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Unifying Europe:
Germany 1970-2000

What factors led to the reunification of Germany in 1990?

German reunification formally took place on 3rd October, 1990, following a year of revolutionary change in Europe. The tectonic plates of the Cold War blocs which had ground against each other for four decades had suddenly slipped, altering the political landscape at a speed which challenged the efforts of policy makers to steer the course of events. Reunification was only possible following Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union. However, the nature of the reunification process, the speed with which it occurred, its acceptability to the international community, and its desirability to German voters were also based on the relationship between the two Germanys and the development of each state in the late Cold War era.


Willy Brandt as Chancellor (1969-74) sought a fresh approach to West German foreign policy. Adenauer’s hard line non-recognition of East Germany was abandoned in favour of a more open relationship. Brandt was able to pursue this Ostpolitik (Eastern Policy) in the period of Cold War détente as both superpowers sought to reduce tension and stabilise the situation in Europe.

Willy Brandt (1913-1992) became a Socialist as a teenager. He opposed Nazism and escaped to Norway and then Sweden to avoid arrest when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Returning to Germany after the War, he rose through the ranks of the SPD (Social Democratic party) becoming Mayor of West Berlin in 1957. He was influential in the modernisation of the SPD, broadening the Party’s appeal while remaining true to his principles.

In 1969, he became Chancellor of the FRG – the first SPD Chancellor since 1930 – and in 1972 he was re-elected with an increased share of the vote. In 1974 it was revealed that Gunther Guillame, a close advisor of Brandt’s, was an agent of the East German secret police, the Stasi. Brandt shouldered the blame for the scandal and resigned. He was replaced by fellow Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt.

In his five years as Chancellor, Brandt had continued Adenauer’s work in consolidating a strong, democratic state and set West Germany’s foreign policy on a new course.

Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his success in establishing more positive relations with Eastern Europe.

Ostpolitik can therefore be seen as a German version of détente. In practical terms Ostpolitik led to the signing of a series of treaties with Russia (the Moscow Treaty, 1970), and with Poland (the Warsaw Treaty 1970), in which participants agreed to the renunciation of force and recognition of existing borders, in particular Poland’s western Oder-Neisse Line border with Germany. In Warsaw Brandt visited the site of the 1943 Jewish Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and spontaneously knelt in front of the monument there – an iconic gesture of repentance.

Photograph by Sven Simon - Source

“The man who had no need to kneel, did so on behalf of all those who ought to kneel but don’t”

(A. Glees, Reinventing Germany, Berg, Oxford, 1996:173)

How would you expect Brandt’s supporters and opponents to interpret his action?



The 1972 Basic Treaty with East Germany recognised the existence of two states without rejecting the desirability of unification at some unspecified future date. In Brandt’s words, “two states, one nation.” In the mean time the two Germanys agreed to co-exist within their unique circumstances, to exchange ‘representatives’ (significantly not ‘ambassadors’), to ease travel restrictions for West Berliners, and to accept the post-war status quo of European borders.


The Basic Treaty was accompanied by the following letter.

The Federal Minister Without Portfolio in the Office of the Federal Chancellor
Bonn, December 21, 1972

To the State Secretary of the Council of Ministers
of the German Democratic Republic
Dr. Michael Kohl

Dear Herr Kohl,

In connection with today’s signing of the Treaty concerning the Basis of Relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany has the honour to state that this Treaty does not conflict with the political aim of the Federal Republic of Germany to work for a state of peace in Europe in which the German nation will regain its unity through free self-determination.

Very respectfully yours,
(West German Foreign Minister)

Source of English translation: The Bulletin, vol. 20, n. 38. Published by the Press and Information Office of the Federal Government (Bundespresseamt).

How far do you agree that the Basic Treaty did not “conflict with the political aim of the Federal Republic of Germany to work for a state of peace in Europe in which the German nation will regain its unity through free self-determination”?


Opponents within Germany saw Ostpolitik as a means of formalising Germany’s division and therefore postponing unification. To these critics it was paradoxical to suggest that the way to achieve one state was first to recognise two. The dubious legitimacy of the East German regime was offered recognition from the West, undermining potential opposition within East Germany. The concessions on travel and cultural links were criticised as merely making division palatable.  Economic links developed over the following years, in which the West repeatedly loaned money to the East thereby propping up the GDR regime. A trade developed in which the West German government would pay the GDR to secure the release of dissident prisoners, incentivising further arrests.

