The Road To Reunification

Paul Scraton looks at Germany’s rocky road to reunification…

On the 3rd October 1990, Germany was reunified after forty-five years of division that began with the post-war occupation of the country, and which was formalised in concrete and barbed wire with the closing of the inner-German border in 1952, and the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

Looking back at the winter of 1989-90 from the vantage point of three decades later, it seems as if reunification was inevitable from the moment the Wall came down. But as many Germans from both sides of the divide would tell you, the road to reunification was not a simple one—and indeed the process did not end on that October date.

Two weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced a ten-point plan that was aimed at bringing ever closer cooperation between the two Germanys in the direction of an eventual reunification. Hence the intention, at least from Kohl’s perspective, was clear. But there was no timetable included in his plan and there were plenty of people on both sides—not to mention outside of Germany—for whom a united Germany was certainly not an inevitable or even desirable outcome.

In front of the Reichstag, 3rd of October 1990. Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1990-1003-400, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

In the GDR, many of the dissidents who had taken to the streets of Leipzig, Dresden and beyond calling for reform were not necessarily convinced that incorporation into the existing Federal Republic of Germany was what they were protesting for. In the FRG, as the extent of the economic collapse of East Germany—accelerated by events on the ground—became apparent, the first questions were asked about how much any likely reunification was going to cost. And in the corridors of power in London and Paris there was a certain trepidation, if not outright hostility, to the notion of a unified Germany once again at the heart of Europe.

Once the euphoria of the 9th November had dissipated, the reality of the situation began to hit home. Yes, all these people were German, but there were forty years of living apart and with different social, educational, political and economic systems to contend with. It meant that unity would be as much a question of psychology as it was logistics. In a 2010 interview, Social Democrat Governor of Brandenburg Matthias Platzeck outlined how he and others like him had felt as the reunification process gathered momentum in those early months of 1990:

“We didn’t want an accession; we wanted a cooperation of equals with a new constitution and a new anthem. We wanted symbols of a real, collective new beginning. But others got their way.” [1]

Dreilinden/Drewitz border crossing (Checkpoint Bravo) on October 1990 by Rainer Schmidt, via Creative Commons SA/3.0

Those “others” included members of Kohl’s Christian Democrats, whose victory in the first free elections held in the GDR in March 1990 paved the way for the accession of East Germany into the Federal Republic. But it was not as simple as the two parliaments just agreeing on a next step. The legacy of the Second World War, forty-five years after it had ended, continued to influence proceedings.

The victorious Allies (USA, Britain, France and the Soviet Union) maintained formalised rights in the country, not least in Berlin where the western half of the city remained a military occupation zone distinct from the Federal Republic. The Western Allies felt the same way about the eastern half of the city—regardless of how many times the GDR regime declared it “Berlin: Hauptstadt der DDR”.

This meant that any agreement on the future of a united Germany had to be agreed with the four occupying powers, leading to the “Two-plus-Four” talks which began in May 1990 between representatives of the Allies and the Foreign Ministers of the two German states to resolve the status of the former in Germany. A few weeks later, the two Germanys signed a treaty of economic and social union, and by July the Deutschmark was the sole currency on both sides of the border.

By August, the GDR Chamber of Deputies had voted on accession, agreed for the 3rd October, and with the Two-plus-Four Treaty finally signed in September granting Germany full sovereignty, the final obstacles to reunification were removed. At 12.01am on the 3rd October the celebrations began as the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist and the reunified Germany came into being.

“I still believe, as I did in the past, that we shouldn’t have annexed East Germany in that overhasty way. It’s absurd that we missed such a huge opportunity. We should not have stifled that moment, in which, after two dictatorships, democratic self-awareness blossomed in those four famous words: “We are the people!” Before long, the country and its industry were liquidated, while the Treuhand sold off its assets for next to nothing. During the long postwar period, those 17 million people (in East Germany) had to bear alone the main burden of a war that was waged and lost by all Germans.” [2]

The above is a quote from Günter Grass, Nobel Prize winner and, at the time, one of Germany’s greatest living writers, speaking in an interview in 2010, twenty years after reunification. Whatever else Grass might be or think, his opinion of the reunification process and its aftermath is not an uncommon one. And whilst former East Germans might agree with Grass about the “liquidation” of the country and its industry, there have been plenty of grumbles by former West Germans about the “price” of reunification, especially in the solidarity payments made by former West German states to the new Bundesländer that once were part of the GDR.

In 2012 Joachim Gauck became the President of the Federal Republic of Germany and, alongside Chancellor Merkel, this meant that the two highest political offices in the land were held by former East Germans. But despite these two powerful symbols of reunification, there remains a division on the ground, both in reality and in the perceptions of the people.

