Berlin: Turbulence After Unification

By Lewis Clark

When the Nazi regime collapsed in 1945 and Germany was occupied by Soviet, British, French and American armed forces the Potsdam Agreement determined four zones of occupation.[1] This led to Germany, and then Berlin following the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, being divided between the East and West.[2] The movement for the reunification of East and West Germany precipitated in 1989 with the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, and in 1990 Prime Minister Modrow put forward his proposals with a precondition for a united neutral Germany.[3] This reunification had vast implications and provided challenges for both Germany as a state and the City of Berlin itself, which was, arguably, the city most affected  by the division of Germany.. The three key challenges outlined in this essay are the ‘Capital Debate’, ‘Socio-Economic’ challenges, and finally, the prosecution of the GDR border guards. The ‘Capital Debate’, or Bonn versus Berlin for the nation’s capital, which David Clay Large declared the most contentious issue raised by the unification of Germany, is of importance because it appears to have actually held up of the process of unification and provided further tensions between East and West post1990.[4] Secondly, after unification Germany was challenged with the task of converging East and West Germany, both socially and economically.

This proved to be particularly difficult and involved heavy spending across the recently removed borders.[5] In addition to this heavy economic burden, the new unified German state faced problems of immigration and asylum seekers.[6] Finally, the challenge of persecuting the GDR border guards caused much controversy.[7] It challenged the Basic Law of the German state and created further tensions between the recently united East and West.  To contextualise and collate the points above, the issue of ‘Unification in Reality’ should also be addressed.


‘The Capital Debate’ Bonn versus Berlin 1991


As stated above, according to David C. Large, the most contentious issue raised by the unification of Germany involved the location of the new nation’s seat of government. [8] Should the principal power base remain in Bonn or move to Berlin? Technically, such a question should never have arisen at all, for according to an early parliamentary resolution governmental power was supposed to return to Berlin once political conditions permitted, with Bonn simply acting as a ‘de facto’ seat of power.[9] However, many West Germans had become content with Bonn as their seat of government and had no desire to see Berlin receive its earlier status of Capital.[10] Bonn had brought safety and prosperity, they argued, while Berlin had brought nothing but war and misery.[11] The ‘Bonners’ drew heavily on Berlin’s tainted history, discussing Prussia and the National Socialist regime, which had very little effect on Bonn as the smaller Western city.[12] Soon, however, the Berliner’s mounted a counter-attack, orchestrated by lobby group “Berlin as Capital”, which depicted the metropolis as a historic repository of liberty and tolerance, a refuge for unorthodox thinkers, and a bastion against  authoritarianism, arguing that Berlin was never truly Nazified.[13]

It is clear that this debate over the seat of government of Germany following unification was a challenge. Tensions were still strong between those of the East and those of the West. Ideological differences played a part, with those of the former GDR feeling disillusioned at the thought of the new state’s Capital being placed so far from the border. Such a view is supported by the words of Chancellor Kohl, who stated that for the East to be successfully integrated in to the Federal Republic, Germany’s Capital would have to be located in the ‘Spree City’.[14] Such a view was furthered by President Von Weizsacker, who stated; “Only in Berlin do we come from both sides but truly stand as one”.[15] Berlin was truly a divided City, with the Berlin Wall splitting it, leaving a “no-man’s land” in the middle. Thus, it seemed the right location for the Capital as it represented the adversity of the German nation and a conquering of the divisions that plagued it between 1945 and 1989, while Bonn represented such a division. Thus, the social problems caused by the Capital Debate of 1991 are clear. The West wanted to keep the principal of power in Bonn, due to the security it provided through the tough years of 1945-1989, while those of the former GDR wanted Berlin to remain as their capital.[16] Eventually, the decision rested with those in power, and with the support of Kohl and his  like, Berlin won by a margin of 18 votes,  the vote finishing at 338 votes to 320.[17] Accordingly, one may suggest that the tensions that developed following this decision are in some way related to the closeness of the vote, which would imply many people, mostly Westerners, felt discontent with the decision to move the seat of government.

