United Germany at 20

By Fred Zilian

(Published in the Newport Daily News, October 10, 2010, as “Unified Germany at 20 Has Much to Celebrate”)

This October Germany is not only celebrating the 200th anniversary of its world famous Oktoberfest, but more significantly on October 3 it celebrated the 20th anniversary of its unification. This one, accomplished peacefully unlike its first unification in 1871, added 16 million people from the previous East Germany to West Germany, creating the most populous country in Europe, now with over 82 million. Not only Germany, but also Europe and America can be proud and thankful.

          On the political level, the Federal Republic of Germany has now proven itself over sixty years to be a stable, resilient democracy, consigning to history its authoritarian and totalitarian past up to 1945. In its twenty years since the Unification it has peacefully and democratically installed several governments of various political hues. In 2005 Angela Merkel became its first female chief executive (chancellor) and the first from the “new federal states,” as the former East Germany is called. Though accused by its NATO allies of foot-dragging at times, it has moved from a country militarily hand-cuffed—restricted by its Constitution, its national culture, and its past—to a more confident, “normal” country that is prepared to assert itself and even send its soldiers abroad. In 1999 it committed its military forces to combat for the first time since WW II as part of a NATO force to protect Kosovo from Yugoslavia. Beyond the Balkans it has also sent military forces to the Middle East, Africa, and now Afghanistan. It currently has 4670 soldiers in that region as part of NATO’s force. When I was stationed there as a young officer in the early 1970s, I can recall my surprise at the universal lack of patriotism and flag waving. Showing that it has exorcised at least some of the hyper-national devils from its Nazi period, German flags flew plentifully and vibrantly for the World Cup it hosted in 2006.

          Economically, Germany has the fifth largest economy in the world and the largest in Europe. For decades Germany has been the economic engine of Europe, so featured on the front page of a recent edition of the influential British magazine The Economist. Driven by Germany’s 2.2% growth—its best quarterly performance since Unification—the 16-nation eurozone of the European Union with a growth of 1% outpaced both US (.4%) and Japan (.1%) in April-June of this year.

          The social and economic integration of eastern Germany into the Federal Republic has had its successes as well as its shortcomings. In July, 1991, shortly after Unification, the unemployment rate in the east (12%) was double that of the west. Regrettably, the figures remain about the same today, with some areas of the east having a rate approaching 20%. Since Unification, the east has lost one-tenth of its population and still needs much aid from the western states, totaling $12 billion in 2008 for example. On the other hand, former east Germans now earn on average 83% of the equivalent salary in the west, compared to only 53% in 1991. GDP per capita has risen in the east from 40% of the west’s in 1991 to nearly 70% in 2008. Life expectancy in the east has risen by six years, and its infrastructure has enjoyed a substantial makeover, making westerners jealous.

          On the social level, the difficulty in integrating easterners and westerners—the Ossis and Wessis—persists. This so-called “wall of the mind,” present 20 years ago, has proven quite tenacious. The resentments and prejudices continue. One politician described it as like an “arrogant rich uncle [the West] versus the resentful poor nephew [the East].” A poll in 2008 found that 64% of the easterners feel they are treated like second class citizens, with about one in six agreeing with the statement: “It would have been better if the Wall had never fallen.” Still, in a poll this past year, 91% of easterners and 85% of westerners said that unification was the right choice, and another survey showed that 91% of easterners support democracy though half are not happy about the way it sometimes works.

As I stood in Bonn’s central market place on Unification Day twenty years ago, oompah music playing, balloons rising, flocks of pigeons darting, the crowd swaying, I was hopeful that the Germans would succeed in their unification. Today the Germans can be proud of their achievements, and Americans can be proud of the role they played in ending the Cold War and supporting the Unification. Shortly after Unification, I spoke to a former East German sergeant who indicated how it might have been had the Soviets won the Cold War. He told me that “Germany would have been one big concentration camp.”

An educator at Portsmouth Abbey School, Portsmouth, RI, Fred Zilian, Ph.D., spent six years in Germany as an Army officer.

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