Germany Table of Contents

THE OPENING OF THE BERLIN WALL on November 9, 1989, was one of the most dramatic events of the post-World War II period. In the ensuing months, much more than just the graffiti-covered concrete panels of that infamous structure came crashing down during carnival-like celebrations. After four decades, the division of an entire continent, a nation, and a society came to an abrupt end.

A powerful force setting the revolutionary change in motion was a substantial movement of people from the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) westward. Throughout its forty-year history, the GDR had resorted to extreme measures to control its borders and halt the exodus of productive workers. The most extreme of these measures was the erection in 1961 of the Berlin Wall to check the sustained movement of East Germans to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, or West Germany), whose booming economy had created millions of new jobs. Nearly three decades later, for a period of several years beginning in the summer of 1989, the appeal of West Germany, even with its economy mired in recession, prompted another wave of migration of more than 700,000 East Germans, most between the ages of eighteen and thirty.

The FRG's absorption of the GDR in 1990 enlarged its area by about 30 percent and increased its population about 20 percent. Integrating this new territory has proven to be a Herculean task. Prior to unification, West Germans enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world and a per capita income exceeding that of the United States. East Germans were prosperous by the standards of the communist world but had a living standard considerably below that of Western Europe. As the costs of unification have accumulated, the time when easterners will attain the standard of living of westerners has receded further into the future.

In the early 1990s, the five new eastern states (Lšnder ; sing., Land ) experienced substantial depopulation as a result of a plummeting birth rate and the internal migration of eastern Germans to the west. All social groups in the east were affected by the hasty merger, but the position of women was even more negatively affected. In particular, the rapid privatization of the socialist command economy led to much unemployment among women and the dismantling of an extensive child-care system. The east's elderly, who generally had incomes and savings much below their counterparts in the western Lšnder , also suffered hardship.

Unification inevitably revealed a series of unpleasant surprises about the closed economy and society of what had been East Germany. One of the most distressing was the deplorable state of the environment. Among the world's most environmentally conscious peoples, West Germans were shocked by the levels of ecological damage in the east. Environmental degradation, most noticeably badly polluted air and water, was perhaps a more important cause of the inequalities in living standards between east and west than smaller living quarters and lower wages. Surveying the dilapidated infrastructure and housing stock, observers dubbed the newly incorporated territory "Germany's Appalachia."

By mid-1995 it appeared that the physical and administrative mergers of the two German states would be far easier to accomplish than the social aspect of the union. In the postwar period, the two Germanys had assiduously developed two mutually exclusive models of society. Thus, the major challenge lay in harmonizing and integrating these societies, which were only gradually emerging from the long shadows cast by four decades of separate development in antagonistic systems.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress