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The German Reunification - a hitherto unfulfilled ideal?

Past and present n. 2

This article is part of a column about how the history of the Old Continent is still relevant today.

Check out the 1st article here.

"Tear down the Wall and all the others will fall"? Graffiti on the West side of the Berlin Wall, source: US National Archives & DVIDS.

Berlin, 1989, 6.57 pm. After the tragic months of the Peaceful Revolution in the Soviet Union, the unimaginable happens. First, the hole in the Iron Curtain on September 10th, 1989 in Hungary, granting permission to cross the border to Austria to thousands of refugees. Then, the peoples’ manifestation of glasnost and perestroika, culminating in what was described as the “stroke of luck” of German history: Günther Schabowski, an official of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, improvises during a press conference after a journalist’s question and spontaneously declares that restrictions to cross the border have been eased.

While for many Germans, the fall of the Berlin Wall – “Die Wende” – heralded the new era of a unified Germany, it certainly did and does not for the too often-neglected part of contemporary Germany, that is, East Germany. The 3rd of October 1990, the Day of German Unity, had many implications that remain pertinent to this day.

First of all, it is debatable whether the term reunification, by its definition, adequately delineates the historic events of 1989/90. In the wake of the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) collapse, the first democratic elections of the People’s Chamber (“Volkskammer”) in East Germany in March 1990 gave the electorate three constitutional alternatives: While the Allianz für Deutschland, under the leadership of the CDU-East, was in favour of an immediate accession, referring to article 23 of the Western Grundgesetz that had already prepared such an instance, the SPD of Eastern Germany vowed to reunify the country as two equal states, thus creating a novel constitution for unified Germany. Under the pressing circumstances of the economic implosion of East Germany, Allianz für Deutschland won, paving the way for a prompt reunification – or to be more precise, a prompt integration. Signed by government representatives on August 31st 1990, the German Reunification Treaty was put into force rapidly: From the Western economic model – the Social Market Economy –, to the Western Constitution: East Germany became an integral part of the Federal Republic.

Berlin 1989; picture taken soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9.

Source: Wikipedia.

That stark socio-economic disparities prevail to this day between both parts of Germany is not a novelty: In the former GDR, average household disposable income and GDP per capita are considerably lower, unemployment higher, and eastern Germans are greatly underrepresented in both executive and political leadership positions. It therefore does not come as a surprise that 30 years later, 83% of eastern Germans stated that the Reunification process has not been accomplished so far, according to a survey conducted by YouGov in 2020. Another inquiry by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research (2019) appears even more alarming: 42% of eastern Germans stated that they feel like second-class citizens.

Hence, advancing the reunification process will inevitably remain an inherent component of the German political agenda – certainly for many decades.

One crucial nuance, however, remains undisclosed by these statistics, and yet is equally pertinent as Germany addresses its past as a formerly divided country. While democratic discourse on the matter of Reunification has improved in the past decades, its most controversial narratives are still perpetuated, even by government officials.

For instance, before the recent German federal elections, in which the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Germany’s ring-wing populist party, gained a substantial amount of political support in former East Germany, a podcast of one of Germany’s most eminent newspapers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), reasoned that very ideal of democracy had never settled in East Germany. Quoting the federal government's Commissioner for Eastern German Affairs on the AfD’s electorate, it was claimed that “we are dealing with people who partly were socialised under a dictatorship, so that even 30 years after the reunification, they have not yet arrived in a democratic society”. “One can only hope that this will change with the next generation”, the Commissioner added. According to this contentious notion, eastern Germans manifestly had no intention to uphold their achievements.

In effect, trust in political institutions and the support for a democratic form of governance is considerably lower in former East Germany than in its counterpart. Historically, it is undeniable that, after decades under a totalitarian, socialist regime, eastern German citizens had to be repoliticised with the collapse of the GDR: Political associations had hitherto either been repressed, prohibited, or monitored by the Stasi – the official state security service, precisely, a intelligence and secret police agency operating with apparent impunity.

Thus, the few disenfranchised, impotent oppositional groups that had emerged during the Peaceful Revolution were quickly eclipsed by major eastern parties in which people had – understandably – more faith in, the latter being veritably democratic, established and trusted by fellow western citizens.

Likewise, for decades, political deliberation and articulation of interests had been constrained, silenced or severely and arbitrarily punished. Forging a political identity anew was therefore a necessary process to transition towards a democratic society.

Yet, this does not confirm audacious claims that the totality of the East remained to be democratised, not least, civilised.

As Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasised in an emotional speech on this year’s celebration of German Reunification, the act of remembrance entailed commemorating the myriads of people who imperiled their lives before and during the Peaceful Revolution to oppose totalitarianism. East Germany’s fight for democracy remained to this day an extraordinary manifestation of democratic aspirations that never had to occur in western Germany during that epoque. According to Merkel, who was herself a victim of the prevailing dictatorship in the GDR, the Peaceful Revolution was a remarkable example of how precious the ideal of democracy was and is to our societies. In honouring the former insurgents, she stressed, we should decipher their message that “democracy is not simply there, every day, we must work for its existence, together.”

Consequently, when political discussion centers around Eastern Europe, such as in the case of Poland, it appears crucial to avoid generalising certain matters. One cannot simplistically deduce that previously communist societies are particularly prone to extremist political views. If any historical reasoning holds in the context of the Reunification, it is Western Germany’s failure to foster economic development and social cohesion after the Wende.

In the 1990s, Germany’s rapid economic unification soon confronted East Germany’s population with enduring disillusionment. Drastic economic hardships and devastation with high unemployment levels followed the country’s sudden transition towards a free market economy. Many criticised the Treuhandanstalt, a government-owned trust agency established to privatise the eastern German industry, which was held responsible for the economic crisis in eastern Germany, shaped by low productivity and output levels. Quickly, socio-economic upheaval in Germany became a breeding ground for political extremism, such as for terrorist attacks by the Red Army Faction which firebombed the Berlin Office of the Treuhandanstalt in 1991.

It is thus much rather in times of crises, such as economic precarity, that the general public may succumb to populist narratives, giving rise to anti-democratic sentiment.

Herein lies the danger of fallacious historical reasoning in Western Germany, yet also Western and Central Europe. The not seldom condescending nature and arrogance towards Eastern Europe in political discourse, when it comes to domestic politics, cultivate what is known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. Both narratives of expected extremism and populist sentiment perpetuate one another, evoking and exacerbating the sensations of alienation and hostility between the historically divided populations. While these animosities essentially remain hidden and invisible, they insidiously harm political deliberation in Europe.

Of course, it must not be neglected that this self-fulfilling prophecy is neither the only, nor the most relevant source of populism in Eastern Europe, and in this case, in eastern Germany. However, the manner in which the rise of right-wing narratives is addressed by Western countries will partly determine if current tensions, within Germany and between the countries formerly separated by the Iron Curtain, will be eased. Indeed, the art of diplomacy in Europe relies upon discussion, rather than action.

Perhaps, it is therefore necessary to take the Merkelian pragmatic approach: The Chancellor claimed in her aforementioned speech that “diversity and differences are [simply] an expression of lived freedom. Especially for our reunified country”, thereby appealing to overcome the prevailing East-West divide – which perfectly translates into the European context. And that is the hitherto unfulfilled ideal of being “united in diversity”.


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