Gorbachev Was Right About German Reunification

Thatcher and Mitterrand nearly stopped it from happening, but 30 years on, reunification remains the world’s most successful geopolitical experiment.

By Elisabeth Braw, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A sculpture of a heart in the colors of the German flag reads “30 years” as part of an outdoor exhibition marking the upcoming 30th anniversary of German reunification in Potsdam on Sept. 17.
A sculpture of a heart in the colors of the German flag reads “30 years” as part of an outdoor exhibition marking the upcoming 30th anniversary of German reunification in Potsdam on Sept. 17. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

At 7 p.m. local time on Oct. 2, 1990, East Germany’s national anthem was played as the country’s women’s handball team squared off against West Germany. They won 24-20. But at midnight, their country was no more: Germany was reunited. Prior to that event, world leaders had so feared German reunification that it nearly didn’t happen. But 30 years later, it can only be described as a phenomenal success.

Around the same time the two women’s handball teams were squaring off, I arrived in the small East German town of Demmin to visit friends of my family. Located near what would become Chancellor Angela Merkel’s voting district in Germany’s northeast corner, Demmin doesn’t particularly stand out. Like the rest of East Germany, it was about to undergo a fundamental transformation by becoming part of another country. Reunification celebrations there were restrained. Some people hung German flags from their balconies. Others did not.

Some 330 miles away in the town of Mengersgereuth-Hämmern, just north of East Germany’s border with Bavaria, the situation was divided between joyful residents and fearful ones. As the clock struck 12, the pianist Karin Blechschmidt and her family put on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and called their friends. “Oct. 3 was a relief,” Blechschmidt said. In Berlin, too, Beethoven’s Ninth with its famous “Ode to Joy” was a popular choice. Richard von Weizsäcker, the West German-turned-reunified German president, spoke. “History has been kind to us Germans this time,” he said to the assembled potentates, including Chancellor Helmut Kohl and East Germany’s short-serving and now departing head Lothar de Maizière.

Farther back in the crowd sat Richard Schröder, a Lutheran pastor who had been serving as the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party in East Germany’s first and last democratically elected parliament. The election that brought him to power just months before had resulted in Christian Democrat de Maizière being elected prime minister on a platform of speedy reunification. Like Schröder, key members of Maizière’s cabinet, including Foreign Minister Markus Meckel and Disarmament and Defense Minister Rainer Eppelmann, were Lutheran pastors, a reflection of the strength of the church-based opposition that toppled the Communist regime. The deputy spokesperson for de Maizière’s government was one pastor’s daughter named Angela Merkel.

“People had been saying, ‘When do we join, when do we join?’” Schröder recalled. “Everyone’s feeling was that we had to hurry up before Gorbachev changed his mind or something happened to him.” Indeed, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev—who stood to lose a socialist ally if East Germany joined the West—courageously supported reunification. Meanwhile, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze advised East Germans not to wait. When Soviet hard-liners staged a coup against Gorbachev less than a year after Germany’s reunification, many East Germans realized how lucky they had been.

That’s especially true because reunification was not up to the two Germanies and the Soviet Union alone. Rather, all four World War II victors played a role in the negotiations, and the support of the Western powers was not a given.

Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for one, was profoundly skeptical. In March 1990, she told the French ambassador to London that Kohl “sees himself as the master and is starting to act like it.” The same month, she convened a group of British and American historians, who cautioned that Germans tend toward “angst, aggressiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complex, and sentimentality.”

The so-called 2+4 negotiations also saw France’s President François Mitterrand trying to thwart reunification; both he and Thatcher were alarmed over the prospect of what a reunited Germany could to do Europe. U.S. President George H.W. Bush, however, vigorously supported the Germans’ right to reunite. And in the end, Thatcher and Mitterrand had to give in not just to Bush but to the massive shift that was taking place in East Germany—and indeed elsewhere in the Warsaw Pact countries, too. The year before, Poland’s Communist regime had collapsed and new elections resulted in a landslide victory for the dissident Solidarity trade union. Czechoslovaks, too, had brought down their Communist regime and made the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel their president. It would have been absurd for the Western powers to trample on East German aspirations and kill the momentum toward democracy.

As for the East Germans, “many were expecting a miracle,” Schröder told me. “It began with the currency union.” In July 1990, prior to formal reunification, West Germany’s Deutsche mark was introduced in East Germany. “People thought, when we get West currency we’ll live like they do in the West.” No such thing happened, at least not immediately, even though Kohl had promised East Germans “blossoming landscapes” in the summer of 1990. Instead they found themselves facing confusion, closing factories, unemployment, and what they perceived as West German arrogance toward 16 million people now learning a completely different way of life. “You can’t imagine what it was like for a GDR [East German] citizen to have to choose a health insurance provider,” said Gerhard Gabriel, another Lutheran pastor and opposition activist during Communist times.

