The German Unification 25 Years Later: Unfinished Business

The German unification of 25 years ago has proven an unprecedented experiment in social engineering and an equally unprecedented economic challenge for the country.

Quite similar to what we are encountering in Europe these days, at the beginning of the end of the GDR stood a refugee crisis: even after Walter Ulbricht resorted to constructing a wall in Berlin, the stream of people leaving the GDR did not dry up. From an all-time low of 11,300 people leaving the GDR for West Germany in 1983, the number gradually climbed again during the following years, reaching an all-time high of 343,854 in 1989. As the saying went at the time, this movement was an unmistakable “vote by feet,” and it sealed the fate of the GDR. Despite the end of the GDR, however, the drain of people from eastern Germany continues, albeit at a slower pace, to this day.

The reason for this is obvious: the realization of Chancellor Kohl’s “flourishing landscapes” is happening at a rather slow pace. East Germany is still well behind the West. In the East, economic output per capita remains at just 70 percent of that of the West, and while unemployment rates are considerably higher in the East, incomes are considerably lower, sitting at 80 percent of the Western average. Moreover, in 2013 the eastern part of Germany achieved a GDP per capita equivalent to that which the western part of the country had achieved back in 1981.

Nevertheless, some remarkable progress has been made in the economic reconstruction of the East, which basically had to be attempted from scratch, i.e. from less than 30 percent of the West German productivity level. Notably, this progress was generated by a unique drain on (West) German resources. According to recent estimates, the German unification has cost West Germany around 2 trillion euros so far, including social transfers, budget support and subsidies for modernization (Aufbau Ost). Since these monies and measures have not proven sufficient in alleviating the discrepancies between East and West, transfers currently continue to flow at a rate of 100 billion euros per year. While all post-socialist countries share the same fate, no other has enjoyed the comfortable position of East Germany, relying on financial backing of such magnitude.

The economic gap between East and West Germany is also reflected in a discrepancy of attitudes. Allegiance to democracy, for instance, is still much less pronounced in the East than the West, and in terms of social equality it is just the reverse. Whereas 89 percent of West Germans consider democracy to be the best political system for Germany, only 63 percent of East Germans agree with this (and only 33 percent of them express satisfaction with its actual functioning, as opposed to 61 percent of West Germans).

West Germany’s understanding of democracy emphasizes its liberal foundation, while the East German preference for social equality focuses on its output. But it is important to note that although these differences are still fairly pronounced among the older generations, that is, among those who spent their formative years in a divided Germany, they seem to be fading away gradually among the younger generation.

These lasting but slowly diminishing discrepancies in basic political attitudes should prompt a closer examination of propositions that attempt to engineer supposed clashes of civilizations by juxtaposing, for instance, individualistic and libertarian Western values against a collectivist and egalitarian East. Obviously, such differences have a fairly simple root cause: they have been inherited from the formerly antagonistic social systems. In other words, while 40 years of separate German development left behind traces in the public consciousness, those definitely do not suffice to shape a distinct civilization.

Compared to the domestic task, the implications of German unity were much less pronounced for the country’s foreign policy, at least initially. Certainly, Germany’s geostrategic position – previously divided on the frontline and subsequently united in the middle of Europe – changed fundamentally with its unification. But not so its geostrategic outlook and the basic tenets of German foreign policy. The best example here is Germany’s careful strategy of embedding unification in a benign and even welcoming international environment. This strategy entailed a number of painful concessions, most notably sacrificing the deutsche mark for the euro, as Paris demanded. The 14 billion DM that Germany paid the Soviet Union for the withdrawal of its Western Group of military forces seems rather modest in comparison. After all, it allegedly was one of the greatest military dislocations in peacetime, affecting around 550,000 people.

The unification gave rise to an increased German “responsibility,” which primarily referred to the need to act responsibly, that is, to act multilaterally, as opposed to unilaterally, in pursuit of an imagined “national interest” (a term largely dismissed by then and only belatedly adopted afterwards). Nonetheless, the road to eventually becoming Europe’s “central power” proved fairly long and arduous, in spite of early predictions to that effect (Die Zentralmacht Europas, Hans-Peter Schwarz, 1994). But even so, the limits of the central power are clear and set in stone: its power rests on two indispensable foundations – NATO and the European Union. This includes occasional conflicts with the US – as during the Iraq war in 2003 – and at times a particularly close relationship with Russia – as during the Schröder-Putin years – but such particularities will under no circumstances lead to unilaterally exchanging one for the other. 
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