By Arab News
By Cornelia Meyer*
The 30th anniversary of the reunification of Germany, which was a great achievement and marked a major geopolitical shift by peaceful means, falls on Saturday.
This should not detract from that fact that the journey to a unified Germany had its pitfalls and that the transition has not always been smooth — especially not for the “new states,” which joined the Federal Republic from the East in 1990.
Those of us old enough to remember have the images of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Oct. 9, 1989, indelibly ingrained in our memories; including a youthful David Hasselhoff belting out “Looking for Freedom” on the remnants of the wall on Dec. 31 that year.
Ten months later, East and West Germany were reunified under the Two Plus Four Agreement between the two Germanies and the victors of the Second World War — the US, UK, France and Russia, which relinquished all of their claims in the country. A lot of this was down to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who seized the opportunity to end 45 years of division.
The German Democratic Republic (GDR) had crumbled amid glasnost (openness), economic mismanagement and a crushing debt load. Just before the fall of the wall, the planning chief of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), the GDR’s governing party, announced that the country’s economy was not sustainable unless the standard of living declined by 25 to 30 percent, so dire was the situation.
In a multitude of “round tables,” GDR citizens from all walks of life and parties pondered the next steps. Churches played an important role, just as they had done in the resistance to the SED regime. There were many talks with the government in Bonn (then the capital of the Federal Republic). Then, on Nov. 28, 1989, Kohl announced his 10-point program for the reunification of the two Germanies.
This was audacious. Kohl had only discussed it with US President George H.W. Bush, who had approved the plan. The French, the Russians and especially UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were fearful of what a unified Germany would mean for the geopolitical power balance between east and west, as well as for the European continent. Thatcher is said to have quipped: “We beat the Germans twice, and now they’re back.” She tried to place several barriers along the road to reunification. Meanwhile, Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand had a good understanding because the Franco-German axis was a force to contend with in the EU’s predecessor, which had 12 members at the time.
Mikhail Gorbachev was the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its president. The end of the GDR and the fall of the Berlin Wall would not have been possible without his glasnost policy, nor would the peaceful reunification of Germany. Still, he was wary of what a unified Germany would mean for the Warsaw Pact — not least he feared the eastward expansion of NATO.
It was a stroke of genius by Kohl to seize the moment as he did. In hindsight, reunification was only possible with Gorbachev at the Soviet levers of power. In August 1991, there was a failed coup attempt against the much-weakened leader, who was replaced by Boris Yeltsin later that year.
Yeltsin would not have been in a position to make the necessary concessions to allow German reunification. Times were more turbulent then and the Soviet Union dissolved. In 1999, Vladimir Putin rose to power. He has always been about restoring the power of Russia, not about making concessions.
The reunification was a success, particularly because it took place peacefully and because the reunified Germany has been a force for good in the global community, NATO and the EU.
This does not mean to say that it was always easy. Firstly, Kohl insisted on a one-to-one conversion of the GDR mark to the FRG mark. This raised many eyebrows, given the productivity differential between the two.
To this day, the new states fare badly in comparison to the rest of the country. When capitalism came to the former East Germany, many companies could not weather the storm and there were fewer and fewer jobs. This led to the young seeking their fortunes in the west.
Now, more than 26 percent of the population in the new states are aged 65 or over, while the figure is only 21 percent in the former West Germany. Workers in eastern Germany earn on average about €8,400 ($9,800) less per year and people living in the west are 225 percent wealthier. There is only one judge from the new states in all the country’s senior courts, none of the universities has a chancellor from the former east, and, out of the 200 largest companies in the land, only two are led by people hailing from the former GDR.
This may explain why the new states are generally less in favor of immigration and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. They feel left behind and wonder why refugees are afforded more support upon coming to Germany than they were during the heady days of reunification. This goes a long way to explaining why the far-right Alternative for Germany party wins between 20 and 30 percent of the votes in the new states, while it only achieves between 5 and 15 percent in the west.
While the discrepancy between the old and new states is a problem, it is by no means insurmountable: In recent years, young people have returned to the east and companies have relocated there, taking advantage of high educational standards and economic incentives. Let us also not forget that Merkel hails from the east, as does former President Joachim Gauck.
No big transition has ever taken place without its glitches, and what matters in this case is that the reunification was peaceful and that the reunified Germany has taken its just place in the family of nations. It boasts the world’s fourth-largest economy and has had a stabilizing influence on the world stage. Merkel was a sought-after negotiator in many conflicts, such as the one between Ukraine and Russia. Similarly, the EU would never have been able to pass this year’s €750 billion pandemic recovery fund had it not been for the cooperation between Germany and France. On balance, the experiment of German reunification has been a big success.
- Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources