FRANKFURT, GERMANY - A festive, jubilant crowd thronged Berlin’s historic Brandenburg Gate 30 years ago Saturday, celebrating the reunification of Germany less than a year after the Berlin Wall had fallen.
Located in Berlin’s eastern communist sector, the Brandenburg Gate had been inaccessible to West Germans for 28 years. But not on October 3, 1990, with strains of Beethoven's Ode to Joy in the background as exultant crowds marked the dawn of a new era in German and European history.
“The day has come in which for the first time in history the whole of Germany has found its lasting place in the circle of Western democracies,” declared Richard von Weizsäcker, the federal German president who was suddenly the head of state of a larger Germany.
“Farewell to an unloved country,” Britain’s ambassador to East Germany, Patrick Eyers, wrote in his final dispatch to London as envoy on the eve of German reunification.
“At midnight tonight the German Democratic Republic will cease to exist as a state," he wrote. "In what mood do the people of the GDR come to unity? … My impression is one of deep emotion, of contentment mixed with a certain trepidation in the face of the uncertainties ahead. But none of them is looking back.”
Back in London, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher shared the trepidation. She had opposed speedy reunification, fearing a united Germany would dominate Europe, changing the power dynamics of the European Union. She also feared that Soviet hardliners might view it as a humiliation, prompting them to undermine then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, complicating the unwinding of the Cold War.
“I fear that he will feel isolated if all the reunification process goes the West’s way,” she said in a quote by her biographer, Charles Moore.
The following year, Soviet hardliners did try to oust Gorbachev in a bungled coup attempt. Thatcher’s position pitted her against many in her own Cabinet and other European leaders, as well as against George H. W. Bush’s White House. Bush aides thought she was being impractical and that rapid German reunification was inevitable. They dubbed her a "Cold warrior" who was over-anxious about the consequences of German reunification.
Thirty years on, the old East-West divide remains at play. In the third and final volume of his authorized Thatcher biography, Herself Alone, published last year, Moore, a former editor of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, notes that one of the Russians who became convinced that his country had been humiliated by the West during this era-shattering period was Vladimir Putin, a former a KGB officer who served in East Germany.
In 2017, Putin described the manner of German reunification as Gorbachev's “mistake” and criticized him during an interview for failing to secure binding guarantees from the West that there would be no eastward expansion of NATO. Gorbachev had initially called for a united but neutral Germany – a proposal rejected by West Germany, the U.S. and Poland, another newly emerging democracy on Russia’s border.
Gorbachev backed down.
In the years following reunification, many East Germans became increasingly disillusioned as they struggled to adjust themselves to new realities.
Many began to feel that they had not been reunited with their Western cousins, but instead had been taken over by them. They complained of Westerners disparaging their achievements and disdaining their educations as subpar. Many older East Germans lamented the increased pace of life, based more on commercial principles. They mourned the loss of predictability, while all too often forgetting the constraints and repression of communism.
With inefficient factories closing, unemployment soared with some towns seeing one in five workers jobless, souring the vision of “blooming landscapes” they had been promised by German chancellor Helmut Kohl when the wall came down. Berlin pumped billions of euros into the East but many older East Germans complained that at least under communism they were guaranteed work and free health care. Many youngsters left, shrinking Germany’s population in the East by 2.2 million, leaving their parents and grandparents feeling like second-class citizens. There was a surge of support for a newly formed socialist political party, the Linkspartei – or "Left" party.
Three decades on, the former East Germany is catching up economically with its Western sibling, but a series of reports and studies in the runup to Saturday’s 30th anniversary of German reunification suggests stark divides remain. “I had hoped that in this … 30th year after German reunification, we would be further along than we are,” said Marco Wanderwitz, the government ombudsman for the former communist East Germany.
German politicians point to a narrowing of the per capita GDP gap between its eastern and western regions as an example of the resounding success of German reunification. Per capita GDP in eastern Germany has reached 79.1%, a gain of 42 percentage points since 1990. Ironically, in some areas, Germans in the country’s east are doing better than their counterparts to the west. Women in the former GDR are more likely to work full time in part because of better childcare facilities, a legacy of the region’s communist past.
But one government study shows that, on average, salaries in the East are only 88.8% of those in the West. Eastern Germany has more people out of work and lower property values. “In an extraordinary manner, in many ways Germany looks like it’s still divided,” the left-leaning daily newspaper TAZ said. Der Spiegel magazine laments that the “feelings of mistrust and alienation between East and West have not disappeared.”
A government report overseen by Wanderwitz also sadly notes the lack of satisfaction Germans in the East feel toward the political system. While more than 90% of western Germans think democracy is the “best suited form of government,” only 78% of East Germans agree. Wanderwitz notes: “Trust in state institutions is also some cases is at a shockingly low level.” Even so, he says that while “some things have taken longer than planned … in many areas we can basically say: unity accomplished.”
Easterners, known as Ossies, say unity will be accomplished only when they are taken more seriously. They say their origins determine their position in society and their prospects far more than they do for Westerners. They complain they are underrepresented in the top echelons of German public life. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was born in the East, is one of the few Ossies in the top political ranks of the country, and not one dean in Germany’s 81 universities is from the former communist half of the country. In last year's regional government elections, the East saw a surge in support for the anti-immigrant, nationalist far-right AfD party, testimony to the rift between the country’s prosperous West and its still-adjusting East.