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German Reunification

German Reunification

Following the Second World War, Germany was divided into four occupation zones, managed by the USA, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. In 1949, the USA, Britain, and France merged their zones into one unit, which became known as the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). Meanwhile, the Soviet Union set up a socialist system in East Germany, known as the German Democratic Republic.

For half a century, East and West Germany were politically, culturally, and economically divided. No one expected that one day, there would be a reunified Germany. But, in a few swift months between 1989 and 1990, that is exactly what happened. Read on to find out more about how and why.

German Reunification Map of divided Germany Study SmarterFig. 1 - Map of divided East and West Germany.

Although the English-speaking world tends to refer to the reunification of East and West Germany as 'Reunification of Germany', German politicians at the time called it 'Die Wende' (The Turning Point), and the 1990 Treaty titled the event 'Deutsche Einheit' (German Unity).1

Using language that people at the time would have used is generally a better way to write history because it is more accurate and less anachronistic.

Helmut Kohl

Helmut Kohl was Chancellor of Germany from 1982 to 1998. He was the principal architect of German reunification, presenting a 10-point plan to reunify Germany just days after the fall of the Berlin Wall

German Reunification Chancellor Helmut Kohl StudySmarterFig. 2 - Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Kohl had long been an advocate of Ostpolitik. For example, he hosted the first-ever visit from an East German head of state within West Germany when he met with Eric Honecker in 1987.

Ostpolitik

The political and diplomatic approach of some politicians in West Germany to establish closer ties with East Germany and the USSR. However, it was unpopular among many West Germans.

German Reunification Timeline

Here is a timeline summarising the key dates involved in German reunification.

YearDateEvent
19454 FebruaryThe Yalta Conference. It was decided that post-war Germany would be split into four zones.
194923 MayThe Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was created.
7 OctoberThe German Democratic Republic (DDR) was created.
19894 SeptemberProtests in Leipzig against DDR.
9 NovemberThe Fall of the Berlin Wall.
28 NovemberHelmut Kohl presented his 10-point programme.
22 DecemberThe opening of the Brandenburg Gate
199013 FebruaryUS, USSR, France, Britain, and the two Germanies agreed on the "two plus four plan".
18MarchFirst democratic elections in the DDR.
18 MayTreaty for the single German economy signed in Bonn by East and West Germany
1 JulyThe single economy came into effect.
16 JulyThe Moscow agreement on freedom of reunited Germany to decide with which alliances it is to belong.
3 OctoberTreaty signed to formally inaugurate German Unity

German Reunification Facts: Longer-Term Causes

Why did reunification happen?

'The Gorbachev Factor'

Mikhail Gorbachev was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR from 1985 to 1991 and became President of the Soviet Union in 1990. Unlike his predecessors, Gorbachev refused to use military force to stop eastern European countries from abandoning the USSR's political system.

In so doing, Gorbachev fundamentally changed the rules of the game.1

- Vladimir Tismaneanu

East German economic issues

East Germany's economy suffered due to the global commodity price rises in the 1970s.

Furthermore, a reduction in profits from Soviet crude oil meant that East Germany's hard currency debts started to rise. After Poland went bankrupt in 1982, the West responded by imposing a credit boycott on all Eastern bloc countries which only made the matter far worse.

These economic hardships meant that many in East Germany were keen to enjoy the benefits of West Germany's welfare state.

The opening of Hungary's border

The Hungarian government removed a section of Hungary's border with Austria in 1989 to allow its citizens to travel to the West. This was the first opening of the Iron Curtain in Europe since the end of the Second World War. By the end of September 1989, more than 30,000 East Germans had escaped to the West via Hungary.

German Reunification: Berlin Wall

The fall of the Berlin Wall happened by accident when Politburo member and press spokesman Guenter Schabowski made a speech at a press conference on 9 November 1989 that he hadn't prepared for. He mistakenly announced that the Berlin Wall was open for travel to the West immediately. Hearing the news, citizens from East Germany jubilantly stormed through the wall while the patrol guards watched, unsure of what to do.

German Reunification Fall of the Berlin Wall Study SmarterFig. 3 - East and West Germans celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate.

Iconic images of East Germans and West Germans celebrating on top of the wall at the Brandenburg Gate were broadcast on televisions all over the world. Although the Soviet Union continued to exist, these images were a powerful sign of the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

The fall of the Berlin Wall acted as a catalyst for German Reunification. 3000 people emigrated daily from East Germany to West Germany in the first month of the wall coming down.

The movement for the reunification of East and West Germany precipitated in 1989 with the crumbling of the Berlin Wall.2

- Jessica Theresa Dias

German Reunification Facts: Events to 3 October 1990

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, events leading to reunification started to move along swiftly. On 28 November 1989, Kohl presented a 10-point programme to reunite Germany.

