The path to freedom
On 3 October 1990 the GDR acceded to the Federal Republic of Germany. Much has changed since then – nationally and internationally. How does reunification look after 20 years?
By Gunter Hofmann
My desk now “houses” a considerable “library” of books on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 and the final reunification of the two German states on 3 October 1990: memoirs by the politicians involved from East and West, ranging from Helmut Kohl, Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Wolfgang Schäuble to Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Lech Walesa to George Bush (sen.), James Baker and Mikhail Gorbachev; eye-witness accounts by journalists, stunning source-studies especially by American, British and French historians on the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, which occurred parallel to the speedy reunification of Germany.
This must be stated in advance, because German unity was not an isolated event and cannot be fully grasped without considering what was contributed by its European neighbours – first and foremost Poland and France – and by the superpowers. Even though the inner-German process absorbed so much energy and often blurred the view of the global context, it can be stated, in brief, that German unification has been a successful experiment, when it comes down to it, whatever else must be said about it. Seldom has history witnessed such a thing. Yet it would not have succeeded without our European neighbours. And finally, it was also possible because the responsible politicians in Bonn at the time agreed that the objective had to be a “European Germany”, and not, for example, a “German Europe”. It is no euphemism to conclude that East-West-Germans did not take a nationalist path. Nor did the size of the resulting Republic – and this is not intended to sound overbearing – go to their heads.
Today, at universities between Aachen and Dresden, Rostock and Freiburg, the first generation born after the fall of the Wall and German unification are starting their studies.
Enlarge image (© Auswärtiges Amt)
This means we are approaching, quite automatically, a historicization of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), which ended, in its 41st year, with its accession to the Federal Republic. Occasionally, attempts have been made to give the new state a new label: the “Berlin Republic” was a favourite one, intended to express the fact that something completely new had emerged there. But German society remained sceptical about such characterizations. And justifiably so, as they sounded too grandiose. What is more, the modalities of accession for the GDR, that is, for the five eastern German states, did not in fact amount to a completely new beginning. The Basic Law (Grundgesetz) still applied, no new constitution was drawn up. It will not be easy to convey to students of the year 2010 why that kind of accession – with no explicit plebiscite, no elections, simply an affiliation as a legal act – led to so much turbulence at the time.
It would be a bit of an exaggeration to claim that cultural differences have been resolved beyond all recognition. Things were not easy at the beginning. The brain drain from East Germany, as young people went in search of training and jobs, the loss of all in all more than two million people in that East-West exchange, the disappearance of about two-thirds of all GDR industry, the rapid rise in unemployment, the transfer of state-owned companies into private ownership (or their final closure) under the auspices of the Treuhand agency – all that points to a harsh, often bitter reality. Almost overnight, the large majority of the population of East Germany, who longed for swift accession and a one-to-one exchange of the Mark, lost their security, their jobs, had to retrain and adapt to completely new conditions. Which accounts for the phenomenon of “Ostalgia” during the first ten years of unification, a certain nostalgic sadness about the fact that not only had freedom (and secure pensions) been gained, but something had also been lost. In West Germany, with its established structures, its wealth, with people’s capability to plan their lives, this was hard to understand. So in this particular sense, the often cited “Wall in people’s heads” was probably even higher in the West than in the East, where “accession” gradually showed its positive material side – in addition to that priceless gain, freedom.
Enlarge image (© Auswärtiges Amt, CS)
The East has yet not completely caught up. To this very day, wages and salaries are considerably lower and percapita gross domestic product is about 30% below that in the West. It still cannot even be ruled out that parts of eastern Germany might not develop into the “blossoming landscapes” once envisioned by Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Nevertheless, the German Unity Fund, which provided 115 billion deutschmarks in the first four-and-a-half years, and after 1993 the first Solidarity Pact, which was intended to harmonize living conditions and has been extended until today, have involved the transfer from West to East of 1.5 trillion euros over 20 years for pensions, public services, road-building, urban development and the promotion of investment, all of which has changed the “new federal states”, including the new German capital city of Berlin, in an astonishing way.
And yet such figures convey a false image. The Federal Republic of Germany has become more colourful, albeit also more socially divided, more contradictory. There are just as many differences between North and South, cities and provinces, Berlin and Munich, as there are between eastern and western Germany. What has largely been resolved is the argument that the process of unification could have taken a different path. The circumstances, one could say, left no time “to pause for thought”, something which the then president Richard von Weizsäcker and also many East German intellectuals would have liked. The majority were pushing for the fastest possible unification, and Chancellor Helmut Kohn headed that movement.
Enlarge image (© dpa - International)
Nevertheless, convergence between East and West has come about in many areas. Universities from Halle and Jena to Frankfurt an der Oder or Greifswald – meantime very attractive for students not just from the surrounding areas – offer smaller classes, better working conditions, more modern technology. With their dynamic growth, Saxony, Brandenburg and parts of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Thuringia are even outdoing flourishing western states such as Bavaria or North Rhine-Westphalia. In any case, it is no longer possible to regard the East as just a “crisis zone”. Crises are something even states and local governments in the West can get into. Climate crisis? Financial crisis? Budget crisis? The prevailing conditions are levelling out the differences of yesterday.
