The collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet Union two years later represented such a pronounced turning point in the history of the twentieth century that many spoke of the end of an era. The British historian Eric J. Hobsbawm paid proper homage to the significance of these events when he christened the twentieth century the “short century” and limited it to the years 1914 to 1991 (1). The watershed years from 1989 to 1991 saw not only the downfall of Communism as an alternative system of rule in Europe, but also the end of the Cold War, which had split Germany, Europe, and, indeed, the whole world into enemy camps shortly after the Second World War. The events of these years reverberated throughout the rest of the world as well: democratic liberation movements were given new impetuses, and, in terms of significance, some observers put the upheavals of 1989 on a par with the French Revolution, which had taken place exactly two centuries earlier. There was talk of the “era of democracy” and of the end of history as shaped by competing ideologies. The triumphal procession of liberal democracy had supposedly gotten under way (2).
But the euphoria was short-lived. Without the balancing force of the Cold War, the international system began to totter, and existing hostilities were joined by new armed conflicts from Yugoslavia to Zaire. International terrorism assumed new forms, and some societies crumbled under the challenges of democratization. What had been established in previous decades as “the West” – including its systems of alliances, NATO and the European Union (EU) – had (and still has) to adapt to these new conditions, a process not without difficulties (3). When it came time to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the events of 1989, hardly anyone was still thinking about the peaceful revolutions that had thrilled the world a decade earlier; but their historical significance remains nonetheless (4).
As a central power in the heart of Europe, Germany played a key role in this so-called short century. In the first half of the twentieth century, when radical systemic changes – from the Kaiserreich to the Weimar Republic, and finally, to the Third Reich – were determining factors on the national level, Germany branded itself internationally through expansionist wars and the systematic mass murder of millions of people. In the second half of the twentieth century, Germany was the place where the Cold War began and ended; it was a place that occupied a special position on the frontline between two competing ideological systems. The division of Germany into separate states was symbolic of this larger divide. The implosion of the Communist system of rule in Central and Eastern Europe allowed Germany to reconstitute itself as a single nation-state within universally accepted postwar borders – an event that many had already written off as a pipe dream. At the same time, the historical watershed of 1989-1991 also entailed new adjustments in international politics.
Initially, the unification of Germany in October 1990 generated a variety of contradictory responses and expectations. For some, it conjured up old fears of German “special paths” [Sonderwege] and of renewed German dominance in Europe. Others, however, saw it as a chance for Germany to be recognized in the international community as a “normal” state like any other. As a result, the whole world was interested in seeing how Germany would develop. At first, however, the country was preoccupied with the challenges of unification. The transfer of the Federal Republic's political, economic, and social systems onto the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) proved longer and more difficult than expected and revealed points of mental and cultural friction between East and West. The economic challenges of unification delayed the introduction of economic and social reforms that had been called for in West Germany since the 1980s but repeatedly put off, making them all the more urgent and difficult to implement (5).
(1) Eric J. Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes. The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London, 1995).
(2) Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York, 1992).
(3) Gunter Hofmann, Familienbande. Die Politisierung Europas (Munich, 2005); Timothy Garton Ash, Free World. America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West (New York, 2004).
(4) Aleksander Smolar, “History and Memory: The Revolutions of 1989-1991,” Journal of Democracy 12, 3 (July 2001), pp. 5-19.
(5) Gerhard A. Ritter, Der Preis der deutschen Einheit. Die Wiedervereinigung und die Krise des Sozialstaates (Munich, 2006).