1989 – The Long-term Consequences of an Unforeseen Event

Berlin-When speaking with a group of South Korean scientists not too long ago, one of the participants asked me what one could learn from German unification with respect to Korea. An intriguing question, as it enables a critical view to be taken how both German states have coalesced. Far too infrequently have we made the reunification process and its problematic effects a subject of discussion. We basked in the happiness of unity. Everything seemed like a favorable opportunity with no alternatives, almost as if it were determined by the dramatic events of Fall 1989. Even today you hear it all the time: It had to turn out this way; it could not have been any different.

Helmut Kohl and Hans Modrow in front of Brandenburg Gate.
Helmut Kohl and Hans Modrow in front of Brandenburg Gate.

In the beginning there was the miracle of Fall 1989, when courageous people rebelled against the impositions of custodial state socialism. Not knowing whether the GDR leadership or Moscow would resort to the Chinese solution, they began to take to the streets of Leipzig and elsewhere, making demands for reform and freedom of speech. The right to travel was also right at the top of the list of demands, although with travel we had Paris in mind rather than Paderborn. It was unbelievable how quickly a system – one that for decades practiced self-defense against both external (the “imperialist enemy”) and internal threats (the opposition) – could be brought down without further ado. It imploded when people began to shake it. In East Germany at that time, a special awareness of the fragility of all social conditions emerged, however fossilized and immutable they may also seem. The opening of the wall then sealed the fate of the GDR state. “The wall is open; this is the end of the GDR” prophesized a clairvoyant commentator that same night. He was correct.

With Every Relocation Something is Left Behind

With the opening of the border and the breakdown of the political system, GDR society collapsed into the lap of the Federal Republic. Unlike many Eastern European countries, which were released from the Soviet empire, GDR citizens were not alone from the start. It was the financially-strong West longed for by many that offered itself as a safe haven, and as a helper in time of need. The unification of what had been separated for forty years almost seemed to be an organic joining of the artificially divided. How envious were the people of Prague, Warsaw, and Sofia looking upon the privilege of the East Germans, who via treaty arrived in the West overnight. Where East Europeans first had to painstakingly build their new democratic institutions, organize a market economy and develop the rule of law, the East Germans became part of a "ready-made state". The snail shell of the GDR was stripped off, and, euphoric and helter-skelter, one was pulled into (so it seemed to be many) the Villa Federal Republic, where everything was already available.

Anyone who dares to relocate in such a way also leaves many things behind. It was not only the political relations that changed, it was also the rules and standards of coexistence, the well-rehearsed social relationships and everyday culture. The abandonment of the way of life shaped by the GDR as well as quick readjustment and adaptation were viewed as essential for a successful unification. It seemed agreed upon that accession would lead to the gradual disappearance of the GDR past, a Westernization of the East and a gradual alignment from East to West. In terms of intellectual discourse, Jürgen Habermas’ pertinent diagnosis of “catch-up modernization” showed the way forward. After state socialism à la GDR was done away with, those in the East were then expected to seize upon those developments that were already underway in the West. According to the popular verdict in the social sciences, institutional change was leading to a change in consciousness. The West Germans themselves had this experience with the Western Allies following World War II. This was called re-education, flanked by the "economic miracle" of the 1950s.

From Round Tables to the Margin

Undoubtedly, many things have turned out well in a united Germany, and there are numerous developments that one can be proud of. The enormous gains in freedom and prosperity are undisputed. The vast majority of East Germans today agree with the statement that unifications has brought more than disadvantages, that life satisfaction in the East has almost reached the same level as in the West. An East-West divide remains in terms of incomes and pensions, but smaller than ever before.

At the same time, however, some fractures from the transition have not healed to this day. The absolute determination of many in the East to come to the West immediately, or as soon as possible, has made unification on an even playing field virtually impossible. Many in the West understood the GDR as an insolvent state which it was to adopt together with the population. It was the overwhelming approval of the "Alliance for Germany" in the last People's Chamber election in the spring of 1990 which made it possible for the relevant actors to shield themselves during the unification process against further demands from the East. Anyone who received this much tailwind hardly needed to still consider local sensitivities and interests.

However, this led many East Germans to perceive the reunification process as a form of disempowerment. Up until very recently, they had found themselves involved in round tables, free elections and countless discussions as acting political subjects, then they were politically marginalized in the wake of reunification. Thus, many East Germans took their seats in resignation after having courageously taken a stand. In retrospect, reunification was a byword for a sort of knee-jerk inclusion of 16 million GDR citizens into the West German model society, without any ifs or buts. Regarding the subject of the East, the blueprint of the West left no room for institutional solutions or self-discoveries of any kind, regardless of whether it was the Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians, the Framework Act for Higher Education or the spa administration. Institutions, bodies of law, administrative regulations – in short: all social rules and norms – were changed overnight. That which was valid in the West was imposed on that which until recently had been the "GDR”. The complaints regarding the erasure and devaluation of the what once was are well-known. All this does not make victims of the East Germans, but it still explains some of their dissatisfaction.

