‘I would have said of German unity ‘not in my lifetime”: What can Ireland learn from a united Germany?


“I was a citizen of West Germany and I had never known anything different, I thought that was the world: a divided world.”

This article is part of The Good Information Project, a new initiative from The Journal to help create greater understanding of big issues we face. This month we are focussing on the question ‘What could a shared island look like?’.

IMAGES OF THE Berlin Wall being torn down by ordinary people are both iconic and familiar – we recognise the young people in puffy jackets joyously hacking away at its graffitied concrete blocks. 

Source: Antonio Pisacreta/Ropi

But that wasn’t the end of a divided Germany – it only marked the start of its unification.

Despite the 30-year commemoration of German unity last year after legal unification on 3 October 1990, politicians were careful to emphasise that they are not all the way there. 

There is no longer a physical obstacle between Germans in the east and west, but gaps remain between their lives – how much they earn, how high their rent is, how they work, what they perceive as beautiful, and what their political views are.

There’s an important lesson here for Ireland: any discussion on reunification, or a more shared island, must include a detailed, policy-rich debate on how to cater for citizens on both sides of the border – or the social gaps will remain, and people will get left behind.

As German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier wrote in 2019, the “great fortune” of German reunification is an ongoing process, and can’t be “placed in the nation’s trophy cabinet”, just yet. 

At the same time, it’s not too political a thing to appreciate the great peaceful achievement that is German unity. 

This is something that changed and impacted on many people’s day-to-day lives in both East and West Germany, more quickly than almost anyone had imagined. 

Dr Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan, a German native and a teaching associate of international human rights law at the University of Nottingham, said that the World Cup win in 1990 was a visceral symbol of all that had happened in the space of less than a year, which “amplified that we [were]together again, we are one nation again”.

“When Germany won the World Cup 1990 in Italy, it was massive. Germans felt it coincided… For me it was a great emotional upheaval – it was for many people.”

German fans in downtown Milan at the 1990 World Cup.


Dr Joachim Fischer is a German academic for the Centre for European Studies at the University of Limerick, who has lived in Ireland since 1984, when Germany was still divided. 

He said that at a recent event to mark 90 years of Irish-German diplomatic relations, he was asked about this topic: “Whenever somebody asks me about Irish unification, I say that in the summer of 1989, I would have said of German unification: ‘Not in my lifetime’. A year and a half later, both Germanys were unified.”

“I was a citizen of West Germany and I had never known anything different, I thought that was it, that was the world: a divided world.”

This is ‘not a blueprint’ for Ireland

Historian and political scientist Professor Rainer Eckert said in a Q&A with the Goethe Institute that circumstances in various countries “are so very different that Germany’s reunification cannot serve as a blueprint for other reunification processes”.

The India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir and the Hong Kong-China issue are two other ongoing conflicts that could be more relevant to debates on a shared or united Ireland as the situations are more easily comparable. But a key part of The Journal’s Good Information Project is not to create a “blueprint” for the process, and instead is to investigate the practical issues that should be considered, and the pros and cons of that process.

There are obvious differences between the debate in Ireland around a united island, and the reunification of Germany: these are almost more illustrative than the similarities.

A significant difference is that Ireland doesn’t have the communism-vs-capitalism, dictatorship-vs-democracy divide that Germany had.

But the current social divide that exists between east and west Germans now is an important lesson for the discussion on a ‘shared island’ here – it’s not as simple as taking down physical or bureaucratic barriers and uniting the two jurisdictions’ systems.

A Germany has no reason to celebrate banner on a railway bridge on the Day of German Unity 2020. Lower Saxony, Osnabrück.

Source: DPA/PA Images

What’s different: a concrete divide, no referendum

The divide through Germany and its capital Berlin, which was divvied up between the West and the Soviet Union with the aim of weakening Germany and stabilising it politically, is very different to the divide that exists on the island of Ireland.

The two governing bodies of each side were also very different: a communist dictatorship enforcing a surveillance state in the east, and a stable democracy in the west. Some east Germans who tried to escape to west Germany were arrested, others were killed or injured while trying to travel west.

Despite Northern Ireland being a separate jurisdiction on the island of Ireland, the Common Travel Area has allowed people to travel across the border freely.

“From my perspective,” Dr Fischer said, “I couldn’t really understand the situation in Northern Ireland because both areas were capitalist. But I understood ideological differences which seemed insurmountable. [For Germany], it turns out they were very easily surmountable, they were decided very quickly.”

Although there was a vote in the German parliament to ratify unification, there was no referendum, nor an official national discussion on how reunification should work: how it happened in practice was the former East was “swallowed” by the former West.

This is different to the requirement under the Good Friday Agreement that a referendum must be held in Northern Ireland and Ireland on the united Ireland question if unification is to happen.

The absence of a proper debate left some east Germans unhappy that some of what worked well under the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was not adopted in a unified Germany – such as free healthcare, childcare supports and labour laws that helped mothers return to their jobs after giving birth.

It’s been repeatedly argued that right-wing rhetoric has been allowed to fester among people who feel they’ve been left behind in the new Germany, but particularly in the east.

