German Reunification @30: Work in Progress

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Reunification was made possible by East Germans seeking to reform their country – not dissolve it. But history has a funny way of working out – and it is still working out the integration of Wessies and Ossies today.

Photo: German Consul General to Hong Kong and Macau, Dieter Lamlé.

This is Part II of a four-part series from an interview with Dieter Lamlé, the Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany to Hong Kong and Macau, on the occasion of the 30th Anniversary of German Reunification.

Part I: German Reunification @30: “Never stop believing in the impossible” and listen to the interview here.

Part III: German Reunification @30: Refugees and Asylum here.

Part IV: German Reunification @30: Indo-Pacific Strategy here

Almost a year after the Berlin Wall fell, East Germany joined the Federal Republic of Germany on 3 October, 1990. Rather than establish a new country with a new constitution, the East German people chose – via their first genuinely democratic vote – the quicker route of accession into their Western counterpart. But that did not mark the end of reunification – it was a new beginning.

The beginning of a long road

The work of reunification is still, it seems, a work in progress. Decisions at the time were made quickly, perhaps leading to errors. But Herr Lamlé argues that Helmut Kohl, the West German Chancellor in 1989 and the ‘Father of Reunification’ knew they needed to move quickly.

Not all the players at the table were in favour of reunification. The German Consul General to Hong Kong and Macau, Herr Dieter Lamlé explains, “The Soviet Union with Gorbachev, at the beginning of the process, preferred the two Germanies to stay divided. The US? They supported us very much. So it was very, very difficult at that moment.” 

Those who feared a unified Germany included many in Western Europe, current allies but former World War II foes. Chancellor Kohl knew he had to allay their fears. Imagining the inner workings of Chancellor Kohl’s mind, he explains, “That’s why Helmut Kohl said very quickly, ‘The German house must be under a European roof, making it very clear we are not intending a strong Germany, but we are intending a strong Europe with Germany in [it].’”

The German house must be under a European roof, making it very clear we are not intending a strong Germany, but we are intending a strong Europe with Germany in [it].

helmut kohl

“And Helmut Kohl said, ‘First act, then think.’ Because he had no time. And of course, he was thinking a lot.  You have two possible ways to approach a problem. Either you start thinking and after half a year you have a solution, or you just find something and deal with it.” 

“So Kohl said, “Not it is open, we have no time to wait. Now the window is open, it might close again.’”

Herr Lamlé is confident as to who made reunification happen – and how. He reminds us that the East German government was being forced to respond (not to open the border, which arose from a fortunate mistake) but from East Germans demanding better from their government – not reunification with West Germany. 

“The East Germans at that moment did not think about joining West Germany. They were thinking about reforming their country better: The GDR. Their intention was not to abolish GDR. Their intention was to reform it, make it better, make it more democratic, to alleviate the very bad business situation: this was what they were aiming for.”

“The Wall was torn down by East Germans. Not by a tsunami. Not West Germans. But by East Germans. And the peaceful revolution was possible because East German police did not shoot on the East Germans tearing down the Wall.”

He explains that while West Germany had the wherewithal to support East Germany post-reunification, they actually owe East Germans a debt for making Reunification happen.

“So in principle, we owe them everything. So they get a lot from us. What they got was money. They needed money, but recognition. Mental integration. Also [West Germany] taking some positive things from them. But this did not happen because things were done so quickly.”

So we have two East Germans at the top of the German state for the first time in history. This was a clear signal that the two Germans are united.

Dieter Lamlé

From Western leadership to Eastern leadership

One very visible sign of Eastern success is in political leadership. Chancellor Angela Merkel is the first woman Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and the first East German Chancellor. At the time of Reunification, she was the deputy spokesperson for the first democratically elected East German Government led by Lothar de Maizière.

But then Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the father of Unification, became her mentor. Herr Lamle explains, “He always treated her very well and she became the federal Environment Minister. The first time I met her was when I was [stationed] in Jakarta when we were responsible for her visit. Then she became the first woman as Chancellor and the first East German as Chancellor.” 

“I think East Germans thought, ‘Ah, it is very good, now we have an East German [Chancellor].’ No doubt about that. But this would not have been enough – she would have to be good! And she was good.”

However, this long-serving Chancellor, who will step down at the end of this year, was not the only highly prominent East German leading the nation. 

“And then, seven years later, we had an East German President, Joachim Gauck, who was [President] from 2012 to 2017. So we have two East Germans at the top of the German state for the first time in history. This was a clear signal that the two Germans are united.”

He acknowledges problems do persist: “There is Western arrogance. [The persistent terms] Ossies and Wessies [highlight] this conflict. It is getting less and less and it will still take some time.

For “People there between 30 and 50 years old – it was difficult for them. Difficult to get the pace of Western society, of capitalism…Unemployment was born. This was very difficult. Even today, I speak to East Germans who say that ‘A little more recognition would have been good.’”

One thing that will theoretically end next year for most taxpayers is the “Reunification Tax” introduced to fund projects to support East Germany. The Federal Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz said last year, “The costs of reunification have in large part come to an end.”

The monetary costs, yes. But it is a work in progress. 

Herr Lamlé says, “It is a success story, no doubt about it. And most of the Germans you ask today are very happy that it happened.” 

The currywurst? You are hitting on a very sensible issue!

dieter lamlé

Agree to disagree

One common point of agreement is one where everyone, across Germany, disagrees on – because they hold the same opinion; their currywurst is the best.

When asked, Herr Lamle was very clear on his nation’s standing.

“The currywurst? You are hitting on a very sensible issue! Nobody knows exactly who invented the currywurst. Whether it comes from West Germany or East Germany, everybody says he is making the best currywurst. If you ask even some restaurants here in Hong Kong, they will claim their currywurst is the best you will ever get! This is the very clear and easy answer: Germans in West and East love currywurst.”

If East and West Germans can agree to disagree on currywurst, surely the other conundrums of post-reunification, 30 years on, can be solved together.

The influence of the many years of division still impacts on how German relates to the world, ranging from superpower nations to desperate political refugees. Read about it in Part III of our series on German Reunification @30: Refugees and asylum here.

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