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.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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