Thirty years ago today, most Germans celebrated the unification between the Federal Republic (West) and the Democratic Republic (East). The citizens of former East Germany had courageously protested against the Communist regime of Erich Honecker since the summer of 1989, leading to the opening of the Berlin Wall in November of that year. The political dynamics unleashed during those turbulent times (which the author experienced personally) culminated on October 3, 1990, when the GDR “joined” the Federal Republic of Germany.
But the process of joining was not what many citizens in East Germany had in mind. They had called for a new beginning and harbored hopes for equal treatment and respect by their new compatriots. Instead, disillusionment quickly set in as the Deutsche Mark currency arrived along with West German politicians, court judges and administrative technocrats who frequently behaved as if they were ruling a protectorate.
The divisions and frustrations experienced during the initial decade of unification between German citizens in East and West still resonate today. They help to explain why political parties fare differently in both parts of Germany, why refugees and migrants relocated to Rostock, Wismar or Gera face resentment and attacks from angry and resentful Germans. Solidarity with refugees requires a sense of common purpose within civil society. German citizens, East and West, continue to be divided, in migration policy and beyond.
The anniversary celebrations are taking place in Potsdam, near Berlin. Given the Covid-19 pandemic, public celebrations are limited and constrained by physical distancing requirements. As politicians and other invited representatives gather in Potsdam, one person will be recognizable to all, namely Chancellor Angela Merkel. After the first general elections of unified Germany in December 1990, Chancellor Helmut Kohl from the Christian Democrats (CDU) appointed three ministers from the East. Angela Merkel joined his cabinet as minister for women and youth. Thirty years later, Merkel has outlived and outmaneuvered everybody around her.
The perseverance and political success of Chancellor Merkel should not lead to the conclusion that citizens with East German biographies have thus reached the heights of the German political economy. The process of integration continues to be slow and is still dominated by decision makers from Frankfurt, Munich or Cologne. While the streets, houses and shops of (former East) Berlin, Leipzig or Dresden have changed beyond recognition during the past three decades, you can still recognize the origins of your office colleague or pupil sitting next to you at university by how they speak German, how many of them view unification differently.
These differences in experiences and perspectives resonate deeply across German society today. Unification remains a work in progress. Connectivity through transport infrastructure, telecommunications and commerce has brought both parts closer together. But the solidarity levy to finance unification still divides many citizens in East and West even decades after its introduction.
Chancellor Merkel has announced that she will not stand as a candidate again in the general election scheduled for the fall of 2021. The generation of politicians responsible for making German unification a reality is gradually retreating. It is therefore all the more telling that every potential candidate to replace Merkel as chancellor next year comes from former West Germany.
For the past three decades German unification has been a complicated history. There are many reasons to celebrate 30 years later, even if the divisions and differences linger on. The economic crisis was mainly experienced in the eastern parts of the unified country. The Covid-19 pandemic is the first major crisis that encompasses all Germans, irrespective of origin and status. The country is holding together, and its citizens are now confronting a crisis where it is irrelevant if you are from Stuttgart, Weimar, Gelsenkirchen or Brandenburg.
Jens Bastian is senior policy adviser at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). A German citizen, he has been living in Greece since 1998.