international analysis and commentary

How Germany has overcome its past, 25 years on


“Jetzt wächst zusammen, was zusammen gehört.” – What belongs together is now growing together. This statement made by Germany’s former Chancellor Willy Brandt after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 symbolized the beginning of a renewed Germany. But as for the destiny of the (potential) new country, it still looked like a page to be written.

As soon as the border between East and West Germany opened on the night of November 9, 1989, different scenarios came up. Fairly quickly it became clear that the GDR and the Federal Republic would eventually be integrated into one state. However, this caused mixed feelings around the world. As early as three days after the fall, the British Sunday Times feared the emergence of a “fourth German Reich” that would become Europe’s economic superpower whilst the French Le Parisien was concerned that a “re-unified Germany would have more export power than Britain and France together”.

These views reflected those of the leaders of their countries, President François Mitterrand and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Both of them needed a lot of convincing and reassurances before accepting Germany’s path to re-unification: an event that they did not forecast at all. Furthermore, in 1990, 85% of Poles looked upon Germany as a threat, recalls Eugeniusz Smolar of the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw. Many of them feared that a re-unified Germany would claim former German territories from Poland. Although the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev eventually approved the re-unification, the USSR was reluctant to accept that the new country would become a NATO member and thus a bigger potential threat to the Soviet bloc.

Even within West Germany, there were strong voices against re-unification. Mainly people from the left, such as the SPD as well as the Green Party were skeptical, as they wanted to avoid the emergence of any kind of nationalism. The author and flagship of the German left at the time, Günter Grass, warned of the megalomania of a powerful German state that would be a threat for others and for itself. Others argued that a swift integration of two completely different economic, political and administrative systems would simply not be feasible if not carried out gradually.

For different reasons, most of these fears turned out to be unfounded. Eventually, Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s largely single-handed move towards re-unification did not leave much room for political opposition domestically.

Yet, the harmonization of the two systems did not come about as smoothly as hoped. The closing down of unproductive state-owned businesses in East Germany led to mass unemployment in entire regions of the new Bundesländer. This is one of the reasons why ten years later Germany was labeled as “The sick man of Europe”. The term was shaped by the German economist Hans-Werner Sinn and then adopted across German and international media. But, contrary to that analysis, also due to the drastic reform program Agenda 2010, the German economy picked up again and hardly suffered during or after the most acute phase of the 2008 international financial crisis. Moreover, the country emerged as a strong economic power and an island of stability, coming out of the crisis stronger than any of its European partners.

On the political stage, the new Germany had the opportunity to show its self-confidence as a global player also on security issues, twelve years after re-unification on the eve of the 2003 Iraq war. It was the first time since World War II that the Federal Republic of Germany openly opposed the foreign policy of the United States, one of its closest NATO allies, on a major issue. The position of the German government under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had the domestic support of over 80% of its population opposing military involvement in Iraq. This was coherent with the general war reluctance among the German population, and the high threshold for military involvement is also legally anchored in the German Grundgesetz, but this was still a remarkable stance by the government on the international stage.

Meanwhile, Germany’s close alliance with France became apparent not only in the opposition to the 2003 war in Iraq, but increasingly within the European Union. The Franco-German tandem largely shaped political and economic reform within the Union, which led them to be called “The Engine of Europe”. Whereas in this tandem France has been more focused on the political vision, Germany has been responsible for fiscal discipline, largely imposing the practices of the former German Bundesbank on the European Central Bank and setting the scene in the economic realm.

The new German strength in the European scenario has led to animosities towards the German government by Southern Europeans. The austerity measures that from 2010 onwards have been imposed by European governments are linked to the financial and monetary conditions set by the EU, but shaped by Berlin. This is why German officials have often encountered a rather critical and sometimes even hostile attitude when visiting Spain, Italy and Greece. Thus, in many cases Germany was used as a scapegoat for rising unemployment and a wider deterioration of economic conditions, with serious social repercussions. Criticism has often led to a general caricaturization of Germans in these countries portraying them as rigid, single-minded and somewhat authoritarian in dealing with their EU partners.

Whereas  that characterization could have made some sense in attempting to renegotiate the terms of Brussels policy commitments, these stereotypes have long been overcome by the younger generation of Germans. Although the image of a hard-working and efficient people  might be valid to some extent, the mindset of the current society is much more complex than that. Openness and dynamism have equally become part of the re-unified Germany. Hard work and stability have ceded importance, giving way to a sensible  balance between work/productivity and leisure/quality of life.

In terms of patriotism, Germans have always had a conflicted relationship with expressing any kind of national pride. Either explicitly or sub-consciously, waving the German flag or singing the national anthem still come along with ghosts of the past. This slightly changed during the FIFA World Cup Germany hosted in 2006. On that occasion, Germans showed to be a hospitable and diverse nation without neglecting its national flags and symbols. However, the traditional lack of collective self-confidence is likely to persist for several decades, thus still marking a difference with the view Germany’s European partners like the French or the British have of themselves.

Although Germans are not very outspoken about the love of their country, they do have many accomplishments to be proud of. When it comes to specific aspects of life, the Germans do appreciate the luck they have to live in a country with such high living standards. There are reasons to be proud of a country that has managed to integrate two completely different systems in a relatively short period of time. Furthermore, the success of the German social market economy in a re-unified country is appreciated by its population which is increasingly indifferent about belonging to East or West Germany. A recent study of the Hertie School of Governance revealed that the East/West divide is crumbling and that people see themselves first as Germans, then as Europeans and only thirdly as East or West Germans.

The “German Brand” is also highly rated abroad. According to a survey conducted for the BBC last year, Germany is ranked the most popular country in the world. On average, 58% of the people from 25 countries participating in the pool stated that Germany’s global influence was mainly positive. Remarkably, in a country traditionally critical of Germany (like Britain) four out of five participants of the poll assessed Germany’s role in the world as “mainly positive”.

These positive feelings about Germany indicate that the country’s role in the world is not only respected, but also admired. The fact that both the Federal President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel are from the former GDR, shows in the most graphic way that also institutionally, the re-unified Germany is overcoming barriers of its history and evolving as a common nation. At the same time, the Wall in the people’s minds is crumbling and will eventually belong to the past.