German Reunification: Problems and Research Methods

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  • Topic: Germany, West Germany, German reunification
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  • Published : May 1, 2008
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In the worldwide arena of comparative politics, the reunification of Germany in 1990 was a pivotal point in time. With the players coming from opposite ends of the political and economic spectrum, the reunification set the stage for major changes both in Germany and the entire European community. These changes offered an important model which comparitivists continue to use in order to examine questions and issues raised by the integration of such different societies and governments. One such crucial political puzzle involves a question still extremely relevant today: how does a formerly totalitarian nation leave behind every social and cultural aspect of their past government in order to evolve into a democratic state? Similarly, another key issue involves transition as well: how would a previously communist economy be converted to capitalism – and essentially dive into a completely unfamiliar competitive environment – without collapsing under the strain? These questions provide two different lenses through which an observer can scrutinize the reunification of Germany in order to gain an understanding more broadly applicable to the field of comparative politics.

The process of democratization was a source of swift and indelible social, political, and cultural change for the East and West Germans alike. In East Germany, the process involved the systematic breakdown of their former government, and the permanent transition and consolidation of West German policies and power. For many, the political landscape of the Europe they grew up with no longer existed; with the way things had been, there simply were no “Trabbis” – a standard-issue East German automobile – on the other side of the iron curtain (Reimann 1998, 1988). Yet despite the expectation of swift equalization, the transition had a profound impact on daily lives on both sides of the not-so-forgotten Wall. At the time, Helmut Kohl’s Ten Point Plan and policies of unification were a remarkable political success, securing his re-election in 1990. He famously promised that unification would create “flourishing landscapes” in the new East German Länder at virtually no cost to the West Germans (Hefeker 2003, 109). However, on top of the massive economic problems that arose in eastern Germany soon, if not immediately, afterward, reunification has led to long-lasting socioeconomic cleavages between East and West Germans (Edinger 1998, 180).

The possible ways to examine the impact of democratization on the citizens of a country going through it are seemingly infinite. After all, can one truly quantify the effect of the change on an individual? The social aspects of the transition and the implications the change held for culture and identity were more intricate than the actual process itself, and more likely to come across unforeseen consequences. Even the question of how the nations should go about with unification was a cause of disagreement. The choice between the two directions of unification was most evident in the constitution, between Article 23 and Article 146 of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The difference, at its core, was the choice between accession and gradual integration (Quint 1997, 47-55). German unification ended up taking place via Article 23, as East Germany acceded to the FRG. The effects were extreme – overnight, it seemed that “eighteen million former GDR citizens found themselves governed by a legal regime of which they knew next to nothing and which fit many of their needs poorly at best” (Reimann 1998, 1989).

Studies made by comparitivists on the reunification and its social and cultural connotations employed a host of approaches. Polling and comparison are basic yet fairly effective ways of seeking and observing public sentiment. When both East and West Germans were asked by political leaders in the mid-nineties to give up a work-free...
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