On October 3 1990 Germany was united and the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist, becoming, as the GDR writer Stefan Heym put it, a “nothing more than a footnote in world history.”
Germany owes its unification primarily to the resolute actions of the East German population which took advantage of the atmosphere created by perestroika in the Soviet Union to demand an end to a repressive government that imprisoned its own citizens behind the Berlin Wall. But it also owes its unification to decisions made by Mikhail Gorbachev not to use force to keep the GDR regime in power and to the commitment of the United States and its allies to support the peaceful integration of East Germany into West Germany.
On this anniversary, it is worth remembering why Germany was divided. In 1945, the victorious powers argued about what should happen to Germany but were all agreed that it should not threaten European security again as it had done twice in the twentieth-century. When the USSR and the three Western occupying powers failed to agree on a joint plan of action, the United States, France and Britain introduced currency unification in their respective zones of occupation. The Soviets responded with the Berlin blockade and, once that was broken, the two German states emerged in 1949. Both had limited sovereignty and ceded rights to the four occupying powers until 1990. Berlin became in essence a frozen conflict, the site of several tense standoffs between the Soviet Union and the West during the Cold War.
For four decades, the Western powers supported West Germany, eventually including it in NATO and the European Union. It became a prosperous democracy, with a picturesque—albeit modest—capital, Bonn. East Germany also became one of the most prosperous states in the Warsaw Pact, largely because of the special and preferential economic relationship it enjoyed with West Germany. But for forty years it struggled to gain legitimacy both from the outside world and from its own population. Anyone who has seen the film “The Lives of Others” understands that the Ulbricht and Honecker regimes dealt with this problem by creating one of the most efficient police states in the world where one in ten citizens was an informer.
When Gorbachev came to power, he understood that the Soviet-dominated system in Eastern Europe could not continue as it was, but he did not initially intend to dismantle the Soviet bloc. Rather, he wanted to rejuvenate it, encouraging East European leaders to unleash their own perestroika. But the East German regime viewed both glasnost and perestroika as a threat to its very survival. When Soviet journals began to publish articles about previously taboo subjects in the history of Soviet -German relations, those journals were banned in the GDR. As Erich Honecker famously said, just because my neighbor changes his wallpaper, why should I. Reading the archives of the East German Communist Party reveals widespread condescension by the East Germans toward their Russian fraternal allies.
As change began to engulf Eastern Europe, and the East German population’s protests grew, Gorbachev was faced with a dilemma. Maintaining the regime in East Berlin in power would require the large-scale use of force. When Gorbachev came to East Berlin to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the GDR, he was treated as a hero by the population and grasped that this was a revolutionary situation. When Honecker wanted to use force, the Soviet soldiers were told to stay in their barracks.
A few weeks later, on the fateful night of November 9, 1989, when East Berliners marched to the wall demanding that it be opened, the hapless border guard had no instructions about how to handle a peaceful crowd. He only had orders to shoot to kill those who were trying to forcefully breach the wall. Eventually, after no-one in East Berlin or Moscow answered the phone to tell him what to do, he opened the border and the rest was history.
Twenty-five years after unification, Germany has become the leading power in Europe, both an economic and a political powerhouse. It has emancipated itself from dependence on foreign powers and views itself as main driver of an integrated Europe. Because of Germany’s dark twentieth-century past, it remains committed to the success of the European project, because a return to national states would revive the specter of nationalism and conflict. The current triple crises of Ukraine, Greece and migrants is the greatest challenge that the European Union has ever faced and only Germany can lead the way to a solution.
Despite the success of unification, Germany in some ways remains a divided nation. Unification altogether has cost an estimated 2 trillion euros, but Eastern Germany remains less prosperous than Western Germany. It turns out that there was a separate East German identity that persists certainly among the older generation. And “Ostalgie”, nostalgia for the GDR, has again become fashionable. Forty years of living in a socialist state continues to leave its mark socially and politically.
Because of the Soviet role in facilitating unification, Berlin has always believed that it owes a special debt of gratitude to Moscow and that it uniquely understands Russia’s difficulties in the transition away from the socialist system because it experienced similar problems after the collapse of the Third Reich. Until the onset of the Ukraine crisis it was committed to engaging Russia and encouraging a Partnership for Modernization. However, the events of the past eighteen months have called that commitment into question and have sharply divided German society over how to view Russia. Twenty-five years after unification, the German-Russian relationship may be entering a new and more unpredictable phase.