30 years of Unity: Between a German Europe and a European Germany

written by Philipp Rombach, Director of Policy

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Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Erfurt at electoral rally for first free elections in East Germany, 1990

Less than a year after the peaceful revolution tore down the wall on November 9, 1989, West and East Germany reunified in a truly historic moment on October 3, 1990. For Chancellor Kohl German reunification signified the prerequisite and catalyst for European unity. In the eyes of others, Europe was once again destined for war. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher openly opposed reunification and infamously proclaimed that the United Kingdom has ‘beaten the Germans twice, and now they’re back!’[i] French President François Mitterrand, too, confessed to Thatcher that a reunified Germany might indeed ‘make even more ground than Hitler had.’[ii] These fears appear naïve and utterly uneuropean in hindsight, yet what guarantee did Europe have that the Pax Atlantica would extend beyond the era of the Cold War?

For much of the 20th century, the destiny of Europe was inextricably linked to the fate of the German nation. After the horrors of totalitarianism, the war of extermination, and the abysms of the Shoah, the German question loomed large in the debate over the future of Europe. Following the 1948 Berlin Blockade, the simultaneous 1949 founding of two states on the territory of one German nation, and the 1958–1961 Berlin Crisis culminating in the Berlin Wall, the young Federal Republic was torn between a policy aimed at swift and immediate German reunification and a policy of Westbindung (the integration with the West).

Western Allied actors, on the other hand, developed a policy of containment through integration. The vision of an agrarian German state outlined in the Morgenthau Plan was soon replaced by the forward-looking European Recovery Program, commonly known as the Marshall Plan. It was through innovative thinkers and politicians such as British Secretary of State Ernest Bevin and U.S. Generals George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower that the foundation for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was laid. In the decades since 1949, NATO became an integral part of the European security architecture and a guarantor for a contained Germany and facilitator of European integration. Transcending its initial purpose of ‘keeping the Soviets out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’[iii] NATO today rests on democratic and transatlantic values.

The European Union, too, was initially an attempt to contain Germany through integration and the establishment of economic interdependence. The visions of French businessman Jean Monnet culminated in the founding of the 1952 European Coal and Steel Community and former French Prime Minister Robert Schuman worked tirelessly towards the peaceful integration of Germany into the European Community of free nations. Thus, Westbindung stood on solid rocks when the sudden and imminent possibility of German reunification emerged in the fall of 1989. When the Berlin Wall came down and the Iron Curtain fell a promise of a European continent united in peace and diversity arose.

In the three decades since, Europe unified through the Treaty of Maastricht, adopted a common currency, and expanded eastwards. A reunited Germany was suddenly, and inconveniently, at the heart of Europe. The Federal Republic has the largest population, is Europe’s economic powerhouse, and the Union’s geographic center. Yet the crisis-ridden 2010s were often defined by German inactivity and a lack of leadership. If it did lead, however, it was embodying the idea of a more German Europe and, time and again, trampled over its fellow Europeans to impose teutonic virtues and austerity measures. With the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, Europe came to see a different, more open-minded and welcoming Germany. A European Germany.

In 2021, Angela Merkel will step down after twelve years in office. If, for the next thirty years, Europe is to survive as a union of peace and diversity, the next chancellor should embrace the words of former Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski: ‘I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear its inactivity. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation. You may not fail to lead: not dominate, but to lead in reform.’[iv] Germany cannot continue to align its foreign policy along its purely mercantilistic and self-serving principles. A European Germany must lead by treating its European partners on equal footing and by taking a more democratic and geopolitical stance when it comes to ideological support for the uprising in Belarus or the Taiwanese democracy. Once again, German leadership should embrace the spirit of peaceful revolution.

Thirty years after reunification, division and structural inequality in Germany persist and will remain for decades to come. The unification process, nevertheless, is a resounding and unmatched success — and Germans and Europeans alike should proudly celebrate. Today, East Germans live in freedom, liberated from the Stasi’s oppression, and a reunified Germany has emerged as a stable bedrock for democracy and liberal values.

To me, former Chancellor Willy Brandt was one of Germany’s most inspiring and idealistic leaders. His vision of a German nation united in liberty came to life on October 3, 1990. Thirty years on, his famous words should act as lodestar for all truly European leaders in the times ahead: ‘What belongs together is now growing together.’[v]

Philipp Rombach is the Director of Policy at European Horizons. He obtained a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Technical University of Munich specializing in renewable energies and energy systems. Simultaneously he pursued a degree in Political Science and Economics at LMU Munich. He is passionate about history, geopolitics, and transatlantic as well as EU/US-East Asia relations. Philipp is now looking forward to attending The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the College of Europe for a joint Master of Arts in Transatlantic Affairs starting fall 2021.

[i] Wagener, Volker. “What’s Said Is Said! Remarks about German Reunification.” Deutsche Welle, September 19, 2015. https://www.dw.com/en/whats-said-is-said-remarks-about-german-reunification/a-18736933.

[ii] Nugent, Helen. “United Germany Might Allow Another Hitler, Mitterand told Thatcher.” The Times, September 10, 2009. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/united-germany-might-allow-another-hitler-mitterrand-told-thatcher-nkf0bfjm95p.

[iii] Sayle, Timothy A. Enduring Alliance. A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019), 3.

[iv] Sikorsko, Radoslaw. “I Fear Germany’s Power Less than Her Inactivity. Eurozone Break-up Would be Apocalyptic.” Financial Times, November 28, 2011. https://www.ft.com/content/b753cb42-19b3-11e1-ba5d-00144feabdc0.

[v] Maas, Heiko. “So that what Belongs Together Can Grow Together.” Federal Foreign Office, October 3, 2020. https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/newsroom/news/maas-german-reunification/2400218.

TTP, formerly known as the IDEAS blog, is the official blog of European Horizons, created to give students a voice on transatlantic policy. Views are not EuH’s.

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