Building a European Germany: Next Steps?
In 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall—and subsequent German unity—was a dream come true for Germans. Over the next few years the dream of a larger Europe, whole and free from Cold War divisions, became a tangible goal. Twenty-nine years later, we see how one broadcast led to the biggest success story of the twentieth century.
In 2015, a new report offered reminders that the process of unifying east and west remains a work in progress. But that process is not only about Germany; it is also about Europe.
In Germany, the rise of right-wing populism resulted in the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) entering the Bundestag as the largest opposition party. It is expected to expand its presence further in a set of state and local elections in the coming years, and in some places it may even outpace the two largest established parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD). While none of the other parties currently wishes to enter into a coalition with the AfD at any level, how that evolves will depend on election results, particularly in eastern Germany where the fodder for such growth appears ripe.
Germany will also face a new era of leadership when Angela Merkel finishes her final term. Much uncertainty surrounds her successor: who will follow her as CDU leader? Will the coalition government endure? And the eternal question: can the center of political discourse hold? Within all that is the question of Germany’s role in Europe.
More than three decades after the end of the Cold War, Germany is no different from the rest of Europe.
More than three decades after the end of the Cold War, Germany is no different from the rest of Europe. The optimism surrounding the enlargement of the European Union and NATO has been tempered by reality checks of economic uncertainty, social disruption, and political conflicts within Europe. The wars in the Balkans were vivid reminders that the scars of the past had not yet completely healed. A post-Soviet Union Russia emerged under Vladimir Putin with new versions of aggression and threats to Europe’s stability. Conflicts within and beyond European borders challenged the idea of a post-nationalist era.
Europe is feeling the centrifugal forces of nationalist winds, and Germany is not insulated from them. The forces that caused the Wall to crumble twenty-nine years ago are now confronting equally powerful forces whipping up nationalist sentiment and the desire to recreate divisions.
Yet Germans in both east and west are uncertain and anxious about the future.
Certainly, the vast majority of Germans would not want to return to the pre-1990 world of a divided Germany. Yet Germans in both east and west are uncertain and anxious about the future. The need for stability and predictability leads many in Germany and elsewhere in Europe to lean toward populist messages promising protection from economic threats, from the loss of confidence in government and democracy, and from challenges to their identity. Nationalist rhetoric seems more attractive in the face of a more open—if also cumbersome—system of globalized economic trends and complicated decision-making. We see that gaining traction on both sides of the Atlantic with authoritarian figures rising in prominence and, in some cases, winning elections.
Europeans used to proclaim that in pursuing the idea of a unified Europe, the way is the goal. Europe would never be complete but would be continuously evolving in a direction of deeper and wider integration. Today that is not a given. A counter narrative is gaining support: that the liberal democracies in Europe and the U.S. are failing to deliver protection from the inequalities and threats to cultural and religious values or identities, a longing for order, and decisive leadership and security.
But there is a unique dimension to all this in Germany.
Celebrating the founding of the Federal Republic in May of 1949 cannot be without recognition that the German Democratic Republic was established later that year.
In 2019, the Federal Republic of Germany will mark its 70th anniversary. Forty of those seventy years were marked by the division of Germany, two states at the frontline of the Cold War. Celebrating the founding of the Federal Republic in May of 1949 cannot be without recognition that the German Democratic Republic was established later that year. Both East and West Germany proclaimed themselves to be a new start for Germany after the catastrophe of World War II. Both claimed the legitimacy of that inheritance. The collapse of the East German state confirmed its failure to achieve legitimacy while the unification of Germany confirmed the combination of commitment to sustaining a “European Germany” as a liberal democracy ensconced in the western alliance, even as it emerged more powerful after unification.
In 2014, President Joachim Gauck—an East German—stated that this Germany is “the best we’ve ever known. […] Just look at where Germany stands today: it’s a stable democracy, free and peace-loving, prosperous and open. It champions human rights. It’s a reliable partner in Europe and the world: an equal partner with equal responsibilities.” Most Germans today might agree with that assessment. But the conditions that made it possible are changing, causing people to be uncertain about the consequences.
The EU is having to reassess its capacity to sustain momentum. The U.S. is changing its policies and perspectives toward Europe. Russia and China are changing the parameters of power in the wider Eurasian region and in the global framework. The multi-polar world is forcing new policy choices to be made.
Much as it was on November 9, 1989, Germany is not sure of its path through these transformations. Twenty-nine years after the Berlin Wall fell, the nation can be thankful for how far it has come. But where it is headed is not clear.