Eric Langenbacher: Thoughts on German Reunification Twenty-Five Years On: A Tale of Two Dates

Even until right before the Berlin Wall fell on November 9th, 1989, most Westerners could barely imagine the reunification of East and West Germany. The division of that country and continent was considered final, or that nothing would change “in my lifetime.” Even today the sudden demise of East Germany and the communist bloc, the joyfulness of that moment when the Wall was breached, and the hope for the future (end of history anyone?)  are clearly remembered (even if the bad 80s haircuts and acid wash jeans are repressed).

October 3rd, 1990, by contrast is not well or fondly remembered. Many considered the so-called Tag der Einheit (Day of German Unity) to be an arbitrary date chosen by Chancellor Helmut Kohl in a month with no public holiday. Actually, despite the sense of urgency many felt due to the collapse of the East German economy and the thousands moving westwards, it could not feasibly be any earlier because time was needed to prepare the legal and administrative foundations of formal reunification. The country also had to wait for the conclusion of the so-called “2+4” negotiations (the two German states, France, Britain, the USSR and the USA), which produced the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany. Moreover, the German electoral law required voter lists to be finalized 8 weeks before the first free and fair all-German elections since 1932, which were scheduled for December 2.

More importantly, the mood had changed, deteriorating considerably over the preceding 11 months. Instead of the joy and hope experienced with the fall of the Wall, angst over the future pervaded the autumn of 1990. By then the true state of East Germany—a bankrupt economy, crumbling infrastructure, atomized society, and devastated environment—was clear. Westerners fretted about the sheer cost of stabilizing, let along rehabilitating the region, now referred to as the 5 neue Bundesländer. Many seemed to worry about the international implications of reunification. Would Germany be too powerful again? Still too small to dominate Europe, but too large to be controlled? Was the goodwill and reconciliation laboriously established since 1945 fragile? Was German democracy really firmly established and was toxic nationalism truly relegated to the proverbial dustbin of history? Or would the country become obnoxious again as it necessarily re-nationalized after the two states were joined? And what about all of the unresolved business from the past—property in East Germany, the border with Poland, the barely acknowledged war crimes in regions frozen behind the iron curtain for 40 years? Politicians tried to allay fears, but no one really believed the rhetoric—Kohl’s famous promise of “blühende Landschaften.”

In short, the future Germany imagined in November 1989 differed considerably from the one imagined in October 1990. But now, 25 years later, which vision—the optimistic or the pessimistic—is closer to the actual reality?

9 > 3 After All

For many years, it seemed that the pessimism and angst associated with October 3, 1990 was borne out. After a brief post-unification boom dissipated by the mid 1990s, gloom had set in. Westerners lamented the massive costs of reunification amounting to $1.5-2 trillion by today, the perceived ingratitude and regressive/xenophobic values of many Easterners, as well as the more general economic malaise nationwide. The East was an absolute disaster—the economy was in free fall, unemployment spiked (reaching 20-30 %), and anyone with ambition left. Moreover, nothing seemed to be able to stabilize (let alone improve) the situation. The specific problems of the East, however, soon led to the realization that structural challenges had also been festering in the West. The resulting period of funk lasted for 10-15 years. In 1999, The Economist even proclaimed Germany to be the sick man of the Euro).

But then, about 10 years ago things began to change. The wrenching economic and labor market reforms pushed through by Gerhard Schröder’s Red-Green government (Agenda 2010, Hartz IV) started to have positive effects. The years of poor economic performance led to a decrease in labor costs and more profitable companies. The international context also moved in Germany’s favor—the Euro went from yoke to boon, a sustained economic boom in emerging markets (especially China) created unprecedented demand for German exports; competitors like the US, Japan, Britain and France were hit hard by the 2008-2009 financial crisis. One might also add that other policies long pursued by Germany started to bear fruit and resonate internationally—the civilian power ethos, environmentalism and the much-vaunted Energiewende, and honestly coming-to-terms with the past. Certainly, public opinion polls worldwide have shown how respected the country now is.

In fact, narratives have shifted so much that the discourse is now about Germany once again as the engine of the European economy. Pundits emphasize the rise/return of German power even if the country is still “the reluctant hegemon” to use and Willie Paterson’s by-now famous phrase. No one talks about the “wall in the head” any more and eastern Germany is doing much better—unemployment is now about 10% (versus 6% in the West) and per capita GDP in the East has doubled since reunification (but is still only 2/3 of the western level). Somewhat incredibly, the differences between western and eastern Germany are no greater today than in other advanced economies such as Italy. The gloomy mood associated with October 3, 1990 has been overtaken by the positivity of November 9, 1989.

When I personally reflect on this anniversary, I am gladdened by the current positive mood. Instead of a narrative of stagnation (Japan, France) or decline (US, UK), the German story is one of facing and overcoming challenges. Indeed, the experience of identifying problems, pushing through difficult policy responses, and then benefitting from the results—i.e., to bend the narrative arc from negativity to positivity—is the most heartening story of them all. This ability to self-correct is the message that I take from 25 years of German unity. Let’s just hope that the country can continue such processes of adjustment over the next quarter century because new challenges loom.

Eric Langenbacher  is an Associate Teaching Professor and Director of the Senior Honors Program in the Department of Government, Georgetown University.

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