From Revolution to Reunification: The East German Wende Two Decades Later

Steven Pfaff, University of Washington

In 1989, protest erupted across the socialist world, shaking capitols from Beijing to Berlin. Yet what Daniel Chirot called the world-wide “crisis of Leninism” had remarkably different origins and trajectories. While a few Communist regimes survived, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), popularly known as East Germany, was one of states that collapsed. Uniquely, its collapse led not to the institution of a new regime but rather to rapid unification with the Federal Republic of (West) Germany. Observers sympathetic to the “crushingly defeated” (Geoff Eley) ideals of a democratically reformed socialism, still maintain that dreams of a new socialism were “ruthlessly outflanked” by a cynical Kohl that “dangled the bait of monetary union and large-scale funding” and so hastened a headlong rush to unification. But does the history of the East German revolution bear this interpretation?

Although the Soviet bloc was already beginning to unravel and substantial reforms were already underway in Poland and Hungary, the very rapid and nearly bloodless collapse of the GDR astounded observers and confounded the expectations of many experts. East Germany had been widely regarded as a relatively successful Marxist-Leninist society. It seemed to have little of the organized popular opposition to Communism found in other states. It appeared to be a quintessentially “strong” state with a fairly robust economy and a powerful and daunting security apparatus. Quite simply, the GDR was not the sort of state that scholars of revolution had deemed prone to popular rebellion, much less outright collapse.

As inevitable as the rapid, peaceful end of Soviet socialism in Eastern Europe might now appear, things could have gone differently. As the first regime to suffer outright collapse in the fall of 1989, East Germany demonstrated the unexpected brittleness of Leninist regimes and signaled the possibility of peaceful change to the dissidents and citizens of other countries. Moreover, events in the GDR showed that the Soviet Union was willing to let a satellite regime be overturned by popular demand and, ultimately, stood by while the state was dissolved and then merged with capitalist West Germany.

In my book, Exit-Voice Dynamics and the Collapse of East Germany, I identify three distinct phases in the collapse of East Germany. The first phase was the erosion of the state socialist system in the late 1980s and the emergence of loosely organized opposition. Because both exit and voice as means of redress of political and economic grievances in the GDR were blocked, there was a progressive neutralization of the communist regime under Erich Honecker. By the late 1980s even the ruling party was suffering disaffection within its ranks in the late 1980s. Yet, despite moves toward liberalization with the advent of Gorbachev in the USSR and the beginnings of reform in other socialist countries, the GDR’s system of coercive surveillance anchored by the feared State Security apparatus, or Stasi, prevented political change. Trapped in a deteriorating society and economy that prevented them from leaving, informal opposition to the regime spread. Meanwhile, a handful of citizens exploited gaps in the system of control to nurture dissident political identities and networks under the umbrella of Protestant Church involvement. Despite repressive pressures in Leipzig, dissidents operating out of the local Lutheran Church managed to establish the Monday Peace Prayers as a political ritual of dissent. The unforeseen result was that this ritual provided a focal point around which mass protest as an unlikely – and provisional – alliance of dissidents and would-be exiters crystallized in the early autumn of 1989.

The “exiting crisis” and the revolutionary autumn of 1989 that it initiated was the second phase of the collapse of the GDR. As new holes in the Iron Curtain became available in the summer and early fall of 1989, flight from East Germany triggered mass protest in cities such as Leipzig, Dresden and East Berlin as would-be exiters made common-cause (temporarily) with would-be reformers. Even though the opposition movement was but embryonic in the early fall of 1989, the crisis made possible the development of a largely unstructured, spontaneous protest movement. Even though the East German authorities had threatened a “Chinese solution” to unrest in the GDR, there was no Tiananmen-style massacre. Both the absence of clear Soviet support for the beleaguered regime and the failure of local elites to carry out East Berlin’s orders to crush the protest movement reflected both the incapacity of hardliners to inspire their own agents to crush the challenge and the creeping demoralization that crippled the regime.

