German Unity Day 2008
On the occasion of this year's celebration of Unity Day, Germans are not particularly focused on this eighteenth anniversary of unification. Other events are grabbing more attention, be it the financial crisis or who is going to clean up the political leadership mess within the CSU after their state election defeat last Sunday. Even the so-called debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden led front page news in Germany more than Unity Day.
There is the usual moaning and groaning in the editorials about the fact that there is still uneven economic growth in eastern Germany despite the fact that over 170 billion Euros have been transferred there from unification until 2004, with more to follow through 2019. Some western Germans continue to think eastern Germans are ungrateful. Some eastern Germans in turn castigate their western German counterparts as being either condescending or simply uninterested in eastern Germany. In fact, a large portion of west Germans remain unexposed to the eastern part of their country.
When one turns eighteen in Germany, you are called "volljährig" or having reached the age of maturity; many are referring to the fact that this year's Unity Day means unification is "volljährig." But eighteen years is not a long span of history, especially when one recalls the tectonic shifts which occurred in the blink of an historical eye less than two decades ago. There are other benchmarks with which this unique evolution might be measured.
One is a fact that needs to be occasionally recalled: the peaceful process of ending forty years of the German Democratic Republic and achieving full unification under the Federal Republic of Germany without violence and with the full participation of those powers which had been part of the division of Germany for those four decades. All of that happened between November 9, 1989, and October 3, 1990. That was an astounding accomplishment given the volatile landscapes in Europe at the time. Good stewardship on all sides came together to reach a solution to a problem which had remained at the core of the conflict in post-War Europe for four and half decades.
Another fact: the inclusion of eighteen million Germans into the democratic state of the Federal Republic of Germany, adding five new states, and seeing to it that the West German system of political, economic, and social infrastructure got more or less transferred to all of them. Yes, there was a good deal of inconsistency, mistakes, and a lot of arrogance involved. But such a political experiment in democracy had never been carried about before, and certainly no one predicted the success it has enjoyed over the past eighteen years.
A third fact: thousands of East Germans were able to summon the courage to challenge a dictatorship which had been firmly entrenched for forty years. In fact, that dictatorship has just completed celebrating with great fanfare its fortieth anniversary in the streets of Berlin. Very few West Germans I knew right up until 1989 believed that they would see unification of Germany in their lifetime. And when it began to become a real possibility, East Germans were on the streets of Leipzig, Dresden and elsewhere calling ultimately for the end of the GDR. Cheering crowds yelling "we are the people" gradually changed their cheers to "we are one people." With the shadow of Tiananmen Square still hovering over such challenges to dictatorships, it was not evident that a similar bloodthirsty response would not happen on the streets of eastern Germany.
Following unification, a major part of the adjustments both western and eastern Germans had to make involved actually understanding each other. Even if they spoke the same language, the experiences of four decades on either side of the Wall were not easily translated. The struggle to come to grips with the legacy of the secret police - the Stasi - played a central role among East Germans who were trying to understand how to evaluate their own pasts and anticipate an uncertain future. It also entangled many West Germans in its web. But, just as had been the case in the process of dealing with the Holocaust in West Germany, there was a firm commitment to look at that past unvarnished and make it as transparent as possible. That process continues to this day, as it does with the Holocaust as well.
Recent films like "The Lives of Others" or the just-released "The Baader Meinhof Complex" testify to the fact that the two German republics went through four decades with different lenses focused on different milestones or experiences which could only be shared by those who lived through them on either side of the Wall. And yet, in less than two decades, the ability of eighty million Germans to identify with one Germany has evolved as Willy Brandt foresaw back in 1989. "What belongs together can now grow together" was his famous description of those moments following the fall of the Wall.
Just as in other countries, divisions and differences can exist side by side with national identities. However, some boil over into terrible wars, such as those the Balkans have just experienced. Germany's path through history during the first half of the previous century illustrated the terrible price to be paid when these forces become the vehicle of those who would extinguish the differences by force. During most of the second half of that century, Germany's division was the front line of the division of the east-west conflict. Today, that division has been replaced by other types of differences which make up a country with a very long, sometimes painful, and a very diverse history but also marks one of the strongest and most vibrant democracies in the world. Germany is also surrounded by other countries that do not feel threatened by nor do they threaten Germany.
Perhaps on Germany's Unity Day, it would be good to remember that all of this was not a foregone conclusion to be drawn on November 9, 1989, or on October 3, 1990. That alone is reason to celebrate.