This week, Germany celebrated its unity for the twenty-second time on October 3. It is not one of those more prominent milestones such as a twentieth anniversary, but it serves once again as a reminder of what unification meant in 1990 and what the benchmarks since then have been in both sides of what was once a divided nation. It also serves as a reminder of where Europe is today two decades after its stark divisions.
German unification was a political decision taken first by Germans, both east and west, followed by the support of other Europeans, along with the United States and the Soviet Union. German unification was moving along even before the political act was completed on October 3. With a decision to introduce the D-mark for eastern Germans three months before at an exchange rate that was more politically designed than economic, the course toward reunification was set.
German unity was expensive, costing far more and lasting far longer than most had imagined back in 1990. Errors in the process were made, money was wasted, fraud involved, and lots of complaining was done along the way. However, would most Germans now say it was all a mistake? For all the problems, there is still the fact that today’s Germany is a success story in many dimensions, which few might have predicted half a century ago. Furthermore, one of its greatest successes is serving as a cornerstone of a Europe which, in many ways, is trying to pursue a similar path toward unity, only with many more components involved.
Germany’s division was the chapter written while Western Europe proceeded to find ways to unify itself under NATO, to be followed by the European Community and ultimately the Union. German unity is the chapter – which in some ways is still bring written – that has taken place while more countries in Europe became free to join that European club, with even more still knocking at the door of membership. Like the German experience, the euro was launched in part as a political tool for promoting the process of integrating Europeans. It has been and remains an expensive experiment complete with all kinds of problems and setbacks. But unlike German unity which drew on national bonds, European unity is drawing on a far more complicated web of interests − a sort of Rubik’s cube challenging all those searching for the right sequence.
Yet, in contrast to the specific goal of German national unification, Europe’s goal has been and remains a process rather than a final product. There is no consensus on what Europe’s final arrangement will or should look like. The idea of a United States of Europe remains exactly that − an idea about which one can and does argue on a regular basis. The spectrum of opinions on the future of Europe is as large as the half billion people who live there.
The evolution of Europe over the last half century has generated one of the most interesting experiments in international politics in history, and the experiments will continue for some time to come. In some ways, Europe today is more than the sum of its parts. Yet it is also engaged in connecting those parts in ways still to be defined. The German parts that were connected in 1990 helped strengthen that effort.
Europe now stands at a crossroad of choices made possible in part because German unification was carried out the way it was accomplished. Germany’s division and the Cold War framework around it forged the initial path of Western Europe’s initiatives toward integration. German unification helped opened new paths for a wider and deeper European project to follow. While the current challenges Europe faces − be they economic or political − put serious strains on the bonds holding the union together, it seems unlikely that the achievements will lead to an implosion of the project. However, that will depend on the ability of European leaders to argue persuasively for its continuation, including both the sacrifices as well as the benefits. And it will depend on the willingness of Europeans to be persuaded. During the past two decades in Germany, there have been any number of arguments about the lessons of unification, but there was always that moment on October 3 to pause and reflect on the fact that today’s challenges are only possible because yesterday’s challenges were overcome.
There is another point worth remembering on October 3. Millions of East Germans paid a high price for more than four decades during Germany’s period of division, and it was the courage of those who along the way challenged and eventually brought about the possibility of German unity for east and west to celebrate together. It was the same courage that had inspired millions of others elsewhere in Europe to seize their opportunities to shape their own futures. The narratives emerging out of these transformations serve to strengthen the national identities of the parts which make up Europe today throughout the region once divided by the Cold War’s walls.
Whether somewhere down the road a similar day such as Germany’s October 3 or other similar national symbols of unity might be possible for all Europeans to jointly mark a milestone remains speculation. Yet, Europe is certainly somewhat nearer to that possibility than most would have thought not too long ago.