Some examples from the time of Gauck’s election to the Presidency show that two decades have not been enough to wipe away the legacy of division. Salaries in the former East in 2012 continued to be 85% of the former West, with pensions coming slightly closer to parity at 89%. Unemployment in the eastern states was and remains substantially higher than in the west, whilst as a whole the productivity of the eastern region is 79% of that of its counterparts in the rest of Germany. [3]

Checkpoint Charlie, 1990. Image via Wikicommons.

For President Gauck, talking a couple of years before his election, the differences between East and West run deeper than the simple economic disparity between the two sides of Germany. For Gauck it is a question of experience, of socialisation and of culture, and the legacy of over forty years of living in different systems that will not be erased overnight:

“We have two political cultures in Germany: the culture of a society in transformation in the East, and a halfway stable structure of a civil society in the West. When the two meet, of course misunderstandings occur. In my opinion, these differences stem more from the way mentalities are shaped than from participation in the communist ideology. Only a few people really believed in communism. But many people still feel that a free society is something very alien.” [4]

And to a certain extent it is this, more than the question of economics, that continues to fuel the sense of separateness that exists between some “Ossis” and some “Wessis”, more than twenty years after the fireworks exploded into the night sky in the early hours of the 3rd October 1990. You can’t erase the past, even if you wanted to—and if you try, you are likely to breed resentment from those who feel you are trying to deny their experiences and write off whole chunks of your past. Here is Platzeck again:

“Unification is a great achievement, [but] many East Germans were made to feel as though their entire lives to that point had been senseless. They had to throw everything away; it was all contaminated by ideology and the Stasi. I am not nostalgic, but as far as I can remember we didn’t go to work every day with our heads hanging low.” [5]

There were people who lived in the East who had happy lives, and not just members of the Party. They went to work, fell in love, had families and went on holiday. Much like their counterparts in the West. This is not to underplay the crimes of the regime, the deaths at the border or the incredible level of state surveillance by the Stasi, but it is to be realistic about what everyday life was like for a majority of people.

It is difficult, then, to tell people to cast away everything they have learned, everything they have experienced, and everything they have valued, and expect the transition to be smooth and without bumps in the road. In her small but well-formed personal memoir of life after the Berlin Wall, Jana Hensel—who experienced an East German childhood before the Wall came down when she was thirteen years old—writes about her motivations for delving back into her history. She is successful in the new Germany, young enough at the time of change to adapt in a way that proved difficult for her parents’ generation. But still, she writes:

“…the first half of our lives seems very remote. Even when we try, we can’t remember much. Nothing remains of our childhood country – which is of course exactly what everyone wanted – and now that we’re grown up and it’s almost too late, I suddenly miss all the lost memories… I’d like to retrace where we come from, to rediscover lost memories and forgotten experiences.” [6]

As she goes on to write in the book, it is not just the “bad” things that are swept away with reunification, but also the mundane. The brand of sweets or the television shows. Books and magazines. When the first waves of Ostalgie (nostalgia for the “Ost”, or East) began to swell about a decade after reunification, it led to much debate about what this meant for the unity of the country when it was clear, or should have been, that it was more about people reclaiming certain elements of their own story without necessarily wishing a return to the old days, to division and all that comes with it. Still, it was difficult for their compatriots to understand, adding another element of difference between the two sides.

True reunification of Germany will remain a work in progress. Every year more young Germans are entering adulthood with no personal memory of anything other than life in the “new” Germany. East and West belong to stories of their parents and their grandparents, or documentaries on the television. That said, recent political developments, especially with regard to the rise of the far right AfD party in the former East, have revealed barriers anew between the two former countries.

That there remains a division, especially between those who lived the years when the two Germanys were separated by schooling, by political and economic systems, and by barbed wire and concrete walls, should surprise no one. These things take time, and the road to reunification is a long one.

This article first appeared on Traces Of A Border, and was re-posted with the kind permission its author Paul Scraton.

Notes & References

[1] The Matthias Platzeck quote comes from the article ‘Reunification Controversy: Was East Germany Really “Annexed”’ which was published on Spiegel Online on the 31st August 2010.

[2] Günther Grass quote from an interview with Der Spiegel from 20th August 2010. You can read it online and in English here.

[3] Statistics via DeutcheWelle here and here.

[4] The English version of the Gauck interview was published on wonderful (and now sadly defunct) website Sign and Sight

[5] See note [1]

[6] From page 4 of ‘After the Wall’ by Jana Hensel.

Image Credits:

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-0201-013 / Mittelstädt, Rainer / CC-BY-SA. Source.

Berlin 1990 / Jochims / CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0. Source.

RIAN archive, 428452 Germany becomes one country / Boris Babanov / CC BY-SA 3.0. Source.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-1003-400, Berlin, deutsche Vereinigung, vor dem Reichstag / Grimm, Peer / CC-BY-SA-3.0-de. Source.

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