Instead of a Miracle, an Economic Downturn in the East

At the same time, it had been underestimated that in the course of 40 years of separation, independent socio-cultural forms had emerged in the East and West, and that the differences between the petit bourgeois laborer and farmer’s society and the individualized middle-class society were considerable. There was a shared story, and yet many things had diverged. For this reason, it was not a simple and frictionless adaptation. In terms of social structure, many East Germans found themselves in the lower positions across all of German society. Some mentalities that were the result of living under communist rule – one thinks of the supply expectations toward the state – endured. And new tensions emerged. The mass exodus from East to West lasted for almost twenty years, and with it took East German youth and talent. Conversely, many West Germans (men especially) infiltrated the boardrooms of the East. By relying on a comprehensive elite transfer from West to East, the latter also stopped developing its own elites. This had problematic consequences for the local political culture. Ultimately, instead of their being an "economic miracle" in the East, a devastating economic downturn took place which ushered in the collective fate of unemployment for the East Germans.

In general, one must ask whether the path to reunification has succeeded economically. Hans-Werner Sinn, the former head of the Munich ifo Institute, has criticized the Treuhand privatization as being a "junk sales campaign". The East German companies were expected to be sold within a very short time frame so that neither the achievement of reasonable prices nor the development of reasonable structures could develop. Treuhand’s turbo privatization ­– 8,500 companies in four years – caused a rapid decline in the prices of East German companies. Furthermore, the East Germans were far too infrequently able to participate in the productive assets themselves and to become entrepreneurs. The GDR’s housing stocks were sold off at a ridiculous price to West German companies, while in Poland the broader population took part in it.

The image of the West as the paymaster of the "Reconstruction East" can also be presented with an antithesis: the over two trillion euros in governmental West-East transfers must be contrasted with the privatized unification profits in the West. To this day these have not been quantified. Whether incorporation of the state insurance of the GDR by the alliance, the large energy suppliers, which entered the East or the by now renovated real estate of the East German city centers. Today the latter, according to a study by MDR (Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk), to a considerable extent can be found in West German hands. This is not least because, after the Wall fell, and following German-German internal migration, the West received more than two million well-qualified skilled workers. In the West, there are not just a few winners who benefited fully from unity. As is often the case here, the costs of unity were socialized, the profits, privatized.

The East is Becoming Visible Again

Today, 30 years after the fall of the Wall, the East is returning in a peculiar way. It’s not that much hasn’t dramatically changed in East Germany, or that there hasn’t actually been a modernization push, or that people are still attached to the defunct GDR. That’s not the case. Rather, it’s that the East is articulating and visualizing that which until now had been unknown. To such a degree that many a political commentator are now concerned about the numerous surveys. The fever curve of East German democratic awareness has reached a critical point. Confidence in the political elite is low and some critiques of the system are becoming noticeably vociferous. Even the GDR society is seen quite differently in the East and West. Like a boomerang, the discussion has reverted back to whether the GDR was a "lawless state". Between instrumentalization by overheated Cold Warriors on the one hand and political toadyism to milieus that were once close to the state on the other, there is an extremely fine line for sober analysis. Here one realizes that we often argue about the wrong things. Of course, the GDR was not a constitutional state because it did not have an independent judiciary, and within it, fundamental human rights were violated in the name of the law. But the GDR was at the same time more than a lawless state, because beyond the official there was a diverse life in which people established themselves and found complete expression for their subjectivity. Life in the GDR cannot be reduced to tyranny, the Stasi and wall fatalities. It is this experiential space that seeks its place, not Ostalgie or even the glorification of the SED’s (Social Unity Party of Germany) dictatorship.

Of course, the moods and voices in East Germany are manifold. There are serious differences between the generations, regions and milieus; between those who left and those who stayed. There is no East German unity front and certainly not a unified collective that will always be in complete agreement. Thus, talking about East Germany always involves the danger of constructing something that has long ceased to exist as a relationship. But nevertheless, as a whole, differences do persist, not only in terms of political attitudes, but also in lifestyles and demographic behavior. Not always strong and well-defined, but in the end still recognizable.

The End of the Bipolar World

There is no question that resentment and skepticism toward the political system also exist in the West; however, in East Germany they seem to be intensifying in a special way. This is related to – each in its own way – the legacy of the GDR experience, the transition and the transformation phase. In any case, it seems that politically, democratic culture is in many places on unstable ground. After the emancipation of the masses from political paternalism by the peaceful revolution of 1989, the next step to permanently embed the democratic practice was missing. Far too little thought has been given to the notion that one needs the democratic commitment of the East Germans themselves in order to breathe life into democracy. Immigrated top executives from the West and the transfer of institutions are not enough to sustainably bring people together and inspire them. Getting people on board with the transition process and involving them is a lesson I gave my Korean conversation partners. This also includes taking into account local mentalities and moods so that the people aren’t pushed aside.

