German reunification

From New World Encyclopedia

The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany)

German reunification (Deutsche Wiedervereinigung) took place on October 3, 1990, when the areas of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR, in English commonly called "East Germany") were incorporated into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, in English commonly called "West Germany"), both formed in 1949, after World War II. The East had been a member of the Soviet bloc, the West was allied with the United States, Great Britain, and France and joined NATO in 1950. From 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built by the East Germans as a barrier between itself and the West, the divide between the two Germany’s was almost synonymous in the West with the “iron curtain” itself. As with other incidents of divided nations, many families had members stranded on the other side. The West was strongly in favor of reunification but as long as the Soviet Union was able to pursue its ideological war with the West, the authorities in the East—a puppet government of the Soviet’s—were not about to give up what they described as their socialist paradise. On the one hand, East Germany was the most successful economy in the Soviet bloc but its people yearned for the freedom enjoyed by their countrymen in the West, and hated the authoritarian regime under which they lived.

Mikhail Gorbachev himself embarked on reforms that ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, urged the East German government to embrace change when he visited East Berlin in October 1989, clearing the way for the first free elections in East Germany, which took place on March 18, 1990. Immediately, re-unification negotiations began between the GDR and FRG, culminating in a Unification Treaty on August 31, 1990, while negotiations between the GDR and FRG and the four occupying powers produced the so-called "Two Plus Four Treaty" granting full independence to a unified German state. Shortly after Gorbachev’s visit, on November 9, 1989, the GDR announced that it was legal for citizens to cross into the West, and the Wall was spontaneously dismantled by a jubilant public. Despite the fact that economic disparity between the two halves of the re-unified Germany has proved costly, and while the initial euphoria has passed, Germans rejoice in the end of partition.


After the end of World War II in Europe, Germany had been divided into four occupation zones. The old capital of Berlin, as the seat of the Allied Control Council, was itself subdivided into four occupation zones. Although the intent was for the occupying powers to govern Germany together in the borders from 1947, the development of Cold War tension caused the French, British and American zones to be formed into the Federal Republic of Germany (and West Berlin) in 1949, excluding the Soviet zone which then formed the German Democratic Republic (including East Berlin) the same year. Additionally, in accordance with the terms of the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the provinces of eastern Pomerania and Silesia, as well as the southern half of East Prussia, were annexed by Poland and the northern half of East Prussia (now known as the Kaliningrad Oblast) was annexed by the Soviet Union. While the Western powers had been reluctant to concede Stalin’s demands, this was the price they paid for Soviet participation on their side against Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Fear that a territorially large and therefore potentially economically powerful Germany might once again present a threat to world peace also inclined the Western powers to collude in Germany’s division.

The resulting expulsions of Germans in the east resulted in the death of between 500,000 and 2 million civilians. In the West, the U.S. gave in to French demands in 1947, for the coal-fields of the German state of the Saar. It was made into a protectorate of France. In 1955, France, under pressure from the West German government, agreed to hold a referendum which led to a reunification with West Germany in 1957. France, however, retained control of the Saar coal-fields until 1981. The Allied plans to internationalize or let France annex the Ruhr area, Germany's main industrial center, were finally dropped in mid 1947, due to the emerging Cold War and the resulting change in U.S. occupation policy in Germany.[1]

Occupied Germany in 1945

The FRG and the GDR both made competing claims to be the legitimate legal successors of the German Reich. However, the GDR changed its position at a later point, stating that Germany had ceased to exist in 1945, and that both the FRG and the GDR were newly-created states.

The 1952 Stalin Note proposed German reunification and superpower disengagement from Central Europe but Britain, France, and the United States rejected the offer. Another proposal by Stalin involved the reunification of Germany within the borders of December 31, 1937, under the condition that Germany joined the Warsaw Pact (Eastern Bloc).

From 1949 onwards, the Federal Republic of Germany developed into a western capitalist country with a "social market economy" and a democratic parliamentary government. Prolonged economic growth starting in the 1950s fueled a 30-year "economic miracle" (Wirtschaftswunder). Across the border, the German Democratic Republic, under the control of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), established an authoritarian government with a Soviet-style command economy. While the GDR became the richest, most advanced country in the Eastern bloc, many of its citizens still looked to the West for political freedoms and economic prosperity. The flight of growing numbers of East Germans to non-communist countries via West Berlin led to East Germany erecting the GDR border system (of which the Berlin Wall was a part) in 1961, to prevent any further exodus.

