Twenty years ago East Germany held free elections for the first time. Only a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East voted for a new parliament in what was in effect a referendum on German reunification.
GDR citizens had to wait 40 years for a free election
March 18, 1990, saw the first free elections to the East German parliament. After its foundation 40 years earlier, the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) for the first time gave its people the opportunity to express their opinions at the ballot box. The result was overwhelming support for a quick road to reunification - and an end to East Germany as a state.
"The March 18 elections in effect were a referendum on German reunification," said historian Andreas Apelt. As soon as the result was in, it was clear that East Germany would soon cease to exist."
"The vote determined the path the country would embark on. And that path clearly led towards a united Germany," said Apelt, who was an East German civil rights activist in 1990 and ran in the elections himself.
"It was this day that marked the end of the so-called 'dictatorship of the proletariat'," German Chancellor Angela Merkel recalled. "It was the final victory of the peaceful revolution."
Record turnout - for a united Germany
The Fall of the Wall set events snowballing towards reunification
The Berlin Wall had come down on November 9, 1989, and mounting pressure on the government of the GDR forced it to allow free elections. The scheduled date in May was brought forward to March 18 and, after only a few weeks of campaigning, the people of the GDR for the first time had a choice on their ballot sheets.
"To have pushed though this election and to actually experience it made us happy," recalled Stefan Hilsberg, who was among those voted into that historical parliament.
"You could really tell that everyone felt that way. There was a sense that we had finally achieved what we had wanted all along," he said.
Polls predicted a victory for the Social Democrats - yet when the results came in, they revealed a resounding win for the conservative bloc. The Alliance for Germany - made up of the Christian Democratic Union, the Democratic Awakening and the German Social Union - got 48 percent of the vote compared to a mere 22 percent for the Social Democrats. Voter turnout was a staggering 93 percent.
What in the end decided the vote was the parties' different approaches to the question of German reunification.
"The explanation for the result is simply that the people of the GDR had one overwhelming goal: reunification," said Apelt. "They wanted this to happen quickly and without problems. And the party that stood for this was the conservative alliance."
There was no question that the majority was in favor of unification with German unification, but there were differences over how this could be achieved. The Social Democrats were in favor of a slower unification process - with a new joint constitution. The conservative bloc, however, wanted the East simply to accede to West Germany.
A unique representation
The freshly-elected Volkskammer parliament went on to form a new government. Lothar de Maiziere became prime minister, with Angela Merkel - also an East German civil rights activist - as his spokesperson. He headed a coalition of the conservative Alliance for Germany with the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats.
Lothar de Maiziere became the only freely elected leader of East Germany
"This was an amazing spectrum of diverse people in this first and last parliament of the GDR," Apelt said. "It was a unique representation of people and professions from all across the country. People who were not professional politicians like we have it nowadays."
Parliamentary sessions were broadcast on television, and there was huge public interest in what was going on.
Reunification was the main issue on the agenda, and it soon became obvious that things had to happen quickly. The economic situation was rapidly declining, and the mass exodus of East Germans to the West continued.
Together with the West German government, the GDR's Volkskammer drew up a treaty mapping out the transition to unity.
"The framework of international politics at the time was extremely favorable. If there would have been more delay, it might have been more difficult," Apelt said.
"It really was a fortunate combination - the people really wanted reunification, there was a new government that also wanted to join West Germany, and there was Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who had given his green light to reunification."
The path to reunification
Less than six months after the election, on August 22, 1990, the Volkskammer voted in favor of acceding to West Germany. Of the East German parliament's 400 members, 294 voted in favor and only 62 against reunification.
It was the culmination of the work of that first - and last - freely elected parliament of the GDR. The decision to join West Germany on October 3 meant that the Volkskammer would cease to exist.
Helmut Kohl - here with Soviet leader Gorbachev - was the first chancellor of a united Germany
"The parliament was to prepare reunification through treaties and agreements with the West German government," Apelt said. "That's what the Volkskammer was voted in for and that's what people in the east expected from their parliament."
The body held one last session on October 2. There the president of parliament, Sabine Bergmann-Pohl, summed up the achievements of the past months.
"Tomorrow we will be able to say that we have fulfilled our task: the unity of Germany through free self determination."
The next day, the GDR formally joined West Germany and thus ceased to exist. The next free election the East Germans were to participate in was on December 2, 1990, when they cast their ballots alongside their West German compatriots for the first parliament of their reunited country.
Author: Andreas Illmer
Editor: Susan Houlton