Tim Bohse, born in Leipzig, journalist and a Board member at the “German-Russian Exchange” (Berlin, Germany), reflects on the 25th anniversary of the German reunification being celebrated these days:
25 years ago, in the night from 2 to 3 October 1990, five Eastern German federal lands, which had been created for this specific purpose, joined the Federal Republic of Germany. The German Democratic Republic that had been formed on the territory of the Soviet zone of occupation in 1949 did not exist anymore.
There were two milestones on the way to this historic event. On Monday, 9 October 1989, 70,000 people demonstrated on the streets in Leipzig, the second largest city in the GDR, for more democracy – in spite of threats for a “Chinese solution”. The party leaders were definitely confused by the outreach of peaceful protests in a city with half a million inhabitants.
An attempt of the government to handle the situation by liberalising the travel regulation with the Federal Republic of Germany turned out to be a disaster. After a misleading announcement by the government on a new order of issuing the visas, thousands of Eastern Germans seized border control points to West Berlin in the evening of 9 November 1989 – and this was the second historic milestone. The GDR border guards could not resist the pressure and finally let the people out. In the night, the people massively stormed into the West. The spontaneous celebration on the streets of West Berlin anticipated the later reunification of states and – thanks to TV shots – have been remembered with more empathy than 3 October 1990.
The integration of the GDR into the Federal Republic of Germany was a result of a bureaucratic and technocratic process, which was completed too fast. The GDR economy was shortly before the collapse, social and ecological situation was fatal, while the people were wishing an immediate improvement of the situation. It was not clear, for how long a Soviet support for the German reunification would last. Besides, there were British and French superstitions towards a united Germany. In both German states, many feared that freedom and good relations with European neighbours might be sacrificed for the sake of the national reunification of Germany.
The initiation of the German reunification through dissolution of the GDR and relocation of the entire institutional system from the West to the East without any all-German referendum on a joint constitution postponed the formation of an overall democratic agreement in united Germany. A hectic economic reunification process led to an almost complete deindustrialisation and severe social shocks in the former GDR, and to the depopulation of small towns in particular. Former GDR citizens personally received nothing from their common properties, even not their apartments in numerous blocks of modular prefab houses.
First of all, an “internal unity” between East and West was promoted through establishment of common political institutions, cooperation within a federal system, enormous financial transfer for modernisation of infrastructure in the new federal lands as well as stimulation of Eastern German economy.
Although there have been functioning democratic institutions in the former GDR, authoritarian, xenophobic, and anti-democratic perceptions are much more widely spread there than in the old German lands. In East Germany, there is a lack of a strong civil society as well as a lack of critical self-reflection on the history of own hometown or family – with historical layers and experiences of the Nazi regime, the Soviet occupation, and the GDR dictatorship.
Yet, even overall German debates often show that the political self-comprehension of the united German society is everything other than free from authoritarian characteristics. So, the Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea, or the war in Eastern Ukraine led to a wave of empathy only partly, whereas anti-Western hostilities and sympathy with authoritarian solutions to the conflict, concerning Europe as a whole, arose simultaneously. In the line with a negative German attitude towards Polish liberation movements of the 19th and 20th century, a quasi imperial look at “small Eastern European nations” is reflected in this respect as well.
25 years after 3 October 1990, united Germany is still a young democracy. For this country, a social contract on democratic values is not obvious, while the relation between nation, freedom, and democracy under current political challenges has been continuously discussed here.