In addition to the social problems the capital debate caused, this debate caused economic difficulties. Many Bonn advocates based their campaign on the high costs such a move would entail. The Christian Social Union (CSU) politician Theodor Waigel, for example, estimated a move to Berlin would cost between 30 to 40 million Deutsche Marks.[18] Given all the challenges the new nation faced just recent unification, was it wise to move the seat of government?[19]


Socio-Economic Challenges


The long term consequential damages of both the division of Germany and of unification were consistently downplayed by the new government.[20] The unimaginable financial burdens of a unified Germany, caused by the diverging and unbalanced orientations of the two social and economic systems, initially went unnoticed in the euphoria of the unification of 1990. It soon become clear, however, that the transformation of the GDR’s economy, together with its housing, roads, waterways, and communication links, as well as the reorganization of public institutions in the health and social area, presented the new Federal Republic with a heavy burden.[21]

As early as May 1990 the new German state and its Federal Lander (states) agreed on a ‘Fund for German Unity’ from which the new Lander would receive just under 161 billion DM in total up to 1994.[22] Already a huge amount of money, it soon became clear that this would not be sufficient in dealing with the production deficits and structural problems of the East German economy.[23] A joint programme for Eastern regeneration was set up in 1991 to coordinate the aid measures, handing out nearly 25 billion DM in 1991-92 for East Germany to enable modernization of local institutions such as hospitals, churches, schools and universities. The aim was to reduce the obstacles to investment and to narrow the gap in productivity of the former GDR economy.[24] One can show that incredibly large sums of money were raised for financing the new Federal Lander, estimated at around 812 billion DM between 1991 and 1995. Despite this considerable effort, this was still not enough for the modernization and reorganisation of East Germany.[25] The vast scale of the economic burden that faced the West becomes apparent here. This problem of the modernization of institutions applies to Berlin whole-heartedly. When the wall came down the ‘spree-city’ was still divided in terms of institutions, communication links, and architecture. Thus, Berlin as a city had to attempt to overcome this practical division in the face of reunification.

Such economic challenges continued to face Germany and Berlin as the ‘Treuhand’ was set up in order to transform the centralised state planned economy of the GDR into a capitalist economy. In spite of the Treuhand’s best attempts to transform the ex-GDR, suspicion soon grew.[26] In the Federal Lander people started to suggest that the Treuhand had deliberately sought to damage the East German economy and ‘flattened the lot’ so as not to allow an alternative political system to capitalism to arise in the first place.[27] This clearly demonstrates that there were still political tensions and differences between the East and West. The East was beginning to feel disillusioned with the Western system as they faced new challenges themselves, in the form of unemployment.

Mass unemployment in the new Federal Lander, something unknown in the previous GDR, darkened the mood in the East of Germany. Economic collapse was a sobering experience, and the euphoria of unity soon dissipated.[28] The full employment policy of the GDR set the initial unemployment figure at an unsustainably low level.[29] During the opening quarter of the German economic and monetary union of 1990 the unemployment rate was just 3.5%, which was the 2.9% lower than the West. Eastern unemployment surged quickly, however, and by the fourth quarter of 1990 the two rates converged at 6.1%. This figure continued to increase, and reached 11% in the final quarter of 1990, while the West stood at only 5.7% unemployment.[30] The problem of unemployment went hand in hand with the economic problems discussed previously, with regards to the Treuhand. Eastern Germans became increasingly discontented with the new system, that seemed to favour their Western cousins, and saw themselves being disadvantaged at the hand of the new capitalist system. As a result, many Germans became sympathetic to the days of a divided Germany, as noted by Phillip Sherwell in his article on Berlin in 2009. This showed that in an opinion poll, one in seven Germans- 16% of the West and 10% of the East- said that they “pined for the days when the country was divided”.[31]

It is clear from the literature that the economic problems faced by Germany following reunification in 1990 were more than mere economic problems. These problems had strong implications in the politics of the unification of Germany and, in fact, saw many people questioning the success of the process. This leads one to question whether there was somewhat of a paradox relating to the unification of Germany. Many procedures had to be put in place to solidify the unification process, however, it was these procedures that actually highlighted the problems of uniting the two blocs of Germany. The Monetary Union, for example, which saw the former GDR taking on the Deutsche Mark in July 1990, mercilessly exposed the weaknesses of the GDR economy.[32] The unbalanced nature of things increased unemployment, and saw billions in loans being pumped into the East to support finances.[33] All of these efforts to ease reunification culminated in a mass of tensions between the two sectors of Germany, which in turn heightened divisions, hence the paradox of unification.

