UCL News


Unified Germany 20 years on

11 October 2010

For the vast majority of Germans, the 20th anniversary of political reunification is cause to celebrate - but there remain strains below the surface, rooted in Germany's fractured past.

Short section of the Berlin Wall - Potsdamer Platz by Jorge Lascar on Flickr

Professor Mary Fulbrook (UCL German) here describes how scandals, stereotypes and sanitisation have made the path to a single 'normal' state far from smooth, in an article first published on the UCL European Institute website.

"In the revolutionary autumn of 1989, many East Germans came out on the streets to challenge the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and its dreaded State Security Service, the Stasi, culminating eventually in the collapse of the communist regime in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). And East Germans soon voted, once they had the chance, in favour of the fastest route to gaining western democracy and western currency, this time culminating in the accession of the newly constituted East German regional states (Länder) to the western Federal Republic of Germany on 3 October 1990.

Dislike of the GDR was not new in 1989. Over the preceding decades large numbers of East Germans had, by continual grumbling, by making exit visa applications, or by 'virtual exodus' watching western television, long hankered after another way of life.

Yet for many East Germans, initial delight at the fall of the Wall was rapidly followed by disillusionment and a strong sense of dislocation after unification. Rejection of the GDR gradually shifted into ambivalence and a surprising degree of nostalgia.

Post-unification views were at first, if anything, even more critical of the GDR. East Germans were shocked by scandals to do with the (modest, by western standards) corruption and self-serving luxuries of their former political elite; and they were devastated by revelations of the extent of Stasi surveillance.

There were virtually daily media reports about individuals in high places who had been former Stasi informers and large numbers of people now discovered or feared that they had been betrayed by friends and close relatives whom they had trusted absolutely.

The two long-running and apparently exhaustive 1990s 'Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry' for 'understanding the history' and 'overcoming the consequences' of the 'SED-dictatorship' were also overwhelmingly critical of the GDR. It was almost as if, after 1990, utter rejection of the East German dictatorship could make up for the faltering, partial, inadequate approaches to denazification and 'overcoming' the Nazi past after 1945.

The rise of Ostalgie

But this transition was different. After 1945, it was virtually impossible to find anyone who had actually supported Nazism: the joke was prevalent that, the way people were talking, Hitler had been the only Nazi in Germany. After 1990, by contrast, more and more East Germans began to see their former state in an increasingly positive light. Far from rejecting their former lives in a dictatorship, they began to define themselves precisely in terms of that pre-1990 past.

Through the 1990s and well into the 21st century, reactions became increasingly ambivalent. East Germans were taken aback by the virulent western rejection of virtually everything to do with the GDR, including its social security, health and education systems, and not only its obviously repressive regime and unsuccessful economy. They were also often hurt by what they perceived as an accompanying denigration of the value and meaning of their own lives. This led to a still widespread ambivalence about the nature of united Germany and representations of the East German past.

What is particularly interesting is not so much the persistence and after-life of extreme left-wing political forces which, in a previous incarnation, had been so roundly defeated in 1989-90, but rather the lingering sense on the part of far larger numbers of East Germans that the whole of their past should not be rejected in this way: that the social baby should not be thrown out with the political bathwater.

This is of course in part because of East German experiences not before, but after unification. 'Nostalgia' is after all never rooted merely in what was actually good in the past, though it is certainly the case that East Germans, like people elsewhere, had happy memories of times with family and friends, as well as, for some, fulfilment in work, enjoyment of a measure of collegiality, and affordable housing, cultural and leisure activities. But it is also very much to do with what has happened since 1990.

Bankruptcy before blossoming

In everyday life, unification did not immediately deliver the promised 'blossoming landscapes' envisaged by West German CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl: unemployment rose alarmingly in the eastern provinces, and the Deutschmark did not instantly deliver the consumerist paradise portrayed in the advertisements.

Former GDR enterprises went bankrupt and were bought up by western entrepreneurs for laughable prices, often only to remain closed given the high costs of renovation; towns and villages were variously 'sanitised' or fell into further ruin, creating striking visible disparities across regions and localities; and there was a continuing exodus of young people in search of better chances in the west, with depopulation exacerbating a sense of continuing decay.

Despite the massive economic subsidies poured from West to East, East Germans still have a far lower standard of living and average income than their western compatriots - an equation resented for different reasons on both sides of the no longer existent inner-German border.

