Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Jetzt wächst zusammen, was zusammengehört.
- Willy Brandt

Today is Reunification Day in Germany. 16 years ago, the East German Volkskammer rubber-stamped a treaty that had been signed August 31st of the same year agreeing that the DDR would disolve and allow each of the 5 individual states to "independently" apply for admission to the Bundesrepublik(West). Economic and currency union had already taken place on July 1st: West German marks were legal currency in the DDR and were traded officially at 3 East Marks - to - 1 West Mark (a highly inflated rate).

The problems of reunification have not been resolved by a long shot. The "new states" lag far behind the "old states" in economic terms - with lower production, negative growth, and high (sometimes up to 25%) unemployment. Most of the blame for this has been put on then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl's over-hasty plan for reunification.

I don't personally think that is fair. It's true that Kohl rushed through reunification, and it's true that the currency reform was almost certainly a bad idea. It's true enough that leveler heads should have prevailed that unification should have been delayed a couple more years. Ideally.

But the situation on the ground simply wouldn't have allowed it.

It's worth remembering what did happen. The DDR was turning 40. Gorbachev's reforms were in full swing in the Soviet Union. They spread through the east like wildfire. Not all eastern countries were as dedicated to the ideals of socialism as the East German SED-government. Hungary and Czechoslovakia - both of which had rebelled against the Soviets in the 50s and 60s, took the opportunity and ran with it. Hungary opened its border with Austria, and East Germans started leaving.

What really started the fire were the so-called Monday Demonstrations - first in Leipzig, then in other cities. Gorbachev was comming to visit, and the demonstrators (the first "serious" one started 4 October 1989 - Gorbachev arrived on the 5th ahead of celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the DDR) believed he would help them.

And help them he did. Gorbachev made clear (so the history goes - he now has a different version of this in his memoirs) to Honecker that the Soviet troops would not put down mass demonstrations in the DDR as they had in the past in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. East Germany had lost its security guarantee.

Things came to a head on October 8th. A mass demonstration in Leipzig numbering in the hundreds of thousands of protestors was not stopped by waiting police. No one is really sure why. Egon Krenz (then in charge of these things) likes to take credit for having issued the order to stand down - and he may well have done. But if so, there's still a "Pearl Harbor" disclaimer: his order wasn't received until the demonstration had already died down, leading many to speculate that he cynically issued it after the fact to bolster his image (and in fact, that's what I believe). In any case, the local authorities (some of whom were marching, actually) in Leipzig didn't want to take responsibility for a bloodbath; they ordered the troops to let the demonstration procede. Probaby they authorities simply didn't know how to handle it, and while they kept passing the buck amongst themselves (Krenz pretending not to see it), the demonstrators got away with it, and a precedent was set.

I think at that point there was really no turning back. Of course, it's faulty to imagine that there is any one moment in history - a fixed point, if you will - when events distill down to minor but momentous actions, where not stopping a protest here means the end of the country, stopping it means it can go on. But things went rapidly downhill from that point. Honecker was forced to resign as head of the party. Krenz replaced him, but no one wanted Krenz either. By December, the entire cabinet had resigned as East Germans increasingly took advantage of opening borders to leave. The opening of the Berlin Wall on Krenz' watch was a another miscommunication. In fact, the order to open it had not been given. East Germans had been granted the right to free travel from border posts, but no specifics were given from the authorities on how to implement this. When the mob (some think it numbered in the millions) appeared at Brandenburg Gate hoping to go to the West, the troops - what else could they do? - simply opened the doors and out they went. When people started chiseling away at the hated wall, the soldiers stood aside and let them.

Everything about the end of East Germany had the flavor of "too little, too late." Krenz made an honest effort to reform, but by that point nothing he could have said or done would have made any difference. The East Germans hated their government, which, after 40 years of crappy service, was no more than it deserved.

That many of them now regret the mad rush to reuinification is understandable - but they really had no way of knowing. They knew what they hated about life in the East. They didn't know what they liked: secure jobs, artificially low rent, etc. They had no way of knowing that these things were not guaranteed in West Germany, or the extent to which their own economy (the best by far in Eastern Europe) was in trouble.

