Letter From Berlin: Twenty Years After | The Nation


Letter From Berlin: Twenty Years After

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The cold, driving rain seemed to take nothing away from the ceremony and celebration at Brandenburg Gate on November 9, the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall's breach. German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted the world's powerful to toast the peaceful revolutions of 1989 for felling Soviet communism. Even though hunched under umbrellas, the speakers appeared genuinely moved by the commemoration, arguably of one of Europe's finest moments.

About the Author

Paul Hockenos
Paul Hockenos, a writer living in Germany, is working on a book about Berlin.

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The security mania and spending orgy of our present-day Olympics were truly born that tragic September, forty years ago. 

Yet a stroll down the main streets of one of eastern Germany's depressed cities, like Wittenberg, of Luther fame, or the former industrial hub of Halle, tells another story, of a revolution that delivered liberty but not prosperity. Storefronts are boarded up; whole blocks of tenement housing have been ripped down, the consequence of unrelenting depopulation. Since 1989 Halle has lost a third of its people. Long laid-off factory workers drive taxis in these places, where just about anybody with marketable skills has picked up and left. Cities like Wittenberg and Halle are the losers of unification. But there are winners, too. The boomtowns like Dresden, Jena and Leipzig in southeastern Saxony have bypassed the poorer cities in the west. Across much of eastern Germany unemployment has tapered off, and--until the recent economic crisis hit--salaries were creeping closer to those in the west.

Two full decades after the breach of the Berlin Wall, German unification remains unfinished business, with no guarantee of a happy ending. For every speck of light on the horizon, there are more depressed backwaters and new setbacks. Even though "Silicon Saxony" features the east's showcase cities, overall economic conditions in Saxony still lag far behind the west's worst-off state. This, however, certainly isn't something you heard from Germany's newly elected conservative leadership at the Brandenburg Gate. Remarkably, the condition of the eastern states isn't a prominent topic in the Federal Republic; during the recent election campaign, even Germany's eastern-born chancellor didn't bring it up unless she was pressed. (That said, Angela Merkel didn't address any substantive issue unless pressed; this apparently accounts for her high popularity.) Dwelling on the downsides of unification comes off as unpatriotic or just plain whiny. Jammer-Ossis, or belly-aching easterners, is a tag for this type.

But vast miscalculations made twenty years ago have had sweeping implications for Germany, in ways that the fathers of unification, foremost among them George H.W. Bush and former chancellor Helmut Kohl, never intended. The unification that Bush and Kohl drove forward--a one-sided expansion of the Federal Republic eastward--was conceived to change the postwar, American-allied state as little as possible, save make it bigger. In this they mostly succeeded. But the hubris and insensitivity of the Western leaders set processes in motion that have fractured the country in other ways. As it turns out, one of the east's lasting contributions to the republic is something Bush and Kohl surely thought impossible after wrapping up the cold war: a full-blown socialist party with electoral support in both parts of the country.

One Country, Two Societies

Although Germans overwhelmingly accept the fact of unification (there is no separatist movement brewing), the way it was implemented has bred deep frustration and resentment on both sides. During the cold war, Social Democrat Willy Brandt spoke of Germany being "one nation, two states." The Federal Republic today is one country but with two societies. One opinion poll after another reveals a country not only starkly divided, but increasingly so: the surveys conducted by pollsters, media, think tanks and universities show the rifts in the republic widening, despite the fact that some of the economic indicators have taken a turn for the better. Only 31 percent of Germans think eastern and western Germans constitute a single nation. Sixty-four percent of easterners say they feel like second-class citizens, and over three-quarters claim they are disadvantaged compared with their countrymen in the west. Fifty-seven percent of eastern Germans stick up for the former East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), saying it had "more good sides than bad sides." And economically, the gulf between the east and west remains glaring. Joblessness is still twice as high in the east. This is the case despite the astronomical west-to-east payments (totaling over a trillion dollars) that persist to this day, as do the east-west tensions they generate.

The lion's share of responsibility for this lies with the former West Germany's political elite, foremost Chancellor Kohl, who pushed through unification as fast as possible and lied to the easterners about their economic prospects. But it is entirely disingenuous of the easterners today to claim (84 percent according to one poll) that this system was foisted upon them without their say. Every step of the way between November 1989 (fall of the Wall) to October 1990 (unification), the GDR's citizens had a voice in charting their future--and they threw in their lot with Kohl. Rather than retain the initiative and spirit ("We are the people!") of the street protests of autumn 1989, as some of the dissident groups urged, the majority meekly handed over power to the West Germans at the first opportunity.

In the first free election ever in East Germany, in March 1990, the Christian Democrats won hands down, while the grassroots citizens groups that led the "peaceful revolution" captured just 3 percent of the vote. This was a cruel slap to the first-hour activists who had risked so much to confront the communist regime. But it accurately illustrated the relationship of the dissidents and independent-minded Protestant pastors to the bulk of the population, which had tolerated - some more, some less grudgingly--the rule of dictatorship until the protests took off in autumn 1989. Most risked nothing by the time they appeared on the streets, and they were unwilling to risk anything when it came to the future, either.

It's easy to forget that there were an array of options for the two Germanys on the table at the time, including third-way concepts for the economy, a federation of the two German states, a new all-German constitution and participation in a pan-European security network. There were calls to incorporate some of the redeemable aspects of the GDR into the new unified Germany, like its more liberal abortion laws, the network of childcare facilities that enabled young mothers to work and its egalitarian educational system. At the very least, an all-German constitutional congress would have given the easterners some stake in the state they were joining. But these ideas were quickly swept aside by the juggernaut of unification, powered by the votes and new mood ("We are one people!" "Helmut, Helmut!") of the easterners. When the Federal Republic incorporated the territory of the GDR within its legal framework on October 3, 1990, there wasn't a murmur of dissent from those who now claim they were unfairly colonized.

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