German Reunification, 1989-90


  1. To understand the constellation of events—both macro and local—that enabled the sudden and peaceful reunification of the two post-World War II German states in 1989-90.
  2. To examine the symbolic significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification for Germans as well as for Europeans, focusing on the immediate hopes and also fears felt by the diverse populations during 1989-90.
  3. To explore the short- and long-term implications of the division of Germany and the reunification of two states with diverse political and economic systems.

I. Why It Happened


The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent reunification of Germany were events that surprised the German populations, governments, and the outside world. In fact, on January 18, 1989, the head of the GDR's communist party (SED, Socialist Unity Party of Germany), Erich Honecker, proclaimed that the Wall "will still exist in 50 and in 100 years, unless the reasons for its existence are eliminated."

A. External Factors

During the first decades following World War II, Western politicians believed that it would only be a matter of years before Germany reunified. In fact, until 1969 West German politicians publicly asserted the necessity of reunification according to Germany's 1937 borders. However, by the mid-1980s, the prospect of German reunification was widely regarded within both East and West Germany as a distant hope, unattainable as long as communist regimes governed Eastern and Central European countries.

This hope was suddenly placed within reach by political changes within the Soviet Union. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as the general secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Through Perestroika and Glasnost, Gorbachev demonstrated his interest in wide-reaching economic reform and freedom of expression. In fact, in large part due to Gorbachev's reforms, by August 1989 Hungary's government no longer feared the intrusion of Soviet tanks if it introduced more liberal policies. Hungarians made plans for free elections and took down barbed wire that formed a barrier between Hungary and Austria.

In September, 13,000 East German tourists saw that the barrier had been removed and they walked across the border to Austria. Television cameras filmed the welcoming committees that greeted these East Germans; such scenes were broadcast widely on television and influenced many other East Germans to go on "vacation" to Hungary. By October 30, 50,000 East Germans had crossed to the West. Eventually, the East German government forced Hungary to close the western border to East German tourists. Following that, East Germans simply went to the West German embassy in Budapest and were put on trains that went west.

B. Internal Factors

Although diplomatic events outside of East and West Germany played a significant role in bringing about the fall of the Wall and reunification, some East Germans took action through demonstrations and took an active part in effecting change.

Over the course of 1989, some elements within the East German population began to hold informal meetings that became increasingly political, large, and frequent, especially in cities in Saxony. What began with small meetings in a church in Leipzig escalated into mass demonstrations in Leipzig, Dresden, and especially Berlin. The people called for reform and democratic change. By October 23, 300,000 East Germans demonstrated in Leipzig for political change and reform. Honecker said that the scene looked like 1953 (on June 17, 1953, large-scale demonstrations took place in nearly every city in East Germany; the East German and Soviet governments put down these revolts using force) all over again and asked Gorbachev to help in putting the demonstrations down.

Gorbachev refused because he actually supported reform (although he would be opposed to German reunification). Erich Honecker resigned in late October 1989. The travel restrictions for East Germans were removed by the new government on November 9, 1989, and many people immediately went to the Wall, where the border guards allowed them through.

The GDR border guards knew nothing about the new travel policies, had received no orders, and were confused, so they did not fire at the East German people as they literally disassembled the Wall. The Wall between East and West Berlin, erected in 1961, a symbol of the division of Europe, came down on November 9 amid a scene of indescribable exultation. By November 12, half a million East German citizens were in West Berlin. Berlin witnessed waves of euphoria, but also traffic jams and overcrowded subways and public transportation.

Even after the fall of the Wall, demonstrations against the continued political division of Germany occurred. Protesters yelled, "We are one People," and, "Germany, united Fatherland!" A banner from one of these demonstrations stated, "Proletarians of the World: Please forgive me, [signed] Karl Marx."

After the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the Communist Party in East Germany rapidly collapsed. Subsequent elections brought victory to Western-style political parties, preparing the way for reunification with West Germany. June 22, 1990, saw final approval to the unification plan pass the West German Bundestag (parliament). It had taken just over a year to obliterate the 40-year division of Germany. Official reunification took place on October 3, 1990.

Discussion Questions

Why did the East German government allow the wall to be torn down in 1989?

Why did the wall come down when it did?


Ask students to conduct a document analysis. Have them examine Erich Honecker's speeches, found online at the Web addresses listed below. Divide them into groups and have them discuss these questions:

What about the Socialist system in the GDR would have appealed to many East Germans? Why would some former East Germans experience so-called Ostalgie, or nostalgia, for the East, after reunification?

II. The Fall of the Wall


Many West Germans viewed the division of Germany as a mark of shame and sought reunification as a means of liberating their East German brothers and sisters from the shackles of Communism. The enthusiasm expressed by most West Germans for reunification prior and just following the event was remarkable in light of their later disenchantment.

Many East Germans saw West Germany as the land of opportunity and freedom and had an exaggerated idea of the benefits of reunification. Although many East Germans felt genuine patriotism for the sometimes paternalistic GDR, reunification seemed to bring with it a glorious future. East Germans often had an unrealistic view of life in the West. In fact, although the East German government censored television, they allowed the show Dallas to air. The GDR government thought that East German citizens would see how corrupt capitalists, especially Americans, were. This plan backfired, and many East Germans were enthralled with the luxury of the lifestyle depicted.

Some East Germans suffered due to policies of the GDR police state. These Germans were often the first to be politically active and participate in the demonstrations in Leipzig. Many of these East Germans tried to escape using sometimes elaborate means. Not everyone survived; on February 6, 1989, the last East German citizen died trying to escape over the Wall. In fact, a total of 78 people died during escape attempts.

