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Opinion: The day after the Wall fell

The fears of Germany and its neighbors in 1989 have largely been resolved by 2009.

(Photos by Reuters; Illustration by Street Attack)

NEW YORK — As the attention of the world's media turns to Berlin, where 20 years ago East Germans freely crossed the Berlin Wall for the first time, few have paid attention to what happened the day after. Back then no one could envision that the period of limbo between Nov. 10, 1989 and Oct. 3, 1990, when German was reunified, would go as smoothly as it did. Germans, their neighbors, friends and rivals all had their fears. What were they, and did they come to pass?

Berlin Wall anniversary

Germans, East and West:

1989: West Germans largely supported unification, but many were concerned about the unreconstructed nature of Easterners (i.e., they’d been told that they were innocent of the Nazi’s crimes, since, as communists, they were Nazi victims). West Germans also feared that Chancellor Helmut Kohl was hiding the true economic costs of absorbing the East, which he was. In East Germany, euphoria over the fall of the Wall did not necessarily reflect a desire to recreate a united Germany. To paraphrase the Czech writer Milan Kundera, living in the East was less like jail than being in a zoo — true, citizens were kept behind bars, but by and large the zookeeper showed up every day with food, too. Many East Germans had real concerns about the rougher edges of capitalism.

2009: Today, most Germans (polls indicate) are thankful to the U.S. for its support during reunification and are increasingly at ease with themselves as both an economic and political powerhouse. Germany today is evolving away from the constraints imposed after World War II, though Germans continue to tread lightly in international affairs relative to their country’s size, particularly in the Middle East. Germans remain enormously skeptical of military force in world affairs — a byproduct of post-war Allied re-education that has led them, in the early 21st century, to be increasingly wary of joining U.S.-led crusades abroad.

Germans economically are more convinced than ever that their approach to social and economic questions is the model for the world. While their economy may well be too export-dependent, domestically Germans appear unlikely, even under the new center-right coalition of Angela Merkel, to liberalize labor markets or tolerate serious social spending cuts, even during a recession. They remain relatively thrifty, too, and won’t likely account for much of the rebalancing needed to rescue the world from the collapse of American consumerism.

(West) Germany’s NATO Allies:

1989: It is no exaggeration to say that reunification might not have taken place but for the support of George H.W. Bush. France and Britain opposed reunification for fear of resurgent German nationalism and Germany’s economic might, as well as worries that West Germany’s NATO commitment might be watered down. The extent of Margaret Thatcher’s duplicity on this issue, recently uncovered by the scholar Timothy Garten Ash, has shocked many of her supporters.

The United States, the driving force behind reunification, shared British and French concerns that a united Germany might ultimately become what Stalin and Khrushchev spent decades trying to attain: a neutral state open to Moscow’s influence that could, possibly, be lured away from NATO and denuded of U.S. bases. But the first Bush administration determined the potential rewards of a stable, democratic Germany at the center of Europe to outweigh those risks. (The best account of those days published recently is an interview with Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, in the German magazine Der Spiegel).

2009: Looking at Germany today, Britain and the U.S. see little evidence of the worst fears of British and French nationalists. Yet all three do worry that, even under a center-right government like Angela Merkel’s, Germany will continue to pull Europe leftward toward outright neutrality. This particularly worries the former Soviet satellites of Central and Eastern Europe. U.S. and British policymakers will seek to prevent Germany’s pacifism from becoming non-interventionist and isolationist. France, meanwhile, sees its relative power within the EU waning as Germany continues to grow in size and economic weight. After French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s election there was talk that Franco-German ties might cool. Now Paris understands that, while it must keep Brussels close, it must keep Berlin closer.