Why East Germany is a map zombie

Three decades after the demise of the GDR, its familiar contours keep coming back from the dead.

​Cold-War Europe (1949-1990), easily recognisable by the two Germanies.

Cold-War Europe (1949-1990), easily recognisable by the two Germanies. Although it's now 30 years gone, East Germany keeps coming back.

Credit: Pixabay
  • East Germany has been dead for a little more than three decades.
  • But the former GDR just keeps popping up on all kinds of maps.
  • It's a sign that life in the east of Germany is still very different from the west.

Forgotten, but not gone

\u200bThe Berlin Wall in 1986, seen from West Berlin.

The Berlin Wall in 1986, seen from West Berlin.

Credit: Noir, CC BY-SA 3.0

The GDR may be forgotten, but it's not gone. Apart from a shrinking handful of diehard nostalgics, nobody mourns the passing of the German Democratic Republic, as communist East Germany (1949-1990) was officially known.

It became such an exemplar of the chasm between the high ideals and grim reality of Soviet-style socialism that the regime literally had to fence in its citizens to keep them from running away. Up until the building of the Berlin Wall (1961), hundreds of East Germans each day 'voted with their feet', defecting to West Germany – decadent and capitalist, yes; hence also a lot more fun.

Inevitably, the fall of the Wall in 1989 was the death-knell for East Germany. We've just passed the 30th anniversary of German reunification, which came into effect on October 3, 1990. But after three decades of painful economic, political, and cultural adjustments, the ghost of East Germany lingers on the map.

Like secret messages that become visible under UV light, the contours of the GDR come out when you apply the right data filters. And not just once or twice. Again and again, we see the old (and to some, familiar) borders emerge. In other words, the German Democratic Republic is a map zombie. That's because life continues to be different in former East Germany – even if it's now just the east of Germany.

Below are some examples, selected from the Facebook group with the self-explanatory name: East Germany is discernibly visible on this relatable map.

The unhappy east

\u200bHappiness map of Germany. Can you spot the GDR?

Happiness map of Germany. Can you spot the GDR?

Credit: Facebook / ARD, infratest / welt.de

East Germans are less happy than their western compatriots. Out of a maximum of 10 on the happiness scale, most of the former GDR colors red (below 7.2), the rest orange (between 7.2 and 7.4).

In the west, few areas are orange and none are red. Most areas are yellow-happy (7.4 to 7.6), and light-green-happy (7.6 to 7.7). Southern Bavaria (dark green; 7.7 and up) is the happiest corner of Germany.

Too bourgeois for the GDR?

Distribution of tennis courts in Germany.

Game, set and match!

Credit: Facebook / Laura Edelbacher

In the old Soviet bloc, sports were a propaganda tool, and athletic excellence a way to prove the regime's supremacy on the world stage.

But apparently, tennis was not the right vehicle – perhaps the East German communists thought it too bourgeois. That would explain why there is such a marked difference between east and west when it comes to the distribution of tennis courts.

Lower wages

The average wage in Wolfsburg is double that as in the adjacent area in the former GDR.

The average wage in Wolfsburg is double that as in the adjacent area in the former GDR.

Credit: Facebook / Katapult

Thirty years after reunification, Germany's economy remains unbalanced along familiar lines. This map shows the averages for gross monthly wages: below €3000 in red areas (below €2500 in dark red zones). Almost all of the light red areas are in the east, none of the dark red ones are in the west.

Tantalizingly, Germany's highest-earning area (Wolfsburg, €5089) is right on the former East German border, next to an area with half the average wages. Car aficionados will recognize the name of the city as the home of Volkswagen HQ and the world's largest car plant.

Too many Ronnies

\u200bDemocratic Republic of Ronnyland.

Democratic Republic of Ronnyland.

Credit: Facebook

Older British TV viewers will remember a comic duo called "The Two Ronnies." If they had been German comedians, their names would have immediately pegged them as Ossis (eastern Germans).

'Ronny' is as popular in the east as it isn't in the west. In the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt (the dark-blue area on the map), between 66 and 78 out of 10,000 Facebook users carry that first name. In the rest of the former GDR (the middle-blue area), it's 54 to 66. In almost all of western Germany, the rate is below 18.

More public childcare

Credit: Facebook

In the east, more than half the kids under three attend publicly-funded daycare.