Outside of East and West Germany, world leaders and populations had mixed reactions to the idea of German reunification. Many leaders expressed concern about the prospect of a large, united Germany once again looming in central Europe. For instance, Margaret Thatcher publicly remarked that the "Huns" would once again be a threat at the gates of the new Europe. One leader who expressed consistent support for the idea both before and after the actual event was George H. W. Bush.

Discussion Questions

Why is the Berlin Wall considered the most visible symbol of the division between democracy and communism?

How do you think East German citizens understood the purpose of the wall?

III. Consequences


Although prior to 1990 most Germans welcomed reunification and felt pride in German unity, many problems emerged in the months following these momentous events, and even now Germany faces obstacles that were initially unanticipated.

The German government developed a plan to determine whether or not reunification was economically feasible. They based the plan on the costs of modernizing the East German infrastructure to the level of West Germany. They found that through a temporary tax paid by West German citizens and investment stimulus packages for private industry in East Germany, the plan was a realistic possibility. However, after reunification, the West German government found that the state of the East German infrastructure was much worse than anticipated. The economic drain placed on West Germany was almost more than it could bear.

Unfortunately, economic concerns were not the least of West Germany's problems. As of 1994, what had been promised as a temporary tax had been extended twice. Also, because the conditions in the former East Germany have improved little, the free movement between East and West has caused mass migration into the former West Germany, a so-called brain drain, causing market shortages, higher unemployment, and housing crunches. This all adds up to growing disillusionment with the reunification effort and resentment of the unified German government at a critical time of its existence.

This disillusion with reunification led to sometimes severe tensions between West Germans and the former East Germans. West Germans often regarded East Germans as lazy due to their different work ethic and resented the costs of reunification. Former East Germans felt like second-class citizens and resented the arrogance of the West Germans. Some former East Germans even felt that they had been conquered rather than reunited and that they constituted inferior Germans according to the West German perception.

Because of severe unemployment—currently some former East German cities such as Brandenburg, Magdeburg, and Schwerin face over 25 percent official unemployment rates—some citizens long for the "good old days" of the GDR, where everyone was employed and the state looked after its citizens. Some former East Germans resent the fact that they can now buy whatever they want and travel wherever they want, but they cannot afford it.

Discussion Questions

Given that most Germans welcomed reunification, why did tensions exist between West Germans and East Germans?

How might this division continue to play a role in German politics, culture, and society?

Why were some Europeans wary of German reunification? Were these fears justified?

What sort of a role should unified Germany play in the new Europe? How did George H. W. Bush's response to German unification differ from other world leaders' responses? How would you explain the dramatic differences between reactions to these events?

Additional Resources


Ash, Timothy Garton. In Europe's Name: Germany and the Divided Continent. London: Jonathan Cape, 1993.
This study is the best to date on how West Germany lived with the division of Germany and used the European Union to help overcome it.

Edinger, Lewis J., and Brigitte L. Nacos. From Bonn to Berlin: German Politics in Transition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
A good overview of political events of the 1990s.

Fisher, Marc. After the Wall: Germany, the Germans, and the Burdens of History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
A journalist's approach to the social implications of reunification.

Görtemaker, Manfred. Unifying Germany, 1989-1990. New York: St. Martin's Press in association with the Institute for East West Studies, 1994.
Görtemaker is one of the best-respected German historians of recent political history. This is a translation of one of his most useful books.

Heneghan, Tom. Unchained Eagle: Germany After the Wall. London: Pearson Education, 2000.
Heneghan is a well-informed journalist, and this accessible book is useful for teaching.

James, Harold, and Marla Stone, eds. When the Wall Came Down: Reactions to German Unification New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1992.
A useful collection of articles reacting to the Wall's fall and reunification.

Jarausch, Konrad H. The Rush to German Unity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
A comprehensive view of the events leading up to the collapse of the GDR and German reunification.

Jarausch, Konrad, and Volker Gransow. Uniting Germany: Documents and Debates, 1944-1993. New York: Berghahn Books, 1994.
Due to the rich selection of documents, this book is a useful companion to The Rush to German Unity.

Parkes, Stuart. Understanding Contemporary Germany. London: Routledge, 1997.
A wide-ranging overview of recent German history, politics, society, economics, and culture.

Pond, Elizabeth. Beyond the Wall: Germany's Road to Unification. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1993.
A readable account of the story of 1989-90, from the East German dissident scene to the diplomatic wrangling.

Schneider, Peter. The German Comedy: Scenes of Life After the Wall. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991.
Schneider's essays deal with some of the problems that have emerged since the Wall fell.

Schoenbaum, David, and Elizabeth Pond. The German Question and Other German Questions. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Journalist Elizabeth Pond and historian David Schoenbaum produce a review of problems facing united Germany and an assessment of how it handled them.

Shingleton, A. Bradley, Marian J. Gibbon, and Kathryn S. Mack. Dimensions of German Unification: Economic, Social, and Legal Analyses. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.
Addresses a range of topics, including political and social implications of reunification.

Shlaes, Amity. Germany: The Empire Within. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1991.
Shlaes is yet another journalist writing about contemporary Germany and the social and political complications of the German past as well as present.

Turner, Henry Ashby. Germany from Partition to Reunification. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
A useful and pretty straightforward political history of Germany's reunification.

Zelikow, Philip, and Condoleezza Rice. Germany Unified and Europe Transformed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995.
A study of the diplomatic maneuverings that led to German reunification. Zelikow and Rice have used U.S. and Soviet archives along with their interviews and personal accounts of the talks.