Unified, United? Germany’s Accidental Reunification

Every year, on 3rd October, Germany celebrates Tag der deutschen Einheit – German Unity Day. On this day in 1990, East Germany ceased to exist as a state, and its territory was added to that of West Germany, finally reunifying Germany after more than 40 years’ division. The historical significance of this day can be judged from the fact that 3rd October is the only public holiday to be written into Federal German law. In this context, it is ironic that the fall of the Berlin Wall, and reunification 11 months later, occurred almost by accident.

The first step towards the events of 1989-90 was in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the USSR. To try and revive the country’s ailing economic and political systems, he introduced glasnost – “openness” in politics – and perestroika – “restructuring”, including limited private ownership. The East German government, correctly realising that these reforms would undermine its power base, rejected them and their supporters. By 1989, however, it was becoming clear that this stance would no longer work; first Hungary, then Czechoslovakia – countries to which East Germans could travel with relative freedom – opened their borders with the West. This led to East Germans fleeing material shortages and state repression in numbers not seen since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

With public protest growing ever louder, the East German government belatedly realised, in October 1989, that change was unavoidable. Erich Honecker, East German leader since 1971, was forced to resign, and the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) began drafting reforms to try and cling on to power. One of the key reforms was a certain freedom to travel, which was announced by SED official Günter Schabowski at a press conference on 9th November 1989. The policy had been very hurriedly prepared and Schabowski had not been properly briefed. After the press release had been read out, a journalist asked when the new regulations would apply; Schabowski hesitantly and fatefully answered “as far as I know – effective immediately, without delay”. East Berliners surged to the border crossings, demanding to be let through – and the confused, overwhelmed border guards eventually gave in. The genie was out of the bottle.

Nonetheless, the East German public was not, at this stage, demanding reunification; rather, democratisation. It was only after government corruption and mass spying on citizens were revealed that the demand changed. “We are the people”, the slogan of many East German demonstrators, became “we are one people”.

Even then, a quick reunification was not expected. Negotiations had to be conducted with the Second World War Allies before reunification was possible. In any case, the re-integration of two such drastically different countries could have been expected to need a transition period; Margaret Thatcher, and others, spoke of this lasting until 1995. But the introduction of the West German Mark to East Germany in July 1990 plunged the East German economy into freefall. Together with massive public pressure and rumours of a planned coup, there was only one option left: reunification as soon as possible.

On 3rd October 1990, just one day after the conclusion of negotiations and less than 11 months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the two Germanies became one; and the day has been celebrated annually since then. 9th November, the date of the fall of the Berlin Wall, was also considered, but discounted, as it was the date of Kristallnacht in 1938 – a night of state-sanctioned violence against Jews and their property.

Germany’s reunification might well be the most successful of its kind in history, but its speed and almost accidental nature have left their mark. While considerable improvements have been made, post-reunification Chancellor Kohl’s (in)famous promise of “blossoming landscapes” has yet to truly come to fruition. Eastern wages persist at only about 70% of those in the West. The rapid privatisation and in many cases closure of East Germany’s numerous state-owned companies after 1990 has not only led to persistent higher unemployment in the East, but to a general lack of large companies in this half of the country, which has severe implications for investment in and development of its economy. Disillusionment with the reality after 27 years, compared to Kohl’s vision, is understandable.

On Unity Day 2017, with the disappointment of 23rd September’s election result close at hand, it is surely time for Germany to ask itself: what is unity, what is unification, and – fundamentally – what must they include? Disillusionment with an incomplete reunification process and perceived worthlessness of East German experience are, of course, far from the only reasons for the right-wing, populist AfD’s election success, but they are surely factors. As President Steinmeier said in a speech in Mainz for Unity Day 2017, East Germans “experienced fractures after Reunification, the like of which our generation has never experienced in the West. Yet these East German stories have not become anything like as important a part of our national self as the Western ones. I say it is time they did.” Is it any wonder that many East Germans, even now, feel alienated from their own country?

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