The government of West Germany and its NATO allies at first did not recognize the German Democratic Republic or the People's Republic of Poland, per the Hallstein Doctrine. Relations between East Germany and West Germany remained icy until the Western chancellor Willy Brandt launched a highly controversial rapprochement with East Germany (Ostpolitik) in the 1970s.

The end of the division (“Die Wende”)

In the mid-1980s, German reunification was widely regarded within both East and West Germany as unattainable. However, after significant political changes in the Soviet Union, the prospect of reunification suddenly arose. The ascension of reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, caused waves of reform to propagate throughout the Eastern bloc, presenting an opportunity for change in the GDR.

In August 1989, Hungary's reformist government removed its border restrictions with Austria—the first breach in the so-called "Iron Curtain." In September 1989, more than 13,000 East Germans managed to escape to the West through Hungary. Thousands of East Germans also tried to reach the West by staging sit-ins at West German diplomatic facilities in other East European capitals, especially in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The GDR subsequently announced that it would provide special trains to carry these refugees to West Germany, claiming it was expelling traitors, criminals, and antisocial elements. Meanwhile, mass demonstrations against the East German government began at home, most prominently the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig.

On 6–7 October, 1989, Gorbachev visited East Germany to mark the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic, and urged the East German leadership to accept change. Long-time East German leader Erich Honecker remained opposed to any internal reform, with speculation that the government was planning a violent crackdown on the growing demonstrations. However, Honecker was forced to resign on October 18. More resignations followed when the entire East German cabinet stepped down on November 7. The travel restrictions for East Germans were subsequently removed by the new leadership on November 9, 1989, and many people immediately went to the Wall, where the border guards opened access points and allowed them through. Emboldened, many Germans on both sides began to tear down sections of the Wall itself, leading to one of the most enduring news stories of the twentieth century.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. The photo shows a part of a public photo documentation wall at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin.

On November 28, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl outlined a 10-point plan for the peaceful unification of the two Germanies based on free elections in East Germany and a unification of their two economies. In December, the East German Volkskammer eliminated the SED monopoly on power, and the entire Politbüro and Central Committee—including leader Egon Krenz—resigned. The SED changed its name to the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the formation and growth of numerous political groups and parties marked the end of the communist system. Prime Minister Hans Modrow headed a caretaker government which shared power with the new, democratically oriented parties. On December 7, 1989, agreement was reached to hold free elections in May 1990, and rewrite the East German constitution. On January 28, all the parties agreed to advance the elections to March 18, primarily because of an erosion of state authority and because the East German exodus was continuing apace; more than 117,000 left in January and February 1990.

In early February 1990, the Modrow government's proposal for a unified, neutral German state was rejected by Chancellor Kohl, who affirmed that a unified Germany must be a member of NATO. Finally, on March 18, 1990, the first and only free elections in the history of the GDR were held, producing a government whose major mandate was to negotiate an end to itself and its state. As one East German ideologist had noted in 1989, "Poland would remain Poland even if communism fell, but without communism East Germany has no reason to exist."[2]

Under Prime Minister Lothar de Maizière, East Germany negotiated with West Germany, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union the preconditions for a German reunification. Due to Soviet objections to East Germany being absorbed into the NATO alliance, an agreement was reached which allowed a reunified Germany to remain a part of NATO on the condition that NATO troops were not to be stationed in East German territory. In addition to allaying Soviet concerns, Chancellor Kohl was able to convince the leaders of the United Kingdom and France that a unified Germany would represent no threat to its neighbors by tying German reunification with the tighter integration of Germany into the European Union.

Parallel to the multilateral negotiations, bilateral negotiations between the East and West German governments led to the signing on May 18, of an agreement for an intermediate step, an Economic, Social, and Currency Union, which entered into force on July 1. On August 23, the Volkskammer approved the proposed October 3, accession to the FRG. The Einigungsvertrag (Unification Treaty) was signed on August 31, 1990, by representatives of East and West Germany. On September 12, 1990, the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany (also known as the "Two Plus Four Treaty") was signed and officially reestablished the sovereignty of both German states.


Germany was officially reunified on October 3, 1990, when the five reestablished federal states (Bundesländer) of East Germany—Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia—formally joined the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), choosing one of two options implemented in the West German constitution (Grundgesetz). As these five newly-founded German states formally joined the Federal Republic in accordance with the (then-existing) Article 23, the area in which the Grundgesetz (basic law) served as the constitution was simply extended to include them. The alternative would have been for East Germany to join as a whole along the lines of a formal union between two German states that then would have had to, amongst other things, create a new constitution for the newly established country. Though the option chosen clearly was simpler, it is and has been responsible for sentiments in the East of being "occupied" or "annexed" by the old Federal Republic.