The third phase of the East German revolution was the opening of the Berlin Wall and the resulting “national turn” in politics that doomed the reform process in the GDR and ultimately resulted in rapid German unification. From November 1989 onward, the leaders of the GDR made ever more desperate concessions, hoping to mollify popular discontent. Instead, they widened the rebellion. The slogan Wir sind das Volk! chanted by hundreds of thousands of people across the towns and cities of the GDR was a unmistakable repudiation of the “dictatorship of the workers and peasants” – and, ultimately, of the division of Germany itself. For their part, the opposition groups and the new civic movement could not adapt to radically changed political realities and became alienated from ordinary protesters that embraced nationalism as a solution to their desperate circumstances and highly uncertain future.

In early December 1989 – just as the party’s “leading role” was stricken from the GDR constitution – more than forty parties, social movement organizations, and other political associations were registered with the Ministry of the Interior. They were joined by some one-hundred-and-fifty interest groups promoting occupational, religious, scientific, cultural and educational issues. Seemingly overnight, the one-party state had been pluralized. Meanwhile,civic movement leaders continued to advocate an informal, participatory democracy long after other political actors with firmer models and effective organizations were drawing support.

In the March 1990 elections for the East German parliament, a coalition of parties in the “Alliance for Germany” advocated rapid unification on the basis of existing provisions of the West German Basic Law (Grundgesetz). It won resounding victory over the Alliance 90 electoral coalition of civic movement groups and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the reconstituted Communist party. During the few weeks of the electoral campaign West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl offered consoling promises that “things will be much better for most, and worse for no one” and that the blasted East German economy would soon be a “blossoming landscape” thanks to Western capital and expertise. Many West German intellectuals and leftist politicians were either critical of reunification or ambivalent toward the prospect.

The election served as a virtual referendum on reunification on the terms Kohl proposed, with the “Alliance for Germany” bloc winning just under half of the total GDR vote. When combined with the vote for the liberal Free Democrats, the other party in Kohl’s ruling coalition, parties allied with West Germany’s government won fifty-three percent of votes. The Social Democrats suffered a surprising defeat, winning just over a fifth of the vote in a part of the old German Reich that had once been a bastion of social democracy. Rescued from oblivion by leader Gregor Gysi and his reform team, the PDS ensured its survival with sixteen percent of the parliamentary vote. The combined vote for the various organizations of the civic movement – including the Alliance 90 – was just seven percent of the total votes cast.

The March elections inaugurated a dramatic post-communist political realignment that would shape politics in reunified Germany through the election of 1998. Nearly sixty percent of working-class voters choose the Christian Democrat-led Alliance for Germany. The educated and privileged classes of GDR society, including intellectuals, state and party functionaries and socialist professionals, voted for chiefly the left, dividing their support between the PDS, the Social Democrats and the civic movement or Greens. In the same regions where mass exit had triggered the protest wave that had toppled Honecker in early October there was the strongest support for German unification. This support was especially evident in decaying industrial regions where the vote heavily favored pro-unification parties. The regional pattern of support for the Alliance for Germany reveals that the industrial south was the main locus of support for rapid unification.

The vote for Kohl and his allies was interpreted as a vote for rapid unification. More broadly, it was a vote that expressed the demand that East Germans be allowed collectively to “exit” socialism once and for all by joining the West Germany. In the months leading up the March elections many protesters in Leizpig and other cities had reinforced their demands with the threat of exit. “If the D-mark doesn’t come to us, we will go to it”, became a rallying cry at Leipzig’s Monday demonstrations in the winter of 1990. Kohl and his allies recognized the implications clearly, promising, in effect, to bring the East Germans into the West German system as quickly as possible. The Alliance platform thus managed to encapsulate the basic aim of the electorate, particularly in the industrial heartland of the GDR.

The March elections made German reunification a certainty – what needed to be determined were the terms under which it would happen. Article 146 of the West German Basic Law (Grundgesetz) stated that in the case of reunification a constitutional assembly should frame a new constitution to be ratified by the entire German people. However, the option favored by Kolh’s government was reunification under Article 23 which provided for the accession of German Länder (states or provinces) to the existing Federal Republic. Under Article 23, the sovereign GDR would disappear, its territorial districts recombined into the provinces dissolved in 1952, and then be admitted as federal states to West Germany.

