On 3rd October 1990, less than a year after the Berlin wall fell, the constitutional process of German reunification was completed. Today, the 3rd October is a national holiday to celebrate Germany’s unity and the progress that has been made joining together the economic, political and social dimensions of the two former countries who demarcated the iron curtain. To coincide with the celebrations this year, state-funded news platform Deutsche Welle have created an interactive, online dossier called Generation 25, telling the stories of German men and women born around the fall of the Berlin wall and German unification. I, too, was born just after reunification which made me think about the UK perception of Germany, and how my many years studying German has influenced my own perception of the country.
Looking at political rhetoric around the time of unification, the political elite attempted not to sideline the Germans who had grown up east of Bonn (with the exception of the Greens), with the father of reunification Chancellor Helmut Kohl promising ‘flourishing landscapes’ in eastern states following reunification. However, simultaneously Germans in western states, who had enjoyed fairly stable political and economic lives, were being asked to foot the bill for westernising the infrastructure of former East Germany. This created societal and cultural tensions between Eastern Germans (Ossis) and Western Germans (Wessis) that persisted for much longer than the initial transition following unification, contributing to a sense of a continued divide between eastern and western states, the so called Mauer im Kopf or ‘Wall in the mind’.
The young Germans of Generation 25, however, have no personal experience of the former East or West Germanies, but did grow up in the immediate aftermath of unification, and for those in eastern states, the long process of ‘catching up’ with western states. Earlier this year I examined the concept of innere Einheit or ‘inner Unity’ in a piece of work for my MA, and the progress made by the Social Democrat-Green government ten years post-unification to achieve it. The concept of ‘inner unity’ has no singular, distinct meaning after being adopted not only by politicians, but also the media and academics. It includes the constitutional foundations of unity, an alignment of living conditions, and a felt unity of mental and physical togetherness. Whilst legal unity had been achieved in 1990 through Germany’s Basic Law (Grundgesetz), persistent economic disparities still persist to this day between eastern and western states, despite solidarity payments transferring wealth into eastern Germany in an attempt to alleviate economic disadvantage and encourage growth.
In 2015, the progress of Aufbau Ost or ‘rebuilding the east’ still has some way to go. The GDP of eastern states in Germany currently lies at around 67 percent of the western level, which is double what it was in 1991. A constant political focus on the economic accomplishment of eastern states compared to the west has perpetuated the opinion of an ‘inner unity’ not yet achieved. It would also seem to be the case, as the figures in Deutsche Welle’s dossier show, that a transcendent unity which overcomes physical and mental differences between Ossis and Wessis has made some progress; however, just below half of Generation 25 believe there is still a difference in mentality between eastern and western Germans, which is understandable considering living conditions are yet to be aligned.
Besides the domestic problem of negotiating a solidarity and ‘inner unity’ amongst Germans, rising levels of extremism is another domestic issue with particular frequency in eastern states. The recent anti-islamic movement PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamification of the Occident) has its HQ in Dresden, located in the German state of Saxony which has seen the highest concentration of attacks on refugees this year. These are worrying events given the developments this summer. The warm and overwhelmingly positive welcomes from German citizens to refugees, and their government’s commitment to receive by far the largest amount of refugees of all EU member states has been well documented in the British press. However, it is the reports on the warm welcomes and altruistic actions of large sections of German society, rather than the xenophobic attacks on refugee homes that have also occurred, which have dominated British news and which contributes to the changing perception of Germany in the UK. A 2013 poll by the BBC World Service found Germany the most positively viewed country in the world. Successful imports of German Christmas markets, discount supermarkets and football prowess shape new UK public opinion on Germany in the 21st century.
It seems fitting then that the tagline of the unification celebrations this year was Grenzen überwinden or ‘overcoming borders’ and many allusions have been made at this year’s celebrations to Germany’s next big challenge: how to integrate these hundreds of thousands of new refugees. Reunification was described as a European unification as well as a German one, and the parallels continue to be made when the German political elite emphasise the importance of a united European response to the refugee crisis. Germany’s open arms and #refugeeswelcome movement may be Generation 25’s version of the fall of the Berlin wall, with its long-lasting consequences likely to be debated when they and I turn 50.
What is clear is that Generation 25, who are mostly more optimistic, whilst also more apathetic to traditional politics have grown up in a Germany that is decidedly different to their parents’ generation. Still influenced by the recent history of their country’s division and its aftermath, Generation 25 are contributing to the new order of Germany as an economic and political powerhouse of the European Union. For my British parents, Germany was the focal point of the Cold War and would always be associated with the Second World War. Separate from my more academically influenced perceptions of Germany at 25, my fellow British Generation 25ers also hold a new view of Germany drastically different to those of the hapless fictional hotelier, Basil Fawlty. Its recent compassion for refugees, economic dominance in the Eurozone and handling of the Greek crisis has split opinion regarding current chancellor Angela Merkel, but culturally, there is a sense of warmth towards the Germans. The association of cute and cosy Christmas markets and traditional Bavarian dress of Oktoberfest is so appealing that it has very successfully been transferred to the UK, and the alternative art and music scene of 21st century Berlin, with a vastly lower cost of living than London, continues to attract young Brits to the former political playground of the allies.
Germany’s role today is shaped by far more than its division and I am certainly intrigued to study its developments over the next 25 years.
Alles Gute zum Geburtstag, Deutschland!