One of the clearest examples of this was in 2015, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed thousands of asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan into the country, amid a growing migration crisis faced by Europe. This prompted protests in Germany, most of which, and the largest of which, were concentrated in the former East.

Visit of the Soviet leader Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in June 1989.

Source: Sepp Spiegel/Ropi

What originally sparked a reunification process in a divided Germany was a mixture of factors converging at the right time: Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev concluded that the reunification of Germany was inevitable (and is still highly regarded in Germany as a result); the tumultuous 40 year ‘anniversary’ of the GDR happened in 1989; and opposition to the oppressive regime in the former east all accelerated talks of unifying Germany.

Dr Joachim Fischer said that the economic situation in a “bankrupt” East Germany had been deteriorating from year to year, and mounting dissatisfaction grew with this.

“They had the immediate comparison: they watched the West German television. They saw how much better life was in the West and, in contrast, their own life was deteriorating.

“Ultimately, I think it was the huge economic disparity between the two systems that made East Germany collapse like a house of cards,” Dr Fischer said, adding that if the economic situation in Northern Ireland deteriorates post-Brexit, and if Ireland improves, it may create a comparable scenario.

Liepzig’s Festival of Lights in 2019 at the Augustusplatz, commemorating the peaceful demonstrations in 1989 and 1990.

Source: DPA/PA Images

East Germans were not only unhappy with the economic state of the GDR, they saw the quality of life in the West, and wanted greater freedoms for themselves.

On Monday 9 October 1989, 70,000 east German demonstrators marched in Leipzig to St Nicholas’ Church calling for greater freedoms and democracy, and continued every Monday until the spring of 1990. 

These spread to regular demonstrations in other cities, resulting in some protesters being arrested or beaten by the state security service, the Stasi.

Despite this threat, the demonstrations continued. The largest gatherings were on 4 November at the Alexanderplatz square in Berlin, and 11 November in Leipzig, each with around 500,000 protesters attending.

This is known as ‘Die Wende’ or the turning point, a peaceful precursor to reunification.

The interior of the Nikolaikirche, or St Nicholas’ Church, is illuminated by projectors ahead of 2019 commemorations of the peaceful protests in autumn 1989.

Source: DPA/PA Images

The collective memory of this, however, has played into some dissatisfaction of east Germans now, as a report by Bertelsmann Stiftung found:

“In the standardised survey, 71% of eastern Germans, but only 48% of western Germans, were of the opinion that eastern Germans deserve more recognition for bringing about the peaceful ‘Wende’. At the same time, the eastern German interviewees indicated that they had had to bear a disproportionate share of the burdens associated with unification – for example in the form of higher unemployment rates and lower wage and pension levels.”

What’s the same: A shared history, yearning, and what’s in a name?

Dr Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan wrote in The Journal earlier this year that there was a certain ‘Sehnsucht’, meaning yearning, for German reunification by 1990. 

‘Sucht‘ is an obsession, or an addiction rather, so ‘an addiction to yearning’. And I noticed that among Irish people this interest, that went far beyond interest [of people wanting unity]. It’s something I’ve noticed over the last eight years.”

 This yearning for unity in Ireland can be seen often in cultural areas like social media posts and humour, but also more explicitly in recent polls which have indicated support for Irish unity; for example, in last year’s exit poll after the general election that indicated 57% would like a border poll to be held. Since Brexit, support for the prospect of a united Ireland has seen spikes of increase in support, and discussions of a united Ireland have increased among the public and politicians.

Director of the Forum of Contemporary History in Leipzig Professor Rainer Eckert said that there was also a yearning for peace in Germany, and a collective need afterwards to remember the past in an appropriate way – which will sound familiar to Irish ears.

Jared Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who analysed conflicts around the world, said that a shared language, culture and folk stories helped to unite two warring peoples in Finland following their brutal civil war.

This is an important factor in resolving civil war conflicts and unifying regions, he argued, as it gives people something to rally around.

The word we stands as part of the open-air exhibition EinheitsEXPO in Potsdam.

Source: DPA/PA Images

Dr Fischer said that the similarities between the two halves of Germany may have been underestimated ahead of unification.

“We probably underestimated the similarity of the two. Of course, culturally, we came from the same same background – maybe that was partly why integration happened so relatively smoothly in all levels, except the economic one.”

Similar to the debate about what to refer to Northern Ireland now – the North, the north of Ireland, a state, a region, a jurisdiction, etc – there was also a sensitivity around the wording of the process for Germany’s ‘reunification’ – the treaty underpinning the process refers to it only as ‘German unity’ and not ‘reunification’. Even now, Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s ‘Shared Island Unit’ is a softer phrasing of a possible ‘unity’ process between North and South.

The sensitivities around commemorating the past is also something Germany has had to grapple with – and set up a committee in order to do so sensitively. 

Another similarity is that West Germany, at a legal level, didn’t entirely accept that it was a divided state – through not having a complete constitution. Article 146 of its ‘Basic Law’ said that a new constitution would be “constituted by the free, united people of Germany” after reunification.

