GERMANY marked a quarter-century as a reunited nation yesterday, with two leaders from the formerly communist East heading a country that increasingly asserts itself as Europe’s political heavyweight – and now faces a new challenge from a refugee influx that will demand deep reserves of resourcefulness and patience.
West and East Germany united on 3 October, 1990, capping a process that started less than 11 months earlier when the East’s communist leadership opened the Berlin Wall under pressure from massive demonstrations. Evening out the differences between East and West has been a far slower process, and some inequalities persist even now.
On the whole, however, “things worked out well – so many people pitched in, showed verve, began to learn new jobs,” Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the East and entered politics as communism fell, said in a video message before the anniversary. Joachim Gauck, Germany’s president since 2012, is another from the East, a former pastor and pro- democracy activist.
Since reunification, some ¤1.5-2 trillion have been funneled into the East to help bring the region up to speed after its outmoded industry collapsed. A steady post-1990 drain of people from east to west appears finally to have been stemmed, with more people moving east than the other way for the first time in 2013.
Even though unemployment remains higher in the east than the west – at 8.7 per cent compared with 5.6 per cent – the gap has narrowed. Former chancellor Helmut Kohl’s promise to East Germans that they would live in “blooming landscapes” no longer looks far-fetched.
“This is true for many parts of former East Germany,” said German historian Heinrich August Winkler. “The beautiful countryside of the Mecklenburg lake district, and the Baltic Coast, as well as the cleanup of the polluted industrial areas in Saxony and elsewhere, a lot has happened there.”
He added: “The economic disparity between east and west is also a lot lower than it used to be. But that’s no reason to be smug. The absence of large, productive companies in eastern Germany shows that a lot more could be done.”
Those concerns apart, Germany has cemented its place as Europe’s biggest economy and, in the past few years, has shown increasing ambition as a political and diplomatic heavyweight.
Merkel has been a leading advocate of the reforms and spending cuts demanded of countries such as Greece in exchange for aid in Europe’s debt crisis. On the diplomatic front, she and her government have played a leading part in tackling the crisis over Russia’s actions in Ukraine – after years of being perceived as balking at a front-row role.
Last year Gauck said that Germany should make an earlier and more decisive contribution to preventing conflicts and “must also be ready to do more to guarantee the security that others have provided it with for decades.”
This year, Germany has sought to take the lead – so far with little success – in persuading Europe to embrace the task of taking in refugees from Syria and elsewhere and sharing the burden. The flow of people to Germany, a favoured destination, gathered pace last month when Merkel decided to allow in migrants who had piled up in Hungary.
She is sticking to a confident message that Germany will cope, as authorities struggle to keep tabs on the newcomers and house them. Officials expect at least 800,000 to arrive this year, although not all will be allowed to stay.
The job of integrating them into society and the workforce lies ahead, and Merkel says memories of reunification could help.