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Reunification: Absorbing East Germany

On 9th November 1989, thousands streamed through the streets of Berlin. Not entirely sure what they would find when they reached the wall that had divided the city since its construction in 1961, or what this day would mean for both East and West Germany, they gathered in massive numbers unseen since the end of World War II. 

The day the Berlin Wall came down must surely be one of the most momentous and symbolic in living memory. Not only did it finally reunite a city and act as a tipping point for the already collapsing Soviet Union, it eventually pathed the way for what many Germans had been craving since the end of the bloodiest conflict the world has ever seen – the reunification of Germany.

Yet this was a process fraught with unimaginable difficulties. Rulers of the East and West had eyed each other with deep suspicion for decades, with both sides operating under vastly different political and social systems. This wasn’t as simple as just removing the barriers and hoping everything would work out in the end. There were the questions of currency, the economy, elections, the media and of course the general population, who – despite being all German – had experienced vastly different circumstances since the end of the war. 

Around the world, and even within Germany itself, some believed reunification would simply be impossible or that to do so would herald in another dark episode of German expansion. The question of reunification was far from clear and obvious.   

A Divided Nation 

After World War II, Germany was effectively divided into four, with the Soviet Union, the UK, the USA and France each controlling a sector. The country that had once been the centrepiece of Adolf Hitler’s glorious vision of the Third Reich, now lay in tatters – its cities reduced to rubble, its people now a distant shadow of the once all-mighty propaganda inflamed idea of the Aryan people. 

Map showing the division of East (red) and West Germany (blue) until 3 October 1990, with Berlin in light green
Map showing the division of East (red) and West Germany (blue) until 3 October 1990, with Berlin in light green. By Lang Constantin, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

By 1948, the allied nations – those to the west of the divide that is – were actively looking to end the occupation and withdraw their troops. However, the Soviet Union had absolutely no intention of doing the same. Both sides were incredibly wary of a unified Germany tipping one way or the other, so both dug their heels in. 

In June 1948, the Soviets went one step further and placed a blockade on goods coming into West Berlin from West Germany. If that doesn’t sound quite right to you, it was because the dividing lines set up after the war had been established roughly where allied armies currently were – meaning that Berlin lay well inside the Soviet zone, but was itself subdivided into four. 

After the war, there was an agreement that goods could be transported from the allied zones, through the Soviet zone and into allied zones in Berlin, but on 24th June 1948, Soviet forces began enforcing a blockade that lasted for 323 days. 

In response, U.S, British and French aircraft began dropping supplies directly into West Berlin to effectively keep the population there going. And this was a staggering operation, with one plane reaching Berlin every 30 seconds at the peak of the crisis. American aircraft alone flew roughly 148,000,000 km (92,000,000 miles) during the Berlin Blockade, which would almost get you to the Sun from the Earth. The blockade finally ended on the 12th May 1949 and for a short time at least, tensions appeared to ease.  

In 1961, the issue once again reared its head, with the Soviets placing an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of all armed forces from Berlin. Once again, the American, British, and French governments stuck two fingers up – or one demanding where you’re from – at the Soviets, signalling their intentions to remain in West Berlin.  

The Rise and Fall of the Wall

One of the principal reasons that the Soviets were so eager to kick the western allies out of West Berlin, was the steady stream of people escaping from the east to the west. At this point, there was no Berlin Wall, and while it was illegal for Eastern residents to pass into the western section of the city, there was often little that could be done. 

wall of berlin
Wall Of berlin 1983. By Siegbert Brey, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The Soviet response brought new meaning to the word draconian. During the night between the 12th and 13th December 1961, the border was closed and construction began on a wall that would become symbolic of the gaping chasm between the two parts of the city, and indeed the country. A total of 32,000 combat and engineer troops were used to build the Berlin Wall, and overnight, the city found itself physically divided for the first time. 

