The memory is still etched clearly in my mind. It was the summer of 1989 in Munich, and I was sitting at an open-air café overlooking a little square in front of a well-known bookstore. A German woman I happened to be sharing a table with said, “Uns geht es zu gut.” The feeling this phrase evokes is not easy to translate. It means something like “things are going too well,” though the element of foreboding in this phrase—the feeling that it’s likely to turn for the worse any minute—is not really in the German. Still, it does suggest a vague sense of unease, as if the speaker is wondering whether it’s really OK for things to be as good as they are.
Without a doubt, the economy of West Germany was booming in those days, backed by a robust Deutschmark that sent West German travelers around the world. The German news even reported a general distaste in other countries for the way the tourists strutted around with their powerful currency.
What made this apparently sensible woman’s comment so unforgettable was probably the wave of changes in East Germany that was all over the news when I returned home to Japan later that year. Granted, what was to become a turning point in the nation’s history would be communicated through these second-hand reports, but in a way it was something I saw with my own eyes. It was only because the people of West Germany believed they were financially strong enough—to the point that an everyday person on the street would remark uns geht es zu gut—that they had faith in the ability of their leader, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, to successfully unify East and West.
When the wall came down
Though the event has since been attributed to misunderstandings and hasty conclusions, the Berlin Wall did come down on the night of November 9, 1989. Crowds of people from East Berlin poured into West Berlin, and many West Berliners rushed out to greet them in an equal show of jubilation. The German people looked truly happy that night. Those moments of pure, unbridled joy are rare in a person’s life—not to mention in the history of a nation. Still, perhaps because those first moments were so extraordinarily meaningful, the German people have endured the days of Sturm und Drang revolution and reform leading up to actual unification, and the “normalization” process that has been far from smooth up to the present.
To a non-German observer with no direct connection to Germany’s politics or economics, the sequence of events seemed to go something like this. Starting in the autumn of 1989, the system that was closely monitoring its own citizens and keeping them contained began to fall apart, with democracy finally becoming reality through the success of East Germany’s Peaceful Revolution. The reason that so many people supported reunification with West Germany in the resulting free parliamentary election of March 1990 was the desire among ordinary citizens to quickly join West Germany and adopt the powerful Deutschmark as their own, in the hopes of finally living a more comfortable life. In part because their chancellor had promised that he could unify east and west without raising taxes, the West Germans backed the Kohl administration and for the most part saw “reunification” as something that would not affect them personally. In the end, the move would dissolve the East German state and cause it to be absorbed into West Germany.
Unification was pushed ahead at a rapid pace, the one-to-one currency exchange set up between East and West crumbling the foundations of an East German economy that was already on the brink of collapse. No amount of money could bring it back, and this eventually forced Germany to not only institute a “solidarity tax” to finance reunification, but also to suffer a prolonged budget deficit and high unemployment due to the financial burden to its economy.
The East Germans, feeling that life had been better before unification, indulged in Ostalgie, a portmanteau word combining ost (east) and nostalgie (nostalgia). For a time, news outlets frequently reported the cursing of the West Germans who orchestrated the move as haughty wessie (“westies”), while the West Germans, frustrated at the waffling indecision of their eastern counterparts, hurled back the label ossie (“easties”) in return. This mudslinging was short-lived, however.
Is Germany truly unified?
If we look at Germany today, we find that the chancellor, a trusted political leader who is currently serving her third term and has continually enjoyed stable support, was raised in the former East Germany—as was the current German president. The Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), the party that once ruled East Germany, changed its name and restructured at the hands of its own reformist wing after unification, then merged several years ago with a left-wing breakaway faction of the western-based Party of Democratic Socialism. Changing its name to simply The Left (Die Linke), it is now the leading opposition in the Bundestag parliament. Nobody denies the fact that the SED created and maintained a suppressive system of rule in East Germany; however, its successor The Left is now recognized as a legitimate democratic political party. The state elections this autumn may give rise to their first minister-president (governor). Cultural and political elements once considered “eastern” have now spread throughout Germany and are beginning to take hold.
In the former West Germany, it was said that group childcare was a means of the East German administration designed to suppress the individuality of children and create pawns of the totalitarian state. Today, however, German children’s right to daycare is protected by the constitution. The question of why junior and senior high school students in Germany’s eastern states do better than their western counterparts on standardized math and science tests became a major topic of conversation in 2013. One newspaper explained that, while many humanities teachers from the former East Germany were forced to resign after unification for ideological reasons, their counterparts in the science fields were able to keep their jobs. It goes without saying that these editorials, which essentially suggest that former East German teachers are superior to those in the west, all appeared in what were originally West German newspapers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University
Professor Murakami was born in 1952. After graduating from the Sophia University Faculty of Foreign Studies, she went on to the doctoral program at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology. She taught at Toyama University of International Studies before becoming a professor at Waseda's School of Human Sciences (now the Faculty of Human Sciences). Professor Murakami specializes in German regional studies. Her publications include The White Rose of Munich [Myunhyen no Shiroi Bara] (Chikuma Shobo) and Hitler Assassination Attempts and Resistance Movements [Hitora Ansatsu Keikaku to Teiko Undo] (Kodansha), both under the name Kimiko Yamashita.