Germany (post–World War II)

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the leaders Winston Churchill of Great Britain, Franklin Roosevelt of the United States, and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union agreed that Germany would be divided into four zones of occupation following its military defeat. The three countries and the French would each control one zone. In addition the capital city of Berlin, which lay within the Soviet zone, would also be divided into four sectors, one for each ally. The political leaders did not anticipate that these occupation zones would lead to a formal division of Germany into two separate nations. But in the context of growing tensions between Western and Eastern Allies, which laid the basis for the cold war, Germany became the primary battleground in a new kind of war, one of ideology rather than direct con- flict. The division, formally made in 1949, lasted until reunification on October 3, 1990. The three western zones fused together as the Federal Republic of Germany, a nation reconstituted as a parliamentary democracy; the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic, with a communist-dominated government.

Initially, the Allies endeavored to administer their zones by developing interzonal policies, through the auspices of the Allied Control Council. As part of their reparations the Soviets began to strip their zone of foodstuffs, livestock, transportation networks, and even entire factories. A major breaking point occurred in early 1948 as the three Western Allies—joined by Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg—called for the western zones of occupation to be eligible for Marshall Plan aid from the United States. This paved the way for a proposal to fuse the three western zones together economically and to introduce a common currency, the deutschmark, in May 1948. The former Allies were now clearly on opposite sides of a new war, and former enemies, the Germans, had become the respective allies of the two hostile superpowers.


Each of these new German nations had to grapple with the legacy of the Third Reich as they wrote new con- stitutions, revised legal codes, rebuilt their devastated economies, and struggled to find a new identity. A first step in the process was for occupation authorities to allow the revival or creation of political parties. Occu- pation authorities first encouraged politics to resume at the local and regional levels, while the question of national unity remained uncertain. By 1947 each of the regions, or Länder, in the western zones of occupa- tion was led by a minister president, who was chosen by directly elected parliamentary assemblies. A similar process emerged in the Soviet zone, but with much less freedom of choice.

It was apparent that the four occupation zones would not be unified as one political entity. The Western powers began to take steps toward encouraging the fusing of their zones, politically as well as economically. They authorized the West Germans to hold a constitutional assembly, draft a constitution, and secure its ratification by the state parliaments. This assembly convened in September 1948 and worked for nine months, compromising over issues such as the balance between state and federal powers. West Germany ratified its constitution in May 1949, held its first nationwide elections in August 1949, and narrowly chose Konrad Adenauer as its first chancellor.

In the Soviet zone, the process of encouraging German-style socialism was abandoned in the Soviet drive to secure compliance from its satellite states by 1947. In its stead, political parties on the Left called a People’s Congress into session at the end of 1947. By October 1948 this congress of about 2,000 delegates had written and approved a constitution for what would become East Germany. On October 7, 1949, the Congress voted unanimously to form the German Democratic Republic.

Economic rebuilding in West Germany received an enormous boost from the United States through Marshall Plan aid. This led to the German Economic Miracle; by the mid-1950s the West German economy was robust. The volume of foreign trade tripled between 1954 and 1964, while unemployment dropped from between 8 and 9 percent in 1952 to less than 1 percent by 1961. In 1957 Germany joined with five other western European nations (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Italy) in the European Economic Community (EEC). The EEC created a common market, which allowed for the free movement of goods and people, facilitated stronger economic growth in a collective sense, and eliminated taxes and tariffs among its members. Amid considerable internal controversy and over strong French protest, West Germany also rearmed itself and joined NATO in 1955.

East Germany’s economy was closely tied to that of the Soviet Union, as it instituted centralized economic planning, reduced private ownership of property, and seized and either collectivized or redistributed farmlands. In 1950 it joined Comecon, and in 1955, the Warsaw Pact. Relations between the East Germans and the Soviets were strained during the first decade of West German existence, exacerbated by the Soviets’ stripping of the eastern zone in the immediate aftermath of the war; the brutal treatment of German civilians, particularly women, at the hands of the Soviet military; and the economic hardships created by the transition to state-centralized economic planning. It also led to a serious drain of workers; by 1952 more than 700,000 East Germans had fled to the West.

Tensions between West and East Germany increased again in the late 1950s, sparked by the steady stream of young, productive, educated workers from East Germany to West Germany. In the summer of 1961, by which time more than 3 million East Germans had fled to the west since 1949, Nikita Khrushchev, premier of the Soviet Union, spoke out against the infiltration of Western saboteurs and imperialists into the East and the necessity of “protecting” the people of East Germany from Western propaganda. This war of words culminated on August

13, 1961, when the citizens of the divided city of Berlin awoke to the sounds of construction. East German soldiers began to build a wall, one that eventually stretched for more than 100 miles, completely encircling the city of West Berlin, with minimal access through military checkpoints. The wall cut across streets and through subway and train stations, and separated families, religious congregations, and friends, dividing them for 28 years and 4 months, until it fell on November 9, 1989.