“And why did we do that? Because we had the distant hope that at some point in history, east and west will unite. And we thought ‘we will replace this basic law with a common constitution when reunification happens’,” Dr Ananthavinayagan said.

Bunreacht na hÉireann doesn’t acknowledge a partition on the island of Ireland: it only acknowledges that any laws passed by the Oireachtas would apply to the 26 counties, and that this was only “pending the re-integration of the national territory”.

The policies behind German unity

When merging two systems as part of unification, there was a transition period where officials and executives from West Germany were appointed in senior positions in East German State systems to implement a new way of doing things.

When West Germans came to take over political and administrative leading positions, they were called ‘Besser-Wessis’, or ‘know-it-alls’, which literally means ‘better westerners’.

In universities, there were mass redundancies and job losses. This was particularly seismic in the education sector, as many lecturers were teaching an ideology that wasn’t as relevant to the State anymore.

“I was amazed how quickly everything changed, how quickly everything developed,” Dr Fischer said of his visits to East Germany, shortly after reunification. “It was pretty basic – there weren’t any hotels – but infrastructure went up very quickly.”

The currency: The economic and social policies of the unification treaty came into effect on 1 July 1990. This included a decision to exchange the weak Ostmark to the stable Deutsche Mark, at a generous rate of 1:1.

This sent the savings of East Germans soaring, which was the intention – but also led to price increases that put businesses in the East under severe pressure.

The ‘Treuhand’ was established to reprivatise around 12,000 East German businesses. This, and the currency change, led to challenges for East German businesses, and resulted in significant job losses: unemployment was as high as 20% in the East in 1993.

Solidarity tax: A solidarity tax, calculated as 5.5% of a person’s income tax, was levied on German workers from 1991 to pay for unity, and generated around €18.9 billion in 2018. Last year, on the 30th anniversary of unification, Germany ended the ‘Soli-Zuschlag’ for the majority of its tax-paying population.

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In total, German reunification is thought to have cost at least €2 trillion.

A black-red-golden heart with the inscription ’30 years’ in Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg.

Source: DPA/PA Images

Dr Fischer said that the cost of German unity is not currently an issue, as the German economy is fairing well. But he said it became a “big issue” in the early 2000s when cuts to the social welfare state were made.

He said that this was the result of the massive burden of supporting a near-bankrupt region of 17 million people, who were formerly under a communist system: “Germany would probably have been the only country in Europe, perhaps in the world, that could have managed it.”

He said the fact that Northern Ireland and Ireland are both capitalist regions wouldn’t pose the same problems: “The economic difference would be solved within a few years, I have no doubt. It would work out very well for both parts of Ireland.”

What remains: Divides between east and west

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaks at the anniversary celebration of 30 years of ‘Deutsche Gesellschaft’, a group aiming to overcome the division of Germany.

Source: DPA/PA Images

The 30-year anniversary of German unity last year taught us the extent to which there is still a divide between the people of the east and west, which points to how socio-economic issues could remain divisive even if Ireland does become a shared island.

The Economist graphed whether mothers in Germany were more likely to work full-time or part-time: it found that east German women with children are still far more likely to work full time – most likely a lingering expectation from the communist regime. Average incomes were lower in the east than in west Germany, and this hasn’t changed 30 years on from reunification, with a pay gap as high as 17%-26%.

Almost all east Germans have been to the west, while every fifth west German has never been to the east. Though millions migrated from east to west after the walls were torn down, more Germans are now heading eastwards again where rents and housing are cheaper.

Analysis of Germany’s 2017 parliamentary election by the Financial Times found that Merkel’s CDU party had its greatest losses in the east, where the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) made significant gains.

The left also lost some ground in 2017 in every former East Germany area, while it made modest gains in across the former west – another hangover from the communist regime. This pattern was the exact same in the capital. Most interestingly, young east Germans still feel they have an ‘east’ identity, despite not having lived during the reign of the East German state.

This may be to do with the fact that the time the two regions spent divided is still greater than the time since it has been unified. But there are some obvious differences still in existence too, as Valerie Schönian says, author of a book called ‘Ostbewusstsein’, or East Consciousness:

We have even grown up in a different environment. The pavements are different. The horizon, with the East German tower blocks, looks different. What we think is beautiful is different. 

Dr Thamil Ananthavinayagan says that in the past 10-15 years, there has been a rise of ‘Ostalgie’, or ‘east nostalgia’.

“East Germany wanted to show that they are superior to the west, and they wanted to show that the communist system is so progressive in terms of family laws, abortion, in terms of the employment of women, free creche systems, free healthcare. So some people still have this east-algia about how good the system was.”

“Until today, we still call east Germans Ossis, and the west Germans Wessis, and it’s meant in a derogatory form.” 

CDU MP and east German Philipp Amthor has argued that there is a divide, but it’s not between East and West, and instead between “hip, urban centres, and people attached to their homeland in structurally weak rural regions”.

This echoes the thoughts of the German President, who said in a speech last year: “Bavarians, coastal residents, East Germans have their own self-confidence. Rural dwellers think differently than city dwellers.

“Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists are part of our country. Ossis and Wessis still exist, but this distinction is no longer the decisive one for many.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.


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