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.
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.