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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sven Simon -
“The man who had no need to kneel, did so on behalf of all those
who ought to kneel but don’t”
Reinventing Germany, Berg, Oxford, 1996:173)
would you expect Brandt’s supporters and opponents to interpret
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.
Federal Minister Without Portfolio in the Office of the Federal
Bonn, December 21, 1972
the State Secretary of the Council of Ministers
of the German Democratic Republic
Dr. Michael Kohl
Dear Herr Kohl,
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
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
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”?
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)
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.
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
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.
Demonstration in Bonn against Brandt’s
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
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
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 /
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.
(from ‘Staatssicherseit’) – the East
German secret police. The Stasi motto, “the Sword and Shield
of the Party” – rather than ‘of the people’, made its
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?
|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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
’10 points’ set out a plan for eventual reunification.
Party surrenders power to coalition of democratic parties.
Bush (snr) assures Kohl of American support for
elections in GDR result in victory for pro-unification
union between East and West Germany.
Treaty’ (the two Germanys plus the US, the Soviet Union, the
UK, and France) formalises international acceptance of
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.
German satirical magazine, “Titanic”, cover 1989. ‘Gabi
the Ossi (17) happy to be in West Germany: “My first
She is holding a cucumber.
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
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.
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.
leaders have had to wrestle with the historical ‘German
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.
compare these attempts to answer the ‘German Question’.
There are several appropriate websites including
Bismarck’s first German nation state.
Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
Treaty of Versailles.
Hitler’s New Order.
Occupation and Division.
case, identify Germany’s borders, and explain why they are
there. To what extent has Germany’s history been shaped by
the ‘German Question’ has developed and these issues have
influenced the politics of the post-War era.
Germans tried to overcome the division of Germany?
German relations with territories in Central and Eastern
Europe formerly belonging to Germany developed?
should a unified Germany play in the post-Cold War world