German Reunification
“There is a pool of shared memories”

Expert in contemporary German history: Rainer Eckert.
Expert in contemporary German history: Rainer Eckert. | Photo (detail): © Forum of Contemporary History Leipzig

How was the division of Germany experienced, and how far has the process of reunification progressed so far? An interview with Rainer Eckert, director of the Forum of Contemporary History Leipzig.

Professor Eckert, is Germany still a divided country quarter of a century after the Peaceful Revolution in the GDR?

There is no simple answer to that question, as a distinction must be made between political, economic and psychological factors. In terms of its political institutions, Germany is a unified federal state, and I see no separatist tendencies in any part of the country. However, there are still virtually no genuine East German elites, if one discounts a number of members of The Left party, a handful of institutions concerned with national security, and Protestant academies. A considerable difference can also be noted with respect to income levels, rents, and pensions.

What I find most interesting is the question of whether we have narrowed the gap in terms of our mindsets. In my experience – and this is also backed up by latest studies – the psychological difference between East and West is not becoming any smaller, but in some cases is actually increasing. The third generation in the East is asking about the fate of their parents and grandparents and learning something about the lives they led, which are to be taken just as seriously as the lives of people in Baden-Württemberg or Schleswig-Holstein. Although it is still relatively weak, it is nonetheless evident that a new East German self-awareness is developing.

What were the fundamental differences in the way East and West experienced the country’s division?

What was interesting is that both looked towards the West – the East Germans towards the Federal Republic and the West Germans towards the USA, with the result that the East appeared increasingly alien to them. Another aspect concerns their differing experiences of democracy. Although democracy was imposed on the West by the Allied occupation forces, it proved to be a successful model. By contrast, the East Germans shared the experience of being “other-directed” and of having to live under relatively restrictive, dictatorial conditions, of not being allowed to travel much, and of permanently lagging behind West Germany in terms of living standards.

The common link despite the differences

Despite these different experiences, was there a more deeply rooted sense of German identity to which people in both the East and the West were able to relate following reunification?

Yes, I am convinced there was. We share a language, a culture and a history, albeit one that in some respects was extremely criminal. What is more, unlike other divided states, we always had some cross-border contact – through churches and family relationships.

What role was played by common yearnings and fears?

We certainly share the same major historical myths – starting with Arminius of the Cherusci. There is a pool of shared memories, including of the crimes we have committed, which were suppressed and painstakingly brought back into the open. This explains for example the yearning for peace in Germany. If we look at the country today, what we see is a largely peaceable and demilitarized state.

What is done today to remember the experience of division – in the Forum of Contemporary History, for instance?

The system of critically engaging with Germany’s dictatorships is more sophisticated than in any other country in the world. This applies both to the leading state institutions and to programmes for schoolchildren. Three major points have yet to be clarified: what lasting impact do the exhibitions and events staged by the Forum of Contemporary History have on its three million visitors? How can we reach out to younger generations? And last but not least, the question of how we can involve the growing proportion of Germans with a migrant background in this German historical discourse remains entirely unanswered.

How important are institutional forms of engaging with the past, such as the Leipzig Festival of Lights?

During the Festival of Lights we remember the positive aspects – the things we have achieved and learnt from our experiences. Discourse takes place between the generations; grandchildren come along too, and the older generation describes how scared they were and where the army’s task forces were positioned at the main railway station. Personally, what I want to do is talk about the struggle for freedom, civil courage and resistance. I want to promote this part of history as a key element of German and European historical identity. That is my goal. We need this so that we can learn to say no when something is not acceptable. After all, situations which are unjust or not particularly fair can occur even in democratic societies.

A blueprint for reunification processes worldwide?

Was the division of Germany comparable to other divisions such as in India or Korea?

The differences are very considerable. The Koreans, for example, often ask about our experiences and want to learn for their own reunification process. Essentially, however, we can only report on our own experience. The circumstances are so very different that Germany’s reunification cannot serve as a blueprint for other reunification processes.

One might assume that the status quo of a division would be accepted after a generation or two and that the subject of division would be forgotten, though that is the case in neither India nor Korea.

When I was first in Korea ten years ago, my impression was that the older generation still had a very strong desire for reunification, yet younger South Koreans hardly felt this at all. Young South Koreans are very Western in terms of their orientation. They look towards the USA; that is their West.

A historian and political scientist, Professor Rainer Eckert has been the director of the Forum of Contemporary History in Leipzig since 2001 and an extraordinary professor of political science at Leipzig University since 2006. He is a member of various academic bodies, including the Board of Trustees of the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship. In September 2014 he brought out a book entitled “Opposition, Widerstand und Revolution. Widerständiges Verhalten in Leipzig im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert” (i.e. Opposition, Resistance and Revolution. Resistance in Leipzig in the 19th and 20th Centuries) published by the Archiv Bürgerbewegung Leipzig.