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The Challenges of a United Germany

The Challenges of a United Germany

 The Challenges of a United Germany


“WHEN my parents and I drove across the border from East Germany into West Berlin, crowds were standing on the bridges above the autobahn waving and cheering,” recalls Ronny. “We walked around the Ku’damm shopping center in West Berlin, and once people realized that we were from East Germany, they bought us drinks. Everyone was in a party mood.” That was November 10, 1989, one day after the Berlin Wall was opened.

The party mood extended beyond Berlin and embraced all of East Germany and West Germany, which then existed as separate countries. The Wende—which refers to the turning point or the peaceful revolution that led to the collapse of the totalitarian State of East Germany—took almost everyone by surprise. Years later, many still regard the Wende as the happiest time within the past 50 years. Of course, the euphoria has given way to reality, allowing us to ask, How has life changed since the Wende? Can we learn anything from what has happened?

Good-Bye Cold War

To most Germans the opening of the Berlin Wall came as a huge relief. According to some sources, nearly a thousand people died on the murderous frontier between East and West. In October 1990, the two Germanys were reunited into one State, the Federal Republic of Germany, with a population of about 80 million. The German Democratic Republic (GDR)—known as East Germany—ceased to exist, just 41 years after its birth. The area formerly occupied by the GDR is now divided into six states, known as the new federal states.

The world stood amazed as the Wende hastened the breakup of the Communist bloc, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact defense alliance, and the end of the Cold War. The troops of opposing superpowers—who had stared at one another across the inner-German border for some 40 years—withdrew from German soil. These events occurred without a shot being fired.

After reunification, dramatic change swept across Germany, chiefly affecting life in the new federal states. For many individuals the change was more dramatic than expected.

Freedom at Last!

What the GDR populace wanted most from the Wende was freedom. Small wonder, since the totalitarian State had kept its citizens in a straitjacket. In pre-Wende days,  getting a visa to cross the inner-German border was difficult or impossible. Suddenly that changed. One woman exclaimed: “Just imagine, we can go to America!” For many, to be reunited with relatives and friends on the other side of the border continues to give them reason to be thankful.

Freedom allows not only East Germans to go west but also Westerners to go east. Thus, tourist attractions in the new federal states are now back on the map, as it were. For instance, tourists can visit Wittenberg, where Martin Luther started the Reformation, which gave birth to Protestant religion. Then there are Meissen, a city renowned for its handmade porcelain, and Weimar, at one time home to two of Germany’s most famous writers, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. In 1999, Weimar was made Cultural City of Europe, the first city in the former Communist bloc to receive such an honor.

What about freedom of speech? People in the new federal states can talk openly without fear of being overheard by the Stasi, or state security. And the man in the street rejoices at being able to choose television programs and reading material freely. Matthias recalls: “When I was at school, any publications from the West that we got hold of were confiscated.”

Freedom of worship? In the GDR, religion was discouraged, and 2 citizens out of 3 had no religious affiliation. All of reunified Germany has now enjoyed freedom of worship for over ten years, the longest period since Hitler began to clamp down on religion in 1933. But freedom of religion does not mean that religion is popular. The mainstream churches have been lamenting a loss of influence for quite some time, and the Wende accelerated this trend. Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, who were banned and persecuted by the totalitarian regime, have expanded their activities. During the past ten years, 123 Kingdom Halls and 2 Assembly Halls have been built by the Witnesses in the new federal states.

Construction of all types has taken on huge proportions in the new states. Berlin has been reinstated as national capital and is being given a gigantic face-lift. All across the new federal states, the infrastructure is being upgraded, involving huge expenditures on roads and railways. A great deal has been done to clean up the environment and to bring health care and social welfare up to Western standards. Most residents of the new federal states would agree that they now have a higher standard of living.

“Times Were Good”

Nevertheless, some look back on pre-Wende days with nostalgia. “Times were good,” explains one woman. What could have been good about living under a dictatorship?  Some say that life was predictable and secure. Many cherished the close bonds among friends and neighbors, the feeling that help and support were always at hand. According to the Allensbach Opinion Research Institute, “dictatorships give their citizens a feeling of moral superiority and security.” Once the GDR dictatorship disappeared, the close feeling vanished.

Another example: In the 1980’s, the prices of basic goods and services were kept low, and everyone had a job. “A bread roll used to cost five pfennig, but now it costs at least ten times that,” bemoans Brigitte. Once free-market competition was introduced, thousands of state-owned enterprises went out of business, causing unemployment. The former East Germany has twice the unemployment of the western side.

So far, reunification has cost an estimated $800 billion. And there is still much to do. Who is paying the bill? The cost is partly being met by a special tax. Hence, the Wende has touched not only German hearts but also German pockets! Has the effort been worthwhile, the money well spent? The majority see reunification as positive and worthwhile, an achievement to be proud of.

What Can We Learn?

The Wende has shown that changing from one form of government to another does not satisfy everyone. Many people—even those who feel that the Wende was worthwhile—have found that life in a competitive capitalist society can be just as frustrating as life in a totalitarian regime. Freedom and prosperity are, of course, desirable. But when the price paid for these advantages is a cold and uncaring way of life, happiness can be short-lived.

A recent report from Dessau, in the former East Germany, states: “A decade has gone by since unification; billions of dollars have been spent to usher the area from a troubled past.” Yet, many do not seem happy with the results so far.

The Allensbach Institute reports that many people hope that “between the alternatives of a free competitive economy and a planned economy, there could be a third way” of managing mankind’s affairs. That hope is shared by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

They believe that no political or economic system designed by humans will ever satisfy all mankind’s needs. The Witnesses believe that these needs will be met only by the Creator’s Messianic Kingdom. Shortly, this heavenly government will, according to the Bible, establish a loving and righteous rulership over all the earth. The Kingdom will unite all the nations of the earth and enable not only Germany but all mankind to be at peace with one another. What a blessing that Kingdom will be!—Daniel 2:44.

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The dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the removing of the border was greeted with widespread relief

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Foto: Landesarchiv Berlin

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Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin’s symbol of the Cold War, before and after

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Foto: Landesarchiv Berlin

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Berlin, reinstated as national capital, is undergoing a face-lift

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Jehovah’s Witnesses have so far built 123 Kingdom Halls in the new federal states