Germany is set to celebrate 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall was one of the most visible symbols of the Cold War, as it literally divided the former capital city between east and west. That all changed, however, with the iconic image of Berliners from both sides climbing up the wall and hammering away at it with sledge hammers and chisels, which became one of the lasting images of the second half of the 20th century. The seeming iron grip of communist Soviet rule ended with the falling of the wall, and the Cold War itself ended shortly thereafter.
However, many questions and concerns still remained from people around the world as reunification became more of an inevitability. There were worries about whether a reunified Germany would be a threat to the rest of Europe, and whether it would remain peaceful. There were obvious concerns about how far behind the East Germans were compared to their western counterparts, and just how costly it would be for the wealthier westerners to invest heavily in the east and assume many of the responsibilities for modernization efforts there. West Germany was a major economy in Europe, but many feared that such a massive effort could completely drain the west, and leave Germany economically vulnerable. Those were just some of the concerns that people had a quarter of a century ago, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the inevitable reunification that followed the next year. Most of those questions, though, seem to have been definitively answered now.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the reunified country has largely achieved the vision of a flourishing nation, both east and west, that former chancellor Helmut Kohl had envisioned. This has not been easily achieved, however. Merkel, the first chancellor from the former East Germany, said that the six eastern states received a lot of help from the former West German states to help them recover. Indeed, it proved extremely costly to modernize the former East Germany, with an estimated 2 trillion euros ($2.5 trillion) having gone from west to east.
Reunification was neither cheap nor easy. The possibility of a newly reunited Germany had some people around the world on edge at the time, stoking fears of a suddenly enlarged juggernaut with a worrisome history smack in the middle of Europe, as it once again rose to become the new dominant power on the continent. Then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher discussed the possibility of a new threat from a reunited Germany with then French President François Mitterrand, and Mitterrand had suggested that perhaps the time had come for a new alliance between the two nations to keep a reunified Germany in check.
Back in 1989 and 1990, there were also fears about just how long it would take the east to catch up to the west. Those fears have been allayed by Germany’s remarkable economic success in recent years. Indeed, unemployment tripled only 15 months after reunification, and it reached a post-World War II high of 19.4 percent in 2005. Still, while the toll to modernize the east was high and painful to many, the recovery efforts seem to have worked. Germany now enjoys one of the strongest economies in the world, with a 5.3 unemployment rate, the second lowest in Europe. The national economy is strong again. It has the fourth largest economy in the world, and is the envy of the rest of Europe, providing Germany with a leadership role in the European Union. It exports more than any other country in the world other than China, and Germany’s share of world trade surpasses even the United States. As Germany celebrates 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall later this month, there is a new appreciation for the overall success story that Germany has seen.
Germany lost two major wars in the 20th century, and paid a high price after both. The first defeat left the nation in financial ruin. The second defeat left much of the country not just economically devastated, but with many cities and villages in rubble. Yet, the West German people channeled their energy towards rebuilding, and about a decade later, many people hailed what was referred to as the “German Miracle,” as West Germany rose from the rubble and rebuilt itself to become a modern industrialized nation with a powerful and productive economy once again.
Similarly, East Germany looked comparatively like an economic basket case after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the momentum shifted to reunification. There were questions about whether East Germans could cope with the changes from a communist economy to a capitalist one, and whether or not it could become more productive. There were serious concerns about how much the costs of modernizing the east would be for westerners, as well. But the overall picture now is one of success, to the point that some are suggesting that this qualifies as a second German economic miracle.
Still, poorer economic conditions in the former East Germany remain glaringly more obvious than they are in the west. Unemployment has always been higher, and that still remains very much the case today. Salaries generally are lower in the east as well, and many have migrated to western regions for better economic opportunities. This in turn caused an under-population problem in some parts of the east, although Chancellor Merkel says that this trend has largely come to a halt.
Yet, things are improving. East German factories are much more productive than they were back in 1991, when East Germans contributed only about one-third towards the GDP compared to West Germans. By 2000, that number had risen to 61 percent, and in 2013, had spiked to 67 percent. For that matter, East German productivity levels, which were a quarter of what they were in the west back in 1989, are now 76 percent, and still climbing.
The country is now a model on another level that many might have found surprising not too long ago: cultural diversity. Germany has become the second biggest nation for immigration. This is reflected in the changing face of Berlin, the capital city. There are many Turks and Arabs, much like in the rest of Europe. But there are also Jewish immigrants from Israel, right in the capital of a nation that once practiced rabid anti-Semitism as a matter of policy. Things really have changed greatly over time in this country, which has been defined by changing circumstances throughout its history. Even though there have been much publicized incidents of xenophobia, much like in the rest of Europe, the growing cultural diversity in the country has largely been seen as a success story, and has gone a long way towards allaying concerns about a repeat of the troubled past.
There are encouraging signs that the younger generations have bridged many of the gaps that existed between older generations in the east and west, although disparities certainly remain. As Germany looks to celebrate 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are still many questions and concerns that remain. Indeed, there are some nagging problems that Germans will have to work together to resolve once they get beyond celebrating a quarter century since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and look towards the next 25 years and beyond.
By Charles Bordeau
Photo by MarkGuitarPhoto- Flickr