German reunification

process in 1990 in which the German Democratic Republic became part of the Federal Republic of Germany

German reunification refers to the process by which East Germany was dissolved and reintegrated into the Federal Republic of Germany. It began on 2 May 1989 after Hungary opened its border with Austria, allowing thousands of East Germans to flee there. This led to the Peaceful Revolution in which the Berlin Wall was torn down and in which East Germany allowed free elections of a new government which unified with West Germany. The process completed on 15 March 1991 when the two Germanies, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany recognizing the reunified German state as sovereign.


  • East Germany, apparently the most successful Communist regime, although with its economy wrecked by ideological mismanagement, was on the edge of bankruptcy in the autumn of 1989. It had only been able to continue that long thanks to large loans from the West, notably West Germany. As a sign of good relations, Erich Honecker paid an official visit to West Germany in 1987. However, the East German government could no longer finance its social programmes. Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, to which Honecker reacted critically, intensified the regime’s loss of legitimacy and, by September, East German society was dissolving as people, especially the younger generation, left in large numbers. Hungary’s opening of its Austrian border on 2 May had permitted substantial numbers of East Germans to leave for West Germany via Hungary and Austria. They abandoned not only economic failure but also the lack of modern civilisation in the shape of free expression, tolerance, opportunity and cultural vitality. Hungary refused to heed pressure from East Germany to stem the tide of departures, and Gorbachev was unwilling to help. In the first nine months of the year, 110,000 East Germans resettled in West Germany.
  • Others took part in mass demonstrations in East Germany, notably in the major city of Leipzig from 4 September, with steadily larger numbers demonstrating. A sense of failure and emptiness demoralised supporters of the regime, while West German consumerist democracy, and what had been pejoratively termed the fetishism of ‘things’, proved far more attractive to the bulk of the population. The repressive state, moreover, no longer terrified. Indeed, it had suffered a massive failure of intelligence, with a serious inability to understand developments, let alone to anticipate them. All its intercepted letters and spying availed the Stasi naught. In addition, the situation was very different to that when East Germany had faced disturbances in 1953 and 1961: unwilling to compromise its domestic and international reputation, the regime did not wish to rely on force. The old ruthlessness was no longer there: the Leninist instinct for survival had been lost. The East German army anyway was unwilling to act. Moreover, the nature of the demonstrations – both peaceful and without central leadership – lessened the opportunity for repression; not that that had stopped the Chinese authorities earlier in the year.
  • Honecker was deposed by his colleagues on 16 October 1989, but, under pressure from popular action, they could not gain control of the situation, nor even, more significantly, produce an impression of control. The entire government and Politburo resigned on 7–8 November, and, on 9 November, the Berlin Wall was opened. An occasion and symbol of freedom, the Fall of the Wall became a totemic act, like that of the Bastille in Paris in 1789 at the outset of the French Revolution. However, whereas only a few insignificant prisoners were freed from the Bastille, large numbers of East Berliners poured over the now open border. The significance of the popular action in East Germany in 1989 was picked out in March 2014 when President Park Geun-hye of South Korea spoke in Dresden setting out proposals to ease reunification with North Korea. Developments in East Germany invite counterfactuals including, ‘What if the Hungarians had not opened their Austrian border, permitting a mass exodus of East Germans that destabilised the state?’, as well as the question whether the East German system could have been stabilised by removing Honecker earlier, and giving reform Communism a greater chance.
  • On the very same day the first brick of the Ram Shila foundation was being laid at Ayodhya, the Berliners were removing bricks from the Berlin Wall. While a temple was going up in Ayodhya, a communist temple was being demolished five thousand miles away in Europe. If this is not history, I do not know what is. (...) The post-Nehru era began at Ayodhya on November 9, and it will gather momentum in the years to come, just as the post-communist era in Europe and elsewhere.
    • Jay Dubashi (commenting on these two important events on the same day on November 9, 1989), From Shilanyas to Berlin Wall in The Road to Ayodhya (also [1]), quoted from Elst, Koenraad (2014). Decolonizing the Hindu mind: Ideological development of Hindu revivalism. New Delhi: Rupa. p.302-3
  • I find it difficult to say whether the leadership's 'second echelon' could have preserved the German Democratic Republic. Helmut Kohl later told me he had never believed that Egon Krenz was capable of getting the situation under control. I do not know - we are all wiser after the event, as the saying goes. For my part, I must admit I briefly had a faint hope that the new leaders would be able to change the course of events by establishing a new type of relations between the two German states - based on radical domestic reforms in East Germany.
  • In the summer of 1989, neither Helmut Kohl nor I anticipated ... that everything would happen so fast. We didn’t expect the wall to come down in November. And by the way, we both admitted that later. I don’t claim to be a prophet. This happens in history: it accelerates its progress. It punishes those who are late. But it has an even harsher punishment for those who try to stand in its way. It would have been a big mistake to hold onto the Iron Curtain. That is why we didn’t put any pressure on the government of the GDR. When events started to develop at a speed that no one expected, the Soviet leadership unanimously – and I want to stress “unanimously” – decided not to interfere in the internal processes that were under way in the GDR, not to let our troops leave their garrisons under any circumstances. I am confident to this day that it was the right decision.
