Risen From Ruins? Germany 30 Years After the Peaceful Revolution

4 mins read

By Jonas Reichert

Even as we approach the thirtieth jubileum of the German reunification in 2020, the marks of forty years as a divided country are still visible and shape German politics. The process was difficult and not free from mistakes. Today the identities as “Ossis” (East Germans) and “Wessis” (West Germans) are still strong. The eastern parts are economically still less well of compared to the western parts. This problems need to be addressed in order to keep the ever more polarized country together.

Let’s look back at history first. The fall of the Berlin wall was the result of a peaceful revolution which lead to the fall of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) and the opening of the borders. The fall was triggered by accident, when Günter Schabowski, then spokesman of the Politbüro, incorrectly announced that new travel regulations would come into effect immediately. The following run to the border crossings caused the full opening of the border the same night. The next day the demolition of the wall had already started. Since this even happened as a surprise, no specific plans or preparations for the transition to an open and democratic German Democratic Republic (GDR) and even a reunified Germany were made. Even as some general concepts were drawn up during the former forty years, most decisions had to be made through improvisation and under time pressure.

The following time was shaped by a political transformation towards a parliamentary democracy, which ended with the eastern territories joining the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). This step was pushed by the West German Christian Democrats (CDU), but was not necessarily the will of all the citizens of the GDR. According to a survey from December 1989, conducted by a West German state broadcaster and the magazine Der Spiegel, only twenty-seven percent favored the reunification while seventy-one wanted a sovereign and democratic GDR. But in the end the new, freely elected parliament of the GDR accepted a motion to join the FRG in August 1990.

With the reunification, the social market economy was introduced and all the state property was privatised. To perform this task, the “Treuhand-Anstalt” (“Trust Agency”) was established. While the work of the Treuhand was considered a success from the state side, it was also subject of heavy criticism. The leadership consisted of West Germans, who are accused of having acted for the good of West German companies instead of the good of the people. Cases of embezzlement, fraud and other kinds of criminal activities in connection to the privatisations are supposed to have caused damages of several billion German Marks. 

Furthermore, the East German economy collapsed following the reunification. Two years after the reunification, the industrial production in the former GDR was down by seventy-three percent compared with 1989. Nearly a third of all workers lost their jobs. This was caused partly by the normalization of the artificially lowered unemployment rate in the GDR, but mainly by the breakdown of East German companies. Many were closed down or forced to fire workers by the Treuhand as they were seen as not competitive enough. There are reported cases when the closure of factories by the Treuhand was motivated by the protection of West German companies. Another issue was the introduction of the West German Deutsche Mark (DM) as a currency in the GDR in 1990. Working for decades in the protectionist sphere of the GDR, many companies could not compete anymore, similarly to what happened to southern European countries during the Euro crisis. 

Almost thirty years later, not all of these effects are undone. Even as the wage level in the former territories of the GDR has reached eighty-five percent of that in the west and is even lower if you take the different costs of living into account, the differences are still there. The GDP per capita was in 2016 twenty-seven percent lower in the east than in the west. The share of low wage workers, which earn less than two thirds of the median wage is twice as large. Long-term poverty is six times as common. And a person grown up in the GDR has one year shorter life expectancy due to the stress caused by the big changes in the time of the reunification. Billions of marks were spent on the “Aufbau Ost” (“Development of Eastern Germany”) for prestige projects like the reconstruction of the historic city centers of Rostock, Leipzig and Stralsund. Meanwhile the rural areas are left behind and lack often a sufficient public transport system, shops and medical supplies. 

Also in the mind of the people the division prevails. On the one side, the East Germans are seen as lazy and unthankful, the West Germans are seen as arrogant and pejorative towards the life stories and achievements of East Germans. The people born in the former GDR feel not fully recognized in their education and achievements. This struggle prevents the formation of a common identity. Even a huge proportion of the people born in the united Germany consider themselves as belonging to the GDR.

The reunification is sometimes also perceived as a colonization as the process has favored mainly West Germans. The Treuhand, which employed a majority of East Germans, but only had one East German on the board, has sold eighty percent of the property to West Germans, fifteen percent to foreigners and only five percent to East Germans. In the privatisation process, companies were evaluated by a panel consisting of consultants, who valued economic competitiveness over social factors. The economic miracle happened only in the west, where companies gained around three-hundred billion Mark in assets. And still today no head of a German university has been born in East German, so the region is massively underrepresented in the academic leadership. All this furthers the feeling of being the loser of the reunification and even being colonized by the west. Since they lost their economic decision-making in favor of the west, the East Germans have in a way lost the power over their own fate.

The reunification could therefore have been considered a failure. Many mistakes were made. But considering that the two parts lived divided for more than forty years under different political and economic systems, standing on two different sides of the Cold War and went through a reunification process that had no other example in history, the result still seems acceptable. But the mistakes of the past have to be mended. There have to be massive investments in the infrastructure of rural areas in the east. More East Germans have to be in leadership positions in politics and business. And there most a dialog to reduce prejudice in order to form a common identity in a united Europe. So that the sun beautiful as never before over Europe shines.

Cover photo: AC Almelor

Jonas Reichert is an exchange student from Heidelberg in the south of Germany, where he does a degree in Physics. Besides his interests in life outside Earth, he can be found on most times in debating tournaments. In Sweden he tries to figure out how to bake and how to survive the winter.

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