By Greta Gietz
To commemorate and celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Davidson College was honored to host Kurt Biedenkopf, an incremental figure in German reintegration as the Free State of Saxony’s Minister-President (1990-2002) and President of the Bundesrat (1999-2000). During his keynote lecture on November 5th, Biedenkopf argued that successful reintegration requires “ingenuity, improvisation, and innovation” as well as “a cooperative populace.” These were all characteristics present in Germany and helped German reunification become a global model on peaceful reintegration. And who would know this better than King Kurt himself?
The differences between East and West are still evident in Germany, despite being a model for reintegration. The German news outlet Die Zeit published a fascinating study of various quality of life indicators in West and East Germany. The study showed persistent disparities. West Germany is wealthier. East Germany suffers from higher unemployment and an aging population. East German teams are not represented in the country’s Bundesliga, the first professional soccer league. The rise of right-wing parties, particularly the AfD, is also concentrated in the East, not the West.
However, these regional inequalities are not as drastic as in other Western countries and should not undermine the successes of Germany’s smooth reintegration after 1989/90. Germany had several economic, social, and political advantages in ameliorating reintegration.
Firstly, the process of joining two states is easier in wealthy states. West Germany was able to absorb the East’s debts, financial troubles, and has the resources to invest in rebuilding the region. With reunification, new markets and consumers allowed vast economic possibilities to reach the East. Less wealthy states in Eastern Europe had a much harder transition in this sense.
Politically, Germany’s federal system warrants the sixteen states with ample influence on their internal affairs. The five East German states had personal responsibility and some level of autonomy in the reintegration process. Despite the West appointing most of the police force and government officials in the East, many of the integration policies were decentralized. Furthermore, the Federal Republic of Germany was created on very provisional terms in 1949. The constitution was called Grundgesetz, Fundamental Law, not constitution, and the state was preparing for reunification from its conception, as unlikely as this seemed at times. The two German states were initially founded as manifestations of the Cold War when they were occupied by the Allied powers in the West and the Soviet Union in the East. Policies were implemented by the occupying powers and the government was not of or by the people. There was little independence at first and a broken national ego. These characteristics helped shaped East and West Germany as one divided country not two separate states from the get-go.
The social and cultural ties were perhaps most important in a smooth reintegration process. Almost all German families had relatives on the other side of the wall and stayed in touch with them through letters and packages. West Germans sent brand products that East Germans had admired on TV commercials, for example. This helped people on each side feel in touch with the other and created a type of understanding of the other’s reality. East Germans were also able to receive western TV and radio stations. This prepared them to enter a free market society after the fall of the wall. They had a kind of familiarity with the West and even idealized it. Many yearned for the luxuries that were forbidden for them in the GDR, such as vacations abroad, and most East Germans welcomed reunification because they could finally enjoy this idealized lifestyle. If you imagine a reversal of the situation requiring West Germans to integrate into the communist system, reunification would have been a lot more difficult, if not impossible. Both sides cooperated with the process.
1989 was Germany’s first peaceful revolution, but the state has been internally criticized by victims of the GDR for sweeping the regime’s crimes under the rug. Former prisoners, for example, argue that the reunified German state did not punish the perpetrators harshly enough. In comparison to the countless trials uncovering the crimes of the Third Reich in West Germany after World War Two, Germany was hesitant in inspecting the cruelties that went on behind the iron curtain.
But if Germany had done so, would the transition have been as peaceful? In this situation, Biedenkopf explained, a government has to make a difficult decision to find the right balance between justice, truth, and reconciliation. To what extent do you concentrate on healing the wound of partition without ripping open other or old wounds? The German state completed reintegration and reconciliation by pacifying the population, creating a common future and not dwelling on the evils of the past. Biedenkopf drew on the example of the US Civil War where re-pacification took almost a century. Germany avoided this.
This strategy can also backfire. In Sri Lanka, a country with deeply divided along ethnic lines, the government completely ignored the crimes committed during the country’s bloody civil war. Instead it has further oppressed parts of its populace and failed to pacify or reconcile Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese majority had marginalized the minority Tamils for the better part of the 20th century since independence. When the Tamil Tigers launched an insurgency and the thirty year long civil war occurred, the Sinhalese-led government and military completely annihilated the Tamil-inhabited North of the island, killing many civilians. To this day, five years after the Sinhalese defeated the Tamils, the extent of the war crimes committed is unclear. The defeated Tamils live amidst war ruins as the disempowered minority. They are closely surveyed by the omnipresent military and stripped of economic, political, and social power. The north is cut off from any foreign influence. While the state has installed rehabilitation and reconciliation programs, these are not to empower the disheartened minority but to assimilate them to the Sinhalese majority and rid them of any Tamil identity that could spark another rebellion.
A quarter of a century after reunification, Germany is further than most could have hoped. But after 40 years of partition the differences between the West and East remain apparent. Biedenkopf’s prediction in the early years of a unified Germany has proven to be right: the process of reintegration would take at least one or two generations.
Image Source: Washington Post