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A collage of the Berlin Wall, Brandenburger Gate and a German flag
16 years on, reunification no longer stirs strong emotions in GermanyImage: dpa

Divided Unity

Toma Tasovac
October 3, 2006

As Germans celebrate the 16th anniversary of reunification Tuesday, there's no masking a sense of disillusionment at the failure to tackle the country's economic and demographic woes resulting from the tumultuous event.


Two years ago, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder tried to practically abolish German Unity Day, which is celebrated every year on Oct. 3, by moving the holiday to a Sunday.

The move was aimed at reducing the generous portion of German public holidays -- up to 16, depending on the state -- and increasing the country's economic output. But the plan was swiftly abandoned after the opposition attacked it as "unpatriotic" and accused the government of "forgetting history."

While Schröder's plan may have backfired, it underlined the routine practicality with which Germans have come to celebrate the anniversary of reunification -- an event which proved so tumultuous and emotional when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

Getting a day off from work, it seems, is much higher on the list of German priorities than remembering the country's recent past. In a recent poll, 68 percent of Germans said the holiday was not a personal cause for celebration, while 80 percent said Oct. 3 should remain a national holiday.

"Lack of enthusiasm for Oct. 3 is understandable," said historian and expert on modern Germany Konrad Jarausch, who teaches at the University of North Carolina and also serves as co-director of the Center for Research on Contemporary History in Potsdam. "Germans have been disappointed in celebrating occasions like the Kaiser's or Hitler's birthday and therefore have no tradition of a national holiday that transcends different regimes."

From nostalgia to disappointment

Some point out that the lack of enthusiasm for the anniversary of reunification has much to do with a deep sense of disillusionment at the failure to remedy the resulting economic imbalances in Germany.

DDR politicians and Mikhail Gorbatchev at a military parade
Some people are nostalgic about GDRImage: dpa

"Germans, in general, are skeptical about national festivities," said Rainer Münz, a senior fellow at the Migration Research Group of the Hamburg Institute of World Economics. "But there are also people, especially in western Germany, who think that they would have been better off without the reunification because of its economic costs, which were significant. Some people are nostalgic about the GDR and would have preferred the GDR socialism with a human touch."

According to the latest report on German unity, which the German government publishes annually before Oct. 3, Germany has invested more than 250 billion euros ($317 billion) in direct aid since 1990 in the so-called "new states" in former East Germany. A further 156 billion euros have been agreed upon for the period 2005-2019 as part of a comprehensive economic package known as "Solidarity Pact II."

There's little doubt that despite the lofty promises of transforming post-communist wastelands into "blooming landscapes," made by Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the spring of 1990, the results of German reunification have been mixed at best.

"Those were clearly political promises, with no basis in economics," Münz said.

Not a vanilla sauce

When the German government published its report on the state of unity this year, it had to acknowledge some tough issues ranging from rampant unemployment to negative demographics.

World Cup fans waving German flags
World Cup saw an explosion of German national prideImage: AP

"This is a realistic account and not some kind of vanilla sauce that is poured over problems," said Germany's Minister of Transportation, Building and Urban Development Wolfgang Tiefensee last week in Berlin when presenting the report.

Problems are, indeed, hard to miss. Right-wing extremism is much more acute in eastern Germany than it is in the west. Despite some economic successes and a revitalized infrastructure, eastern Germany has still not caught up with the western part of the country: Wages in the eastern regions are 23 percent lower and unemployment rates are nearly twice as high.

"It will take 15 to 20 more years before we can speak about sustainable economic revival (in the eastern part)," Tiefensee said.

How green is the grass?

Experts point out that the population flight from eastern Germany can only be stemmed by creating job opportunities in the region.

Renovated Frauenkirche in Dresden
Many cities in the east have been restored to their past gloryImage: AP

"The problem is that the too rapid transformation from a planned to a market economy during unification, the too high conversion rate of the currency and the too generous wage settlements have destroyed much of the productive base in the east," Jarausch said. "The challenge for the next half generation is therefore to create a new industrial base in the eastern states."

Critics of reunification have often used negative demographics to paint a picture of the "new states" as particularly old and shriveling spots on the graying German horizon. The federal office which advises the German government on urban planning has predicted that the overall German population will decrease by around half a percent by 2020, but that the number of people living in the "new states" will sink by 7.7 percent for the same period, in some areas of the country even more.

"These numbers actually sound optimistic to me," Münz said. "There are cities in eastern Germany -- like Görlitz and Schwedt an der Oder -- that have lost up to 30 percent of their population."

Not just a German problem

Three people walking by the remains of the Berlin Wall
Remains of the Berlin Wall are still a major tourist attraction in the German capitalImage: AP

Population fluctuation, however, is not a new phenomenon and by no means a specifically German predicament.

"Population shifts have always been part of German history," Jarausch said. "Nazi economic policy, the influx of postwar refugees and communist economic priorities created new population centers in the East, some of which are now dismantling themselves. That is no doubt sad for the areas concerned (because it initiates a negative cycle), but it does not affect the entire East equally, since some dynamic regions are actually growing.

"Much more important is the general German tendency to put personal life-style above having children," he added. "That is the real demographic challenge for the future."

Sixteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, people continue to move west in search of a better life, but this move needs to be seen nowadays also in the context of global restructuring of world markets.

"We should not blame these people who move out," Münz said. "Basically it's a positive decision to move out and look for jobs."

He pointed out that much the same is happening in other areas of Germany, such as the industrial Ruhr region (in the west), or in other parts of Europe such as Greek islands or central France, where population density is also decreasing.

Given the multitude of challenges still facing Germany 16 years after reunification, some point out that state-sponsored celebrations on Tuesday might not be a good idea.

"A day for reflection on the state of Germany might be more productive than a mindless celebration," Jarausch said.

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