(This essay, abridged, was originally published as “Germany’s Unification a Huge Success,” in the Providence Journal on October 3, 2015. For more analysis, please see my book: From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the East German Army by the Bundeswehr.)
Twenty-five years ago, eleven months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany was unified for the second time in modern history. The first time in 1871 it took three wars and was achieved over the objections of its neighbors. This time it was without bloodshed and with the support of its neighbors, including Soviet Union.
Shortly after the fall, Gerhard Herder, the East German ambassador to the US, said of the possibility of unification: “In my dreams, yes, but being a politician and standing with both my feet on the earth, I don’t see a possibility in the foreseeable future.” He was wrong.
On the international level, the Soviet Union’s position evolved over the months after the Wall fell, not only to endorse unification, but also to a withdrawal of its 546,000 troops and dependents in East Germany. The United States gave early and unwavering support for unification, eventually convincing Great Britain and France to follow. The six countries began the 2+4 Talks in May, 1990, concluding and signing the Final Settlement on September 12.
In 1989 within East Germany, das Volk (the people) had chanted “No Violence!” and then “We Are the People.” But soon after the Wall fell, the chant changed to “We are One People” and “Germany, Fatherland.”
Within the space of five months, the East German Communist Party had lost its legitimacy, clearly shown in the March 1990 elections, in which it received only 16% of the vote. Economic union followed in July, and at midnight October 2, 1990, East Germany was joined to the Federal Republic of Germany, making the new Germany the most populated country in Europe with 82 million people.
Today, despite the huge amount of money that had to be invested in the new eastern federal states, the postwar German Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) continues. It has the fourth largest economy (GDP) in the world, expected to grow 1.8% this year. Relying on its small and middle-size manufacturing companies, it is clearly the most powerful economy in Europe, described as an “economic juggernaut,” and the “economic powerhouse of Europe.” Its unemployment rate remains stable at 4.7%, the lowest in the Eurozone. By 2011 it had become the world’s second largest exporter (after China) and now has the world’s largest current-account surplus.
On the domestic political level, there is no question this united Germany has continued its course, set after WW II by the allies, as a Western liberal democracy, its authoritarian past buried. Since 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 former east. In addition to its three traditional parties, it has had a Greens Party for decades and since 2013 a new party on the right, Alternative for Germany. The political system has shown resilience: the CDU/CSU conservative parties are now in coalition with the Social Democrats, the former opposition. Finally, Roger Karapin has argued that citizen activism has become a major force in domestic politics—German citizens are more prepared to be disobedient and assertive, belying the earlier passive, obedient stereotype.
Its foreign policy, however, is in flux. The “German Question” has returned, at least in part. In its original form, this Question related to the 19th century debate over the proper means and ends for the envisioned unification of the many Germanic states in the heart of Europe at the time. In its post-WWII version, the Question has had at least two parts: What borders for Germany? Second, what role for Germany? With German Unification in 1990, the first was answered categorically; the second has not.
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. Beyond the Balkans it has also sent military forces to the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan. Recently its top political leaders approved the delivery of thousands of machine guns, grenades, and antitank missiles to Kurdish forces battling Islamic militants in Iraq.
Germany’s foreign policy actions during the past five years suggest a role, grounded in Western values and interests, committed to human rights, mindful not to repeat the mistakes of its past—including reliance on military force—and more prepared to lead Europe, commensurate with its power. The United States can expect a more independent and less docile Germany—perhaps cold water for the US, but something good for Europe and for the world.
As I stood in Bonn’s central market place on Unification Day twenty-five 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 Salve Regina University, Newport, RI, Mr. Zilian was a US Army liaison officer to the German Army during Unification. Contact: www.zilianblog.com