The initial euphoria of German reunification gave way to grim economic realities.(Herbert Knosowski / Reuters)

MASSEN, Germany—On a mild spring evening, Frauke Hildebrandt maneuvered through choked highways and accelerated down county roads, driving straight across her home state of Brandenburg deep into coal country. It was rush hour and Hildebrandt was running a little late.

She was the guest of honor at a gathering here in Massen, a quiet, tidy village along the state’s southeastern rim, and a small group of about a dozen people had turned out to meet her at a tavern on the main road.

Hildebrandt is a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and sits on the party’s Commission on East Germany in Brandenburg. Equally important, however, is that her name is iconic in this region. Frauke’s late mother, Regine Hildebrandt, was dubbed the “voice of the east”—an SPD politician after German reunification, she spent years battling to bring East Germans’ concerns to the halls of power in Berlin. She was dogged in her pursuit, and for that she was beloved and admired.

Frauke Hildebrandt knows that her mother’s name opens doors across East Germany. Over the past six months, she has crisscrossed the region to meet citizens and gather support for a deeply divisive proposal she is spearheading: a quota for East Germans in top positions across academia, politics, business, media, and law. As she has taken her campaign to national media and talk shows, she has encountered support, but also scorn and skepticism from those who fundamentally oppose quotas and those who reject the premise that East Germans are systematically disadvantaged when it comes to representation.

Hildebrandt’s campaign underscores the simmering resentments that have returned to the forefront of political debate here. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, what were  formerly East and West Germany are drifting apart politically and socially. Support for the far-right populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has settled nationwide, but it is swelling in the east.

Regional disparities have propelled populists elsewhere in Europe: In Italy, the League party has built a huge bastion of support in the north, and in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats enjoy widespread backing in the deep south. In Germany, though, regionalism is magnified by the political, social, and economic consequences of living as separate countries for more than four decades. In the weeks after European Parliament elections in May, #WirimOsten, or “Us in the east,” exploded on Twitter as East Germans endeavored to explain their region and its people.

In Massen, Hildebrandt took a seat at the head of the table to make her case for a quota. “We can’t just pretend that east and west don’t exist, that it’s all the same now—it’s just not true,” she said, gesturing emphatically over a cup of steaming coffee. “Where the power, money, and influence are—that’s where East Germans are massively underrepresented.”

The gap between east and west has narrowed over the past 30 years, and Angela Merkel, the country’s chancellor and arguably the most powerful woman in the world, is an East German. Yet with three key state elections in the east this fall, the region’s political disaffection has sparked a growing discussion on both sides of the divide to understand why the fault lines appear to be deepening. The quota is part of that debate. A study by the German Center for Integration and Migration Research in April showed that more than 50 percent of East Germans polled said they backed the proposal. And in March, the Left party introduced a motion in the Bundestag calling for an East German quota, arguing that the German constitution mandates proportionate representation of civil servants from all states.

The growing regional support for the AfD is attributed, in part, to this underrepresentation, according to Hildebrandt. In May’s European elections it was the strongest party in the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg, with 25.3 percent and 19.9 percent respectively, compared with 11 percent overall across Germany.

Hildebrandt is a bit baffled by the hand-wringing over the AfD after the elections. She has observed rising xenophobia in the east for years. In her village in Brandenburg, she witnessed how the mood started to sour in 2015 as Germany opened its doors to Syrians fleeing their civil war; as more than 1 million migrants arrived in the country, xenophobia mushroomed. The village pastor openly railed against Muslims. Things got so bad that she and her family found an apartment in Berlin as a respite.

Hildebrandt, a professor in early-childhood education at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam, started searching for explanations in numbers. She found that not only did the former east still lag behind the west in wages and employment, but that, Merkel aside, East Germans remained dramatically underrepresented in leadership positions.

Now, she says, disillusioned East Germans turning away from the SPD and toward the far right tell her: “If only your mother were still here, we could vote for your party again.”

“It became clear to me pretty quickly that people still feel they’re being oppressed and discriminated against, she told me. “Basically, if someone would speak up for their concerns while rejecting any xenophobia, maybe there’s a chance to get things back to normal again.”

East Germans cannot be understood if their voices aren’t adequately represented, she says. And if the balance of power is still so skewed, it should be forcibly rectified with a quota.