The leaders of East and West met in Brandenburg on 22 December 1989 to celebrate together the opening of the Brandenburg Gate.

The next key event was a meeting in Ottowa, USA, on 13 February. The meeting was held between the foreign ministers of the USA, the USSR, Britain, France, and the two Germanies. Many countries at the time were anxious about the resurgence of the country that had played such a major role in two world wars. Under the "two plus four" plan decided at this meeting, the two Germanies would settle their internal unification by themselves. However, their role on the world stage and security arrangements would be agreed in negotiation with the four allied powers.

After the first free elections in East Germany were held on 18 March 1990, the two governments agreed to unify under Article 23 of West German Basic Law. Effectively, this meant that East Germany ceased to exist, and the five states within East Germany applied to enter the West German Constitution.

Article 23 states that 'Germans in the GDR [are given] a constitutionally guaranteed right to enter the Federal Republic of Germany.'3

On 18 May, the leaders of West and East Germany signed a treaty agreeing to the creation of a single German economy. This came into effect on 1 July. Part of the agreement was that the Federal Republic's Central Bank would take control of the collapsing East German economy. Kohl also successfully negotiated that the D-mark would be the currency of this new economic union rather than East Germany's Ost-mark, which was very fragile at the time.

One of the biggest obstacles to reunification had been the Soviet Union. They were unwilling to allow a reunited Germany to make its own security arrangements or have the freedom to make its own alliances. In particular, they were worried about Germany becoming a NATO member. There were two key reasons for this concern:

  1. A united Germany had once before devastated the Soviet Union's territory. A reunited Germany might one day have the power to repeat this.
  2. NATO was a threat to the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. Any increase in NATO's power or membership was to the detriment of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet President, Gorbachev, put his concerns this way in a summit with the USA:

Let me remind the Germans [...] that the unification of the two Germanys concerns not only them [...] it affects the vital interests of many countries in Europe, including the Soviet Union, which sacrificed more than anyone to make sure that war should never come again from German territory.4

Therefore, one of the biggest breakthroughs of the reunification process came when negotiations between Chancellor Kohl and President Gorbachev resulted in an agreement on 16 July in Moscow. The newly reunited Germany would be able to decide 'freely and independently' which alliances and economic blocs to belong to. This meant that Germany was free to join NATO. In exchange, Kohl promised that the army of the new Germany would be cut to 370,000 and that Germany would have no nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.

On 1 October, the Four Powers signed a document in New York to relinquish their rights to Berlin and Germany. Two days later, on 3 October Germany unified once more.

German Reunification Day

Every year, on 3 October, Germans celebrate German Reunification Day as a public holiday. In their own language, it is known as "The Day of German Unity" ("Tag der Deutschen Einheit").

German Reunification German Reunification Day Study Smarter

Fig. 4 - Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck celebrate Reunification Day in host city Hannover in 2014.

Celebrations in Germany on 3 October include a ceremony and festival in a different host city each year. However, most towns and cities also host their own celebrations. At the end of the night, there is often a large firework display in the host city.

Effects of German Reunification

There were many effects of Germany's reunification, including several problems. This means that reunification remains a controversial topic in Germany.

Economic Impacts

Merging the two Germanies had several adverse economic impacts:

  • East Germany's economy went into a large slump immediately after unification. Within a year, unemployment rates in the former east had soared to 3 million and industrial production in the former East halved.
  • Western Germany initially benefited from workers moving from East to West. However, the government had to pay huge subsidies using Western funding to the former East to prop up its economy, an estimated DM350 billion in the first three years alone, and continued funding ever since.
  • To this day, unemployment is higher in the former east, wages are lower and the economic output of the East is a third lower than Germany as a whole.5

Political and Cultural Impacts

Although Germany became officially one united country in 1990, the former East and West zones retain distinctive differences.

  • There is such a profound divide between the two areas that to this day people refer to Ost and West Deutschland (East and West Germany).
  • Right-wing extremism gained traction in the former east as economic hardships pushed people to the political edges.
  • Many young people moved from East to West to take advantage of better opportunities.
  • "Ostalgie" (East German nostalgia) - a widespread feeling that things had been better before reunification, and a longing to return to their distinctive way of life.

German Reunification - Key takeaways

  • German Reunification formally occurred on 3 October 1990, when the five East German states merged into West Germany.
  • Gorbachev's unwillingness to uphold Soviet systems using military force was a crucial step toward allowing German reunification to happen.
  • The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 was the catalyst that sparked the start of legal movements to reunify the two Germanies.
  • Every year, the Day of German Unity is celebrated on 3 October.
  • However, there were many adverse effects of reunification, especially the economic hardships faced by the former east. The two areas remained politically and culturally very distinctive.

