A Brief History
On March 15, 1991, The Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany became effective, effectively reuniting a German nation that had been divided since the end of World War II into an “East Germany” and a “West Germany,” a product of the suspicion and distrust between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies after the defeat of Germany (and their allies) in 1945.
Under the Soviet/Communist domination, East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic, floundered economically and suffered from the oppression of being an occupied country. East Germans tried to flee to the West, a situation embarrassing to the communist overlords of the “workers’ paradise,” so much so that the infamous Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, a stark reminder of the Cold War between the communist Soviet Bloc and the democratic and capitalistic West, headed by the United States. Stretching nearly 100 miles long, the “Wall” was mostly a concrete structure topped by barbed wire and the rest was fencing. An imposing 302 watchtowers guarded the wall from Easterners trying to escape, and presumably from Westerners trying to infiltrate the East. A further 20 military bunkers were arranged along the length of the dreary monument to failed communism. A central area of the obstacle was located between fence and wall rows and was known colloquially as “the death strip,” an area where interlopers would encounter trenches, foot piercing nails set in the ground, and quite possibly machine gun bullets from the watch towers. In fact, about 3.5 million Germans had “escaped” from the East to the West despite communist East German laws against such emigration before the wall was built. Loathe to lose even more people, the communists built the “wall of shame” to keep their population home, although about 100,000 Easterners tried to go over, under or through the wall from 1961 until the wall came down in 1989 as the Soviet bloc began to fall apart. Between 136 and 200 East Germans were killed trying to circumvent the wall.
West Germany prospered and became an economic powerhouse, as well as a valued member of the Western military alliance, NATO. East Germany was a drab and depressed place, required to pay hefty war reparations to the USSR, although it became a member of the Soviet oriented Warsaw Pact military alliance. In spite of a substandard economy by Western standards, East Germany (GDR) actually had the best standard of living of all the Soviet bloc satellite states. From 1945 to 1991 when the Soviet Union finally fell apart, the world held its breath while the possibility of one side invading the other across the co-German border remained an ever-present threat. Fear of a united Germany and its potential power, possibly expressed as anger over the results of World War II, kept both sides from serious negotiation about unifying the split country. Plus, the Soviets were scared of losing a buffer state between themselves and the West. A strong Soviet bias against a powerful, united Germany probably also was based on an inherent distrust of Germany after Russia/USSR fought 2 world wars against a strong German state. Perhaps some residual resentment over World War II also inclined many in the Western alliance against any rush to reunify Germany. As the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc began to disintegrate in 1989, the ground swell of demand for independence by Soviet bloc countries became overwhelming, and the slow but sure dismantling of the Cold War alignment resulted in various Soviet bloc countries to throw off the yoke of communism and assert their own independence. Likewise, German nationalism was asserted and the desire of both sides to reunify overwhelmed those voices desiring to remain separate, for whatever fears or selfish reasons those persons may have had.
The Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect was negotiated between both German nations and the occupying powers left over from World War II, that is, the US, the USSR, the UK and France. The USSR survived only until December of 1991, when the house of cards that it was finally dissolved, freeing many of the constituent countries to pursue their independence.
The GDR brought between 16 and 17 million citizens to the united Germany, adding to the 63 million citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany, or the FRG). Economic considerations favored the East Germans as their money instantly became more valuable, though of course many with vested interests in the communist system and government stood to lose status and money. In fact, some East German officials were prosecuted by the German unified government after unification for offenses committed during the East German regime. Today Germany, known officially as the Federal Republic of Germany, though often referred to as “the Berlin Republic,” has a population of over 83 million, though the low birth rate may result in a lowering of the total population over the next several years. A major economic powerhouse, Germany is the fifth or fourth largest economy among all countries, depending on how such things are measured. (Generally, the most massive national economies in the world are recognized as the United
States, China, Japan and Germany.)
Now that 3 decades have passed since the reunification of Germany, any fears of German belligerence have certainly faded to a distant memory, as Germany has assumed its major role in the European Economic Union (EEU) and among the nations of the world. Not only can German families freely travel throughout their country and visit relatives in all parts of the nation without restrictions based on Cold War boundaries, but Germans also enjoy the freedom of movement afforded by the rules of the EEU. As of 2021, we have to say that German reunification has been a rousing success. Do you agree?
Question for students (and subscribers): What other divided country would you like to see united? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Berdahl, Daphne. Where the World Ended: Re-Unification and Identity in the German Borderland. University of California Press, 1999.
Sarotte, Mary Elise. The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall. Basic Books, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Arne Schambeck (1963–) of participants in the first round of talks conducted in March 1990 to negotiate the treaty, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. This image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project.