United Germany at 25

Hope M. Harrison

The George Washington University

Hope M. Harrison is Professor of History and International Affairs at The George Washington University. She is the author of 2 books about the Berlin Wall: After the Berlin Wall: Memory and the Making of the New Germany, 1989 to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and Driving the Soviet up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961 (Princeton University Press, 2003).

AGI is pleased to present this collection of essays reflecting on the 25th anniversary of German unification in October 2015. We are grateful to those who have contributed to this collection, all of whom have been affiliated with and supported the Institute in many different capacities. These essays leave us with thoughts not only about the past, but also about the future of German-American relations. Be sure to check back throughout the week for additional insights.

When Germany’s leaders gather on October 3 for the 25th anniversary of German unification, they will celebrate the progress they have made in integrating the eastern and western parts of the country and will likely also speak of the work still to be done in the ongoing process of unification. If last year’s festivities surrounding the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall are any indication, they will also praise the courageous East Germans for their Peaceful Revolution of 1989-90 and draw attention to the vast changes people in the east have experienced in transitioning into a very different system in the Federal Republic of Germany.

A quarter century after unification, a broad majority of Germans believe that unification has been a success, although there are variations in attitudes based on background, age, and location. More than 75 percent of Germans in the eastern states have positive views of unification, whereas 48 percent of those in the west do. Among those over the age of 55 across the country, over one quarter believe unification was a mistake. Younger people are much more positive, with only 8 percent of those between 18 and 24 years old holding this view. Bavarians are the most critical of unification, with 29 percent believing it was a mistake.[1] Western criticism comes primarily from the fact that since unification, roughly €2 trillion has been invested in the eastern part of the country to modernize the infrastructure, renovate cities and towns, clean up the environment, re-train workers, and expand educational opportunities, leading to resentment that more resources are not being directed to struggling cities and towns in the west. Productivity, per capita GDP, and life expectancy rates have all increased in the east with unification, although wage levels continue to be more than 15 percent lower in the east and unemployment remains roughly 3 percent higher[2] (a significant improvement, however, over previous periods when unemployment in the east was almost three times that of the west).

Perhaps not surprising after more than 40 years of division, there remain some important differences in political views between east and west, particularly for people above the age of 30. While almost 75 percent of western Germans feel politically at home in united Germany, barely 50 percent of eastern Germans do (although the numbers are much higher for younger eastern Germans).[3] The majority of eastern Germans do not want a return of the GDR, but 19 percent of them think that its political system was better than that of united Germany. No doubt still feeling the effects of the Nazi past, Germans from east and west agree that they do not want Germany to play a major role on the world stage (in spite of the fact that it has been doing just that in the Greek crisis, the Russian-Ukrainian war, and the summer 2015 immigration crisis), but they disagree about whether ties with the U.S. or Russia are more important. Drawing on historical experience, a majority of western Germans believes that ties to the U.S. are more important than those with Russia, while a majority of eastern Germans favors ties with Russia.[4] Germans in the east are also much less trusting of democracy and capitalism than their western counterparts.

The successor party to the former East German ruling Socialist Unity Party, die Linke, is now the third largest party in the country and in the 2013 federal elections gained between one-fifth and one-quarter of the votes in the eastern states compared with single-digit percentages in the western states. Since 2014, for the first time die Linke holds the top post in a state government, with Thuringia’s Minister-President Bodo Ramelow leading a Red-Red-Green coalition. Right-wing, anti-immigrant parties (ranging from the NPD to PEGIDA) also are more popular in the east than the west, although they have a foothold in the west as well. In light of some of the recent attacks on refugees in eastern Germany, however, it is also important to keep in mind that many former East Germans who had fled to West Germany are now reaching out to help the new refugees, paying their gratitude forward.

Twenty-five years ago, it would have been hard for many Germans to imagine that in 2015, the German chancellor and president would both be from the former East Germany and that Germany would be the central power in Europe. In recent years, German leaders have demonstrated a far greater willingness to speak of their pride in Germany than was the case for many decades. Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Joachim Gauck, and other leaders have increasingly highlighted with pride the role of courageous East Germans in taking to the streets in the fall of 1989 with a Peaceful Revolution that brought down the communist regime and led to German unification, thus placing Germany in the community of nations with democratic revolutions as founding moments.[5] Wanting to draw attention to this positive part of German history, the Bundestag voted in 2007 to sponsor the construction of a Freedom and Unity Monument in Berlin to be ready for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall in 2009. Yet differences about what the monument should reflect, where it should be located, and logistical complications mean that on the 25th anniversary of German unification, construction of the monument has still not begun. The first vote in the Bundestag on such a monument had failed in 2001 partly because some lawmakers argued that the decision to build the monument would erroneously imply that the process of uniting Germany had been completed. Perhaps more progress in bringing the east even closer to western standards over the next five years will be accompanied by a dedication of the Freedom and Unity Monument for the 30th anniversary of unification.

Hope M. Harrison is Associate Dean for Research and Associate Professor of History & International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School.


[1] Christoph Asche, “Mauerfall: Fast jeder vierte Deutsche halt die Wiedervereinigung für einen Fehler,” The Huffington Post, 13 August 2015.

[2] “In diesen sieben Punkten schönt die Regierung die Deutsche Einheit,” Focus.de, 25 September 2014. See also the survey carried out by the Berlin-Institut für Bevölkerung und Entwicklung, “So geht Einheit. Wie weit das einst geteilte Deutschland zusammengewachsen ist” (July 2015), http://www.berlin-institut.org/publikationen/studien/so-geht-einheit.html

[3] Zentrum für Sozialforschung Halle e.V. an der Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, “Deutschland 2014. 25 Jahre Friedliche Revolution und Deutsche Einheit—öffentliche Vorstellung der Ergebnisse eines Forschungsprojekts ‘Sind wir ein Volk?’” (Die Beauftrage der Bundesergierung für die neuen Bundesländer, Februar 2015).

[4] Pew Research Center, Global Attitudes and Trends, “Germany and the United States: Reliable Allies. But disagreement on Russia, Global Leadership and Trade,” 7 May 2015.

[5] Hope M. Harrison, “From Shame to Pride: The Fall of the Berlin Wall through German Eyes,” The Wilson Quarterly (Fall 2014), http://wilsonquarterly.com/quarterly/summer-2014-1989-and-the-making-of-our-modern-world/from-shame-pride-fall-berlin-wall-through-german-eyes/


The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.