References

  1. Vladimir Tismaneanu, 'The Revolutions of 1989: Causes, Meanings, Consequences' in Contemporary European History Journal, 2009.
  2. Federal Office of Justice, Agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic on the establishment of German unity (Unification Treaty)
  3. Jessica Theresa Dias, 'The German Reunification' in Pakistan Horizon, 1991.
  4. Dias, 'The German Reunification', 1991.
  5. USSR-USA Summit: Documents and Materials, 1990.
  6. Marcel Fürstenau, 'Germany faces old problems 30 years after Reunification', Deutsche Welle, (3 October 2020)
  7. Fig. 3 - West and East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:West_and_East_Germans_at_the_Brandenburg_Gate_in_1989.jpg) by Lear 21 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Lear_21) licensed by CC BY-SA 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0/deed.en)
  8. Fig. 4 - 2014-10-03 Tag der Deutschen Einheit, (108) Luftballons vom Freundeskreis Hannover für Angela Merkel und Joachim Gauck (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2014-10-03_Tag_der_Deutschen_Einheit,_(108)_Luftballons_vom_Freundeskreis_Hannover_f%C3%BCr_Angela_Merkel_und_Joachim_Gauck,,_(01).jpg) by Fred Jaugstetter (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benutzer:Fred_Jaugstetter) licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about German Reunification

Economic experts estimate that West Germany  poured 2 trillion euros into the East to enable reunification. Most of this went on rebuilding East Germany's infrastructure and on benefits. In addition West Germany paid 100 Deutschmarks for every East German in as welcome money, exchanged 1:1 for their East German marks.  

German reunification formally occurred on 3 October 1990. The day of German Unity is celebrated annually on 3 October.

The catalyst for German reunification was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. However, other factors were also important, including Gorbachev's decision not to use military force to curb civil disobedience, the opening of the Hungarian border, and economic issues in East Germany. Finally, of course, the role of Helmut Kohl with his ambition to reunify German was a crucial reason why Germany reunified. 

The direct translation for reunification is Wiedervereinigung. However, most Germans at the time preferred to call the the event 'Deutsche Einheit' (German Unity). Most politicians referred to the process as 'Die Wende' (the Turning Point) because it was politically less controversial. 

Germans celebrate German reunification with an annual public holiday known as the Day of German Unity (Tag der deutschen Einheit). Every year there is a special ceremony and festival in a different host city, as well as a large firework display. Many other towns and cities hold their own festivities as well. 

Final German Reunification Quiz

Question

Why was Germany divided in the first place?

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Answer

Germany had been divided by the Allies after WWII to ensure they would not be a strong enough power to instigate another war.

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Question

What was 'Ostpolitik'?

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Answer

Ostpolitik was the opening of communication between the East and West German states.

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Question

How did West Germans feel about the Ostpolitik policy?


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Answer

Many were unhappy with it as they saw it as surrendering and accepting the permanent division of Germany.

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Question

What was the Basic Treaty?


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Answer

The Basic Treaty aimed to establish good neighborly relations between both German states and granted legal recognition to the German Democratic Republic.

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Question

Why was the Basic Treaty a worry for the East German government?


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Answer

They feared that if their citizens were able to travel to the West, they would prefer the lifestyle offered under capitalism and leave permanently.

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Question

Who was Helmut Kohl?


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Answer

Helmut Kohl was the German Chancellor from 1982 and was one of, if not the most, important figures in German reunification.

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Question

Why did East Germany start to lose legitimacy?


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Answer

East Germans were seeing the vastly superior quality of life available in the West and were starting to leave the East through any means necessary.

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Question

What led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989?


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Answer

Günter Schabowski, a communist functionary, mistakenly announced at a televised news conference that the government would allow East Germans unlimited passage to West Germany, effective “immediately”.

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Question

When did the Berlin Wall fall? 

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Answer

9 November 1989

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Question

Who was Mikhail Gorbachev?

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Answer

The last president of the Soviet Union, who believed in reform. 

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Question

What happened on 28 November 1989? 

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Answer

Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced his 10-point plan to reunify Germany. 

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Which currency did the new economic union of July 1990 adopt?

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Answer

D-mark 

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Why was Gorbachev worried about the idea of a reunified Germany joining NATO? 

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Answer

Because Germany had decimated the Soviet Union during the Second World War and because NATO was a threat to the USSR. 

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Question

What is "Ostalgie"? 

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Answer

The widespread feeling among many East Germans that life was better under the Soviet system due to economic hardships following reunification. 

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Question

What happened to East Germany's economy after reunification? 

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Answer

There was a severe economic slump. Unemployment rose sharply, and many women in particular lost their jobs. 

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