The final socio-economic challenge to be discussed is that of immigration, particularly the asylum crisis of 1990 to 1993.[34] With travel restrictions lifted from the former eastern bloc, and with the beginnings of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, a great number of potential asylum seekers had both the motivation and the opportunity to migrate westwards. Germany’s geographic position, constitutional asylum provision, such as that in Berlin, and above average welfare benefits made it an attractive destination.[35] In 1993 there were 750,000 people in Germany who had not made an application for asylum, 500,000 asylum seekers, and a further 350,000 temporary refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina. With these three groups alone accounting for over 1.5 million immigrants in both 1992 and 1993, public concern rocketed, and so too did political concern.[36] For the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Free Democratic Party (FDP), the asylum crisis threatened the very credibility of democracy, which incensed the parties’ long standing proposal to amend the constitutional provision of asylum. Only this, the two parties argued, would restore the population’s faith in the political system’s ability to deal with their concerns.[37] For the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens, by contrast, any attempt to amend Article 16 of the Basic Law constituted an unacceptable departure from what they considered to be one of the Bonn-Berlin Republic’s core values, namely providing a safe haven for political refugees.[38] With regards to this example, it is clear to see that socio-economic challenges, such as immigration, had wide-ranging  implications. Laws could not simply be changed or amended as the Unification Treaty had laid them out clearly in order to uphold German core values.


The Prosecution of GDR Border Guards


Between 1990 and 1996 the new Federal Republic tried over fifty former GDR soldiers for the shooting and killing of East German citizens who attempted to escape over the Wall to the West, causing much controversy.[39] Following reunification there was a public outcry to bring to justice those who were responsible for crimes that occurred under the GDR communist regime.[40] An initial problem was the fact that the judges who tried the first cases were all from the West. However, this problem was quickly dismissed in court due to East German judges being unable to rule until they had retrained in the Federal Republic Law.[41] The convictions of these individuals, both border guards and higher ranking officers, raised serious problems under the German Constitution (Basic Law) and under the fundamental principle prohibiting retroactive punishment.[42] This principle, accepted in all liberal systems, holds that a person may not be punished for an act that was not prohibited by applicable law at the time the offense was committed. The purpose of this principle is to prevent a government from punishing political enemies or others at whim.[43]

Many people argued that the border guards’ convictions violated this principle of nonretroactivity because, under GDR law applicable at the time, the guards’ acts seem to have been legal in many instances. In addition, it was explicitly written into Article 103(2) of the German Basic Law that an “act can only be punished if its criminality was determined by law before the act was committed.” This principle was also reflected in the unification treaty which provided the binding legal framework for the accession of the GDR in to the Federal Republic in 1990.[44]  This harks back to the idea of ‘historical promises’ as addressed by the discussion of the Bonn versus Berlin debate. Germany seems to have a history of making commitments to situations, writing them into law or statutes, and then not acting upon them. This undoubtedly has implications for the government as the people begin to question how suitable they are for the position of power and if, in fact, the government can be trusted. This legal issue clearly highlights the challenge the German government faced with regards to the law that had set precedent. They were torn between breaches of law, and allowing clear wrongdoings and disgraces of human rights to go unpunished.[45] As a whole, the trials resulted in few prison sentences and many suspended sentences and acquittals. For example, in six consecutive cases in 1994/1995, only one guard was actually sentenced to time in prison, while seven others went free, either on probation or with suspended sentences or acquittals.[46] This suggests that the German government was too widely divided on whether to favour the voices of those who saw the actions of the border guards as crimes against humanity, or the law which they had defined in the Unification Treaty of 1990. A further problem arises here in the face of different opinions on the result of these cases. It seems highly likely that many of those in the West were discontented with the lack of prosecution of the border guards, while those in the East also would have felt disgust at the prosecution of the small number of ex-GDR officials.