Advocates of Article 146 were convinced that a public dialogue would motivate ordinary citizens in both states to consider the benefits and drawbacks of unification and allow them to forge a new all-German civic identity. The civic movement wanted a new constitution to have significant provisions for popular rule, including the right to referenda on many issues, and a deepening and widening of the German welfare state. The West German Greens endorsed this position. A broadly-based “Democratic Initiative 90″ interest group sponsored a petition drive demanding that the CDU-led government of the GDR not “capitulate” to Bonn by accepting unification on the basis of Article 23. The campaign gathered wide attention, but only assembled about thirty thousand signatures for a petition against Kohl’s route to unification. The Alliance for Germany government went ahead with a state treaty with the FRG providing for reunification under Article 23. It passed the Volkskammer with a two thirds majority. With the “Economic and Social Union” that began in the summer of 1990, which included the introduction of the West German mark as the new currency, the GDR as a sovereign state was disappearing even before the official date of unification.

The unification treaty was bitterly denounced by both the civic movement and the PDS as a “capitulation” to Bonn. Yet, by the time voters endorsed German unification there was precious little of the GDR in terms of its institutional legitimacy, economy or state capacities that could have been saved. Pledging to continue the fight, Alliance 90 and the West German Greens developed a common program calling for a new constitution and a popular referendum on German unity as the central plank in their platform for the December 1990 all-German Bundestag elections. The initiative drew wide support among intellectuals in both East and West Germany, with forty prominent West German social scientists and legal experts endorsing the call for “extending representative democracy” and “ending the spectator democracy” in the Federal Republic. As the East German economy dissolved, eventually to be into effective receivership by the Kohl government through its Treuhandanstalt, the PDS remade itself as a potent protest party decrying against Western colonization and “monopoly rule” by big corporations.

On October 3rd, 1990 the GDR was abolished and replaced by five reconstituted provinces (Länder) which then joined the FRG under Article 23. However bitterly denounced by the left, the national political turn was confirmed in the state elections in the new Länder in the summer of 1990 and again ratified by the clear victory of Kohl’s center-right coalition in the all-German federal elections in December 1990. In spite of both the best efforts of the civic movement to reform socialism and the PDS to obstruct the process, German unity was achieved under the terms Kohl – and, one might argue, the Volk of 1989 favored. The injuries of that divided path to reunification were still evident in the great social and political divisions that have burdened the new Germany in the last two decades.

Throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union popular mobilization empowered dissidents, pushed hardliners out of power, and gave liberal reformists considerable bargaining power in negotiations with the old regime. However, in East Germany, once the prospect of unification became possible, the predominant tone in the protest movement was not anti-regime but anti-state protest. With the survival of the state in question, the reform-minded dissidents became divided from the mass of protesters in the streets and lost their bargaining power. Meanwhile, representatives of the old order reorganized in hopes of securing the most favorable post-communist future for their party or faction. In doing this, they quickly displaced the civic movement which never managed to harness the populism of the peaceful revolution.

Reunification on Kohl’s terms ensured that East Germany’s post-communist transition to capitalism would be as a dependency of a formerly rival state. Despite the GDR’s seemingly advantageous path to democracy and market through unification with the Federal Republic, the years since 1989 have been very difficult ones for former East Germans. Unemployment rates have been durably high. Radical street protest mounted by both leftwing and rightwing groups has been distressing. And in spite of the enormous efforts and expenditures made by the German government, the institutional legacies of communism proved to be just as profound and enduring in the former GDR as in other post-communist states. In terms of its economic weakness, ongoing problems of out-migration, aging population and dependence on central government assistance, the territory of the former GDR has become a kind of German mezzogiorno. Though there is much to celebrate about East Germany’s peaceful revolution, the last two decades demonstrated how difficult it is to merge two societies with profoundly different economic, social and political institutions even when they share the same language and a common culture.

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