The fact of reunification has since vindicated Ostpolitik, but there was nothing inevitable about this development and claims for direct causality are undermined by assessments made pre 1990 which saw reunification as improbable. Brandt himself, in 1988, described calls for German unity as the “life lie” of West German politics. East German leader, Erich Honecker, felt confident enough to remark as late as January 1989 that “The Berlin Wall will be standing in 50 or even 100 years.” (Quoted in Green et al. The Politics of the New Germany: 37) These remarks came after two decades of peaceful co-existence during which priorities had adjusted and opinion polls showed that reunification had slipped from being the ‘most important’ issue for 45% of West Germans in the 1950s and 60s to less than 1% in the 1970s. (T. Judt, Post-War: 500)

Brandt’s justification of his policy was based on realism, warning opponents that ‘patriotism must be based on what is attainable’. Division was a result of Germany’s War and could not be wished away but in small practical steps the effects of division could be modified.  The borders could not be changed but perhaps the quality of the borders could; cultural, economic, institutional, personal links could be nurtured and a form of German unity sustained beyond the narrow political definition. In the long term, Ostpolitik made German unity seem a less threatening prospect to the Soviet Union. Without peace, recognition of reality and the sincere renunciation of violence reunification could not have occurred. Ostpolitik was a new phase of German foreign policy but once established, the practical, step by step, ‘no surprises’ style carried out within Cold War constraints, was pursued with consistency by Brandt’s successors. This approach brought stability to a potentially volatile area and above all avoided another European war.

The Red Army Faction/Baader-Meinhof Gang – a terrorist group, active during the 1960s and 70s, which aimed to undermine the West German state and the capitalist economy through campaigns of arson, kidnapping and murder. The group’s ill-defined motivations stemmed in part from a generational divide between post-War youths frustrated at their elders’ perceived failure to confront Nazism or to deal honestly with Germany’s Nazi legacy. Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof were arrested in 1972, but a dwindling band of supporters continued their sociopathic war on the state with sporadic acts of violence in the following years. The group’s activities resulted in at least 28 deaths of soldiers, businessmen, policemen and civilians and provoked the Brandt government into enacting the Berufsverbot in 1972, a law which barred from state employment any individual engaged in anti-constitutional political activity.  The group received financial and logistic assistance from East German secret services but the ‘masses’ whom the terrorists may have hoped to inspire to revolution were emphatically not inclined to support Baader-Meinhof’s delusional fantasies.

In 1973 both Germanys were accepted as member states of the United Nations. At the 1974 World Cup, for the only time, East and West Germany played each other in a professional football match. East Germany won 1-0 though it was West Germany who eventually won the tournament providing ammunition for politicians on both sides who like to use sport as evidence of societal superiority.  In 1975 both signed the Helsinki Treaty on the post-war settlement and on human rights. The East German regime and their Soviet masters appeared to have got what they wanted, however, the Helsinki  Treaty opened up a new avenue of legalistic opposition within the Soviet Bloc from dissident groups seeking to expose their governments’ failures to uphold the environmental and human rights commitments. The treaties and agreements could not change the essential vulnerability of the East German regime, the existence of which ultimately depended on a permanent Soviet military presence.

 Protest Demonstration in Bonn against Brandt’s Ostpolitik

On May 30, 1970, the Federation of Expellees (a group which represented West Germany’s approximately 8 million refugees and expellees) organised a demonstration to protest against Brandt’s Ostpolitik in Bonn; the event drew 50,000 protesters. The banner in the background reads, “Whoever recognizes violence loses peace”; the one in front of the podium reads “The recognition of the Oder-Neiße Line is a crime against Germany.” Three small posters underneath it read: “Divided 3 times? Never!”
  • Explain the messages on the banners.
  • How would Brandt defend his Ostpolitik to these critics?
  • Would the following groups be likely to support or oppose Brandt’s Ostpolitik? Why?

The governments of the USA/ the Soviet Union/ the GDR/ France/ Poland, East German dissidents, the CDU, West Berliners, The Federation of Expellees. 

Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Kurt Rohwedder


Cold War renewed

Brandt’s successor as Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt (1974-82) stuck to Ostpolitik. However, the twin strategies of keeping West Germany firmly anchored in the western alliance and maintaining good relations with Moscow and the GDR came under pressure as Cold War detente gave away to renewed superpower hostility. In 1976, the Soviet Union began deploying SS-20 intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe. Schmidt supported the NATO ‘dual track’ response involving the counter-deployment of similar weapons in West Germany and at the same time proposing arms reduction talks. Germans on both sides of the Cold War front line had more reason than most to fear nuclear escalation and this predicament united all Germans in a shared sense of heightened vulnerability. In the West, to Honecker’s satisfaction, anti-nuclear peace groups grew rapidly, often to the bemusement of those East Europeans such as Vaclav Havel who observed that “‘peace’ is not an option in countries where the state is permanently at war with society” (quoted in T. Judt: 574). The suggestion that such activists were naive was given weight by the later revelations that the Stasi had thoroughly penetrated western anti-nuclear groups. However, the protests encouraged East German peace groups to similar acts of opposition and their ensuing oppression exposed the GDR regime’s hypocrisy. This renewed Cold War hostility destabilised West Germany to the extent that it split Schmidt’s SPD; the left wing of the Party was sufficiently attached to the idea of non-nuclear purity that many joined the emerging Green Party. However, West German democracy was resilient enough to overcome such divisions. On the other side of the iron curtain, the Soviet system was being stretched to the limit to keep up with the US in an accelerated arms race.

Stasi (from Staatssicherseit’) – the East German secret police. The Stasi motto, “the Sword and Shield of the Party” – rather than ‘of the people’, made its intentions clear.  

 Cold War relations deteriorated further with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. West Germany struggled to hold onto the advantages of detente, declining to impose sanctions on the Soviet Union. The ultimate failure of the Afghanistan Campaign revealed Moscow’s weakness, inflamed Islamic opposition, and brought the collapse of Soviet Communism a step closer. The West German response to Solidarity’s achievements in challenging the Polish regime in 1980-81 exposed further strains. Willy Brandt voiced his suspicion of what was seen as an unpredictable nationalist movement and Helmut Schmidt declined to criticise the Polish Government’s imposition of martial law in December 1981. Schmidt’s government seemed more concerned with maintaining stability than encouraging the self-determination of Eastern Europeans. Was this further evidence of wise caution in West Germany’s foreign policy, or an example of Ostpolitik degenerating into appeasement? At the very least, Germany’s unique historical journey had led to some awkward contradictions in foreign policy.

  • Why did the Solidarity movement and the crisis in Poland seem threatening to some West German politicians?
  • To what extent was West German foreign policy contradictory?

Economic Disparity

The GDR was the only Eastern Bloc state with a western Doppelganger, sharing its language and history. As a result, comparisons were unavoidable and the economic disparity between the two Germanys was a source of embarrassment to the GDR regime which routinely manipulated economic statistics to disguise their weakness. To the frustration of the impoverished people high quality imported goods were available only to those few with access to western currency. This coupled with the denial of the basic right to express criticism of the regime and restrictions on travel generated widespread dissatisfaction.

East Germans could make their own comparisons while watching West German television or while driving the East German Trabant (right) – a sub-standard car that came to symbolise material disadvantage. When political changes elsewhere eventually allowed for free movement, the people of the East voted with their feet, heading west in their thousands to a West German state that was constitutionally bound to offer them full citizenship.

However, West Germany’s economic progress was not without its problems. The disruption to the global economy following the sharp increase in oil prices in 1973 brought the ‘golden age’ of post-War economic growth to an end. The SPD/FDP coalition government steered the economy into temporary recovery but the results of a further slowdown following a second oil shock in the early 1980s divided Chancellor Schmidt’s government. In 1982 the FDP deserted the coalition, offering its support to a new government with the CDU/CSU under Helmut Kohl’s leadership. The economy again recovered, recording steady growth rates through the 1980s, but unemployment remained high and social welfare provision was cut back.

Despite these difficulties, West Germany’s economy performed better than that of competitors such as the UK. Meanwhile, the GDR struggled from crisis to crisis. Honecker’s regime spent heavily on housing, welfare and the provision of consumer goods but could not match the material wealth of West Germany. These increasing expenditure demands had to be sustained while earnings from the exports of East Germany’s inefficient industries fell. By the 1980s, the GDR had become financially dependent on loans from West Germany. As the East German currency weakened against the Deutschmark, it became more difficult to pay the interest on these loans. The GDR was heading towards bankruptcy.