In conclusion these three key challenges all presented their own individual problems to Germany, and particularly Berlin, which felt the full force of both division, in 1961, and reunification, in 1990. As has been discussed, the efforts to unite the two nations in many ways actually divided them further along lines of ideology, opinion, and economic prosperity. The Capital Debate of 1990, along with the socio-economic problems, presented clear practical challenges to the government who had to attempt to reinvigorate the Eastern bloc of Germany while maintaining the high standards that they had set themselves. In addition to this, the Bonn-Berlin debate and the prosecution of the GDR border guards presented challenges based on law and statutes as well as humanitarian intervention. All three of these challenges are key and seem to converge on one main issue. Was the unification of Germany a reality? Or merely a combination of processes? For example, the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the monetary union of 1990, appeared to overcome the problem of division. Phillip Sherwell, writing in 2009, wrote an article in the Telegraph, titled, “Berlin Wall: Twenty years after its fall, divide remains”. Sherwell discusses how, as noted previously, one in seven Germans pined for the days when the country was divided.[47] This contemporary study clearly reveals that, even as late as the 21st century, there is clear division and lack of empathy between those of the former GDR and the West, and undoubtedly this stems from the disparate economic and social lives of the two following unification in 1990. However, as the years continue to progress and new generations emerge, it is likely that the problem of unification not translating into reality will disappear.






[1] F. Erler, ‘The Struggle for German Reunification’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 34, No. 3 (1956) p. 380.

[2] C. Leunenberger, ‘Constructions of the Berlin Wall: How Material Culture is used in Psychological Theory’, Social Problems, Vol. 53, No. 1 (2006) p. 18.

[3] Jessica T. Diaz, ‘The German Reunification’, Pakistan Horizon, Vol. 44, No. 2 (1991) p. 90.

[4] David C. Large, Berlin: A Modern History, (London, 2001) p. 545.

[5] Michael, Gehler, Three Germanies: West Germany, East Germany, and the Berlin Republic, (London, 2011) p. 233.

[6] Simon, Green, ‘Immigration, Asylum, and Citizenship in Germany: The Impact of Unification and the Berlin Republic’, West European Politics, Vol. 24 (2007) p. 92.

[7] Micah, Goodman, ‘After the Wall: The Legal Ramifications of the East German Border Guard Trials in Unified Germany’, Cornell International Law Journal, Vol. 29 (1996) p. 727.

[8] David C. Large, Berlin: A Modern History, (London, 2001) p. 545.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, p. 546.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, p. 547.

[13] Ibid, p. 548.

[14] Ibid, p. 549.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, p. 547.

[17] Ibid, p. 552.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, p. 546.

[20] Michael, Gehler, Three Germanies, (London, 2011) p. 232.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid, p. 233.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid, p. 235.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid, p. 237.

[29] Stephen J. Silvia, ‘The Elusive Quest for Economic Normalcy: The German Economy since Unification’, German Politics and Society, Vol. 28, No. 2, p. 84.

[30] Stephen Silvia, ‘The Elusive Quest for Economic Normalcy’, (2010) p. 84.

[31] Phillip Sherwell, ‘Berlin Wall: 20 Years after its fall, divide remains’, Telegraph (London, 2009).

[32] Gehler, Three Germanies (London, 2011) p. 235.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Simon, Green, ‘Immigration, asylum, and citizenship in Germany’ (2007) p. 92.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid, p. 93.

[37] Ibid, p. 94

[38] Ibid.

[39] Micah, Goodman, ‘After the Wall: The Legal Ramifications of the East German Border Guard Trials in Unified Germany’, Cornell International Law Journal, Vol. 29 (1996) p. 727

[40] Micah, Goodman, ‘After the Wall’ (1996) p. 737

[41] Ibid, p. 738

[42] Peter E. Quint, ‘Judging the Past: The Prosecution of East German Border Guards and the GDR chain of command’, The Review of Politics, Vol. 61, No. 2 (1999) p. 309

[43] Peter E. Quint, ‘Judging the Past’ (1999) p. 309

[44] Ibid

[45] Ibid, p. 310.

[46] Micah, Goodman, ‘After the Wall’ (1996) p. 741.

[47] Phillip Sherwell, ‘Berlin Wall: 20 Years after its fall, divide remains’, Telegraph (London, 2009).


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