Yet pointing this out does not mean ignoring the unfamiliar, the disparate. According to conflict researcher Wilhelm Heitmeyer in Bielefeld, social rifts due to ostracization and non-recognition are visible in West and East, albeit more drastically in the East. Two thirds of the inhabitants of the eastern states say they feel they are treated like second-class citizens, and three-quarters actually feel disadvantaged compared with people in the western states. At the same time, and also in this context, a significant majority in the East is of the opinion that their peaceful “October Revolution” of 1989 was a success, and equally large majorities in East and West are positive about the prevailing democracy.
Enlarge image Die Kontrolle (The Audit) (© dpa/pa)
However, as the essayist Friedrich Dieckmann deduced several years ago, the “experience of failure” is something which eastern Germans definitely have over western Germans. In fact, it could well be an advantage that the society in the East, once marked by shortages and crises, responds more calmly and flexibly to crises than the people who grew up in the growth society of the West. What is more, are the painting schools around Neo Rauch and the Young Wild Ones in Dresden and Leipzig, Gerhard Richter, writers like Thomas Brussig, Uwe Tellkamp and Ingo Schulze, and of course the film-makers (Sun Avenue and Goodbye Lenin) not also an indicator of creative resilience and pertinacity.
My impression is that the emerging cultural convergence is uniting and separating us in a whole new way – and not on the basis of an East-West formula. That the West behaved as a “victor”, and yet cannot do without a corrective in the East (no East no West) is something that writers and intellectuals in eastern Germany, like Daniela Dahn, have long since censured. But when a writer like Ingo Schulze, who was born in 1962, writes that “the debate that was not held in 1990 could and should be held now” – is he not addressing something that links many in East and West? Schulze objects to a total economization of life, which is clearly not an invention of the republic to the west, but rather a “systemic problem”. To quote Schulze: “Growth and profit maximization have served their time as divining rods for leading us to the future. The climate reports give us five to ten years to pull the emergency brake. While we try to stimulate consumption, a billion people haven’t got enough to eat, have no clean water … The internationalization of the economy must be followed by an internationalization of citizens, that is, an internationalization of politics. Talking and arguing about 20 years of a peaceful revolution also means reflecting on today’s world.”
I don’t think that this is an isolated voice, even if opinions are divided on Ingo Schulze’s assessment. And another agitation is abating. The debate about the appropriate treatment of the past is nothing as controversial now as it was during the early years. That debate was about how thorough the investigation of the ancien regime in East Berlin was to be, which of the SED bigwigs or Stasi persecutors was to be legally prosecuted, how victims could be compensated, and who was to be granted a “right to error” or the chance to be reintegrated. A Bundestag commission studying the “History and Consequences of the SED Dictatorship in Germany” tried to channel the resentment that had gathered over 40 years. The Stasi Records Law and the inauguration of the Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former GDR have contributed much towards promoting an orderly discussion.
For all the understandable criticism, it has ultimately been possible to steer a middle course between an honest examination of the past and the wish not to drive a wedge to the point of splitting and paralyzing our society. Die Täter sind unter uns (The perpetrators are among us) is the title of one indictment. The author, Hubertus Knabe, who was himself entrusted with the “processing” of Stasi files, insists on the fact that many old networks got away unpunished or have maintained a secret influence, while many unofficial Stasi collaborators were shielded or found refuge in the Left party. In 1990 this party, which succeeded the GDR Socialist Unity Party (SED) and was then called the PDS, was elected to the Bundestag. It is the youngest political force in Germany and is particularly well established in the five new states. But in other states too, the party is now represented in state legislative assemblies and is also the reason why Germany has a five-party political system. But even the question about whether its members had a Stasi past is no longer a matter of impassioned debate; it is increasingly being seen from a historical perspective.
What was the GDR? The knowledgeable Bielefeld historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler, of all people, at the end of his multi-volume publication Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, described this, in itself unviable, state as a mere satrap state with a population that was suppressed and conformist, a state not worthy of closer study. For the people effected, this meant that nothing about the 41 years they had lived was worthy of recognition. A claim which offended many people in the East. But in my view even this controversy too is receding into the background. And after 20 years of unity even the courageous opposition forces of GDR times speak without anger about the fact that in 1989/90 they were simply bypassed by the events of unification. They were the democrats, but they were in the way, so they foundered. The citizens, says Ingo Schulze, were not addressed as citizens, instead they were relieved of their responsibility with election promises (the deutschmark immediately, flourishing landscapes). Unification, according to Jens Reich, who was a candidate for the office of Federal President in 1994, has since had a “democratic flaw”, but he speaks without lamentation; history has simply moved on.
Enlarge image (© picture-alliance/ dpa)
What has become of our united country? There is no convenient label that might describe the essence of the Federal Republic. Unification has considerably changed the country, more than it is willing to admit. So far there has been a general consensus about continuing along the “European path”. The east of Europe, first and foremost Poland, has also been integrated. Let us put it this way: a community of interests has emerged, a bit frayed at the edges and business-like, but stable and no longer plagued by the persistent question of whether the “two souls of the half-nations“ (Karl-Heinz Bohrer), East and West, have drifted too far apart, or are actually growing together anew. That has become so self-evident that soon people will only recall that it was not always so on the respective anniversaries.
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