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German unification — Next generation, please!

Kommentarfoto Kay-Alexander Scholz Hauptstadtstudio
Kay-Alexander Scholz
October 3, 2019

Has German unification been accomplished, three decades on? By no means, says Kay-Alexander Scholz, because of its difficult legacy. It is now up to the country's young people to make a new attempt at growing together.

The Brandenburg Gate in 1990
Image: imago/F. Berger

The division of Germany went straight through many families — siblings were separated, children had aunts and uncles on opposite sides of the border. Most of the people who suffered the challenges of this time as adults have in the meantime died, or are now very old.

It's not hard to picture a time when all of those for whom "unification" was a personal concern will have disappeared. They viewed the division as a mistake that brought suffering and had to be overcome. That's why West Germans were so willing to help their relatives in the economically much weaker East. They sent thousands and thousands of "West parcels" containing coffee, tropical fruit, clothing and quality chocolate across the inner German border to the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

But the children of this generation experienced Germany's division in the 1970s and 1980s as the norm. They grew up either in the German Federal Republic or the GDR — and lived in completely different worlds.

An example of a "west parcel" sent from West Germany to the GDR
Thousands of 'West parcels' were sent to people in the GDR by their relatives in the WestImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Roggenthin

Then came the change

In the West, the 1968 generation started to ask questions of their parents and their role in National Socialism. Terms like "nation" and "fatherland" were suddenly viewed as outdated — one could indulge in internationalism. The European Union offered a welcome way out from repressed issues of national guilt. The cousins in the East, living in a narrow, gray dictatorship, seemed far away.

Then came the 1989 revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and German reunification nearly a year later. But when the frenzy of excitement was over, the East soon lost its significance. Even today, 20% of West Germans have never visited the former East.

After the "Wende," which means "the turning point," as the process of transformation in the East after 1989 was called, hundreds of billions in funds flowed from the West into the reconstruction of the East's run-down economy. However the Wende meant unemployment for many East Germans — roughly every second person lost their job. The overwhelming West, which from the "West parcels" seemed to smell so good and offered the prospect of paradise, revealed itself as a tough, competitive society.

The ideal image faded quickly. Those who couldn't keep up, or didn't want to, retreated and began in hindsight to sugarcoat the GDR.

Kay-Alexander Scholz
DW's Kay-Alexander Scholz

The process of growing together stagnated too soon

Political parties also lost interest in the inner-German merger. In fact, economic data was proudly presented which showed the East was moving forward, which was correct. Nevertheless, nobody dared to take part in debates about mistakes made during the "Wende" era and about the people who lost out in the process.

Many in the West didn't want to hear about it and called their brothers and sisters in the east "Jammerossis" or whingeing "Ossis," a slang term for East Germans, and maintained that they should finally stop with the negative stories. East Germans simply wanted to voice how they felt, as they practically woke up in another country overnight. After all, the GDR joined the Federal Republic of Germany on October 3, 1990 and had dissolved itself as a state.

Both generations — the generation that saw the Berlin Wall's construction and the generation that only saw its fall — have experienced and suffered a lot. Much of that is still unresolved. The lesson of history is that issues left unresolved don't simply disappear; they are handed down.

The far-right "Alternative for Germany" (AfD) has recognized this principle and used it to its advantage. "Complete the unification!" was its central slogan in recent regional elections in the east. The reference to 1989 was apparently successful, because the AfD scored a record election result — especially with young people.

Setting the course for the future 

Germany's unification hasn't yet been completed: What parents and grandparents cannot or will not talk about is now the task of their children and grandchildren. Whether and how they accept this legacy will set the course for the future relationship between eastern and western Germans. The peaceful revolution and the reunification were and remain happy moments for Germans. On the one hand, this history must be retold.

On the other hand, it needs courage and political will to talk about the problems that came with the end of the GDR. It would be a shame if this chapter of history were to be left to those who want first and foremost to instrumentalize it in the political power struggle. East and West should never again let themselves be divided.