The area between the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, where the Berlin Wall once stood, is again blocked off by a fence as Germans prepare to throw a party on the 25th anniversary of their country’s reunification. Stages, sound systems, and a Ferris wheel have been set up. The so-called Festival of Unity on Oct. 3 will let Germans forget their fears for a weekend and celebrate how far they’ve come.
I still remember the first Day of German Unity in 1990. As an exchange student in Trier, on the far western edge of Germany, I headed to the main square expecting a celebration. Maybe there were a few more revelers than on a normal school night, but nothing that could be called euphoria. In the Mosel wine country on the border with Luxembourg, people were wary of the discomfort that reunification promised to bring: extra costs, more mouths to feed, and less wealth to go around.
An exodus of refugees fleeing the decay and repression of East Germany’s communist regime had helped bring down the Berlin Wall a year earlier. But the fall of the Iron Curtain also meant that shuttle-traders, hucksters, thieves, and beggars could now make their way west from Eastern Europe. The news was full of reports about an impending famine in the Soviet Union and the rumblings of war in Yugoslavia. The Cold War had barely ended, and many western Germans were already missing it.
It’s an irony of history that a refugee crisis brought Germany together — and now is splitting the country once again. An East-West economic divide still exists, of course, but it is less pronounced than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Today’s dividing lines are increasingly between Germans who have accepted the reality of globalization and those who deny it by shrouding themselves in nationalism.
The past year has shown Germans that their famed sense of Ordnung (order) is more of a veneer than a durable good. If Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine or Greece’s never-ending debt crisis happened somewhere over there, then the March crash of a Germanwings jetliner and the ballooning Volkswagen emissions scandal directly challenges truths held by most Germans to be self-evident. All of a sudden, Germany didn’t seem quite as safe, nor as green, as it makes itself out to be.
Flag carrier Lufthansa, which runs Germanwings as a low-cost airline, has long been a global symbol of German reliability. That one of its pilots could conceal his suicidal tendencies and then fly a full passenger plane into a mountain seemed unfathomable. Lufthansa’s standing has been further damaged by a spate of pilot strikes as the airline struggles to cut costs to compete with budget rivals.
VW, which is practically synonymous with Germany’s industrial might, shocked the country last month when it was caught rigging emissions tests for diesel vehicles. The revelation raised questions not only about corporate governance at VW but the country’s image as a whole. Fifty percent of Germans think the scandal will damage the “Made in Germany” label, according to a recent poll. The country’s reputation as an environmental leader may also suffer.
The migration crisis has caused the most concern about where the country is going. Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel called it the country’s “greatest challenge since unification.” It’s disconcerting when the government admits it doesn’t have exact numbers for newcomers after signaling it would make an exception and accept Syrian war refugees. With as many as 10,000 migrants entering the country daily in September, the authorities weren’t able to register them all.
As much as Germans like to appeal to reason, it’s striking that the country’s most fateful decisions have been based on emotion. The swift merger of East Germany into West Germany couldn’t be explained by economic sense. Reunification was driven by the longing of then Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his generation to mend the divisions that World War II had wrought.
Similarly, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to let in thousands of refugees stranded in Hungary was a humanitarian gesture that had no budgetary allocation or legal framework. “Wir schaffen das” — we can do it — became Merkel’s Obamaesque mantra to a nation surprised by its own spontaneity and apprehensive about the consequences. That contradiction was reflected in a recent poll that found 77 percent of Germans believed Merkel’s refugee policy was too haphazard while 73 percent also agreed that it was a moral necessity.
Merkel can afford to follow her emotions because of Germany’s extraordinary economic performance. With higher-than-expected tax revenues this year and a balanced budget planned for 2016, the chancellor has good reason to be confident when she says that the new wave of immigration bears “more opportunities than risks.”
Not everyone in Germany agrees. Especially in the former East Germany, where foreigners are scarce and the unemployment rate approaches 10 percent, goodwill toward outsiders is in shorty supply. At the end of last year, long before the nightly news led with stories about a refugee influx, a group called PEGIDA started organizing marches in Dresden to protest the “Islamization” of Europe through migration. “We are the people!” the PEGIDA followers shouted, giving a nationalistic tinge to a slogan first chanted by pro-democracy protesters who ousted the East German regime 25 years earlier.
For people who grew up in East Germany, adapting to life in the reunified nation was tough, since the rules had been written by West Germans. The distinction of “Wessi” or “Ossi” to describe someone’s origin is now fading, as a new generation comes of age that was born and grew up in one Germany. That easterners now occupy the two highest offices in the land — Joachim Gauck the presidency and Merkel the chancellorship — is proof of reunification’s success.
Merkel’s calm, friendly demeanor has become Germany’s face in the world and has itself been a factor in attracting migrants, journalist Volker Zastrow wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine last month. Zastrow made a plea for a bit more self-confidence and a little less doom saying that Germany is doing away with itself through immigration.
When it won the soccer World Cup in 1990, Germany’s team had no foreign-born members, Zastrow argued. The German squad that took the world title last year had six immigrants. “The Germany of 1990 has already done away with itself. It no longer exists. Many of the things we had are no longer, and much of what we have today didn’t exist back then,” he wrote. “But Germany hasn’t done away with itself as a world champion.”
Zastrow shares Merkel’s optimistic outlook. The danger is that Germany’s new angst will gain more ground. From afar, Germany still looks like a model of order and tranquility. But the country’s tumultuous past century shows just how illusory appearances can be.