Reunited at last

By David Pizzo6.11.2014Culture and Society, Global Policy

Our understanding of 1989 as a “reunification” and a “return to the normal course of history” is very much conditioned by our (mis?)understanding of the ruptures of 1914 and 1939.

2014 is a year replete with anniversaries, both solemn and joyous. It marks a hundred years since the beginning of the First World War and 75 years since the beginning of the even more apocalyptic Second World War. For Germans and indeed for most Central and Eastern Europeans, it also marks the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the so-called “Iron Curtain.” The Cold War, which had brutally divided Germany and the continent as a whole for decades was finally over, and German history seemed to be returning to some sort of “norm” after the severe and horrific disruption caused by war, genocide, occupation, and division.

Given that from 1949 to 1989 the two German states were poised to annihilate one another in the opening minutes of what would have been the Third World War, the end of that division and the successful birth of the Berlin Republic is indeed a remarkable development. The severe environmental degradation of much of the former East Germany has been reversed, incomes are gradually equalizing, and substantial transfer payments have at least rebuilt substantial amounts of what had been decaying infrastructure in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). As for Eastern Europe as a whole, much of it is now part of the vastly expanded European Union and more thoroughly integrated in the broader, pan-European socio-economic and cultural system than at any time since 1914.

Crass stereotypes about lazy “Ossis” and arrogant “Wessis”

The question remains, how united are Germany and Europe really? Deep divisions remain, both in terms of structural unemployment and poverty and in terms of psychology and culture. One need only remind oneself of the divergent reactions in the two halves of Europe in 2002 and 2003 during the lead-up to the US-launched invasion of Iraq. Many Western European nations (the UK and the Netherlands notwithstanding) reacted in terms grounded in post-national, largely pacifistic views of international relations, while many Eastern Europeans saw joining the US-led coalition as an assertion of a long denied sovereignty and formerly suppressed nationalism.

More recently, fears in the United Kingdom of being overwhelmed by a “flood” of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants, now in theory legal migrants due to their common membership in the EU, speak to deeply held negative views of “the East” in much of Western Europe. In the case of Germany, the distinctions range from economics to politics to culture. The strong showing of the far-right NPD and the near absence of the Greens in the former East highlights very different political sensibilities in the new and old _Bundesländer_. Unemployment in Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania remains high at about 11 percent, while in booming Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria it is under 5 percent (admittedly, ten years ago the gap was much bigger).

_Ostalgie_, or nostalgia for certain, largely cultural elements of the vanishing GDR past is as widespread in Eastern Germany as it is baffling to most Germans in the former West. Germans in the former East still have different ideas about the appropriate level of social welfare, the role of women in the workplace, and the relevance of religion in the modern world. Crass stereotypes about lazy, unproductive, ungrateful _Ossis_ and overbearing, imperious, arrogant _Wessis_ remain incredibly common on both sides of the _Mauer im Kopf_ (“wall in one’s head”).

Much to celebrate

Many of these distinctions will no doubt fade with time and will most likely prove generational. It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish children born in the two halves of Berlin or the two halves of Germany (in the late 1990s it was still quite obvious). Others may prove more durable, however. Attitudes towards cosmopolitanism, religion, and especially gender roles can be incredibly durable over time and pass from one generation to the next. And Germany in many ways represents the best case scenario in Europe, given the massive income and human development disparities between Romania and the Netherlands or Denmark. The newer members of the EU have received far less proportionately than earlier inductees such as Greece, Ireland, or Spain. There is much to celebrate this year in Central and Eastern Europe, but one can only hope than in another twenty-five years more progress will have been made in bringing the remnants of the old Cold War blocs together again.

It is also worth reflecting for a moment about how 1989 is related to this year’s other important anniversaries, 1939 and 1914. How much have the issues and structures that generated those massive and cataclysmic events been resolved, namely hyper-nationalism, imperial rivalries, political systems that were only barely accountable if at all to their citizens, economic systems based on extreme inequality and grinding exploitation, and technologies that made warfare absurdly destructive? _Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose_? What will our world look like in 2039? Our understanding of 1989 as a “reunification” and a “return to the normal course of history” is very much conditioned by our (mis?)understanding of the ruptures of 1914 and 1939. And just as 1914 seems much clearer to us now than it did to those who experienced and endured it as it was happening, the implications and consequences 1989 will probably be much clearer, or at least look very different, to observers a century from now.

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