German unification: An ongoing process

NAJLA M. SHAHWAN
Published 08.11.2019 01:41
East German border guards stand on a section of the Berlin Wall, with the Brandenburg gate in the background, Berlin, Nov. 11, 1989. (AFP)
East German border guards stand on a section of the Berlin Wall, with the Brandenburg gate in the background, Berlin, Nov. 11, 1989. (AFP)

The German unification process has not been properly accomplished since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but this very social problem will be resolved sooner or later

On Oct. 3, Germany marked the 29th anniversary of the Day of German Unity with official celebrations in the northern city of Kiel.

The Day of German Unity is held annually to mark the official unification of West Germany and the former communist East Germany in 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In her speech at the event, Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the "Peaceful Revolution" that ended communist rule in East Germany three decades ago, but also acknowledged the disappointment of many East Germans who felt like second-class citizens and more than half of them were unsatisfied with the democratic system.

Politically, economically and socially, the two German states could not have been more different after 40 years of separation.

"We are the people!" East Germans shouted when they fought for freedom under the communist regime, "We are one people!" Bavarian conservatives shouted at the infamous Monday demonstrations in Leipzig. Not much later, the Berlin Wall fell and on Oct. 3, 1990 Germany was reunited.

Since then, the two German sides have been getting to know each other better and coming to a better understanding of their differences.

Germany reunited through the incorporation of the East German federal states to the then Federal Republic of Germany. This is the reason why the West German point of view is predominant in public discourse regarding this issue, which is manifested through grading the new federal states for their progress in assimilation to the western part of Germany.

However, over the past three decades many positive changes that took place in the social, political and economic areas in the eastern federal states are often disregarded.

If one looks at eastern Germany as a separate entity instead of simply pointing out the differences between the new and the old federal states, it becomes clear that the situation in the east is not as bad as might concluded from media reports and many publications.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the process is going slowly and it will take more years for the new federal states to reach the level of the old ones but at the end, it will do so.

During the first weeks after reunification, most people in Germany shared the opinion that "now grows together what belongs together." Then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, promised "blossoming landscapes" in the new federal states within three or four years following reunification.

Unfortunately, the reality has turned out to be much more complex and the process of the two Germanys growing into one has proven much more difficult. Besides, its financial and social costs have exceeded even the most pessimistic forecasts.

Germany has not been able to achieve total unity 30 years after the reunification treaty date but has made a lot of progress.

Closing the gap

Since 1997 the German government has reported every year on the status of German reunification and this year's report marks the 29th historical anniversary.

The report shows that Eastern Germany's economic output rose from 43% of the western level in 1990 to 75% in 2018. Last year gross domestic product (GDP) actually rose by more in the east (1.6%) than in the west (1.4%).

The wages, salaries and the disposable income of private households have now reached about 85% of western levels. The difference is actually less if the differences in living costs are factored in.

"This is quite astonishing," says Christian Hirte, federal government commissioner for the New Federal States, at the presentation of the report "because in 1989 the GDR's economy was on its knees."

As for the unemployment rate in August 2019, it was 6.5% while in 2005 it was 18.7%. The average unemployment over the year was 6.9%, as compared to 4.8% in the west of the country.

The closing gap is in the difference between the unemployment rates in East and West Germany. At the start of the century, the difference was still over 10 percentage points, whereas in 2018 it was only 2.1 percentage points.

In a survey conducted by the German government for the report. It emerged that 57% of people in the east feel that they are second-class citizens while 38% feel that reunification has been successful. Among the under-40-year-olds, i.e. those who only knew the GDR as children if at all, the figure is only 20%. Particular grounds for concern gives the findings that almost half of Germans in the east of the country are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working.

For the German government, the mood in the east is an indication that the process of reunification is confronting the whole of Germany with major challenges. The cabinet committee "New Federal States," which met after the cabinet, thus adopted 12 fields of action. They cover a wide spectrum from joint commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification to establishing comparable living conditions and integrating migrants.

The Commission on Comparable Living Standards has already begun work.

A work in progress

Three decades since the start of reunification, the process is now seen much more realistically than in 1990. Nobody expects immediate results any more. The predominant view is that the transformation will take a long time and that it is impossible to predict when it will end. This is accompanied by the disillusionment of many Germans who expected spectacular effects.

Paradoxically, such a change in approach may have a positive impact on the reunification of the two society's ties. From the present point of view, having considered the economic and political changes, which have taken place, it is the social divides which seem to be the greatest challenge in the context of a total reunification of Germany.

The knitting together of the two societies until they grow into one body needs great effort and great sensitivity, especially from western Germans, since they are the ones who took in the new members. Many eastern Germans are disappointed from the lack of appreciation of the achievements they made in various areas before the fall of the Berlin wall.

Becoming open to fellow citizens from the eastern federal states means allowing them full participation in the social, political and economic life of the country.

The assumption that two different countries would become one body within a few years was unrealistic since it disregarded the fact that the 16 federal states had different development levels, different history, different economies, different beliefs and different languages.

"German unity is not a static condition, it is rather a continuous process, a constant mission for all Germans," Chancellor Merkel stresses.

As new generations are born and migration inside the country continues, the differences in the mindsets in eastern and western Germany will be better understood and as the days go by the psychic divisions of four decades, which some Germans refer to as the "Wall in the head," will fall and unification will be accomplished.

* Palestinian author, researcher and freelance journalist; recipient of two prizes from the Palestinian Union of Writers

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