And that’s how things remained for almost 30 years as both East and West Germany developed. The West, with the powerful financial backing of the United States, quickly blossomed into a prosperous nation, especially considering where they had started from, while the East often struggled under the malaise caused by the Soviet system. Of course, we can’t just paint West Germany as a capitalist wonderland and the East as a tyrannical communist state, but as money poured into the west, the differences were stark. The west had a higher GDP, more products available, better transportation and a more wide-ranging education system. While East Germany was broadly considered one of the strongest economic members of the Warsaw Pact countries, it was often difficult to get a clear sense of reality when shrouded under the cloak of Soviet propaganda – and as we’ll get to shortly, things were not quite as rosy in the East as the local commissar would have you believe.      

But all of this began to change with the seismic events that began in the summer of 1989 and reached a deafening crescendo as the Berlin Wall finally came down on 9th November 1989. By this point, the East German government began to appear less a government and more a group of men playing hot potato, desperate not to be the one holding the keys when the country came crashing down. 

Early Days   

While it would take some time for any major steps towards reunification, the fall of the Berlin Wall was always going to be fatal for the East German government – and probably for East Germany as a single country. Elections in May 1990, saw the newly renamed Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) suffer horribly at the polls, with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a party strongly in favour of reunification, emerging as the clear winners. 

Any hope that the East might remain an independent country suffered another major blow as the East German economy began to collapse. What had once been considered one of the more robust economies under the Soviet umbrella, was soon revealed as a rickety house of cards propped up by exaggerations, bluffs and outright lies.  

The first major steps towards integrating the two countries again, arrived shortly after the election in East Germany with an economic merger that came with the very wordy title, ‘Treaty Establishing a Monetary, Economic and Social Union between the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany’ and came into effect on 1st July 1990, when the West German Deutsche Mark became the sole currency in the East also. 

Now, at this point, it became pretty clear that Germany was tiptoeing towards reunification, but as I said at the start of the video, some massive hurdles remained in place. You couldn’t simply announce that everything was now run by a single entity because the two countries were vastly different at this point. Political, social and economic systems were in many exact opposites and to join the two together too quickly would have immediately created huge problems. 

To address this, before the actual work of reunification could begin, the West started granting subsidies for the GDR budget and social security system, which they hoped would at least begin to balance things out.  

Formal Reunification  

On 23 August 1990, the East German parliament passed a resolution that formally cleared the path towards reunification and over the next few months, a series of treaties and protocols went back and forth between the East and West with the resolution formally signed into international law on 29th September 1990. 

1990 Day of German Unity, with flags of German states at the Reichstag building in Berlin
1990 Day of German Unity, with flags of German states at the Reichstag building in Berlin. By Bundesarchiv, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

After a few more days needed to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, the moment had finally come. At exactly midnight on 3rd October 1990, the West German flag – which now represented a united Germany once again – was raised above the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. In a quite remarkable event, considering what was coming, a women’s handball match between East and West Germany was played just five hours before reunification and involved all of the normal formalities such as the playing of the two national anthems. It became the last sporting event held between the two countries. 

In a flash, East Germany was effectively dissolved – or depending on how you want to look at it, absorbed into West Germany. This involved the East essentially becoming part of the West German constitution which had been signed in 1949, while also joining groups it was affiliated with such as the UN, NATO and the European Union. Considering they had been on the opposing side just 8 months before, it was like changing teams midway through a match. Though with the Soviet Union now circling the drain, probably a very logical switch to make.

Now, at this point, with all of the fireworks and revelry surrounding the reunification unfolding, it’s worth pointing out that this was not a universally approved idea. Several nations and numerous notable politicians at the time were entirely opposed to East and West Germany reuniting. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that some of the fiercest opposition came from the countries that had fought against Germany during the war. British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand were vehemently against reunification because of a fear of what a strong unified Germany might bring. Israel was also strongly against the idea, for quite obvious reasons I think, while the Soviets, who were contending with their own cataclysmic decline, did whatever they could to hold up the process – or at the very least, try to force Germany to become a neutral buffer between NATO states and the rest of the Warsaw pact countries, many of whom were also busily untangling themselves from Soviet domination. 

But one nation that made the difference was the United States. With the sole remaining superpower’s backing over reunification, the rest of the grumbling gang eventually fell into line, and for better or worse, the world was now dealing with a unified Germany. 