At that time, due to the dynamic-nature of events, many things were regarded as not having any alternative. It is fair to argue whether the things we now call problems had not already come to light at the time. But one also has to widen the horizon in order to correctly classify the epochal break of 1989. It was not only a German-German affair: The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized the end of the bipolar world. At the time, the fall of the Wall was considered a nail in the coffin not only for state socialism, but also for all competing alternatives to the system. The West, so it seemed, was superior – economically, politically and normatively – along the entire front. The marching through of democracy, the market and the rule of law was not just a foregone conclusion in Eastern Europe. The acronym TINA – There Is No Alternative – was the sign of those times. Or in the Germanized version: No more experiments (Keine Experimente mehr)!

Supercharging the National

With the apparent triumphal procession of the liberal model, however, a number of new changes that had long been overlooked appeared through the back door. The collapse of state socialism has also brought with it supercharged nationalism and an ethnicization of social conflicts, which were not supposed to be suitable for the common European home and the globalization euphoria of the 1990s. In Eastern Europe as well there was a neoliberal zeal for reform – in part pushed by the new believers in the market among the governing bodies, but also by consultants from international organizations – which soon also triggered their contagious spread to the West. My colleague, the historian Philipp Ther, speaks of a creeping co-transformation of the West. The West, which at that time was seen as the center of a universalizing liberalism – included the spread of markets, democracy, the rule of law and human rights – faces new challenges today.

The emergence of new powers, the popularity that authoritarian regimes also enjoy, the right-wing populist movements, the collapse of the multilateral order, the weakness of international institutions, the growing socio-economic and socio-cultural divides within Western societies, the planetary threat of ecological risks and climate change – these are unmistakable signs that the Western liberal model’s progress narrative needs to be retold. An automatism of progressive improvement does not seem to exist. The predicted triumphal procession of the liberal order has experienced a harsh deceleration in many places throughout the world.

Perhaps there is nothing that better represents this creeping change so simply than the symbol of 1989: The Wall. Long-term wall development data show a steady increase in the number of fortified borders, from the 1990s to its highest point today. Since the Second World War, there have never been so many walls and virtually insurmountable border reinforcements, or so many miles of militarized borders, as there is today. People are sealing themselves off in many places: between Hungary and Serbia, in the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, on the American-Mexican border, between Morocco and Algeria, India and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Ukraine and Russia, and many other places. The world without walls, which one at that time believed to recognize in German-German and European self-reflection, has long been detached from a world of dividing walls, checkpoints and isolation. Shortly after the fall of the Wall, many East Europeans were surprised that the opportunities for travel that had just been won were now again restricted by the West. The utopia of freedom was followed by the visa requirement, sometimes even the complete closure of borders. It is one of the tragic moments of recent German history that the East Germans especially, many of whom in the summer of 1989 were stranded at the Budapest train station on their way to the West, wished to know little in the summer of 2015 about the refugees who persevere there while lacking supplies.

The Weakness of the Traditional Parties

Today many are disheartened if asked about the great awakening. Those who now speak of revolutions and overthrow, not infrequently meaning the return to a yesterday long since passed, are mobilizing resentment. Intolerance and territorial defense, that is the spirit that spurs them on, not an awakening toward the future. In East Germany and elsewhere, they are exploiting the new spaces resulting from the weakness of established party democracy. In doing so, East Germany can be understood as a test lab region, as establishing the roots of party structures that originated in the West was only partially successful. Although it’s true that the old people's parties have won several elections, they remain weak in membership. The fact that many feel unheard also has to do with the traditional parties’ inability to fully represent their interests. Most notably, the pre-political space in the East remained unoccupied. This refers to the structures and networks that precede the parties and parliaments, which do not directly decide the policy, but underpin it. Once occupied by the state organs and companies, there was a gaping hole after the turnaround. Much thinner in the East is the circle of unions, rural school residence halls, guilds and citizens' initiatives that perform political and social integration services, without there being any directly mandated policy. These unoccupied spaces have been used by many West German right-wing populists to entrench themselves and achieve electoral success. Some, who complained for a long time about their impotence, now feel particularly strong, yet at the same are becoming the pawns of right-wing political actors.

Today, it is a matter of reconquering democracy, so as not to concede it to the endlessly nagging boxing cornerman or right-wing populists. Could one completely build upon the experiences of the turnaround? Why not make the citizen’s councils of tomorrow out of the round tables of that time? Where the belief in party democracy is waning, where beyond the ballot box only a small minority are involved in party politics, where new forms of political articulation and participation are gaining ground among the younger generation, our institutions must also address questions about democratic co-determination. Otherwise, many are left outside of the political process or remain silent. The strengthening of democracy can not only come from protesting on the streets. It also requires dialogue, coordination, and the understanding of diverse positions in order to not be exhausted as a democracy of agitation. To do so, new rehearsal rooms for democracy are required, open to all citizens, with many voices and in dialogue with established politics. For many or some, perhaps this will also give rise to the liberating experiences of a democratic awakening, which for many was the fall of 1989, when one suddenly emerged from stale and claustrophobic confines into the open air, when candid speech, dialogue and political debate became an exhilarating experience. "Homesick for 1989" once stood on a weathered building wall in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg. Indeed, today one would wish for more of this type of impetus to democratic awakening. Dare to do more experiments - with and on behalf of democracy.