Nor was it so easy to follow former West German SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt's injunction to 'let grow together what belongs together': many East Germans felt they were being looked down on and treated as 'second class citizens' by their more affluent western compatriots with their decades of successful negotiation of individualistic capitalism.

In the early 1990s, jokes about 'Ossis' and 'Wessis' (easterners and westerners) abounded, and stereotypes certainly still persist. Many East Germans remain disappointed by what the new system has actually meant in practice, with unemployment and existential uncertainty continuing realities of everyday life: in the eyes of many of its casualties, a harsh competitive 'elbow society' has displaced the allegedly warmer social relations of the walled-in welfare state of communism. They may not want the Wall back, but do yearn after what they now construct as a more secure and peaceful way of life.

History repeating?

Moreover, other unresolved historical reappraisals have been very much in the air in the decades since unification. Interpreted differently in East and West, the years of Nazi Germany returned to haunt Germans with major controversies, ranging from memorials for the victims of Nazi racism, as in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe located in the heart of the capital city of Berlin, through the portrayal of ordinary soldiers as 'perpetrators' in the controversial Wehrmacht (Army) exhibition, or allegations about the far wider involvement of 'ordinary Germans' in the Holocaust, to quite different attempts to recast Germans 'as victims', whether as 'war children', or as refugees and expellees from lost eastern territories, or innocent targets of bombing campaigns with high numbers of civilian casualties.

These debates ran alongside attempts to 'deal with' the 'second German dictatorship' of the GDR, inevitably raising controversial questions of similarity and difference between the two regimes. Within the last few years, such debates have shifted onto the further terrain of which 'sites of memory' should receive public funding, and which voices of 'victims' should be trumpeted most loudly, with what official support.

Some feel that victims of the SED-regime are even displacing victims of Nazism in the memorial economy of contemporary Germany; others feel it is quite the opposite. 'Memory' is then also very much about the priorities of the present.

Many ex-GDR citizens began to feel that they were being looked down on by their newly discovered 'western brothers and sisters'. Not only the former SED-regime but also their own social and personal identities now appeared to be the subject of critical scrutiny.

People often felt they were being denied any agency in their own past, instead being cast as 'dupes', 'collaborators', 'victims', or in a range of other roles that seemed to ride roughshod over the variety of ways in which East Germans of different backgrounds and generations had engaged with the world through which they had lived; and that the default western position was one, not of attempted understanding, but rather of rejection. This, in turn, provoked self-defensive reactions in terms of individual self-representations. 'Memories' of the GDR in the years after its demise have to be seen in this far broader context.

The generation gap

Even if the Federal Republic of Germany today, under its Chancellor Angela Merkel - Germany's first female Chancellor, a former GDR citizen, and prepared to admit in public that she still likes eastern European food - is what some people like to claim is 'finally' a 'normal' state, both its recent and its not-so-recent dictatorial past continue to inflect the present in highly distinctive ways.

But these experiences and memories are also generationally patterned. While people born in the waning years of the Weimar Republic and socialised under Nazism - the '1929ers'- helped to build up the communist GDR, idealistically hoping for a better future after Hitler, those born into the GDR realised its failures in practice and helped to tear the Wall down.

Younger East Germans, who were children or teenagers when the Wall fell, have quite different experiences and attitudes than either their parents or grandparents. In another 20 years or so, these considerations will no doubt all be sliding seamlessly into a past that is 'really history' in the sense that it no longer seems to matter very much. And that - given the contrasts between GDR history and the past that classically refuses to pass away, that of the Third Reich - is probably only to be welcomed."

Image: 'Short section of the Berlin Wall - Potsdamer Platz' by Jorge Lascar on Flickr. Some rights reserved

UCL context

Mary Fulbrook is Professor of German History, and Vice-Dean (Interdisciplinarity), Faculty of Arts and Humanities. UCL German is one of the premier departments in the UK and overseas for the study of German culture, history and language, and was the first German university department in the UK.

The UCL European Institute was launched in October 2010 to act as a hub for research, collaboration and information on Europe and the European Union. UCL has an exceptional range of expertise in this field, covering the core subjects of European integration study, such as law, politics, and history, but also an unrivalled span of European languages, philosophy and the arts, as well as built environment, medicine and the sciences. The European Institute offers a dynamic centre for research in and cooperation across these fields. It also provides a conduit between UCL expertise and domestic as well as international policy-makers, civil society and the media.