Restructuring and Reconstruction of Eastern Germany    

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the majority of the work needed after reunification came in the eastern section of Germany. Quite simply, these two sections had experienced vastly differing decades since the end of the war, resulting in two vastly differing states. The West had products, technology and ideas that had never even been seen in the East.

Large amounts of public funding, thought to be around $2 trillion over the next three decades, poured into the east, which resulted in some ‘boom’ regions that suddenly lurched forward, though unemployment gradually began to creep up and has consistently remained higher than in the west. Slowly, the dreary grey Soviet look that had been the fashionable choice for decades was replaced by more colourful buildings with more artistic expression.  

Businesses and industries that had been owned by the state before 1990 were suddenly up for sale as privatisation ripped through the old East Germany – with most of the highest bidders coming from the west, where the majority of the money was. 

Transportation had to be linked between east and west, which included the autobahn and railway connections. This wasn’t so much of an issue outside the major cities, but in Berlin, for example, it took almost a decade to link its two separate urban rail routes. Unified Germany’s new capital was a hive of construction for the next couple of decades as new government buildings, embassies, offices and apartment blocks were built throughout the city.     

For the everyday men and women in the east, building supplies were suddenly available for people to renovate their homes, while in most areas of the east, the GDP has roughly quadrupled in the thirty years since reunification. Between 1990 and 1995, gross wages in the east rose from 35% to 74% of western levels, while pensions rose from 40% to 79%. 

People in the east suddenly had a wide choice of car, rather than the standard much-maligned Trabant that had been seen throughout East Germany for decades. Goods in supermarkets, electronic products and just about everything that was part and parcel of normal western European living but had long been denied in the East, was suddenly all available. 

But what they could buy was just the tip of the iceberg. Those living in Eastern Germany could now travel freely, not just around Germany, but anywhere in the world, something that would have been unheard of before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The repressive, paranoid society created by the East German secret police, the Stasi, soon vanished and was replaced by a level of freedom and liberty unheard of in this area in living memory. 

Unified Germany Today

Today Germany stands as one of the most well-respected countries anywhere in the world. Doubts over whether a unified Germany would bring back the old imperial ways were completely unfounded and the country emerged from unification as a moderate, hard-working country that has helped to build a stronger united Europe. 

But despite this, and even after more than 30 years since East and West Germany reunited, things are still very different in Germany depending on where you live. While things have improved dramatically in the area that used to be East Germany, it has constantly lagged behind the west. Wages, GDP and property value all remain lower in the East than in the West, while unemployment remains higher, though not by much anymore. Young people in the east still often head west in such opportunities and higher wages as the overwhelming majority of major businesses and industries are still located there. 

There also remains a distinction between the people, with westerners often seen as snobbish, dishonest, wealthy, and selfish, while those in the East are sometimes stereotyped as racist, poor and largely influenced by Russian culture. 

And this brings us to our final interesting point. While attitudes may have changed in the immediate aftermath of reunification, generally speaking, in the east there remains much higher disapproval of democracy, globalisation and materialism. Now, that’s not to say that all of those in the east long for the days of communism again, far from it, but a nostalgia for a closer community that isn’t driven by money and blind greed is much more prominent in the East than in the West. It’s clear that despite communism’s many problems, some in the east at least remain receptive to the idea of socialism.

Eastern Germans report greater dissatisfaction with how the country is going and how this relates to their own futures, while also generally having a lower opinion of the EU and European membership. They also have a more favourable view of both the far-right and far-left parties in the country than in the west.    

The reunification of Germany was perhaps the grandest experiment at uniting to polarising ideologies under a single banner ever seen. As I mentioned earlier, there were many in Europe and indeed around the world, who seriously doubted whether reuniting Germany would work and how it would fit into a modern geopolitical situation. 

But it’s hard to imagine there are any left with doubts over German reunification. While differences certainly remain between the West and East, we are only talking 30 years since those dizzying days towards the end of the cold war. In that time, Germany has grown rapidly into one of the strongest, most robust economies on the planet, while emerging as one of, if not the major player in the European Union. Reunification may not have been perfect, but its knock-on effects have been nothing short of remarkable.   

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