Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Rocky Road To Reunification

I have often wondered how outsiders viewed German reunification, those who never lived in either West or East Germany. What did it look like to you? How did you envision the merging of 63 millions West Germans with 16 million East Germans after four decades of forced cultural and political separation? Did it look like 40 years of cultural divergence was erased during those magical days in Berlin in November 1989, during Mauerfall (fall of the wall)? Did anyone anticipate the impending culture clashes that swiftly engulfed neighboring countries over national identity issues as old as Europe itself?

At the time, my joy that Mauerfall had corrected a great wrong in this world and my youthful focus on wanting to shake up the status quo of German division rarely had me contemplate the larger ramifications. I never envisioned reunification to be a likely consequence of giving East Germans the same freedoms West Germans took for granted. Contemplating a post-Mauerfall future, I envisioned two Germanies, with both populations living in freedom, yet maintaining separate national identities that I expected would likely take a few generations to reconcile. At least that seemed like a prudent way to think about it.

What actually happened was much closer to an expansion into five East German states that increased West Germany's territory by 45% while increasing its population of roughly 60 million by 25%. As a point of reference, reunified Germany is about the size of Ohio. In 1990, the combined population of both Germanies was 75 million. Today it is about 80 million.

One way to frame this is as an exercise in aggressive assimilation that wrested the option of becoming a sovereign country from East Germans before they, as a nation, even understood what that meant. With a certain amount of unease, West Germany's western neighbors were left to witness an accelerating reunification and structured assimilation process that took about a year to run its course. In December 1990, Germany held its first all-German free elections since the Nazi era.  

It may seem that these elections marked the most important event in formalizing newly established ties between countries and peoples that had been forced to live apart for decades. Alas this was West Germany - Europe's powerhouse economy! A more critical step than all-German free elections came in the form of East Germany's adoption of the West German currency, Deutschmark, six months prior to the first all-German elections. It was a solid currency at the time, while East Germany's was worthless.

"Adoption" in this case is misleading. There was no governing body in East Germany that could have administered such a move, much less financed it. Currency unification was a bailout. For a short time during the summer of 1990, East German currency could be exchanged 1:1 for Deutschmark at West German financial institutions. The strain on West Germany's economy was severe and foreshadowed the exorbitant price tag Germans would pay to be(come) one country again. 

The argument was that most of those Deutschmarks exchanged for East German currency would go right back into the West Germany economy. Did they ever! The unprecedented currency exchange program almost instantly caused shortages of consumer goods and groceries to an extent that made the initial days and weeks after Mauerfall look like a minor supply-and-demand glitch. It probably caused bad flashbacks to post-WWII shortages in older Germans. These shortages were felt most acutely by West Germans living closest to East Germany, or, in the case of West Berlin, IN it.

Almost all West Germans were affected by them, one way or another, as East Germans for the first time ever, went shopping, en masse. For many months after July 1990, it was all but impossible to find used cars for sale in West Germany. Or used appliances, furniture and other durable goods. Second-hand markets thrived in West Germany for products known for their quality and longevity. These markets were struggling to restock inventory long enough that a sizable number of West Germans began to realize that the road ahead would be rougher than anything West Germans had navigated to date, paved with resentment, contention, competition, economic hardship and all-around cultural upheaval.

It was also a time of jaw-dropping learning experiences. People on both sides came together in wonder, sharing life stories and ideas, creating new opportunities, new lives and a new future.

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