Now what belongs together will grow together (W. Brandt) – and did it?

by Alice Löschner & Jutta Thielen-del Pozo

Now what belongs together will grow together.

These were the words of Willy Brandt in reaction to the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The origins of Germany go back to the 10th Century when a grouping of German territories became a central part of the so-called Holy Roman Empire.

Following centuries of turbulent history filled with conflict, religious divides, revolutions, war and despair as well as periods of peace, hope and enlightenment, Germany became a nation state in 1871, when most of the German states unified into the Prussian-dominated German Empire.

After a long history when being German was defined through language, traditions, and cultural heritage, now being German could be defined through country borders.

However, times would not become less turbulent and political, cultural and economic forces pulled at the fabrics of this newly created State.

Germany became an equal player amongst the geopolitical forces in Europe that led to two devastating world wars and left Germany divided again.

In 1949, almost 200 years after the creation of the German empire, two new German states were created: the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), generally known as West Germany, (23 May 1949) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), East Germany (7 October 1949).

Unfortunately, instead of learning from history and building a new world order based on cooperation, collaboration, and understanding, global peace became secured through a race for weaponry and armament, ideology, fear mongering and competition - the so-called cold war divided the world into an Eastern and Western Bloc – and Germany became literally torn apart by it.

Both Germanys promised their citizens freedom and democracy but defined both differently and found arguments to demonise the other.

When Walter Ulbricht, the first Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party and the German Democratic Republic State Council chairman decided with the blessing of Russian Leader Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to build a wall and fence between the two Germanys in 1961, he defended the decision with the argument that it was needed to protect East Germany against the Fascist forces in the West.

West Germany considered East Germany as a dictatorial state.

On 13 August 1961 so called “East German Combat Groups of the Working Class” closed the border in preparation for construction of the Berlin Wall. Willy Brandt, then mayor of West Berlin, could not prevent it.

When he became Chancellor of West Germany in 1969, the divided Germany became more and more a reality.

Together with Egon Bahr, his senior diplomatic advisor, Brandt laid the foundation for a new “Ostpolitik” that marked a turning point in the political direction for foreign policy in West Germany.

It shifted the balance towards a normalisation of the relationships with the Eastern bloc. Decades of political diplomacy followed, but the wall dividing the two Germanys remained a constant reminder that the relationships were not normal and this was particularly apparent in Berlin where the wall just cut across the city.

Naturally, with time the two Germanys started to drift apart: one was built on social market economy the other on communist philosophy, one was strongly influenced by the culture of the USA and its western allies, the other one by the USSR and its allies.

One became part of NATO, the other one joined the Warsaw Pact. In West Germany pupils at school were taught English and French, in East Germany Russian.

West Germans spent their holidays at the Côte d’Azur, East Germans at the Balaton Lake in Hungary.

The ending of the cold war initiated in 1985 with the nomination of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

He promoted glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuration), giving rise for hope of change in East and West: on 12 June 1987, President Ronald Reagan called out at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Germany: “Mr Gorbatchev, tear down this wall!” 

Following years of activism, it was finally the people of East Germany that built up the pressure and forced their longtime leader, Erich Honecker, to resign on 18 October 1989.

By that time many East Germans had started to leave the country through the Hungarian border. On 9 November 1989, Günter Schabowski, secretary for information of the "polit bureau" announced somewhat mistakenly that ”starting immediately, the borders are open to everyone”.  


What followed was a night of incredulous jubilation and joy – the border was open, people danced on the wall, a peaceful revolution! Who would have thought it?  

Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of West Germany at that time, seized the opportunity and paved the way for a United Germany.

With the collapse of East Germany and willingness for change in Europe, the USA and the Soviet Union, the unification of Germany could be ratified within less than one year.

The two parliaments in East and West approved a reunification treaty on 20 September 1990 and on 3rd October 1990 the five states of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia joined the Federal Republic of Germany and East Germany did not exist anymore. Helmut Kohl became the so-called chancellor of Unity.

The words of Willy Brandt to the occasion resonated with many – “now what belongs together will grow together”.

But did it?

Many East Germans longed for reunification, but the initial enthusiasm soon made way for a disillusioned discovery of reality that the transition would not be smooth and that the blossoming landscapes, promised by chancellor Helmut Kohl, did not materialise out of a broken economy from one day to another without a price to pay.

In fact, many East Germans experienced sometimes very dramatic consequences during the first years of Reunification and are left with bitter memories still today.

In particular the Treuhandanstalt (trust agency), an authority founded by the GDR government prior to reunification in the early 1990s, is blamed for some of the most drastic consequences. 

The Treuhand, established to privatize East German companies, resulted in over 3,000 closed businesses and almost 3 million people who lost their jobs within 20 months.

By mid-1994, 80 percent of the GDR production assets went to West Germans, 14 percent to foreigners, and six percent to former GDR citizens. The actions of the Treuhand weakened the East German economy for years and plunged many into unemployment and a lack of prospects.

In addition, the majority of manager positions in business and administration were occupied by West Germans.

Today, 30 years after reunification, the negative perception of the Treuhand is fading among the younger generation and administration, but effects linger and the disadvantages created 30 years ago can still be felt today.

The East Germans could only accumulate comparatively few possessions and assets. Many production assets, land and real estate in the east now belong to West Germans and since wealth is no longer accumulated through gainful employment, but through inheritance, the East Germans are permanently disadvantaged. - Steffen Mau, sociologist

The new Germany was not created out of two States but rather was East Germany absorbed by West Germany.

Perhaps the time window was too short, perhaps it was also because of the perception of East Germany as a broken and failed State, that many West Germans could not imagine that the East had something to offer to the united Germany, like for example a better childcare system.

Even if state-guaranteed all-day care in the GDR ensured that ideological values ​​were conveyed at an early stage and thus served also a political agenda, the infrastructure could nevertheless have been considered to maintain allowing women to work and develop a career.

The decline in the birth rate in the East after reunification, unemployment and the lack of financial resources in the municipalities caused many crèches, kindergartens and schools to close.

A clear decrease in the care rates for children of all age groups was found after reunification, but the full-time employment of East German mothers is still many times higher than the West German level.

Undoubtedly, mistakes have been made, issues not sufficiently addressed yet, in particular at the beginning.

However, efforts have been made to improve the situation and allow for a faster reconstruction and fair transition, not least through the so-called solidarity pact, which was introduced in 1991 and which added the so-called “soli” to all payments of income tax, capital gain tax and corporate tax, providing cash flow and financial stability to the new states in East.

This solidarity surcharge has been in effect for the last 30 years and will end in 2021 for 90% of the taxpayers. Overall, although the costs have been immense, estimated to 2 trillion (1012) Euro, Germany as a whole benefitted from the reunification.

The process of integration is still ongoing and perhaps it will take another 30 years before the “wall in our heads”, will disappear completely.

Yet, while we sincerely hope to overcome the remaining economic imbalances and other inequalities between East and West, we cherish the regional differences in culture, food, traditions and accents because it is the diversity from North to South and East to West that enriches Germany, Europe and the world.

Photo 1: © Bundesregierung/Plembeck, Photo 2: ©Hartmut Kelm, Photo 7: ©Renate Börner Photo 8: ©Angelika Graff, Photo 9: ©Bernd Schmidt, Photo 10: ©Norbert Esemann, Photo 12: ©Hartmut Kelm, Photo 13: ©Gerhard Kröger, Photo 14: ©Peter R. Asche