From the Vault: on German Reunification and Nationalism, circa 2012

For today's Mandatory NonScience Wednesday, here is a selection from The Vault.

In my final year of my BSc (2012), I took a lot of non-science courses, one of which was History 210, History of Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries. By that time I knew that I wanted to go to grad school in Germany, so I figured that this would be useful (and it's an entry level course, so not that hard). My instructor (doing his PhD at the time) was originally from Moldova, so he had a perspective that I hadn't been exposed to before, and I really enjoyed his class. Especially because when I pitched the start of this essay to him, he told me to go for it. I kept the Chicago citation style with some minor fixes, and it clocks in at just over 2000 words. Enjoy!

German Reunification and Nationalism: The Missing Piece

On December 31, 1989, David Hasselhoff stood atop the remains of the Berlin Wall and sang “Looking For Freedom”[1]. At the time, the English cover of an Austrian hit had been at the top of the charts in West Germany since the late summer and became somewhat of an anthem among disenchanted youth of both Eastern and Western Germany[1]. Hasselhoff has since claimed to be singlehandedly responsible for uniting the German nation through this performance[1]. While it’s not clear whether or not Hasselhoff is serious, it does raise questions regarding Germany’s reunification in 1990 and the issue of nationalism. Was German nationalism at all present during this time of nation building, and if not, how was its absence felt within Germany as the two halves struggled to make a whole country despite 40 years of separation and differences?

Germany’s history with nationalism is less than stellar, and so reactionary measures against nationalism can be found in both East and West Germany in different forms of policy[2,3]. While the road to reunification was a bumpy one, it was quick, with full reunification occurring less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall[3]. With one nation divided into two ideologically different states, there were cultural differences to resolve between the two, and depending on the perspective, the trade-offs between Eastern and Western Germany was not equal in the re-unification process[4]. The reunification process brought up questions regarding differences that still exist between the East and the West.

On November 28, 1989, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced his ten-point plan that would attempt to deal with these issues, as well as the foreign implications that reunification represented[5]. This plan was rather ambitious, and was not without its own roadblocks. The gathering shift towards reunification was not unnoticed on the international level, as several major governments had their own stance regarding the German nation. Prime Minister Thatcher of the United Kingdom was publicly against any form of German unity, and held this stance even after other country leaders and her own ministers began to green-light reunification[6]. This lack of faith in the German people is deeply historical and continues in some form of prejudice today[7], yet at the time of reunification, it was based on the fear of a nationalism that for the most part was not present in Germany. National, international, policy-based, or simply popular opinion at the time, a sense of nationalism or national belonging was missing in Germany. As a nation undergoing change, this absence took its toll on reunification, and is still felt in Germany today to varying degrees.

Nationalism was not present in both East and West Germany for different reasons. In West Germany, or the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), the concept of the German nation was largely left out of discussion until the 1960s, where the public outcry for openness regarding Germany’s past drove the public discourse[8]. Even after these discussions were opened, there was a general feeling in Western Germany that nationalism was a slippery slope to ethnic racism, despite moderate attempts at constitutional patriotism by Jürgen Habermas[9].

In East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic (GDR), nationalism was not promoted simply because of the role that the GDR played within the Soviet Union. As one of the more economically successful socialist countries, the GDR focused their efforts on encouraging the Soviet ideology and values within[2]. German nationalism then had no place within the GDR. Following news of reunification, intellectuals in the GDR felt a brief swell of nationalism, followed by the fear that they would lose their positions[10]. West German museums, monuments, and historians alike were unable to agree on how to represent Germanic history to Germans– was it too Prussian, was it too focused on the crimes of the Holocaust[8]. These issues dominated before reunification and influence the way in which people see themselves Germans.

