The euphoria over the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the SED regime turned into disappointment more quickly than anyone had expected. Within a short period of time, GDR citizens were confronted with the complete restructuring of both their economy and their political system. Furthermore, this double transformation was overseen by West Germany. The Federal Republic’s role in the process gave rise to hopes for a swift and successful transition, but once the difficulties of such a transformation became clear, the Federal Republic also became the target of criticism.
Above all, the circumstances of the economic transformation contributed to the “unification shock” that accompanied the initial years of unity. The precipitous transition from a planned to a market economy and the entry into global competition had far-reaching ramifications that affected all citizens. The privatization of the nationalized economy was first set in motion by the transitional East German government, but it only really picked up speed after reunification in October 1990. Under the leadership of the Treuhandanstalt [Trusteeship Agency], more than 95 percent of industry was privatized by the end of 1994 or handed over to local governments, but thousands of enterprises were labeled unsuitable for restructuring and thus liquidated. The number of jobs in the eastern part of Germany fell from over four million to less than half that number. The Treuhand’s restructuring and liquidation strategies came under intense criticism and prompted repeated strikes. Defenders of the Treuhand pointed out that the agency had worked effectively and efficiently under difficult conditions.
Political protests, however, were not solely responsible for delays in the privatization of some industrial enterprises. The situation was further complicated by the expropriations that had been carried out first in the Soviet Zone of Occupation and later in the GDR, since they frequently left ownership rights unclear. The principle of “restitution before compensation,” which was laid down by the governments of the GDR and the Federal Republic as early as 1990, caused many citizens considerable anxiety and left them fearing for their property and their livelihood. Expropriations carried out under the Soviet occupying power (1945-1949), unlike those under the GDR regime, were not reversed, and these cases occupied the courts until 2005. Time and again, the political conflict that accompanied the restructuring of the economy and the restitution of property revealed both presumed and real tensions between East and West.
The phrase “unification crisis” was coined as early as 1991. While many citizens of the former GDR hoped for a rapid adaptation to West German economic and social standards, most West Germans assumed that reunification would barely affect them. These hopes and expectations proved false and, along with various political mistakes, contributed to widening the gulf between East and West. For many former East German citizens, criticism of the West increasingly turned into demarcation from the West, and the mental differences between East and West were accentuated in an effort to explain East-West differences. Amidst the general wave of disappointment and disillusionment, voices that emphasized progress in the unification of Germany tended to be rare.
Beginning in the mid-nineties, the emotional aspects of “unification shock” gave way to more sober assessments. However, since the economic, social, and political aftereffects of unification are still being felt, old resentments and problems continue to flare up. Many see themselves as the losers of unification, even when they used the chance to make a fresh start. Still, despite all the problems that have followed in the wake of unification, a large and growing majority of the population in East and West endorses it. Opinion surveys also reveal that those polled generally assess their personal situation more positively than they do the general state of the country.
Economically, the East continues to lag behind the West and depends on government funds. The “blooming landscapes” that Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised did not materialize. The economic stagnation in East Germany is particularly critical, since it occurred despite the transfer of state subsidies totaling more than a billion Euro. Unemployment rates in the new states are consistently high, and young people, in particular, are migrating from the East to West. In view of the precarious economic situation in some parts of the former GDR, many citizens find the reforms of the welfare state and the labor market that began under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder particularly threatening. New ideas and approaches for dealing with unification issues focus chiefly on how to improve the economic rebuilding of the East.
In the 21st century, news media generally mention the topic of German unity only on special occasions, like the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Day of German Unity. The waning interest in East-West themes not only has to do with a certain unification fatigue, but also and above all with the fact that Germany’s most critical problems today – like demographic change, the restructuring of the economic and social welfare systems, the future of the European Union – affect East and West in equal measure.