To facilitate this process and to reassure other countries, the FRG made some changes to the "Basic Law" (constitution). Article 146 was amended so that Article 23 of the current constitution could be used for reunification. Then, once the five "reestablished federal states" in East Germany had joined, the Basic Law was amended again to indicate that there were no other parts of Germany, which existed outside of the unified territory, that had not acceded. However, the constitution can be amended again at some future date and it still permits the adoption of another constitution by the German people at some time in the future.

On November 14, 1990, the German government signed a treaty with Poland, finalizing Germany's boundaries as permanent along the Oder-Neisse line, and thus, renouncing any claims to Silesia, Farther Pomerania, Gdańsk (Danzig), and territories of the former province of East Prussia. The following month, the first all-German free elections since 1932 were held, resulting in an increased majority for the coalition government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Effects of reunification

The cost of reunification has been a heavy burden to the German economy and has contributed to Germany’s slowed economic growth in recent years. The costs of reunification are estimated to amount to over €1.5 trillion (statement of Freie Universität Berlin). This is more than the national debt of the German state.[3] The primary cause of this was the severe weakness of the East German economy, especially vis-à-vis the West German economy, combined with (politically motivated) exchange rates from the East German mark to the Deutsche Mark that did not reflect this economic reality, resulting in a very sudden (usually fatal) loss of competitiveness of East German industries, making them collapse within a very short time. Today, there are still special transfers of more than €10 billion every year to “rebuild” the eastern part of Germany. Providing goods and services to East Germany strained the resources of West Germany. Unprofitable industries formerly supported by the East German government had to be privatized.

As a consequence of the reunification, most of the former GDR has been deindustrialized, causing an unemployment rate of about 20 percent. Since then, hundreds of thousands of former East Germans have continued to migrate to western Germany to find jobs, resulting in the loss of significant portions of population, especially in highly trained professions. It is also thought to be the actual cause of the majority of problems in Germany which are blamed on the changeover to the euro. The Bundesbank (Central bank) has always insisted that the economic problems are not a result of the euro, and are structural reforms which Germany itself must sort out by.[4]

Civil society

The West had enjoyed four decades of free association within civil society and of participatory democracy at local, provincial and national level. The East had experienced four decades of authoritarian rule, with limited right of association and hardly any genuine participation in governance. In fact, the East had been run as a police state. Consequently, post-reunification in addition to the economic reconstruction of the East, or of the "new states," civil society also needed to be nurtured.

Post reunification alliance

The reunified Germany remained a member of the European Community (later the European Union) and NATO. There is debate as to whether the events of 1990 should be properly referred to as a "reunification" or a "unification." Proponents of the former use the term in contrast with the initial unification of Germany in 1871. Others, however, argue that 1990 represented a "unification" of two German states into a larger entity which, in its resulting form, had never before existed.


For political and diplomatic reasons, West German politicians carefully avoided the term "reunification" during the run-up to what Germans frequently refer to as die Wende. The most common term in German is "Deutsche Einheit" or "German unity;" German unity is the term that Hans-Dietrich Genscher used in front of international journalists to correct them when they asked him about "reunification" in 1990.

After 1990, the term "die Wende" became more common; the term generally refers to the events that led up to the actual reunification; in its usual context, this terms loosely translates to "the turn(around)," without any further meaning. When referring to the events surrounding the German reunification, however, it carries the cultural connotation of the events that brought about this "turn" in German history.


  1. F.D. Roosevelt Library, Suggested Post-Surrender Program for Germany. Retrieved November 13, 2007.
  2. Almond.
  3., Verabschiedung des Jahressteuergesetz 2008 Retrieved November 13, 2007.
  4. Deutsche Bundesbank, Monthly Report March 2004 Public finances in crisis—the causes and the need for action. Retrieved November 13, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Almond, Mark. Uprising: Political Upheavals that have Shaped the World. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2002. ISBN 978-1840004427
  • Brockmann, Stephen. Literature and German Reunification. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0521660549
  • Garton Ash, Timothy. In Europe's Name Germany and the Divided Continent. New York: Random House, 1993. ISBN 978-0394557113
  • Grass, Günter, Krishna Winston, and Arthur S. Wensinger. Two States—One Nation? San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. ISBN 978-0151922703
  • Marsh, David. The Germans A People at the Crossroads. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990. ISBN 031205095X
  • Williams, Howard, Colin Wight, and Norbert Kapferer. Political Thought and German Reunification The New German Ideology? Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave in association with Anglo-German Foundation for the Study of Industrial Society, 2000. ISBN 978-0295979328

External links

All links retrieved May 21, 2024.


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