Constitutionally, the two states differed in their approaches to national unity, and is reflected in the lack of nationalism. The Federal Republic of Germany adopted in its Basic Law a provision that, “[t]he entire German people are called on to achieve in free self-determination the unity and freedom of Germany”[11]. While nationalism isn’t directly promoted, the FRG had maintained that it was a provisional government in place until all Germans could be reunited. The GRD, on the other hand, was not as stable in its interpretation of German unity, however, in 1971, Ulbricht (the Chairman of the Council of State) declared that the GDR was a fully formed socialist nation, and that the Germany of the bourgeois past no longer existed[11]. This is but one of the difficulties faced by those who sought to reunify Germany, as the two states had diverged drastically in terms of cultural and societal norms and values.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Ten-Point Plan for German Unity was announced on November 28th, 1989, less than three weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall[5]. His words, while directed towards the Bundestag, were intended for all Germans as well as his international counterparts. Kohl sought to set the path for reunification of East and West Germany in a way that was at first a confederation to allow for stability in services of the two countries, followed by an eventual federation. This included East Germany moving towards a market economy and a true democratic system with free, open, and secret elections. Finally, Kohl’s plan addressed the foreign policy and geopolitical implications of reunification, including incorporation with the European community. In one section, Kohl addresses what he believes to be the key to German unity within Europe:

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, we continue to understand the process of regaining German unity as something that is also a European concern. It must, therefore, also be seen in connection with European integration. [5]

This is about as close as Kohl gets to nationalism within his speech, and speaks to the notion of a European people above a German people. While Kohl’s Plan was well timed and set the pace for German reunification, there were at least two hitches.

First, despite allowing for cultural cooperation with the GDR to ensure that citizens of both countries were represented in the reunification, this did not appear to exist in reality. These concerns were brought up later following reunification, but the stage was already set with Kohl’s requirement that before reunification could take place, elections were required in East Germany. With this requirement in place, open elections were held in the GDR the following year, resulting in a near sweep for the CDU, Kohl’s party[3]. This was later repeated in West Germany’s elections in December, and so voters of both countries set the pace for reunification. In interviews following reunification, an East German actor says that the issue is that reunification happened far too quickly, and that it wasn’t what was truly wanted by East Germans[2]. This is obviously in clear opposition to the result of the election, and shows a schism between the way the past happened and the way the past is recalled later on.

The euphoria that gave rise to a call for reunification overshadowed some of the more severe differences between the two Germany’s that were not realized until afterward the elections and the road to reunification. This includes issues of women’s rights, economic reforms, and working conditions and expectations. In the GDR, popular will eventually led to the legalization of and access to medically safe abortions for all women[12]. Following unification, this clashed with cultural values from the Catholic and Protestant West Germany (which would fuel other cultural differences later on), and required a five-year wait for a law to eventually be passed that essentially decriminalized abortions and no more state-provided medical coverage or free access[3]. This was a huge step back for women, who also took a hit from reunification in terms of loss of guaranteed employment alongside their male counterparts.

Reunification meant that the GDR would not only be subject to free elections, but also be subject to decentralization of their economy to match that of the FDR[5]. The East German mark was converted at par, resulting in the costs of labour in East Germany being too high to be competitive, and so jobs were cut while some headed East to take advantage of the dismal economic situation[5]. The visions of economic prosperity soon evaporated as the harsh reality of East Germany de-industrialization hit, which was accompanied by a sense of loss of culture[3]. This led to a mix of Ostalgie (nostalgia for East Germany and its culture) and resurgence in neo-Nazism[9]. Both of these movements can be traced to a lack of national identity as German, regardless of West or East, and more a yearning to return to the way things were.

Even twenty years after reunification, the East versus West mentality has not left Germany, and is often used to the advantage of politicians. Matthias Platzeck, the Brandenburg state premier and former leader of the SPD, has called the reunification Anschluss (annexation), which is loaded with historical context, often used to refer to the Nazi Germany annexation of Austria in 1938[4]. Platzeck maintains that ideological differences between the FRG and the GDR got in the way of an equitable exchange, and because the FRG was calling the shots, the GDR had no choice but to comply. While this is in line some of the previous issues (women’s rights, etc.), it is hard to appreciate the veracity of these claims coming from a politician whose party has benefitted from eastern discontent since reunification. This is yet another factor that has muddled the issue of reunification- the politics surrounding the way reunification turns out. Twenty years later, the Eastern Germany economy is still catching up to that of Western Germany[13].

