Jan 282020
In view of changing political developments between South and North Korea, the initiators of a Peace Convention asked about experiences in unification processes in South Africa, Ireland and Germany. Here is the German contribution to the conference in Seoul/South Korea in October 2018.

German experience

By Gerhard Rein, 2018

German Website

The German people surrendered to the enemy for the first time in 1933. Workers, petty bourgeois, scientists, businessmen, artists, theologians, professors of all kinds capitulated before a nationalist, racist, anti-Semitic movement and its leader: Adolf Hitler. That was the enemy. And the majority of Germans admired Hitler. That was our disaster. Hitler promised an empire that would last a thousand years. It ended after 12 years. It led to World War II and millions of deaths: women, men and children. In 1945, the second surrender followed.

The Germans were liberated by Russian and American and British and French soldiers. May 8, 1945 was not a defeat. It was a liberation. A liberation from the enemy within. For this liberation we had to pay a high price.

Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill divided Germany into zones. The American zone, the British zone, the French zone together formed what we later called West Germany and then the Federal Republic of Germany. The Russian zone became the German Democratic Republic, the GDR. Germany was divided. One people, two states. As a result of a world war of which Germany was guilty.

Under the supervision of the Western Allies, West Germany developed as a more or less liberal society, with freedom of the press, freedom of travel, freedom of business, freedom of education. In relatively few years after the war, West Germany blossomed into a kind of rich country. East Germany, under the rule of the Soviet Union, experienced a socially oriented government, but no freedom of the press, no freedom of travel, no freedom of business. As a result, hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million women, men and children left the GDR. Well-trained, qualified doctors, engineers, workers. The border between East and West was more or less open. But the heavy losses of labour had a terrible effect on the whole economic structure. In 1961, the GDR government built the Berlin Wall. And a barbed wire with heavily armed patrols from north to south of the country, from the Baltic Sea down to Czechoslovakia.

Suddenly families with roots in East and West were separated. From 1963 on, West Germans (nicknamed Wessis) could visit family and friends and stay with East Germans (nicknamed Ossis) for a few days, but this was not possible the other way round. Normally a border should protect the own citizens. This border had a different function. It was directed against the own population, against the Ossis.

Barbed wire and the wall existed for 28 years. But people still tried to flee from the East. More than a thousand women, men and children were shot dead by their own border police between 1961 and 1989. But 16 million people began to put their lives in order in the GDR. There were the supporters of the socialist system, which proved to be Stalinist in the first decade. There was a state security which controlled and observed almost everyone. There was a silent majority that did not forget that in 1953 Russian tanks brutally ended a workers‘ uprising so that they did not dare to try again. The economic system had jobs for almost everyone. There was no unemployment. The pay was low. In the GDR, hardly anyone could get rich. Under the shadow of an authoritarian quasi one-party state, people lived and worked, married and divorced. Normal family life. They went on holiday, but of course only to other Eastern European countries under Soviet rule, such as Hungary or Czechoslovakia or Bulgaria.

Theodor Adorno, a rather famous German social philosopher, once remarked:

„There is no right life in the wrong life.“

But the people in East Germany experienced good and bad days, solidarity with friends, common understanding, love and disappointment. There was real life in the wrong system. And there were, against all odds, circles of friends in the GDR who were not satisfied with a political system that tried to tell them what to think, what to do, how to behave.

West Germany went a different way. It became part of the so-called free world. A capitalist society with free trade unions, various independent political parties, free elections. With big industry having a lot of influence in the government. After the catastrophe of Nazi Germany, the development of West Germany was often described as a kind of miracle. The Wessis explored the world. They could become very rich. They even won the soccer world cup.

But with the beginning of the 1980s we saw the emergence of a meaningful peace movement in both German states. Nuclear armament threatened the world, and there was both protest against American armament and protest against Russian armament. Hundreds of thousands were on the streets in Bonn, West Germany, and hundreds in East Berlin, where it was difficult and dangerous to demonstrate.

Often Christians were the initiators of the protest.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the Protestant churches were an integral part of the political system. Through a church tax the churches in the West were rich and had opportunities to influence politics, public debate on moral and ethical issues.

In the German Democratic Republic, the Protestant churches were poor. They had no influence at all. The political system declared atheism as its ideal. But the churches in the GDR were the only public organizations that were granted a kind of independence. So in their churches, their assembly rooms, nonconformists, critical young people, intellectuals, the remnants of a civil society could also find a place. They could discuss their problems and were not forced to pray.

Germany was divided, and the Protestant churches had to make an official decision to end their common organisation. Both were part of the ecumenical movement. The rich church in West Germany helped the poor sisters and brothers in the East financially considerably, but the Christian Wessis envied the Christian Ossis. Why? In the circles of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Christians from East Germany were for a long time the darlings of the ecumenical movement. They were poor, but sexy. Their way to survive as Christians in an atheistic environment was interesting. Their theologians were often creative and challenging. For the Christians in the GDR the ecumenical movement was the bridge to the world, a new horizon. It opened to them that there was something more important than the East-West conflict at home.

Around 1987 the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began to explain his vision of glasnost and perestroika. An unexpected new openness and transparency. The satellite states of the Soviet Union were given more responsibility for their own political agenda. Hungary opened its border to the West.