The Soviet Union

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union. He acknowledged the mistakes of his predecessors and the comparative economic failure of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev called for economic perestroika (restructuring), a relaxation of central planning and the introduction of market forces, along with political glasnost (openness), a willingness to discuss mistakes and allow the expression of alternative ideas. These reformist ideas were rejected by the GDR regime which remained committed to orthodox Communist ideas. As East German Government Minister, Kurt Hager stated in 1987, If your neighbor re-wallpapered his apartment, would you feel obliged to do the same?” (Stern Magazine, April, 1987, translation from Journal article by Evron M. Kirkpatrick; World Affairs, Vol. 152, 1990.)  Even more threatening to the GDR regime was Gorbachev’s rejection of the Brezhnev Doctrine by which the Soviet Union had reserved the right to intervene in its satellite states to uphold Communist rule as it had done so in East Berlin 1953, Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968. This was replaced by the ‘Sinatra Doctrine’ by which each satellite state was free to ‘do it their way.’ Honecker could no longer rely on the Soviet military to guarantee his regime. As the year progressed Poland elected a non-Communist leader and the reformist regime in Hungary opened its border with Austria. Thousands of East Germans took the opportunity to flee to the West. A domino effect rippled across Eastern Europe as the failures of each Communist regime weakened its neighbours. The accessibility of instant television images undermined Party efforts to control information and played a role in encouraging individuals to seize the moment.

Internal protests

Even more threatening to the GDR regime than the numbers fleeing west were the growing protests by those who remained. Every Monday, throughout the autumn, demonstrators gathered in East Germany’s cities demanding reform and greater freedoms. The individuals involved took part despite the threat of violent police intervention of the kind seen in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Groups such as ‘New Forum’ formed to co-ordinate the protestors’ demands presenting a challenge to the Communist right to monopoly rule. Initially the protestors demanded reforms within the GDR, only later, following the fall of the Wall, would calls for reunification predominate.

The weakness of the GDR leadership

The GDR regime had followed Moscow’s line for 40 years but Gorbachev’s reforms threw Honecker’s government into confusion and divisions emerged. The Party belatedly attempted reform; Egon Krenz replaced Honecker on 18th October. In what Pol O’Dochartaigh describes as “a sad testament to Honecker’s Marxist discipline...he also voted for his own removal, so that the decision would be, as usual, unanimous.” (P. O’Dochartaigh: 187)  The regime was clearly struggling to hold on, but the breaching of the Berlin Wall on 9th November still came as a surprise. An announcement that travel restrictions would be lifted immediately resulted in thousands of citizens flocking to the Wall, demanding the right to cross.  The guards stood aside and the people were free to come and go. Within hours people were singing and dancing on the Wall, passing through, or physically attacking the Wall with hammers and pick axes. The authority of the GDR regime had emphatically collapsed.

(Left) Erich Honecker and Mikhail Gorbachev at the GDR's 40th Anniversary Celebration, October 7, 1989.

During this visit Gorbachev warned Honecker that reform was necessary to survive.

Why did the East German Government resist reform? What options did Honecker have in 1989?


Source: Sven Simon



It is important to acknowledge the unexpectedness of the events of 1989-90. As has been noted above, even influential figures such as Willy Brandt and Erich Honecker did not predict such rapid change, few did. Kohl’s 10 point plan of 28th November, 1989 envisaged a period of confederation followed by possible unification in five years' time. On the same day, France’s President Mitterrand offered his opinion that, “I don’t have to do anything to stop it (reunification). The Soviets will do it for me. They will never allow this greater Germany just opposite them.” (quoted in T. Judt: 640).  Caught between global political changes and street level revolution, German politicians struggled to steer the course of events. The instinctive caution that had characterised West German politics for four decades had to be replaced by a radical and flexible approach.



November 9th

Berlin Wall opened.

November 28th

Helmut Kohl’s ’10 points’ set out a plan for eventual reunification.

December 1st

Communist Party surrenders power to coalition of democratic parties.



February 25th

US President Bush (snr) assures Kohl of American support for reunification.

March 18th

First free elections in GDR result in victory for pro-unification parties.

July 1st

Currency union between East and West Germany.

September 12th

Final ‘2+4 Treaty’ (the two Germanys plus the US, the Soviet Union, the UK, and France) formalises international acceptance of reunification.

