Ten Years After the Wall Came Tumbling Down

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Ten Years After the Wall Came Tumbling Down

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When German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder moved into his office in Berlin in September, a major milestone in the process set in motion by German unification was reached. With the German parliament, the Bundestag, and the head of government, Chancellor Schröder, residing in Berlin, a unified Germany is now being governed from Berlin for the first time since the end of World War II. Ironically, the month of September witnessed two other reminders of German unification nearly 10 years after the historic opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.

Chancellor Schröder provided the first reminder on a visit to Budapest. Chancellor Schröder personally thanked the Hungarian government for Hungary's courageous act of opening its western border with Austria in the summer of 1989. Hundreds of East Germany's citizens made use of the hole in the Iron Curtain to travel to Austria and from there to Germany. The opening of Hungary's border led to more East Germans traveling to Hungary and to Czechoslovakia, where dozens of people sought refuge in the German embassy in Prague. After successful negotiations with the Czech government, West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher traveled to Prague to announce to the refugees in the embassy compound that they would be permitted to emigrate to West Germany. Before he could finish reading his statement, loud cheering from the assembled refugees drowned his words out.

These events in the summer of 1989 sealed East Germany's fate. In thanking the Hungarian government, Chancellor Schröder emphasized that German unification would not have been possible without the opening of Hungary's border to the West. Without a secure border to the West in other Eastern European countries, East Germany faced the choice of prohibiting its citizens from traveling anywhere at all or capitulating to the new reality created by Hungary's decision.

The other reminder was a much less joyous occasion. In September Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, died of leukemia after having been treated unsuccessfully at a clinic in Germany. Her funeral in Moscow was a reunion of three key players involved in the agreement to allow the unification of Germany: Hans-Dietrich Genscher (Germany's foreign minister at the time), Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl. Concerned about the possibility of political instability in a post-Gorbachev Russia, Chancellor Kohl sought Mr. Gorbachev's approval for German unification during a visit to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1990. During a walk in the Caucasus Mountains, Mr. Gorbachev agreed to Mr. Kohl's request.

The Drama of Unification

At a ceremony in Moscow on September 12, 1990, the four World War II allies (Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States) and the two German states signed the treaty that permitted Germany to reunite. On October 3, 1990, unification was proclaimed in a special ceremony held at the Reichstag building. Viewed technically, the former East Germany "joined" the West German State by becoming subject to West Germany's Grundgesetz or "basic law"-in effect the German constitution.

The final unification of the two German states was a foregone conclusion from the day that the Berlin Wall was opened on November 9, 1989. In the early evening East German television broadcast a live press conference at which a member of the ruling German Socialist Unity Party (SED) announced that effective immediately private visits to foreign countries would be permitted without any prerequisites. The announcement hit the wire services quickly and was given to members of West Germany's Bundestag, who were in evening session in Bonn at the time. Realizing the full impact of the announcement, the Bonn parliamentarians interrupted their session to gather around television sets. Shortly thereafter they spontaneously sang the German national anthem. Within a couple of hours the first East Germans had traveled through the Wall to visit West Berlin.

The opening of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany less than 11 months later electrified the German people. In the emotional high resulting from unification, the Bundestag voted to move the seat of government to Berlin. Chancellor Kohl promised economic prosperity for Germany's newest citizens and their homeland. His promise helped him to be reelected in 1990, although opposing politicians, including Oskar Lafontaine, emphasized the potential high cost of reunification and the creation of a viable economic infrastructure for Eastern Germany. Their cautions were ignored at the time.

Unity Hasn't Been Quick-or Cheap

A decade after the opening of the Berlin Wall, unification has been a mixed blessing for Germany as a whole and for Eastern Germany in particular. Billions of marks have been invested in construction projects in the new German states to repave and widen old autobahns, to improve the public transportation system and to provide Eastern Germany with a state-of-the-art telecommunications backbone-more modern, in fact, than parts of the system in Western Germany. Wages in Eastern Germany have been raised gradually to be now nearly the same for key union-dominated industries and civil service jobs as in the western half of the country. In addition to tax monies from the German national government, paid for in part by a special "solidarity" tax surcharge on taxpayers in Western Germany, Eastern Germany has benefited from European Union funds for economically depressed areas.

Despite the massive spending in Eastern Germany, resulting in a clearly visible improvement in Eastern Germany's overall appearance, unemployment remains higher than in the western part of the country. A population drain has set in as young people move west to seek better opportunities for economic advancement. The promise of prosperity for the former citizens of East Germany has not been fulfilled, although many would agree that their economic situation has improved since 1989.

As a result, a sense of disillusionment has been evident in the eastern half of the country. Nostalgia for the old days is rekindled occasionally as products from the East Germany era are remarketed. It is an understandable reaction, because the former citizens have lost their country and many do not yet feel fully "at home" in their new environment. This may be a partial explanation for the higher occurrence of radical right-wing incidents in the eastern half of the country in recent years, although, as a whole, they do not convey an accurate picture of the overall contemporary German mindset. (In this year's state elections, right-wing parties have lost votes.)

Disillusionment has not only been evident in the eastern half of the country. Germans in the western half are tired of the higher tax burden they have had to shoulder to pay for unification. The cost of moving government ministries to Berlin, originally estimated to be 20 billion marks, has been questioned repeatedly.

In a survey commissioned in September by the magazine Stern, 20 percent of West Germans voiced their desire to see the Berlin Wall rebuilt. Even more surprising was the 14 percent result for the East Germans surveyed. It is this kind of attitude that has led many prominent Germans to call for an end to the "division of Germany in the mind."

Kurt Masur, who is originally from the former East Germany and is currently the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, said on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall: "We have to listen to each other more, we have to learn to respect each other." Masur, already a renowned conductor in 1989, is credited with having intervened with church and Communist Party officials in the fall of 1989 to prevent the use of force to quell peaceful demonstrations against East Germany's political leadership.

Problems Will Be Resolved, by Work or by Crisis

With the traditional German virtues of hard work and thoroughness, the economic differences within Germany will be resolved. It may take longer for the cultural differences to be resolved that result from two parts of the country having been separated for 45 years by two opposing political systems-capitalism and communism. One often hears mention of the possibility that it will take one or two generations of Germans living together to achieve full internal unification. Of course, the process can be speeded up by Germans being inspired by their achievements internationally. News commentators emphasized frequently that Jan Ulrich, winner of the 1997 prestigious Tour de France bicycle race, is originally from Eastern Germany.

Another possibility for speeding the mental unification of Germany would be the need to respond to a crisis. The worst flooding in a century along the Oder River on the German-Polish border in 1997 caused an outpouring of sympathy and active support to help the people affected by the flooding. Hundreds of volunteers from all over Germany helped to build dikes, evacuate threatened towns and villages and provide food and shelter for displaced flooding victims.

Another possible scenario would be a response to an external threat or challenge. Americans might be reminded of the Spanish-American War in 1898, which provided an opportunity for a country once divided by its Civil War to face a common enemy.

Ten years after the opening of the Berlin Wall, Germany is united politically, but much work remains to be done to heal the internal breach caused by nearly 50 years of separation. WNP