Tensions remain 20 years after German unity

The two German states have been reunified since October 3, 1990 Keystone

Peaceful mass demonstrations in the German Democratic Republic led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and less than a year later to the reunification of Germany.

This content was published on October 2, 2010
Etienne Strebel,

This momentous event also had an impact on Switzerland, with fears rising over its bigger German neighbour. But experts say the Swiss and east Germans in particular are more similar than commonly thought.

“I have been living in the East of Germany since 1991 and think I can judge whether people’s lives are better now than then,” Peter S. Kaul, Swiss honorary consul in the eastern German city of Dresden, told

“With regard to infrastructure, housing, quality of life and living conditions, people are much better off,” he said with conviction.

Yet the initial euphoria following German reunification has been replaced with a measure of disillusionment.

Kaul thinks he knows why many former East Germans consider their living environment to be worse now.

“My view is that they miss the human dimension. GDR society developed a much stronger culture of community and responsibility for one another. Partly this arose out of need, there were shortages of just about everything, so people traded with each other.

“This produced a solidarity, which you don’t find nowadays. Today it’s becoming a dog-eat-dog society, but not to the same extent as in western Germany.”

Swiss centre-left Social Democrat parliamentarian Andreas Gross says he was never a friend of the GDR. “It was not a state of law, and I was very happy when it collapsed,” he told

But unification could and should have been seen as a process of integration, he said.

“Instead East Germany was annexed by West Germany, which many East Germans quite rightly saw as an undeserved humiliation, robbing them of the chance to bring their achievements to the new Germany,” said Gross, who understands the tensions thanks to his teaching position at Jena University, also in the east of Germany.

Similar fears and mentality

“The enlarged Germany seems to make many Swiss more afraid than the old West Germany did,” Gross said.

“Switzerland was made painfully aware of the greater self-assurance of the German government in the airport and tax disputes between the two countries. Switzerland forgot to ask whether Germany might have been representing European interests, which in fact it was,” Gross added.

“Sheer fear prevented many Swiss from seeing that the East Germans suffered as much from the arrogance of sections of the West German elite as they did. But this is one reason why Swiss are very popular in eastern Germany.”

Kaul agrees. He says the people of Saxony are very like the Swiss in many ways.

“They are not as self-confident as many people from the old West Germany. They look at things with detachment. If they think something could be good, they approach it pragmatically. That’s why so many Swiss feel at home in eastern Germany.”

Another reason why Switzerland enjoys a positive image in eastern Germany is the Swiss firms who have invested in the region. “Jobs were created, helping to energise the economy,” said Kaul.

Gate to the East

But the Swiss can also profit from eastern German firms, the honorary consul believes. “They can deal better with crises than firms in Switzerland or western Germany, given that since the collapse of communism they have known nothing but a crisis situation.”

People hardly complain, he says. “They work hard and people know that without effort you don’t enjoy success. People here are unbelievably good at innovation.”

“I see eastern Germany today as above all a gate to the eastern European Union states,” said Kaul. “I can only recommend that Swiss enterprises wanting to invest in Russia, Poland or Ukraine should start there.”

Investing in eastern Germany first and gaining local know-how would prepare these firms for the step eastwards, he says.

“Because apart from being well educated, the people here know the mentality of the eastern Europeans, how they think and act. And that is often very alien to the Swiss.”

German reunification

The peaceful revolution of 1989 and 1990 led to the eastern GDR joining the western German Democratic Republic to become the Federal Republic of Germany on October 3, 1990.

This day has become known as the end of the Cold War and as German Unity Day, which is celebrated every year.

After being divided into two parts for 28 years, the Berlin Wall fell during the night of November 10, 1989. Many people from east Berlin took the opportunity to go into the west of the city, which had long been forbidden to them. Images of people’s joy during that night have become part of history.

German reunification started off a process which saw a rapprochement between east and west Europe. A main result has been that the European Union has grown from 12 to 27 member states. The Iron Curtain has fallen.

Germany was officially reunited on October 3, 1990, after the two states signed an agreement. This set out eastern Germany’s accession to western Germany and making Germany a sovereign state. It has to be approved by the Allied powers – Americans, British, French and Soviets - from the Second World War.

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