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German fans celebrate during the 2006 soccer World Cup in Germany
The 2006 World Cup cast a positive light on GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Germany's neighbors

September 8, 2010

Europeans were initially wary of the unification of divided Germany. Now, 20 years on, Germany has been fully accepted by its European neighbors.


It was in January 1990, during a walk along the French Atlantic coast, that the then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl convinced French President Francois Mitterrand to support German unification. Mitterrand was skeptical at first, but Kohl persuaded him by pledging his commitment to European integration. With France on board, Helmut Kohl had the backing of Germany's most important European neighbor.

French sentiment had normalized in a way that it had not done to the same degree in Britain and the United States, says French political theorist and journalist Alfred Grosser. "With a few exceptions, French opinion polls show that people here saw the Germans as friends. They thought it perfectly natural that the two states should become one again," he said.

Indeed, Kohl did not have the same success with his British colleague, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She opposed a unified Germany; but she was replaced as British leader in November 1990 by her fellow Conservative Party member John Major.

Germany furthered European integration

Kohl promised that Germany would maintain the European Union course of greater integration, which he reaffirmed a year later: "Unified Germany does not want a return to the Europe of yesterday," he declared to the Bundestag. "There can been no revival of old rivalries and nationalisms. We want a new Europe - one that does not suppress our national identity, one in which countries no longer oppose one another, where no nation stands in the shadow of another, but [a Europe] in which, together, we can guarantee a future in peace and freedom, prosperity and security."

Kohl and Mitterand in 1989
Kohl's passion about European integration convinced MitterrandImage: AP

Over the 20 years since reunification, German governments of all political colors have upheld Kohl's promise: Germany championed the admission of the former East Bloc states into the EU; It paid for the EU's eastward expansion, and the Germans gave up their currency, the deutschmark, for the euro.

'German unity signifies European unity'

The reservations many of Germany's neighbors still harbored about the country they had fought in World War II gradually disappeared. Belgium, for example, had no qualms about Germany's increased size, according to political scientist Dirk Rochtus of Lessius Hogeschool university college in Antwerp.

"German unity also signifies European unity," he said. "That was clear to us here in Belgium. If the two German nations come together again, it also signifies that we have overcome the division of Europe. We see that as a good thing."

The older generation, which had lived through the German occupation of Belgium, did have doubts though. "Naturally there are older people who still have memories of that time," Rochtus said. "But generally it has to be said that the response has been quite matter-of-fact - and also that we make a distinction between a people, in this case the German people, and the regime that governed this people and headed the occupation regime in Belgium. We make a very big distinction between the two."

Poles and Czechs skeptical

Germany's neighbors to the east, Poland and the Czech Republic, also had many initial reservations. After the political upheaval they had experienced, Poles realized that Germany no longer made any claims on their country and that the German government was serious about European unity, according to Janusz Reiter, Poland's former ambassador to Bonn (1990-1995).

"Nowadays, Germany's size is no reason for its neighbors to be afraid," he said. "The relationship between Germany and Poland is still not entirely free of ambivalence and tensions, but for different reasons." Poles are well aware of Germany's economic strength, and are keen to go to their western neighbor to earn money, he added.

But there are limits, according to Polish author Andrzej Stasiuk. "Very few Poles would think of going to Germany on holiday," he said. "You don't go to Germany for fun."

Poles like Andrzej Stasiuk remain cautious when it comes to GermanyImage: picture alliance/dpa

In a recent article for German magazine Focus, Stasiuk wrote: "Germany is not to be taken for granted; Germany is equivocal. You have to keep your eyes on Germany."

Prague-based political scientist Robert Schuster believes that until the end of the 1990s Czechs were afraid of Germany - and of the possibility that Germans expelled after World War II might make claims against them. Tensions between the two only started to ease after they signed a joint declaration in 1998. The declaration addressed the wounds of the past, as well as crimes committed during and after World War II; and it also highlighted perspectives for a joint future.

"The two countries are not competing anymore," Schuster said. "They are no longer enemies, but members of a community, the EU. And members of NATO. This aspect of security policy should not be underestimated."

And he added that young Czechs - who have had the opportunity to travel to Germany, to study there and meet Germans of their own age - have a completely different image of Germans to that of the generation aged 50 and over.

Football instigated the breakthrough

The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Austria at first held back, but then gave their approval to German unification. Today, the spending power of German tourists means they are more popular than ever in their neighboring countries, although opinion polls suggest that Germans themselves don't quite believe this.

"We can't tell the difference any more between Ossis and Wessis - that is, Germans from the former East or West," said Austrian historian Oliver Radkolb.

And Germany's northern neighbor, Denmark, has also accepted the new, larger Germany, according to Danish writer Knud Romer. For decades Danes regarded the Germans as a nation of perpetrators, as did many other people in Europe, he pointed out. The breakthrough came with the soccer World Cup, which Germany hosted in 2006, he added.

"That was when I realized, for the first time, that the war was over. Finished. There's none of that anymore," Romer said. "And the Danes were cheering the Germans on."

German soccer fans cheer after Germany scored a goal at 2006 World Cup
The 2006 World Cup showed a side of the country that many had not seen beforeImage: AP

Author: Bernd Riegert (cc)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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