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Germany

A grand celebration of unity

On the night of October 3, 1990 thousands of people celebrated German reunification in Berlin. That night was the culmination of months of difficult negotiations, months when it wasn't at all clear how it all would end.

A celebration of German reunification in front of Brandenburg Gate on October 3, 1990

The night of reunification Germans celebrated with fireworks and flags

As the night sky lit up with fireworks on October 3, 1990, many people stood below with tears in their eyes. They were witnessing a historic moment that neither the Germans nor the rest of Europe had been sure was possible.

The citizens of the German Democratic Republic had overthrown their country's communist system and chased their leaders from office with a peaceful revolution. Not one gun had been fired, no violence had been used and no one had been hurt. On that day 20 years ago, East Germany joined West Germany to become one country.

Just before the fireworks began, German President Richard von Weizsaecker put German reunification in the context of European unity. "We Germans are conscious of our responsibilities and hope to work toward peace in a united Europe," he said.

Rudolf Seiters

It was a sleepless night for Seiters before reunification

Rudolf Seiters, the then-head of the German Chancellery, had just gotten through some busy months himself. As a confidant of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, he'd been present at several key events in the run-up to reunification. He had spent the night before the unification ceremony at the Bundeshaus, the West German government's home in Berlin during the years when the capital was in Bonn. But it was impossible to sleep with his mind full of the events that had led up to this day.

"I thought about my negotiations for the freedom of the embassy refugees, the image of Hans-Dietrich Genscher on the balcony of the German embassy in Prague, the speech I gave to parliament when the Berlin Wall came down because Helmut Kohl was in Warsaw," he said, "and then the incredibly important speech that Helmut Kohl gave in front of the Frauenkirche in Dresden.

323 busy, exciting days

Just 323 days passed from the fall of the Berlin Wall to reunification. For the political leaders of the two Germanys those days were full of complicated negotiations and far-reaching decisions. In East Germany, nothing would stay the same.

East Berliners celebrate the victory of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)

East Berliners celebrate the victory of their party after East Germany's first free elections

Following the first free elections in East Germany in March 1990, the newly elected officials turned their centralized communist country into a federal system that could easily be united with West Germany to form one country. The government surveillance program was dismantled and the deutschmark was introduced. All in less than a year.

The rush was not without reason. Reform movements across Eastern Europe had come to a head and the people were in uproar. They wanted the freedom to travel and they wanted a change in political systems.

The massive protests had been triggered by the Glasnost and Perestroika reforms in the Soviet Union. "It was meant to be a very carefully controlled process," said Seiters. "It wasn't just those in Moscow who were worried, but also people in Western European countries as well."

All eyes on Germany

The move to unite the two Germanys was looked upon with skepticism in a few European capitals. There was a fear of a strong, united Germany at the center of the European continent. French President Francois Mitterrand was not a fan of the idea and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was openly against reunification at first.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is welcome by French President Francois Mitterrand on the steps of the Elysee presidential palace

Eventually Mitterand and Thatcher came to accept a united Germany

The developments in Europe met with resistance in the Soviet Union as the former world power lost its influence over the countries in the Warsaw Pact, the counterbalance to NATO. In the West there were concerns that a coup overthrowing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev could put German reunification at risk.

The Germans were lucky with their timing. There wasn't any international development at the time that distracted the world from the German reunification process. A few months later and it could have all gone differently.

In early August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait and declared its lands a new Iraqi province. In mid-1991 the world held its breath again as several generals and part of the Red Army did attempt a coup against Gorbachev. If these events had taken place a year earlier, they would have made the German reunification process more difficult and probably more drawn-out. Instead Germany took center stage in geopolitics during those 323 days.

Elections for a united Germany

Two months after reunification Germany-wide parliamentary elections were held for the first time since 1932. West Germany's ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and the economically liberal Free Democrats were the clear winners. Helmut Kohl went from being the chancellor of West Germany to being the first chancellor of a reunified Germany.

Author: Matthias von Hellfeld / hf
Editor: Rina Goldenberg

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