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Russian textbook claims German unification was 'annexation'

Marina Jung
October 3, 2023

A new Russian history textbook describes the reunification of Germany as the "annexation" of the communist East. German historians say it distorts history and fits the anti-Western narrative of the Putin regime.

Celebrations at the Reichstag in Berlin
Image: picture-aliance/dpa/W. Kumm

It's been 33 years. On October 3, 1990, communist East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), officially joined West Germany. 45 years after the end of the Second World War, Germans were reunited in one sovereign state.

However, the current Russian interpretation of German reunification is causing irritation among German experts and historians. In a new Russian high school history textbook, German reunification is referred to as the "annexation of the GDR." The book was published in September 2023. The authors are Vladimir Medinsky, former Russian Minister of Culture and advisor to President Vladimir Putin, and Anatoly Torkunov, the rector of the Moscow Institute of International Relations.

Anti-Western narrative of the Putin regime

After the end of the Second World War, the US, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France divided defeated Germany into four sectors.  The Federal Republic of Germany was founded in the three western zones and the German Democratic Republic in the Soviet occupation zone. The East became communist, the West capitalist and the divided country became a focal point in the Cold War.

The communist East existed for more than four decades. Yet in 1989, on the 40th anniversary of the GDR, there were not only the official celebrations of the regime, but also growing protests in the streets. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the first and last free elections in the GDR in 1990, the unification process and the signing of the "Two-Plus-Four Treaty" - these were events that ultimately paved the way for reunification on October 3, 1990.

Protesters waving German flags
There was widespread support for reunification, both in West and East GermanyImage: dpa/picture alliance

"From the point of view of Putin and his 'historical falsifiers', unification was an act of colonization: the strong imperialist West subjugates the weak East," says Ute Frevert, director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, commenting on the Russian interpretation: "That corresponds in no way to the historical facts. But it fits the anti-Western narrative of the Putin regime."

According to Zaur Gasimov, lecturer in Eastern European history at the University of Bonn, the new textbook "perceives reunification in the context of then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika policy, which, from the perspective of the Russian establishment, helped trigger the collapse of the Soviet empire. It is viewed by Medinsky and the wider establishment as an important milestone in the "movement of the entire East Central Europe and the Baltics towards NATO and is and condemned as such," says Gasimov, adding that this could possibly explain "the radical change in terms from "reunification" to "annexation."

A closer look at the new textbook

Until recently, the content of the curriculum in Russia was completely different. A comparable textbook from 2021 describes the events of 1989 and 1990 as a peaceful revolution due to a deep political crisis in the GDR. The way out could only be found through "a change of power," the previous textbook suggests. According to the Russian authorities, this "old" textbook only offers a "basic level". From September 1, 2023, the new history book, also called the "Medinsky Book", promises a deeper insight.

Russland Vladimir Medinsky/Historiker
Author Vladimir Medinsky is an adviser to Russian Presiden Vladimir PutinImage: Sergey Bulkin/NEWS.ru/Globa Look Press/picture alliance

There is a passage in the "Medinsky Book" that calls the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe in 1989 an "ill-considered decision." A decision that weakened the Soviet Union's military presence in eastern European countries and led to a sharp rise in nationalist and anti-Soviet sentiment. The collective West did not hesitate to take advantage of these developments, the authors write.

It also says that "the GDR was taken over" by West Germany. This statement is illustrated with a historical photo of a poster from 1990: "West and East together. Future for Germany and Europe". Directly below, the authors of the book explain: "The annexation by the Federal Republic of Germany triggered euphoria in German society."

"Reinterpretation of History"

"This is a classic reinterpretation of history," says Niko Lamprecht, chairman of the Federal Association of History Teachers. "President Putin has done this in various aspect over the last 20 years. Now he has turned things upside down. Putin has completely rewritten history. From his point of view, the "Russian Empire" has every right to take back territory. The whole thing has nothing to do with fact-based history or international law."

When reunification was underway, there were different positions on it, says Lamprecht but made clear that there was never a majority against reunification in Germany, but rather a broad majority for it: "In October 1990, no German tanks rolled across the border to occupy this new territory."

Protesters on the Berlin Wall
The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of the end for the East German regimeImage: Norbert Michalke/imageBROKER/picture alliance

Currently, both history books are being used in parallel in Russian schools. How long this will last is unclear. The 2021 edition covers the 1990 federal election and the CDU's victory in four of the five "new" federal states. And the book makes it clear that, in addition to the majority backing reunification, the desire to no longer live under communism was the driving force of the unification process. This is no longer mentioned in the 2023 "Medinsky Book".

"In Russia there has been a clear and obvious nationalization of history-related discourses for at least a decade," says Gasimov. "One component of this nationalization is the radicalization of the choice of words and the argumentation of the historical narratives. School history lessons are particularly affected, as they had been exposed to intensive nationalization and therefore radicalization." He explains that after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, this trend continued.

"But the fact remains: 33 years ago the country reunited economically and politically. And it did so voluntarily, peacefully and without violence," says Ute Frevert from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development: "After over 40 years of division into East and West, in the GDR and the Federal Republic, the country was united again, with a liberal constitution and democratic institutions."

This article was originally written in Russian.