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Morality and Law
Why Narrative of a Unified Germany Is Still Missing

Overall, the fall of the Berlin wall is seen positively by both East and West Germans to the same extent. What is missing, however, is a common narrative of what Germany is all about. The historical experiences of East and West Germany have not combined to form a foundation for a new, inclusive German identity, as opposed to the concept of “Germany plus the East,” writes Valdai Club expert Reinhard Krumm.

Predictions about the outcome of German unification could not have been more diverse. Arthur Miller, the famous American playwright and essayist, titled his essay in the New York Times in May 1990 “Uneasy about the Germans”. He was wondering if the democratic system of the Federal Republic of Germany had been “simply a matter of historical convenience invented by foreigners”. And if that was a good enough foundation for unification with a non-democratic East Germany.

The active citizens of East Germany had a different perspective. They had begun a peaceful revolution without interference from abroad and were chanting “Wir sind ein Volk” (We are one people). For these demonstrators, the end of the falsely named German Democratic Republic was the only way to become free. Unification was thus clearly the logical consequence, even if some politicians in East and West were envisioning two Germanies, at least for a while. But history did not allow such a scenario. 

And now, thirty years later, Wolfgang Schäuble, the president of the German parliament, has called the German unification a “historical stroke of luck”. He noticed that the Germans were the last to believe in coming together after having been divided after the Second World War. There were no plans in any ministerial drawer, “that was the last thing one could have imagined”. But it happened. 

Since then every year on the occasion of the official unification day, the 3rd of October, the Germans and their neighbours wonder how successful this enormous endeavour has been and whether the gap between East and West has narrowed or completely vanished. Needless to say, the analyses have changed from year to year, but the final verdict is still out.


The German state initially initiated a complex system of monetary transfers from West to East. Since Germany is a federation of states, it was in the interest of the government to strengthen the finances, infrastructure and education in the five Eastern states. The money was allocated by the Western states and by the federal government. A tax was introduced requiring every citizen in Germany to help fund reforms in the East. 

Many things have changed for the better. But not all. Both societies, East and West, had to cope with the challenges of a powerful globalisation from the 1980s on. Traditional industrial companies had to modernise, their blue collar workers adapting and moving on to become white collar workers in the rapidly growing service industry. The middle class in both societies had to adapt and began to converge. Still, in the East the upper class remains less prosperous than in the West. 

Wealth distribution is uneven because of East Germany’s long history under communist rule. Reparations had to be paid to the Soviet Union; private property was only allowed to a limited extent. There is a different picture if one looks at the differences in income. In 1993 East Germans earned about 72 per cent of the West German income; by 2018 it was 89 per cent. Because of the difference in purchasing power, this discrepancy is seen by experts as even smaller. 

Travelling through the Eastern parts of Germany, one sees evidence of the investment in infrastructure and modernisation of urban centres. Many parts of East Germany look more modern than the West. Phone lines are partly more reliable, motorways are smooth and new, airports well designed and functional. This positive transformation can be seen not only in Eastern Germany but also in many Central and Eastern European countries as well. 

Living conditions in East and West are beginning to converge. Citizens’ lives are becoming more similar and reported life satisfaction is almost the same, especially among men and women from 20 to 30 years of age. Leipzig is the hippest student town. Only among people over the age of 65 do the differences between East and West remain significant. In general, there is an underlying feeling in Germany that a lot of progress has been made in increasing the standard of living in the East. 

But a unification of the minds has not yet been accomplished.
Old clichés die hard: Easterners think that Westerners are arrogant and unable to understand the hardships that the other half of Germans had to endure. Westerners think that Easterners are not grateful enough and are partly unwilling to take their destiny into their own hands because of a lack of self-motivation.

One of the pluses of unification, the support and guidance provided by the West, turned out to be a minus in the eyes of citizens in the East. Not only were their expectations for a better life unrealistically high, but also the hope for a true unification, as opposed to an “Anschluss” — an annexation in the sense of Germany’s incorporation of Austria in 1938. In other words, they desired to come together on equal terms, rather than simply being swallowed up by the West. Such an approach could have included a commission to discuss a revised German constitution — as stipulated in the West German constitution for just such an eventuality. Instead East Germany was simply added to the existing state. 

Also, the managing of the economic reforms through the Treuhand-Gesellschaft (German Trust company), which took over or closed almost all the East German industries, still leaves a bitter taste. The British historian Alexander Clarkson has used the word “humiliation” — which a substantial number of East Germans still feel. After all, the Easterners had to change almost everything about their lives, whereas the West basically continued with its status quo. The glorious pride of Poles or Estonians in their newly won independence after decades under the communist regime is partly lacking among East Germans. 

In other former Eastern Bloc countries, the leaders of the peaceful revolutions went straight into the executive branch: Vaclav Havel in Prague, Lennart Meri in Estonia and Lech Walesa in Poland, to name a few. They were able to shape the future of their respective countries taking into account the historical experiences and grievances. They introduced — and learned to cope with — new rules and values together with their people. That was different in the united Germany. 

Even though German chancellor Angela Merkel is from East Germany, the majority of the nation’s elite (prime ministers of the 16 states, CEOs of major companies, heads of media companies) are predominantly from West Germany. The transfer of Western elites to the East has slowed somewhat, but still occurs. Even in the East, West Germans hold the majority of leadership positions. One of the reasons is that West Germans used their networks and connections, which the East Germans lost after unification when their old elite crumbled. 

There still remain some differences of perspective in the two halves of the country. A state commission to encourage better East-West relations became bogged down in disputes about the appropriate quota of East and West Germans before it could even begin work. A proposal to commemorate national unification not on the 3rd of October but on the 9th, the day the demonstrations began in Leipzig, in 1989, received no support. The number of novels from East German authors about the mistakes of unification is increasing. East Germans still identify themselves first as East Germans, then as Germans; West Germans make no such distinction. 

Still, the fact of unification itself is not questioned. Overall, the fall of the Berlin wall is seen positively by both East and West Germans to the same extent. What is missing, however, is a common narrative of what Germany is all about. The historical experiences of East and West Germany have not combined to form a foundation for a new, inclusive German identity, as opposed to the concept of “Germany plus the East”. According to a recent report from the Bertelsmann Stiftung, there are three major topics that could be a starting point to unite both Easterners and Westerners in a common conversation: 

1. A positive narrative of Germany, including responsibility for the past 
2. A need to prepare for a future in which work will be differently organised than ever before
3. A sense of solidarity in times of climate change, societal change and digital change 

It is clear that the unification of Germany is an ongoing process. This is true for transformations in general, as we can see not only in the East but in the West as well. Arthur Miller was sceptical, even uneasy, about the Germans. In his essay he asks how deeply democratic rules are anchored in Germany, “how sacred they are, and if they will hold in hard times”. 

Who would have thought that three decades later such doubts about democracy’s resilience are more likely to be raised about the US itself, with Germany, by comparison, seeming by far the more stable and reliable democratic country. German democracy stood firm despite the difficulties of uniting two very different political systems and now is in a strong position to face the numerous challenges of an uncertain future.
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Expert Opinions
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