Credit: Facebook

The legacy of the communist past isn't all bad, it seems. Some collectivist traditions and provisions survive. Like more public childcare. This map shows the share of under-threes going to publicly-funded daycare centers: over 50 percent in most of the former GDR.

​Mosques vs. hazelnut spread

\u200bLike twins separated at birth, east and west developed fascinating differences.

Like twins separated at birth, east and west developed fascinating differences.

Credit: Facebook

Like one of those sets of twins separated at birth, East and West Germany are a fascinating study in similarities and differences – some large, some small. The economic powerhouse that West Germany became needed foreign workers. Many came from Turkey, as evidenced by this map of mosques in Germany: only a handful are in the east.

In its decades alone, East Germany developed a range of household products, often barely disguised copies of western consumer goods. Many are on display in Berlin's DDR Museum. Nudossi, often dismissively called 'Ost-Nutella', is one of the rare brands that survived reunification. Perhaps that's because the spread contains 36 percent hazelnuts, almost three times the amount of actual Nutella (13 percent). Still, Wessis (western Germans) are clearly less keen on the stuff.

​Far left, far right

\u200bVoting patterns in the east tend to be more eccentric in the east.

Voting patterns in the east tend to be more eccentric in the east.

Credit: Facebook / GeoCurrents

Voting patterns in the east tend to be more eccentric in the east. The map on the left shows the results for the 2013 federal elections of Die Linke (the Left Party), which positions itself firmly to the left of the SPD, the mainstream social-democratic party. Die Linke garnered between 20 percent and a quarter of the votes right across the former GDR, and was nowhere near as successful anywhere else in Germany.

More recently, the right-wing populists of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) have found a lot of support in the east. The undated map shows voting intentions for recent upcoming state elections. AfD is particularly strong in the south of the former GDR (26 percent in Saxony, 22 percent in Thuringia). Its highest score in the west is 11.6 percent in Baden-Württemberg.

Catholic, Protestant and None

\u200b'Nones' are the majority throughout East Germany.

'Nones' are the majority throughout East Germany.

Credit: Facebook

Confessionally, Germany also remains a divided nation. This map shows which religion dominates where. Catholics predominate in the south and west (dark red: majority, light red: plurality). Protestants are a majority in the north and middle (dark blue), a plurality in the southwest (light blue).

East Germany is easily discernible: it's the part where the main religious affiliation is 'none'. That also includes the whole of Berlin (including the western half), plus the western cities of Hamburg and Frankfurt.

​Poor overall, but not poorest overall

\u200bThe western state of North Rhine-Westphalia has an ever higher poverty rate than the former GDR.

The western state of North Rhine-Westphalia has an ever higher poverty rate than the former GDR.

Credit: Facebook / Tagesschau

The former GDR has a consistently high poverty rate: an average of 17.5 percent throughout all six Länder (states). But there's a silver lining, of sorts: the poverty rate is even higher in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (18.1 percent), which contains the Ruhrgebiet, a.k.a. Germany's Rust Belt.

​Slavic haplogroup

\u200bThe R1a haplogroup is a genetic marker associated with Slavic populations.

The R1a haplogroup is a genetic marker associated with Slavic populations.

Credit: Facebook

The former border between East and West Germany mirrors a much older one: the western extent of the Slavic zone around the year 1000. This map shows the spread of the R1a haplogroup among locals.

This genetic marker is associated with Slavic populations. It is prevalent throughout the former GDR, particularly the south – and in eastern Austria, by the way. R1a 'islands' further west may be the result of more recent immigration waves, by Polish guest workers for example.

Streetcars and streetlights

\u200bIn Berlin, the past is never dead. In fact, it's not even past.

In Berlin, the past is never dead. In fact, it's not even past.

Credit: Facebook

And finally, two images that zoom in on Berlin. Now the reunified capital of a reunified country, before 1990 it was as divided as Germany itself. And that is still visible, if you know where to look.

At the map of Berlin's streetcars (top), for example. West Berlin never took the step to restore the pre-war streetcar network on its territory. East Berlin did. And that's still the case – with one exception: a single line was extended from the east to the west, a rare example of the west adopting anything 'eastern'.

When night falls, the division between east and west can still be seen from the sky. In the east, street lights use sodium vapor lamps, providing a warm orange glow. In the west, the lamps are fluorescent, resulting in a brighter yellow light.

All maps taken from the Facebook group East Germany is clearly visible on this relatable map. Where possible, credit was given to the original content provider.

Strange Maps #1063

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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