  • That summer of 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution, Moscow lost its grip on the handle of Soviet power. In August, history descended into irony when a member of the European Parliament, Otto von Habsburg, pretender to the Austro-Hungarian throne, co-sponsored a ‘pan-European picnic’ on the AustriaHungary border. Hundreds of East Germans trekked to it and, in a gesture of friendship, officials temporarily opened the border gates. Six hundred ‘picnickers’ stampeded across before they closed–and did not return. Pandemonium ensued as thousands rushed to the spot. On 11 September the Hungarian government announced that they could no longer control the border. It opened, and some 30,000 East Germans crossed to the west. The Iron Curtain was breached, and the East German leader, Erich Honecker, resigned. In October the Hungarian government declared a new republic and free elections. A month later, on 9 November 1989, East Germany announced that east–west movement through the Berlin Wall would be eased. As crowds rushed the gates, soldiers abandoned all attempts to stop them. Ecstatic masses climbed the wall and lined its fortifications. Pictures of this photogenic symbol of ideological collapse flashed round the globe.
    • Simon Jenkins, A Short History of Europe: From Putin to Pericles (2018)
  • The forty-year-old Iron Curtain fell because tens of thousands of people, long denied democracy, simply voted with their feet. They were able to do so because Gorbachev had abandoned the centralized discipline on which the Soviet empire relied. Other regimes lacked the political will to enforce the incarceration of an entire generation of Europeans. Later that month, I visited a small border village in Upper Saxony to witness local people cutting their stretch of the fence. They rushed through the gap to embrace their erstwhile neighbours, elderly relatives whom they had thought they would never see again. It was a tear-stained vignette of Europe’s most uplifting moment since the end of the Second World War. A divide had been crossed, but had a division been ended?
    • Simon Jenkins, A Short History of Europe: From Putin to Pericles (2018)
  • West Germany’s Helmut Kohl was on a visit to Poland in November 1989 when told of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is said he wept tears of joy. He called for the immediate reunification of his country. Both France and Britain were less sure. Thatcher seemed to regret the passing of the old order, and warned that a reunited ‘Germany would once again dominate the whole of Europe’. To Kohl it was a matter of practicality. In just two months from the opening of the wall, 200,000 East Germans migrated to the west. East Germany’s economy faced collapse. There was not even a plebiscite on reunification. Elections were held and by July 1990 new members from the East German provinces took their seats in the Reichstag. A vote was then taken on moving Germany’s capital back to Berlin, decided on a tide of emotion driven by the East Germans. The new provinces became a sorely depressed part of Europe’s richest state and were to emerge as its most conservative region politically. The former east contributed just five per cent to German output, but was to double the national debt.
    • Simon Jenkins, A Short History of Europe: From Putin to Pericles (2018)
  • I am not the one trying to speed things up. We are being driven.
    • Helmut Kohl
    • On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The idea of German reunification, often discussed but considered unrealistic, once again became a subject of heated debate. Reunification now appeared inevitable, but scarcely anyone ventured to prophesy how soon it would come. German chancellor Helmut Kohl remarked those mentioned words when was accused of pushing unification plans too fast.
    • "The Dream of European Unity", Awake! magazine, (December 22, 1991).
  • By 1989, shooting people on the border was unacceptable, and even the cosseted old men at Wandlitz knew it. None the less, the Wall still stood proud and ugly, with its sturdy blocks, its spikes and fences and alarms and watch-towers, seemingly permanent and impregnable. Its fate would not be determined in Berlin. Mostly it would be decided hundreds of miles away, by people who had decided that a Communism which needed to be enforced by guns and barbed wire was not a Communism worth having.
  • The French writer, Albert Camus, once lamented that "man eventually becomes accustomed to everything". I have always believed that this is an unjustly pessimistic view of our human condition; and in recent weeks I have seen enough to convince me that Camus, on this point at least, was wrong: 30,000 East Germans abandoning home, friends, jobs, everything, to escape to a new life of opportunity but also uncertainty in the West; thousands of Soviet miners striking not for more pay, but for better supplies; the joy of Poles as they greet their first non-Communist Prime Minister in 40 years; over a million inhabitants of the Baltic states forming a human chain to protest against the forced annexation of their nations; demonstrators in Prague braving the security forces to mark the 21st anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion; or in Leipzig calling for freedom of speech. Clearly the peoples of the East have not become accustomed to their lot. Totalitarian rule has not made people less attracted by freedom, democracy and self-determination. The opposite is true. Nor has it made them incapable of exercising these values through political organization and self-expression: look at the debates in the new Congress of the People's Deputies, the activities of the popular fronts, Solidarity in Poland or the opposition parties in Hungary. The demand for pluralism and reform can now be heard in every Eastern nation.

See also


  Encyclopedic article on German reunification on Wikipedia

  Media related to German reunification on Wikimedia Commons