German Reunification: What Can We Learn From Thirty Years of Unity?

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3rd October, 1990. Berlin.

Thousands of Germans gather before the Brandenburg Gate, inarguably the country’s most symbolic monument. Others take to standing outside the city’s parliamentary building, the Reichstag, where a vast ocean of German flags sway in the air to the sweet sound of traditional Volksmusik. The joyous cheers and euphoric cries of proud Germans challenge the voices of news reporters. ‘Happy birthday, dear Deutschland’ is the call of the night. Unsurprisingly, beer is the chosen beverage for celebration, for what better time to celebrate quintessential Germanness than now. 

This was the night in which a new nation was born. Thirty years ago, in the heart of Germany, division and difference were left behind in the name of national unity. Two systems, so dissimilar in their ideologies, looked beyond the wall that kept them apart, risking anything and everything in the hope that they would finally become whole. After a century of imperialism and colonialism, liberalism and revolution, dictatorship and control, this night marked a new epoch in German history, setting the country on a new path towards hope and prosperity.

With Germany now having surpassed its 30th birthday, there seems no better time than now to look into the past and see how far the country has come. As a German student, learning about the reunification is a given. It’s true: you can’t understand Germany without at least acknowledging Lederhosen, Oktoberfest and Bratwurst. But when you look beyond the clichés and dive deep into German national consciousness, it soon becomes clear that the reunification defines the country as much as any other meat-based Bavarian delicacy.

For a historical event so transformative and extraordinary, it’s a shame to see how simplistically it is taught in the classroom. I have been there once before. Sitting at the desk, wading through the textbook. Gorbachev something something something… Helmut Kohl something something something. Before you know it, you’ve reached the last page, which neatly concludes that Germany’s scars of division are long forgotten.

Crowds gathering at the Reichstag parliament building in Berlin, 3 October 1990. Image: The Guardian.

There is undoubtedly truth behind this narrative. Germany is in a far better place than it was 30 years ago, and the country now stands as the best version of itself. In his recent article about German reunification, Timothy Garton Ash makes the apparently ‘bold claim’ that ‘the last three decades have been the best in [Germany’s] long and complicated history.’ In a modern world that seems forever in flux, threatened by political chaos and international uncertainty, Germany is continuously looked upon for stability and hope. The country remains a constant in a world programmed to chase discontinuity. Germany has led the EU through economic and migrant crises, and this reliable self-image has only been made possible through reunification. 

Yet, success does not exclusively define Germany’s strive for national unity. Reunification has solved many of the country’s problems, but open wounds remain – wounds which exist along socio-economic, political and cultural lines. The German government’s 2020 annual reunification report has revealed that 12.7% of East Germans oppose how democracy works, compared to just 6.3% in the West. 40% of East Germans claim to feel treated as second-class citizens, exposing the deep-seated cultural divisions that far-right nationalist parties, such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), exploit for electoral success. 

On its 30th birthday, Germany certainly seems to be fairing well, but the reunification process is by no means complete. Everything that has happened since 3rd October 1990 teaches us a valuable lesson about the importance of understanding history as a construction of the past, present and future. As Chancellor Angela Merkel puts it herself, ‘German unity is not a state of affairs that is wrapped up and completed just once, but rather a continual process – a constant mission that affects all Germans.’ The strive for national unity is not a job completed overnight, but this does not disregard the small successes that are made along the way. Germany is a testament to this crucial principle, occasionally stumbling over mistakes and miscalculations but persevering nonetheless.

Most importantly of all, German reunification reminds us of what we are capable of when we embrace similarity instead of difference. After all, isn’t the pursuit of national unity and cooperation a global one? How far would we be in Brexit negotiations if we learned from Germany’s pragmatic approach to comprise and discussion? Would America’s political divisions be so stark if it merely learned from a country who built one united political system out of two diametrically opposed ones? Would the EU have been so slow to agree on a shared coronavirus response if it had taken a moment to reflect on the journey of one of its leading nations?

Hopelessly optimistic as it may be, this outlook is capable of transforming how we see ourselves in our regional, national and global communities. Committing to national unity makes no promise of immediate success. We are likely to make mistakes along the way, and uncertainty will try to throw us off course. But staying true to our shared goal will take us far. Looking back and seeing how far we have come will motivate us to continue striving towards better things. We have one nation to thank for this outlook.

Happy birthday, Germany.

Featured image from Politico