In the months and weeks before the Berlin Wall fell twenty-seven years ago, there were moments of fear and anxiety in the streets of East German cities—and there were moments of courage and hope. Even without knowing how close to the dream of German unification they really were, the triumph of solidarity among millions of East Germans brought the end of a regime whose true believers thought it was celebrating its 40th anniversary, with many more decades to come. As the cries of “we are the people” brought down a dictatorship, the cries turned into “we are one people” over the following months until, a year later on October 3, 1990, another chapter in German history began.
Today over 80 million Germans live in a vibrant, healthy, and wealthy democracy. Millions of Germans living in the eastern part of the country have experienced the transformation of a political, economic, and infrastructural environment made possible by an injection of millions of euros, hard work, and skillful political leadership. Germany has become the strongest economy in Europe and the continent’s de facto leader—all in the past twenty-seven years.
Of course there are problems, complaints, and criticisms—from those who feel they have not gotten their share of success, or who feel overburdened by the task of unification, or who see dangers from immigrants and refugees who seek to forge their futures in Germany, or who are simply afraid of their own futures and perceived threats.
Those Germans are no different from many other Europeans, Americans, or millions of others who see uncertainty and feel anxious. They may feel less confident about their futures and those of their children. They may feel less confident in political leaders or less trust in institutions that seem to offer less security and predictability.
In Germany, that trend has been captured by the criticism of Chancellor Merkel’s famous phrase “wir schaffen das” in connection with the immigration crisis. Likewise, there has been criticism of President Obama’s “Yes we can” slogan in the U.S. in light of the metastasis of political polarization during his administration. The result in both countries is populist rhetoric, racial tension, and nationalist backlash that appear to be gaining traction.
The celebrations of German Unity Day this week in Dresden capture the many milestones passed since unification. Dresden, the main stage for this year’s celebrations, recalls the courage of 1989; it is also the stage on which the more recent right wing backlash has appeared. The city of Dresden captures the Germany of today: one of the most beautiful cities in Europe where citizens gathered to bring down a wall over a quarter of a century ago and a German success story since 1990. But it is also a reminder of the struggles to deal with different walls in today’s Germany, those formed by changing economic forces, demographic shifts, and social changes. There is a challenge in dealing with a changing national narrative about Germany’s role and responsibilities in Europe and indeed on the global stage.
After over a quarter century, the very achievement of German unification has become taken for granted by most Germans, with less focus on how it happened and perhaps more on what it has yet to accomplish. That is probably normal. The celebrations on October 3 may seem more reflexive today. Even the date itself remains an artificial date on which to pin German unity: November 9 might have been a better choice given its historical connections to the path German unity took over more than a century.
Yet in the end the celebration date is less important than the full story of German unification. As in all national narratives, that story is—or should be—always subject to critical review, enhancement, and most importantly self-correction.
In 2016, Germans need to celebrate what happened in 1989 and 1990 if for no better reason than to remind themselves not only of what was accomplished (with the support of other countries), but of what was affirmed: the values for which a unified Germany stands today, anchored in the Basic Law.
Amid all the changes and choices democracies face today, the debate about where we come from shapes that about where we are going. On this October 3, Germans can remember challenges met—and renew their commitment to meeting the challenges still to come.
Dr. Jackson Janes is the President of AICGS.