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? I’d like to go abroad again for an extended period of time, for one or two years, and work there.
- If you weren’t a journalist, what would you be? Good question, because I honestly have my dream job. But I think I would have been a biologist.
- Cristina Burack, OZY Author Contact Cristina Burack