Going back to Kohl’s Ten Point Plan, the second delay was the prejudice that remained in the international sphere regarding Germany. Initially, the European community was hesitant to immediately back reunification, but no more so than Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom[6]. In papers recently released detailing the Prime Minster’s issues with reunification, they appear to be predicated on a fear of Germany returning to its place of dictatorial power. After finally succumbing to acceptance of reunification after the United States and France supported it, Thatcher still held an informal meeting of historians and politicians to answer the question, “How dangerous are the Germans?”[6]. This distrust is rooted in fear of German nationalism, and continues to be seen today in British publications that seem to hint at a German-led conspiracy against the rest of Europe[7]. What is truly ironic about these sentiments is that at the time of reunification, German nationalism was almost non-existent, and with even more pressure from the international community, it’s likely that any sense of nationalism within Germany would not have been allowed to take root.

The periods leading up to and including reunification in Germany were not necessarily one of nationalism for both Germany’s, and for various reasons. However, following the intent to reunify, a sense of nationalism would have likely benefited both countries to work towards a clearer sense of togetherness. The truth is that 40 years apart under different political ideologies was nearly too much for the country to rely solely on historical reasons for reunification. While it’s difficult to determine what kind of nationalism could have existed between the two states, the idea of a nation dictates similar values, traditions, and goals. An examination of what was important to both states would have likely given a clearer picture to those in charge of reunification to see that work was needed.

Perhaps reunification did happen too quickly; perhaps the two Germany’s were so caught up in the idea of being one country again, they neglected to come to terms with their differences in an equal manner. Kohl’s Ten Point Plan was certainly ambitious, and while it detailed the necessary steps needed for the FRG to reunite with the GDR, it was not necessarily a document for equal reunification. The prevailing inequalities that resulted from reunification still exist alongside old-standing resentment from other nations, and represent a challenge in today’s Germany. However, with Germany managing to stay afloat during the current financial crisis and the economic gap between the east and the west closing, this may be the country’s chance to inspire a kind of nationalism that is palatable to all German citizens, and it doesn’t require David Hasselhoff.


[1] “Did David Hasselhoff really help end the Cold War?,” BBC News, February 6, 2004. Accessed March 18, 2012.
[2] The Nation Returns. Written and presented by Michael Ignatieff. Princeton: Films for the Humanities & Science, 2003. Originally released in 1993, film.
[3] Kitchen, Martin. The History of Modern Germany: 1800 to present, 2nd ed. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
[4] Kirschbaum, Erik. “The dark side of German reunification.” Reuters, September 29, 2010. Accessed March 18, 2012. 09/29/the-dark-side-of-german-reunification/.
[5] Kohl, Helmut. “Zehn-Punkte-Programm zur Überwindung der Teilung Deutschlands und Europas” [“Ten Point Program for Overcoming the Division of Germany and Europe”, translated by Jeremiah Riemer].” In Die Deutsche Vereinigung: Dokumente zu Bürgerbewegung, Annäherung und Beitritt edited by Volker Gransow and Konrad Jarausch, 101–4. Cologne: Verlag Wissenschaft und Politik, 1991. Originally published in Bulletin des Presse- und Informationsamtes der Bundesregierung [Bulletin of the Press and Information Office of the Federal Government]. 1989.
[6] Volkery, Carsten. “The Iron Lady’s Views on German Reunification: ’The Germans are Back!’” Spiegel Online International, September 11, 2009. Accessed March 18, 2012. europe/0,1518,648364,00.html.
[7] Evers, Marco. “Resentments Reawaken: Britain’s Mounting Distrust of Germany.” Spiegel Online International, December 19, 2011. europe/0,1518,804616,00.html.
[8] Berger, Stefan. The Search for Normality: National Identity and Historical Consciousness in Germany since 1800. New York: Berghahn, 2007.
[9] Berger, Stefan. “Quo Vadis Germany? National identity debates after reunification.” Ab Imperio 2 (2004): 449–486.
[10] Lepenies, Wolf. The Seduction of Culture in German History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
[11] Fritsch-Bournazel, Renata. Confronting the German Question: Germans on the East-West Divide. Translated by Caroline Bray. New York: Berg-St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
[12] McLellan, Josie. Love in the Time of Communism: Intimacy and Sexuality in the GDR. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
[13] “Economic gap between East and West Germany narrows.” BBC News, February 15, 2012. Accessed March 19, 2012.


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