3rd October 1990: End of the struggle for unification, beginning of the struggle for unity
The Past is a Foreign Country is the title of American historian David Lowenthal’s famous monograph. For the generations born during the previous thirty years, East and West Germany are indeed “foreign countries”. From today’s perspective, many would at first glance agree with the statement of (East) German writer Stefan Heym that the German Democratic Republic will remain nothing more than a footnote in German and world history. It is today difficult to imagine that German history could have taken a path that wouldn’t have led to not only reunification, but also to the essential dissolving of East Germany into the legal, economic, political and cultural order of the Federal Republic of Germany.
However, what seems inevitable from the subsequent perspective could not even have been predicted by the politicians or scientists dedicated to the study of the German question just a few months prior to that fateful date of 9th November 1989. “The wall will still be standing in fifty and even a hundred years,” asserted Erich Honecker, General Secretary of the East German party, in January 1989. Historians, sociologists and political scientists analysed the foreign policy stabilisation of the German Democratic Republic in the late 1980s and considered the possibilities of economic and political reforms, starting from the assumption that East Germany would remain an historical reality in the coming years and decades.
Nevertheless, in just a short period of time, the fall of the Berlin Wall turned demands for political reforms and more freedom into demands for, and then negotiations on, German unity, leading to the reunification of Germany less than a year later. The entire civil, political, economic and social system of the German Democratic Republic, which had been built over the course of decades, collapsed almost overnight.
On 3rd October 1990, the territory of the former East Germany became part of the Federal Republic of Germany, in the form of five new federal states, while East Berlin was integrated with West Berlin in the form of a distinct administrative area. The lightning speed at which events unfolded surprised everyone who had hitherto researched and written about the German question. It was a tectonic tremor, in the words of Klaus von Beyme, the “Black Friday” of the social sciences and humanities, which had been unable to predict the development of happenings.
“The wall will still be standing in fifty and even a hundred years,” asserted Erich Honecker, General Secretary of the East German party, in January 1989
At the same time, it was precisely the strength of the changes that took place that tasked scientists with explaining how they had come to pass. The consequence was the dominance of teleological interpretations of recent German history, according to which German reunification was an inevitability, to which all historical processes in the second half of the 20th century had striven towards almost linearly. Under the impression of the almost unrealistically rapid collapse and disappearance of the German Democratic Republic, in analysing that country’s past, historians began to identify shortcomings and anomalies from its inception, the consequences of which “must” have resulted in the collapse of the regime and order.
And for a considerable number of historians post-1990, there was only room for the history of West Germany in the history of Germany in the second half of the 20th century. East Germany is commonly denied any legitimacy, with its existence reduced to a kind of provisional entity that is more part of the Soviet past than the German one.
Still, after the first wave of excitement and euphoria abated, it became clear that the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe did not mark the “end of history”, just as the issue of German reunification may have been concluded on 3rd October 1990, but that only opened the issue of German unity. Even today, thirty years on, the East-West divide still exists in Germany, both economically and financially, but also politically, socially, culturally, demographically and in terms of identity. To reduce the history of East Germany to a footnote would not only be unjust to the people who lived and worked creatively in that country, and whose lives would be consigned to oblivion, but would also, first and foremost, be politically perilous. That’s because knowing and understanding Germany’s integral past is a precondition for understanding the country and its society today.
Knowing and understanding Germany’s integral past is a precondition for understanding the country and its society today
The German Democratic Republic was smaller than the Federal Republic of Germany in terms of territory and population, economically weaker and politically inferior, but it was still a state of almost 17 million inhabitants, which existed for 41 years and in which two generations of Germans grew up and brought their experiences into the common state in 1990. Furthermore, excluding the German Democratic Republic from modern German history would also mean belittling German culture, depriving it of creators like Bertolt Brecht and Anna Seghers, or Christa Wolf and Heiner Müller.
Besides that, ignoring East Germany would lead to a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, because German-on-German rivalry “hovered” over almost every social, political, economic and cultural aspect of life in both German states during the second half of the 20th century. The existence of competing German states crucially shaped the social and political climate of West Germany, as well as the foreign policy activity of the “Bonn Republic”.
The history of German reunification was not a success story for every individual. For many inhabitants of the former East Germany, adapting to the new political and social circumstances was arduous, with many losing their jobs and social security, while many felt like “second-class citizens” in the reunified Germany in the years after 1990. However, it would be a mistake to claim that the history of German reunification is a history of failure.
In the years that followed German society and institutions showed a readiness and maturity – through inquiry commissions, expert groups, school programmes, museum exhibitions, commemorations, projects, public debates etc. – to also face elections with those issues and problems that, viewed over the long term, secure German unity
Not only was it the case of a so-called “peaceful revolution”, and one that saw solutions found to numerous extremely complex political, diplomatic, legal, economic and financial issues over the course of just a months in 1990, in the years that followed German society and institutions showed a readiness and maturity – through inquiry commissions, expert groups, school programmes, museum exhibitions, commemorations, projects, public debates etc. – to also face elections with those issues and problems that, viewed over the long term, secure German unity.
Dominating the work of the Commission on the 30th Anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution and German Reunification, which was established in 2019, are topics related to the contrasting experiences of citizens from East and West Germany, with the aim of achieving better mutual understanding and social integration. Today, however, there is no talk of a “crisis of unity”, as was the case during the first decade of the existence of the “Berlin Republic”.
By Natalija Dimić, Associate Researcher, Institute for the Recent History of Serbia