To be sure, reunification was also liberation. “For me, reunification was simply a fantastic outcome,” Blechschmidt said. “I immediately got a job in Bavaria, and people there were incredibly welcoming to me. In the GDR, I had been told that my daughter would not be going to university because I was critical of the government. Reunification meant she was able to get not just one university degree but two. But you had to be willing to seize the opportunity, perhaps look for slightly different work. Many were simply incapable of that.” But among the many East Germans who did show vocational flexibility was Angela Merkel, whose East German party, the Democratic Awakening, joined the Christian Democrats, whereupon the former physicist Merkel stood for, and won, a Bundestag seat in her home region.

In practice, reunification meant absorbing the undemocratic planned economy of East Germany into the democratic market economy of the new Federal Republic of Germany. The process that began with East Germans choosing health insurance, learning Western words for items such as “overhead projector,” and learning the ropes from Western politicians, bureaucrats, and business leaders now arriving en masse in the East continued with the resented but largely successful sale of East Germany’s government-owned industry to private investors and the establishment of new city councils and state parliaments. The former enemy army, the Bundeswehr, spread to the East, where it replaced the National People’s Army.

East Germans’ sense of self took some hits along the way. Large signs produced by the government proclaiming “Aufschwung Ost” (“Boom East”) seemed a cruel joke when most were struggling. In a 1992 poll about their perceptions of East Germany, 62 percent of ex-East Germans said they’d had big hopes for socialism, and 42 percent highlighted the calming sense of belonging to a community. As the reality of what reunification entailed set in, it began losing its luster. “But what so many people called a reunification shock was a transformation shock,” said Schröder, referencing the process of changing from communism to capitalism. After being elected to the Bundestag, Schröder became a theology professor at Berlin’s famous Humboldt University. “We would have had a transformation shock even without reunification, just like other former Warsaw Pact states did. And for them the transformation was much more brutal.”

Indeed, after the painful early 1990s, the economy in the so-called new states began to improve. People adjusted to their new lives, which despite the struggle were considerably more comfortable. With building supplies now available, Blechschmidt and her husband renovated their home; for the first time in their lives, they didn’t need to heat it with coal bricks. Countless other East Germans, too, renovated and built, as did cities. East Germany’s infamously drab cities turned colorful. As the German government notes in the 2020 edition of its annual report on the state of German reunification, since 1990 the GDP per capita in the new states, excluding Berlin, has quadrupled.

But as Schröder pointed out, “people get used to good things very easily. Now some are complaining that we’ve got fewer millionaires here in the former East than they have in the West. But how would having more millionaires in my part of the country improve my life?” He may be right, but a permanent unhappiness does seem to have taken root in the former East Germany. According to the German government’s 2020 reunification report, in both halves of German less than 1 percent of the population is opposed to the idea of democracy. However, in the Eastern states, 12.7 percent of people are opposed to the way it works in Germany, compared to 6.3 percent in the Western ones, and the percentage in the new states is rising. This unhappiness may explain the disproportionate support for the populist Alternative for Germany party in the former East.

For the rest of the world, though, Germany’s reunification was the most audacious—and perhaps successful—geopolitical experiment to have been attempted for decades; a failure would have massive implications, not just for Germany itself but for Europe as a whole. From her retirement perch in the U.K. House of Lords, Thatcher saw little German angst, aggressiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complex, or sentimentality. On the contrary, reunited Germany turned out to be a moderate, sometimes even modest, nation. Much like the old West Germany, it established itself as an economic powerhouse, a staunch supporter of European integration—Kohl’s swan song was the introduction of the euro—and a nation exceptionally hesitant to use its armed forces.

Perhaps because of its distaste for military adventures, Germany has developed into the world’s cornerstone of sensible power. It has survived economic downturns better than other countries and has led the European Union through emergencies including the 2010 debt crisis. It has dealt with the 2015 refugee crisis. Financially, the former East Germany is now at the same level of GDP as many French regions, while even Poland—considered a post-Cold War economic success story—is much further behind. Federally structured though it is, Germany has even put in a stellar performance during the COVID-19 crisis. “I’m a little bit proud of Germany,” Gabriel said. “Mrs. Merkel is the most respected leader in the world, and many people want to come and live here.”

Except for its charming pedestrian-crossing signals, known as the Ampelmännchen; a few museums; and people’s nostalgia, little of East Germany remains. This Oct. 3, as every Oct. 3, reunification will be celebrated with an official tribute in Berlin and lots of celebrations around the country (all socially distanced, of course). Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Schröder and other East German deputies from 30 years ago won’t be able to attend, but they will commemorate the day on their own. And Gabriel will gather people outside his church in a village east of Berlin, where they will join with people all over the country in singing songs including the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change,” Martin Luther’s “Now Thank We All Our God,” and the Jewish song “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.” “People ridiculed the thing about blossoming landscapes, but it has become reality,” Gabriel reflected. Germany’s reunification may not yet be complete, but this Oct. 3 is a day to celebrate—not just for the Germans.

Elisabeth Braw is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw