November 09, 2019
Thirty years after the Berlin Wall fell, a power divide remains in GermanyRoundup
tags: Germany, democracy, BERLIN WALL
Elena Souris is a Research Associate for the Political Reform program. At New America, she conducts research, writes articles and policy papers, and contributes to program management. She has done work on national security and far-right hate groups, German and European politics, U.S. foreign policy, and civic engagement. Souris has written for the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Vox, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Pacific Standard, and the Washington Monthly.
Thirty years ago today, the Berlin Wall fell. East Germans freely crossed the border for the first time in 28 years. That night — Nov. 9, 1989 — began the reunification of the socialist, authoritarian German Democratic Republic of the east and the capitalist, democratic west under liberal democracy.
But reunification was a largely western-led process, one with a huge power imbalance between the western states and the eastern “new federal states.” As a result — historically and today — eastern Germans have often been underrepresented in politics. And even when they are politically represented, easterners often lack substantive representation, meaning their concerns about issues such as infrastructure, unemployment and lower quality of life aren’t always prioritized in political agendas or policymaking.
Some eastern Germans, including Chancellor Angela Merkel and former president Joachim Gauck, have been extremely successful in contemporary German politics. But for the region as a whole, reunification may have institutionalized this power imbalance — with major consequences for Germany’s democracy. Not only might this feed the lower satisfaction with democracy among easterners, but it may also fuel the bitterness that the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party (AfD) has used to gain recent electoral wins. And, of course, the rising political power of the far right is deeply unsettling, given Germany’s history.
On Aug. 23, 1990, the East German legislature adopted the federal constitution by a two-thirds majority. The western German system replaced all eastern legal, political and economic institutions. Overnight, easterners suddenly lived in what had become a foreign country.
After their government’s collapse, the economy in Germany’s east urgently needed stability. In 1990, economists expected that over three-fourths of eastern companies wouldn’t have the infrastructure, resources or business know-how to compete in a global, capitalist market and that 45 percent of the eastern German workforce would become unemployed.
Then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised a quick political solution and an economic miracle. To stabilize the economy — and to stifle a leadership challenge within his party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — Kohl simplified reunification, avoiding time-intensive options requiring broad consensus-building, such as negotiating a new constitution. Many easterners agreed, supporting Kohl’s CDU with over 40 percent of the vote in a March 1990 parliamentary election, a 21.2-percentage-point preference over the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which had put forth a platform advocating slow reunification.
Though they voted for this government, easterners remained underrepresented. Only 19 percent of the new parliament after the first national elections in December 1990 came from the east, even though eastern Germans constituted 25 percent of the population. Beyond the parliament, western Germans also largely retained administrative positions, leaving eastern Germans less represented in the unified government.