October 3rd


The elections of March 1990 confirmed the popular desire for unification expressed in public demonstrations. The ‘2+4 Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany’ formalised international agreement that the newly united country would join NATO and that Soviet troops would be withdrawn. Gorbachev had at least extracted financial compensation from Germany and had negotiated radical change without hostility but the expiry of Moscow’s German ally, however peaceful, could only weaken Gorbachev domestically. Eastern Europe was entering a period of dangerous instability.

The new united Germany officially came into existence on 3rd October 1990, though it is significant that this was not the unification of equals but rather the accession of the East German Länder to the FRG.

What challenges confronted the new Germany?

The West German currency, the Deutschmark was extended to East Germany in July 1990 replacing the old GDR currency at the generous rate of 1:1 (the market rate was 5:1). This succeeded in slowing the westward flow of East Germans but was enormously expensive. The low productivity of East German workers did not justify the falsely inflated wages they could earn following currency union and factories became unviable.  At the same time, the GDR’s export markets in Eastern Europe were faltering. The result was long term economic collapse and mass unemployment in the East and an enormous financial burden for Western tax payers.  Moves to rebuild a national identity would have to take place against the tensions caused by economic problems.  

Once again Germany had to come to terms with the legacy of a dictatorial regime. The GDR was a state in which the Stasi spied on the citizens and in which people were encouraged to inform on each other. These activities were recorded in meticulous files. Post-unification Germany had to find a balance between ensuring that justice was seen to be done, that the past be remembered and examined and, on the other hand, avoiding the divisive effect of a ‘witch hunt’ against East Germans constantly having to justify their past behaviour or the danger of individuals seeking revenge. The Federal Authority for the Archives of the GDR State Security Service was established to provide victims of Stasi activities with access to their files and to manage media access.    

West German satirical magazine, “Titanic”, cover 1989. ‘Gabi the Ossi (17) happy to be in West Germany: “My first banana”.’
She is holding a cucumber. Source

Forty years of separate experiences had resulted in the development of attitudinal differences. Misunderstandings between ‘Wessis’ (Westerners) and ‘Ossis’ (Easterners) were inevitable as each side indulged in disparaging stereotypes of the other, leading many to ask whether the physical Wall had been replaced by a wall in people’s minds. The Ostalgie phenomenon – a nostalgic yearning for the GDR - reflects the fact that not all the expectations of 1989 have been fulfilled.       

The 1990s also saw an upsurge in crime, a symptom of economic hardship, but also as regards racially motivated violence, evidence of the activities of overtly ‘neo-nazi’ groups. Politicians had to balance moral obligations to asylum seekers, economic migrants and the German born children of ‘guest-workers’ with indigenous resentment at foreign competition for scarce jobs and resources. Again the shadow of Germany’s history made the debate particularly sensitive.

Internationally, Germany continued to pursue greater European integration. The Maastricht Treaty 1992 turned the European Community into the European Union and established greater economic and political co-ordination between member states. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) offered financial assistance to East European countries in transition to democracy and German industry was able to re-establish trade links with its traditional markets to the East.

Approaching the new century, a generation of politicians with no direct memory of War proved more willing to assert Germany’s national interest though without ever challenging the broad consensus on Germany’s commitment to ‘Europe’. This commitment was demonstrated by the abandonment of the cherished Deutschmark in favour of the new Euro currency in 1999.   


 The ‘German Question’

All German leaders have had to wrestle with the historical ‘German Question’.

  • Where is Germany?

Germany does not have natural boundaries and therefore its territorial borders have been a matter of dispute. Germans are the largest ethnic group in Central Europe and members of this Kulturnation – ‘culture nation’ of German speakers have historically settled throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Therefore, establishing exactly where a German state should be that incorporates as many Germans as possible has been problematic. Germany’s Sonderweg – its unique historical path has shaped its present reality. 

Research and compare these attempts to answer the ‘German Question’. There are several appropriate websites including

  • 1871 Bismarck’s first German nation state.
  • 1917 The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
  • 1919 The Treaty of Versailles.
  • 1942 Hitler’s New Order.
  • 1945 Occupation and Division.
  • 1990 Reunified Germany

In each case, identify Germany’s borders, and explain why they are there. To what extent has Germany’s history been shaped by its geography? 

Since 1945, the ‘German Question’ has developed and these issues have influenced the politics of the post-War era.

  • How have Germans tried to overcome the division of Germany?
  • How have German relations with territories in Central and Eastern Europe formerly belonging to Germany developed?
  • What role should a unified Germany play in the post-Cold War world order?

Contact Richard Jones-Nerzic