“The Problems with German Unification”

TODAY IS THE DAY of German Unity – der Tag der deutschen Einheit. My high school German teacher Dr. Werner Dobner emails selected people what he calls his “Cultural Tidbits.” Today’s discusses the issues with 26 years of German unity. It’s very interesting. With his permission, I give you…

When Poland gave up Communism, it still remained to be Poland; when Hungary gave up Communism, it still remained to be Hungary; but when East Germany gave up Communism, it ceased to exist.

The Problems with German Unification

I’m sure many of you remember the fantastic spirit of freedom, joy and exuberance displayed by both East and West Germans the day the Wall was opened on November 9, 1989. I was watching TV and I can still picture the torches, the fire works, the people climbing up and dancing on the Wall, people as total strangers kissing and embracing one another, the shouting, singing and celebrating in the streets – and all the celebrating on top of the Wall! I also remember the Trabis (East German cars) that putted through the checkpoint near the Brandenburg Gate, each of them a cloud of ugly and stinking exhaust behind it. But nobody thought negatively of all that stench in the face of the incredible: the Wall was down! All negative aspects of unification were overshadowed by the initial exuberance.

berlinermauer02Well, twenty-seven years later we are able to look at re-unification in a more sober manner. No doubt, there have been tremendous improvements in the East. I remember driving to Dresden in March of 1990 and not being able to go any faster than 40-50 km because of the deep potholes in the roads and highways; today the autobahns in the East are better than those in the West. On that same trip I could hardly breathe because of the soot and smell of the exhaust of both chimneys and Trabis. Today it’s rare that you see a Trabi on the road, the heating is no longer generated with soft or brown coal, and the telephone system, which was practically non-existent in East Germany in 1989, has surpassed the quality in the West.

Very few people want to go back to the situation that existed prior to November 9, 1989. The quality of life has improved, and the freedom gained more than outweighs many of the disadvantages. But those disadvantages do exist – for both East and West – and the further away you get from the initial exuberance of unification day and the closer you look at the every day humdrum consequences, the more disillusioned the people in both East and West are becoming.

The West has transferred roughly 1.9 trillion (!) marks or 974 billion Euro for the last twenty-seven years to improve the infrastructure, modernization and reconstruction of the East, (East Germans, by the way, are also paying the so-called “solidarity tax”) and that has led to a vast financial burden in both the West and the East: my German wife used to pay 48% (!) income tax before she retired in addition to the 19% sales tax and € 1.32 (!) ecology tax per liter gasoline. And, of course, premiums for social security and health insurance are drastically increasing to help finance the 17 million MORE Germans that are now dipping into the existing West German pot of social security without ever having paid into it. Meanwhile in the East unemployment is at an alarming 15 – 19% (in some localities it’s as high as 28%!!); two thirds of the East German business establishments, almost all of which used to be state-run under Communism, have gone bankrupt and many of those that are still running are in the hands of West German investors or speculators. East German women are especially hard hit, because they are either unemployed (under Communism almost everybody had a job) and the many socialist acquisitions, such as children’s day care centers in almost every business company disappeared along with Communism.

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If you look at unification superficially, it is easy to miss what a gigantic task it is to bring two countries together that had lived in totally different political and economic systems for forty years – and that were adversaries to boot, because the Iron Curtain ran right through the middle of Germany and also divided Berlin.

When Poland gave up Communism, it still remained to be Poland; when Hungary gave up Communism, it still remained to be Hungary; but when East Germany gave up Communism, it ceased to exist. By being annexed to the West it lost its own identity and was simply absorbed by what is now one united Germany. Only the people in the East can really tell us what that meant. Think of all the things they had to give up, change and become used to almost overnight. They had to adapt their school system to that of the West; their entire social system and work force changed, meaning in most cases that they had to take on more personal responsibility, where before the state had run and administered every detail. Private ownership was reintroduced and the new owners – many of them from the West (who had the money to buy up houses in East Germany) either increased the rent or threw out the tenants. The people in the East had to adapt to a new judicial and legislative system. They had free elections at last, but many of the functionaries had been members of the hated secret police, the so called Stasi (Staats Sicherheit – state security). They were forced to take on a new monetary system, losing at first 10 -1 and then 3 – 1 in the process. The over 30 districts into which the DDR had been divided (the smaller the district the easier it is to control, right?!) and to which a whole generation had become accustomed, were dissolved, and the territory was reduced more or less to the five original states before World War II. Their entire Armed Forces were dissolved, many of the officers were absorbed into the West German Armed Forces, most of the soldiers were sent home, unemployed. All their tanks and other war material were scrapped or sold to other countries. The police force was dissolved and reestablished after security background research and profiles into each person’s past. And perhaps most far-reaching of all, their economy collapsed because simultaneous to reunification the Eastern Block and the Eastern Market collapsed, automatically pulling the financial rug from under the East German economy.

In the face of so much radical change it is small wonder that Germany’s former President Roman Herzog recently said: “We are one people, we have always been one people, but we are not yet one united nation.”

Dr. Werner J. Dobner

Werner – thank you for sharing your insights.

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