Overnight thousands of mostly young families left their homes in the GDR and hurried to Hungary. They hoped for a better life in the West. They left their little cars, their friends, their jobs, everything behind them, forever. At the railway stations in the GDR, people waited for trains from Budapest and Prague to the West. They screamed:

„We want out, we want out.“

And there were also counter-demonstrations, even young people. They shouted :

„We’re staying here, we’re staying here.“

They hoped they could help to transform the GDR into a democratic socialist state. into a democratic alternative to the Federal Republic of Germany. A chaotic historical situation. This new movement to leave the GDR via Hungary was described by some observers as „escape to paradise“. In a strange way, it contributed to sharpening the inner-German debate about the future of the GDR.

From this mixture it is not so surprising that some theologians, some Christian peace groups, some Protestant churches in East Germany played a decisive role in a peaceful revolution that led to the end of the GDR. I have described it as a Protestant revolution. The first goal of the demonstrators was a better GDR. But then, with more and more demonstrations in almost every city of the GDR, the unity of Germany came into sight. It didn’t happen through decisions on a world stage. It developed from below, from the base, initiated by a minority. The protest marches against the GDR state in 1989 all began in Protestant churches.

In the end, eighty thousand peaceful demonstrators gathered in Leipzig. They shouted:

„We are the people.“

The Soviet Union has not intervened. The GDR regime collapsed and gave up.

On 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Fireworks everywhere. The 8-year-old daughter of good friends in East Berlin was not in a festive mood. She told me: „I’ve just lost my home.“ For millions of Ossis the first free election since 1933 took place in March 1990. The winners of this March 1990 election were not the courageous new democratic movements that led the Protestant revolution, not the women and men who built alternative ecological, anti-nuclear peace groups, women’s rights groups in the GDR. The winners were the big old parties from the West who invaded the territory of the GDR like colonialists. They won everything.

The majority of the Ossis, who used to conform to the system, obviously thought that the Wessis knew better about money, about the economy, about everything. It was not a flight to paradise, it was a „banishment to paradise“, wrote a critical journalist in East Berlin.

There was no longer a border between West and East Germany.

As a journalist from the West who reported on the GDR, I crossed the border almost every day. From 1982 until the end of the GDR in 1990, Paul Tillich, a German-American theologian and philosopher, one of my secret heroes, wrote

„The place of the border is the most fertile place of knowledge.“

The border between home and foreigners, between religion and culture, between socialism and capitalism.

Germany is one again. For 28 years now. Do we agree?

If you travel through East Germany today, you will find intact roads. The old towns that were rotten by socialism a la GDR are being rebuilt or reconstructed. They are once again highly respectable.

If you read the last official report of the Federal Government on the state of the country, dated September 2018, you will find positive tendencies mentioned: The standard of living in the East is approaching the standard of living in the West. Payment for comparable jobs is not at the same level, but they are getting closer. Unemployment is higher in the East than in the West.

The transformation process is underway, but attractive and better-paid jobs are still to be found in western Germany. There is a solidarity surcharge in favour of the development of the eastern regions, but it is due to expire next year. The pension funds in the East are still having difficulty reaching the level of the West.

We used to talk about the GDR as the most industrialized state in Eastern Europe. But after unification in 1990, the economically strong companies from the West took over and destroyed the industrial structures in the East. Rebuilding them is the most important task today. But there are quite big obstacles. One of the problems: young qualified people, more women than men, are still leaving the East. Standard of living, better paid jobs, a more relaxed atmosphere are an attractive alternative. There is not a single company in eastern Germany listed in the DAX 30 index. And only one of the many large German industrial companies has its headquarters in East Germany.

But I want to leave it at these official data. At least Germany is united, isn’t it?

No, it is not. Germany is still divided. It is spiritually divided. 40 years of GDR system have left their mark on people. Not just the effects of some kind of captivity. The smell of the country. The experience of solidarity with friends. The same general poverty. The creative life underground. Poets and writers of the country who were not allowed to publish their works. So they became famous through rumours, and their poems or novels were photocopied and secretly distributed. The dissident fluid in peace groups within the churches.

Any tendency to nostalgia, to create myths about the GDR is strongly criticized. The GDR was indeed dictatorial, but there is a kind of melancholy in people who knew that the West was not paradise. Who experienced that „foreigners“ alias – Wessis got about 80 percent of the top jobs at universities, in the economy, in state service after unification. An exchange of elites. Writers, artists have lost their importance. This left behind wounds, disappointments, depressions, anger and rage. The former Russian zone, then GDR, is now a „zone of vulnerability“, as an East German political scientist noted.

Some East Germans think that we have to retell the history of the GDR, our history, to prevent our identity from being destroyed. As a Westerner I understand that very well.

But out of the massive disappointment about the political developments, especially the fear of the German government’s refugee policy, the high number of migrants coming to Germany, people in the East are turning away from the democratic parties and approaching the right and right-wing extremists. That is quite dangerous. We know that this is a phenomenon in many countries today, but in Germany, with our history, a new nationalism, a new racism, a new anti-Semitism can be a threatening reminder of a new, old enemy within.

In order to find out what really went wrong and how we can heal the wounds, there are voices in Germany who believe that a process of truth and reconciliation makes sense.


„Existence on the border, the border situation, is full of tension and movement. In reality, it is not a standing, but a crossing, a returning, a re-returning, a re-crossing, a to and fro, whose goal is to create a third, beyond the limited areas.“

Paul Tillich 1962 in his speech on the occasion of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade


Translation: DeepL