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Government professor's new book explores regionalism in German politics

Nearly 22 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, government professor David Patton still describes it as just about the most exciting time of his life.

"I experienced firsthand the excitement, the energy, the sense of unity," he said, recounting his days as a graduate student living in West Berlin. In the months after the wall came down, Patton watched closely as the Germans worked toward unification with an air of optimism and hope. But in 1997, he returned to Germany on his first sabbatical from Connecticut College and found a very different political environment. In his new book, "Out of the East: From PDS to Left Party in Unified Germany," Patton describes how a strong sense of regionalism and resentment in the east has shaped German politics since unification.

"Out of the East" chronicles the rise and evolution of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), made up primarily of former communist elites who believed that those in charge of the reunification process were unfair to the east. Today, the party has reinvented itself as the successful Left Party, still advocating for regional issues while also appealing to leftwing constituents across the country. Patton says he is fascinated by the subtle influence of this minority party, which managed to survive in a democracy many of its members didn't initially support.

"On the one hand, this party benefited from resentment toward unification and western Germany. Yet at the same time, the party played an important integrative role by involving members who might not otherwise have participated in the new democracy," he said. In addition to scouring party documents, election data, secondary literature and newspaper clippings to draw his conclusions, Patton interviewed many members of the PDS and Left Party, as well as leaders of primarily western parties. "They were more than happy to tell their stories," he said. "More than 20 years after the fall of the wall, there is still a lot of frustration."

Patton, who teaches courses on European politics in the government department at Connecticut College, is teaching a seminar on Germany this fall. He is assigning the book, which is written primarily for an academic audience. "I'm looking forward to the reaction from the students and the discussions the book will generate," he said. Patton is also looking forward to the reaction from those in Germany, including easterners he got to know during his research. "As an American, I have a different perspective," he said. "But I've lived in Germany for quite a long time, and I believe this party will continue not only to reflect but to shape east-west relations in the country."

August 18, 2011