Essay: German Unification

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¶ … German unification has been a success or failure depends upon defining a standard of success. For many Germans, as well as many interested observers from abroad, the standard is defined by an ideal of Germany as the demilitarized superpower of Europe, leading the European Union as a model of what the industrialized, democratic, capitalist state. By this standard, unification has failed. Since 1990, Germany has struggled with a host of economic, political, and social problems that have frustrated its citizens and dashed the hope that a unified Germany would combine the best qualities of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), while eliminating the worst ones.

Closer and more careful examination, however, reveals that this is not the correct standard by which to evaluate the meaning of unification. Unified Germany should not be measured against a standard that no other nation could reach. Germany's success in the aftermath of unification should be judged in terms of its ability to take advantage of the opportunities presented by its unique historical position. More than any other single nation, Germany was affected by the two most turbulent ideologies of the 20th century: fascism and communism. Germany must be judged by how well it grapples with the problem of building a modern, democratic, capitalist society that provides both a dynamic economy and a stable social safety net, while emerging from its historical immersion in two ideologies dramatically opposed to that kind of society. According to this latter standard, the question of the success of unification is still open. But the signs are hopeful.

The Problems of Unification

In economic terms, German unification seems to be an abject failure. Twenty years after unification, it is hard to say that the citizens of either the former FRG or the former GDR are better off than they were before the Berlin Wall came down.

At the time of unification, it was widely presumed that East Germans would benefit greatly from absorption into one of the most successful economies in the world, one that featured an advanced social welfare system. Yet it is hard to say that East Germans are better off today than they were twenty years ago. Despite the fact that, since 1990, the German government has poured the equivalent of $1 trillion in aid, subsidies and welfare payments into the former East Germany, the economy in that part of Germany lags far behind the rest of the nation. In 2002, Germany's Federal Statistics Office reported on the rate of emigration from Saxony, the richest and most modernized part of the former East Germany. For persons between the ages of 18 and 30, the emigration rate was 1,500 persons per week. This was the same rate of emigration that East Germany as a whole experience in 1961 -- a circumstance that prompted the construction of the Berlin Wall. (Walker, p. 40).

Unification has hardly promoted the stability of the institutions that propelled the post-war success of West Germany. Germany is rapidly losing its pre-unification reputation as the economic powerhouse of Europe, as it struggles to control inflation, maintain stability in its banking and monetary system, and make its expected contributions to the budget of the European Union (EU). (Walker, p. 43-44). In addition, many of the primary institutions for providing social welfare in Germany are failing or are teetering on the brink of failure. The national health insurance system is in fiscal crisis. The German educational system is producing high school graduates who rank 25th among the 32 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in reading, mathematics, and scientific literacy. (Walker, p. 41).

The problems of unification are cultural as well as economic. Many citizens of the former East Germany believe they have lost much since unification, which little to show for it. Unified Germany provides fewer social services than East Germany did, and crime rates have increased dramatically since the Berllin Wall came down. Unemployment in the former East Germany has also increased. Westerners often believe that they have been burdened with the rehabilitation of a hopelessly retarded cultural cousin, who is ill-equipped to participate in the culture of contemporary Europe. They have lost a substantial part of their self-image as paragons of sophistication by virtue of their association with the citizens of the former GDR. (Hafner).

The Problems of Being a Modern European State

To a great extent, however, the attribution of many of these problems to unification is an example of the fallacy of post hoc, propter hoc. Although Germany has encountered many problems since 1990, a great portion of those problems are characteristic of contemporary Europe as a whole. It is fair to day that Germany is having a crisis of modernization (and European unification) more than it is having a crisis of unification between the GDR and the FRG.

Many of Germany's economic problems in the 1990s and 2000s had nothing to do with the consequences of unification. In the immediate post-war period, through the 1950s and 1960s, the German economy rapidly regained international competitiveness by employing a national industrial policy that focused on finding national consensus about economic goals and the methods to achieve them. By the 1990s, however, this approach to formulating national economic policy was outmoded. Growing international markets, increasing international competition, especially in and from Asia, and rapid technological change all contributed to a marketplace in which decision-making was more decentralized. Germany's consensus-based, centralized approach to economic decision-making could not move quickly enough to keep pace in this brave new world. (McAdams, p. 292).

The Problem of the Nazi Past

There is another factor that complicates the solution of Germany's contemporary problems and that has nothing to do with unification. The inescapable echoes of Germany's Nazi past resonate with many contemporary social issues, making those issues more difficult in Germany than they are elsewhere. In other nations, public debate can focus more or less entirely on the merits of the issue at hand. In post-Nazi Germany, however, a unique question always hovers at the fringes of any public issue: would the Nazis have done something like this? Germany has an intense (and completely warranted) self-consciousness about whether present events might effect a repetition of its Nazi past. This self-consciousness can turn an ordinary political or social debate into a battle for the nation's soul. Once the specter of Nazism is invoked by one side or the other in a debate, the prospects for finding compromises diminish and any lingering disagreements can seem more bitter.

The debate over the legality and morality of assisted suicide is an example. In many countries, political and social groups disagree about whether and under what circumstances individuals should have the right to end their own lives. These disagreements are often bitter and deeply divisive. In neighboring Switzerland, the question of assisted suicide can be just another social issue to be resolved in the ordinary way. In Germany, that issue has reverberations which assure that, regardless of how it is resolved, bitter feelings and doubt will ensue.

In many respects, the fundamental question of German politics is whether Germany is now or ever will be a "normal" nation. (McAdams, pp. 283-84). In the context of contemporary German culture, this question really means: "when can we emerge from the shadow of our Nazi past and claim an equal moral status with other nations?" This is not a question that is unique to post-unification Germany. Indeed, Germans were asking it well before unification. (McAdams, p. 284). Consequently, Germany's struggle to deal with its contemporary problems owes as much to the events of 1945 as it does to those of 1990.

Unification as an Opportunity to Correct the 20th Century's Threats to Democratic Capitalism

Jurgen Habermas has argued that the success of German unification ultimately depends upon a rejection of the idea that reunification is the instrument for returning Germany to its pre-Nazi position, pride, and glory. Habermas believes that it is impossible for Germany to "escape" the legacy of Nazism by treating the period of Hitler's domination as some kind of aberration or historical accident. To the contrary, Habermas believes that Germany must accept the lesions of Nazism for modern democratic states. In particular, Habermas calls for a recognition of the idea that a modern democratic government cannot base its claim for legitimacy and authority upon the existence of a "special" national consciousness or identity, whether that identity is based upon ethnic or cultural characteristics. (McAdams, 300-02).

Habermans' conception of the lessons of Germany's Nazi past provides a useful way to a standard for evaluating unification. If reunification is understood only as an opportunity to resurrect the glorious Germany of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then unification has undoubtedly been a failure. But if reunification is understood differently, it can be stand as a promise of hope rather than as a byword of failure. In many respects, the problems that Germany has encountered since the end of World War II are an… [END OF PREVIEW]

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