The Happy Coincidence of German Unity

The fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago and the price of freedom
Opinion12.11.2019Michael Roick
Foto: Gerard Malie/AFP/Getty Images

Keyword "Freedom”

In these weeks and months numerous events and publications commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful revolutions in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe 30 years ago.

In 1989, the word "freedom" became a key term, the "return to Europe" a comprehensive formula for understanding this historical caesura. What began with the striving of individuals for the freedom of speech and art, for freedom from lies and repression, relentlessly broke new ground three decades ago - decisively supported by the reform process of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. The task now was to shape the new in politics, business and society as quickly as possible. Democratic orders were created on the basis of the rule of law and market-economy structures.

And, of course, mistakes were made, especially as there were neither blueprints nor precedents for such fundamental changes. As the British historian Tony Judt pointed out in his great "History of Europe since the Second World War" (2005), although the transition from capitalism to socialism had been "deconstructed to the point of weariness" by academia, in universities and cafeterias from Belgrade to Berkeley, no one ever came up with the idea of "drawing up a draft for the transition from socialism to capitalism".

The “Dilemma of Simultaneity"

Political scientists and sociologists at the time spoke of the "dilemma of simultaneity" - against the background of the bankrupt's estate and the destruction caused by socialism over many decades. This meant that the countries affected had to cope with at least two, if not three, transformation processes in parallel:

- political transformation (transition from dictatorship to democracy),

- economic transformation (from a planned to a market economy), and, in some cases,

- state transformation (founding of new nation states in the course of disintegration, state separation or dissolution, as was the case with the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia in 1993, Yugoslavia since 1991, etc.).

The process of German unification, which began with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of SED Party rule in the GDR, was also confronted with these dilemmas. Although the development in East Germany differed from all other societies in Central and Eastern Europe, undergoing upheaval in the perspective of unification with the larger Federal Republic, a radical reform and adaptation process was unavoidable here as well.

In the excitement and euphoria of the unexpected revolutionary events and changes, however, one could not and did not – it is to be assumed – want to recognize the depth, duration and costs of the forthcoming transformation process and probably not to discuss them either. Just as the dimension of the whole process was massively underestimated by many actors and observers involved, the productivity of the GDR economy and productive assets were initially completely overestimated. In addition, the entire process developed a pulling power and dynamism that continuously questioned or overturned all time ideas and schedules. There was no script for this process anyway.

Political and diplomatic masterpiece

In his "Ten-Point Programme to Overcome the Division of Germany and Europe" of 28 November 1989, the former German Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl still assumed a period of about a decade(!) until the regaining of state unity. In fact, the unification process – in terms of state and international law – was to be completed in less than twelve months. The unity ("reunification") of the two German states through the accession of the German Democratic Republic to the Federal Republic of Germany was completed on 3 October  1990. Without a doubt, this was a gigantic political and diplomatic masterpiece, which would probably not have been possible without the trust built and will of all those involved on the international stage ("Two-Plus-Four Treaty"). The political leaders were thus also 'forced' to manage this accelerated process against the background of a favourable international constellation, the visible decline of the GDR economy and the desire of the overwhelming majority of East Germans for rapid unification ("We are one people!"), and to shape it as well as they could.

"If the D-Mark comes, we stay, if she doesn't come, let's go join her!" (Transparent message at the beginning of 1990)

Initially, it was hoped that the rapid introduction of the Deutschmark as part of a "monetary, economic and social union" between the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR on 1 July 1990 would at least mitigate the continuing wave of emigration from East to West. In 1989-90 alone, some 400,000 people left the still existing GDR every year for the West. However, this trend was to continue in the following years. Of course, the fact that citizens were called to vote twice during this period must not be ignored. The last election to the GDR People's Chamber –  at the same time the only election that corresponded to democratic principles – took place on 15 March 1990, followed by the first all-German parliamentary election on 2 December 1990 to the “Bundestag”. The slogans of the election campaigns ranged from economic warnings against too rapid a unification to promises of a "new economic miracle" that were difficult to justify. Much quoted in this context to this day is a statement by Chancellor Kohl in July 1990 to transform the new federal states "soon again into flourishing landscapes". This of course created expectations that had to be disappointed shortly afterwards.

The discussions about mistakes, disappointments and omissions in the course of the unification process, which continue to this day – 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall – should not, however, obscure the fact that German unification was "one of the unfortunately far too rare great moments in German history". (Gerhard A. Ritter, historian).