By January hundreds of thousands of East Germans were leaving every month. The first free elections in the nation's history were scheduled for May, but they had to be moved up to March 18th because the country was rapidly becoming ungovernnable. When Krenz and the cabinet resigned in December, the SED monopoly on power was ended, and everyone, even the old cadres themselves, knew it. The SED would be participating in the elections, sure (and would win about 30% of the vote), but under a new name: PDS. (This party still exists in Germany and wins as much as 25% of the vote in some East German localities. Note the similarity with the unemployment stats. Coincidence?)

The rest is history. The new coalition had a mandate to disolve the country - and they immediately began negotiations with the Soviet Union, the western powers, and the Bundesrepublik. One day short of one year after the Monday Demonstrations started, there was no more DDR.

I went to Germany first in the summer of 1994, which I spent in Würzburg and Braunschweig. Braunschweig is very close to the old border, and most of the guys I stayed with (I lived in a fraternity house) were "Ossis." They talked a lot about life under the old state, but they said very little about the realities back home at the time.

And unfortunately, I never really went to see for myself. I took one weekend trip to Berlin, but it wasn't until the next year - when I spent a year as an exchange student, that I spent any time at all in the East. What I saw was depressing - both in East Berlin and in the eastern half of the country. Grey and poorly-maintained buildings, and that eerie quiet - from the general lack of electric lights, blaring music, and chatter. Just sitting in bars in the East trying to drink beer was unnerving back then. I should add that there were demonstrations from the PDS members at the Wall site at that time asking the government to build it back. (!!!) Only about 20 people or so.

I didn't go back to Germany until the summer of 2004 - again to East Berlin - and the place couldn't possibly have been more different. One experience in particular comes to mind - and that's of being in a place I had been in 1994 - ruined houses from before the war that the government had never bothered to repair. They were occupied by student squatters at the time, and we went to look at art, buy beer at cost and so on. The place was a regular commune. Well, I was walking down a street thinking that the building ahead of me looked vaguely familiar. I had it in my mind to go back to those houses, to see if the students were still there and so on, and then I realized that I was standing at the very place! But now it just looked like the rest of West Berlin. Indistinguishable, save that there was still graffiti on the walls, still some art here and there, and a picture of Noam Chomsky on top of some display claiming that 9/11 was a conspiracy. So yes, still some students around I guess, but otherwise a non-descript bulding in the middle of a vibrant western city. In exactly 10 years, there was little left to say that East Berlin had ever been there.

I find it hard to believe that the rest of the East hasn't similarly caught up - but from what I read in the statistics, it still has a long way to go. I will say this, though: Germany in 2004 was in general a lot happier than in 1994. By the end of my year abroad, I couldn't wait to go home. I was tired of all the general sullen complaining, tired of the unfriendliness and negativity. A Canadian co-worker (of German descent) in Korea had spent some time there roughly when I was there and had the same opinion. "They're unhappy" was his opinion of the Germans. But I didn't have that impression at all in 2004. I wouldn't exactly say people were friendly, but they were at least somewhat chatty and seemed to be enjoying themselves.

In any case, while it's fashionable to talk about the failures of reuinification (which, by the way, was a politically incorrect term as recently as the 80s since it had been used by Hitler to describe the union with Austria), I don't think it's realistic to imagine it could have been slowed down. Things got out of hand - and I think we can guess that it would have been worse if the East German government had simply collapsed.

The lesson for Korea is simple: GET READY NOW! These things have a way of spiraling, and the DPRK isn't going anywhere near as quietly as the DDR went.

On the lighter side - East German things are trendy now, described by the portmanteau "Ostalgie" (the German words for "East" and "nostalgia" mashed together). People appear on TV in their pioneers uniforms, trade old cans of East German food, etc. My favorite example that can be experienced in the US is Goodbye, Lenin, a movie about a woman who falls into a coma (she is hit by a car after she faints when she sees her son marching in a demonstration) and wakes up after Honecker's resignation. The DDR is falling apart around them, and her son, to spare her the shock, goes to great pains to keep everything looking the way it was. It's a great look back at the time - including Germany's World Cup win that summer! :-)

Well, what happened happened. Happy birthday, United Germany.


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