At the roundtable in Massen, Hildebrandt urged locals to share their post-reunification stories, as she often does. They described their frustration in finding out that their training and specializations no longer counted in a newly unified Germany, or that the certificates needed for some jobs hadn’t even existed in the east. It wasn’t just the rules that changed; the entire game was different.

The years just after reunification, a period referred to as the Nachwendezeit, were a violent rupture for many East Germans. When tens of thousands took to the streets in the 1989 peaceful revolution, they called for democratic change and reunification. The west meant freedom, opportunity, and, quite literally, new horizons.

When it happened, however, a socialist, state-run system was supplanted by a democratic, capitalist one almost overnight, overwriting economic, political, and social structures. The East German Ostmark was replaced by the Deutsche Mark in a 1-to-1, leading to a dramatic appreciation of the former. The agency given the task of privatizing and restructuring ailing state-owned companies often shut them down. Social networks vanished with them. A vast number of East Germans suffered sustained bouts of unemployment, and some never recovered. The fall from euphoria to disappointment was precipitous. During this era, the disparaging terms Jammer Ossi, or“whiny East Germans,”—and Besser Wessi, or“know-it-all West Germans,”—emerged.

Since then, the former east has made great strides, thanks in large part to the billions of euros poured into rebuilding its economy and infrastructure. Germans still pay a “solidarity tax” to help the east catch up with the west (though Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is trying to scrap it entirely).

The government’s most recent report on the east-west divide revealed that unemployment in the former east was 7.6 percent in 2017 compared with 5.3 percent in the west. GDP per capita in 2017 was 73.2 percent of the West German level and growing. Universities and research are thriving in cities such as Leipzig, Jena, and Dresden.

The gap is closing, but slowly. A map compiled by the Düsseldorf-based Hans Böckler Foundation reveals that disposable income across Germany in 2016 is lowest in the east. And after reunification, there was another shock factor: In a 2016 study titled “Who Rules the East?” researchers found that today, while East Germans constitute about 17 percent of the population nationwide, they only hold 1.7 percent of the top jobs. In the former east, 87 percent of people are East German but they only fill 23 percent of high-level positions such as judges, generals, presidents of universities, CEOs, and editors in chief, among others. Of some 200 generals and admirals in the military, for example, two are East German; there are no East German university presidents anywhere in the country. (A different report questioned those findings, arguing that only the very top jobs across Germany—such as those in companies listed on the DAX index—were included. It noted that East Germans are fairly well represented in the federal government, but acknowledged that gaps are still present and significant.)

Reint E. Gropp, the president of the Halle Institute for Economic Research, told me that many Germans, including himself, underestimated the effects reunification would have.

“A lot of us thought, admittedly somewhat naively, that only the generation that was already working during reunification, people between 30 and 50, would be affected. But that was a mistake,” he said. “The effects are transferred through generations and we still see it today.”

In 2010, two decades after reunification, a woman from East Berlin sued a window-installation company for ethnic discrimination when her job application was rejected and her documents returned in the mail with a minus sign and the word Ossi, the derogatory nickname for East Germans, scrawled in black. She was 48 at the time. Her case was dismissed because East Germany is a region, not an ethnicity, but the lawsuit received huge media attention.

It is this type of wrong that Hildebrandt believes a quota can set right. But quotas are tricky. When she uttered the word at the roundtable in Massen, there were audible groans. “Quotas are a bonus, and bonuses have to be earned,” objected Eberhard Wauer, 58. Even here in the east, where the turbulence of reunification still evokes intense emotion, the idea is polemical. In the same poll that asked East Germans if they approved of a quota, only 23 percent of West Germans said they supported it.

Ask most people here if East Germans are underrepresented and they will inevitably point to Merkel. But the chancellor has repeatedly downplayed her identity. When asked about the importance of her East German roots in an interview in Die Zeit, she answered: “All my roots are important to me, and the East German ones are part of that. I neither emphasize them every day, nor do I deny them.“

Petra Köpping, the minister for equality and integration in Saxony, told me that a quota might have been possible in the early ’90s but now it’s simply too difficult to implement. “If [underrepresentation] was the only point, it’d be really easy, but it’s just one of many points of why people have turned away from politics,” she added. “It’s really important that we rebuild trust in politics.”

Nonetheless, Hildebrandt told me that the SPD in Brandenburg has vowed to start on a small scale: If the party holds on to power in September’s state elections, it will commit to raising the number of East Germans in politics and science. If that doesn’t happen, she will push for a binding quota. The debate Germany is finally having over the successes and failures of reunification, she says, is important, too.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.