The 1960s in West Germany were marked by generational conflict and the resurgence of the political left. Student movements in the 1960s in West Germany grew in response to a host of causes: nuclear disarmament, outdated curriculum and inadequate resources at universities, and Bonn’s support for U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In 1966 the West German economy, which had boomed for more than 15 years, suffered a depression, leading to increased unemployment and stagnation in industrial production. In addition, the political dominance of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) came to end, as the parties were forced to build a coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to formulate policy in November 1966. This marked the first incursion of the SPD into the postwar West German cabinet. The power of the SPD continued to rise, culminating with its electoral victory in 1969, which gave it the majority of seats within the parliament and propelled Willy Brandt into the position of chancellor, which he held until May 1974.

Within East Germany, the economy stabilized. The government, under the control of Walter Ulbricht, ensured higher production of consumer goods, built limited flexibility into centralized economic planning, and achieved an average annual increase in industrial production of 7 percent by 1967. Greater choices among clothing, food, and leisure activities also grew. But by the late 1960s, the climate turned harsher; under a new constitution, basic freedoms, such as the rights to emigrate, were stripped away. Ulbricht resigned in 1971.

During the late 1960s the development of Ostpolitik, a thawing of relations between East and West, mediated the strict foreign policy of the Hallstein doctrine, established in 1955. This doctrine stated that the Federal Republic of Germany was the sole authoritative government of the German people and as such demanded that diplomatic recognition never be extended to East Germany. Among the practical implications of this policy was the fact that West Germany did not extend diplomatic relations to any of the Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe. Given the economic downturn and the need for expansion of export markets, the new coalition government first extended trade relations, and then diplomatic relations, with states in eastern Europe. Negotiations culminated in December 1972, when the governments of West and East Germany signed the Basic Treaty, which guaranteed respect for the borders, officially recognized each other’s independence, and promised to renounce the use of force.


Since October 3, 1990, Germany has been a unified country again. Germany was first unified and subse- quently became a nation-state in 1871. The date Octo- ber 3, 1990, marks the day West Germany (Bundesre- publik Deutschland, or BRD) integrated East Germany (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or DDR) under one political system: the democracy (Rechtsstaat) of the Fed- eral Republic of Germany. Five new states were added to the existing 11, and the population grew by about 18 mil- lion, making Germany, with over 80 million inhabitants, the most populous country of the European Union. In 2000 Berlin again became the capital of Germany.

By 1989 the two states had established themselves firmly as separate players on the world stage, with West Germany never having given up on the possibility of reunification. In January of that year, however, Erich Honecker—the GDR head of state and general secretary of the communist SED Party—confidently declared that the Berlin Wall would still stand in 50 or 100 years. Nonetheless, reform movements had begun to ripple through a few communist countries, beginning with the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s, and in September 1989 Hungary opened its borders to Austria, allowing thousands of East Germans to escape via Hungary and Austria to West Germany.

The festivities for the 40th anniversary of East Germany, on October 7, 1989, were accompanied by demonstrations demanding democracy and freedom of expression. Moreover, the vast majority of East Germans could monitor the wealth of West Germany via radio and television, and the contrast was too stark to be tolerated any longer. Even the “big brother,” the Soviet Union, talked of reforms, and in 1989 its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, famously admonished the East German government to engage in change. By midOctober Honecker, who had been in power since 1971, was forced to resign and Egon Krenz took over. October continued to be marked by numerous sizable demonstrations. On November 7 the East German government resigned while the demonstrations continued. On the evening of November 9 the East German leadership suddenly opened the borders to West Germany and to West Berlin, permitting thousands of East Germans to visit the West for the first time in their lives.

The modern skyline of Frankfurt, Germany. After reunification, the German government strongly supported moves toward greater European integration and common action, but the German population was less certain.

The remaining months brought rapid change for East Germans and their country. On November 10 East German soldiers began to take down the wall, and Hans Modrow became the new head of state. In December the Brandenburg Gate opened up to two-way traffic. Early 1990 saw more demonstrations. In February Helmut Kohl, chancellor of West Germany, met with Gorbachev, who granted Germany the right to unify and to do so at its own pace. In East Germany free elections were held in March for the first time, and in April, Lothar de Maizière became head of state; his coalition decided to unify East and West Germany according to Article 23 of West Germany’s constitution. Negotiations began between East Berlin and Bonn and between the Allied forces, who still had soldiers in both Germanies. In June another symbol of the divided states, the border crossing at Checkpoint Charlie, was demolished. In July the West German mark was designated as the common currency for both Germanies. In late August East German leaders decided that East Germany would join West Germany on October 3, 1990, and on September 12, 1990, the four Allied powers, the foreign minister of West Germany, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and de Maizière signed the reunification contract in Moscow. Germany regained its sovereignty on October 1, and the four Allied powers suspended their rights. On October 3, 1990, Germany, after 45 years of separation, was once again one country. The date became an official holiday in Germany.


Following political reunification with the former Ger- man Democratic Republic on October 3, 1990, the Fed- eral Republic of Germany grappled with how to merge its economic structures, legal codes, educational institu- tions, and most important, population into one unified nation; arguably the larger process is not yet complete. In addition, the stunningly quick reunification, not even one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, brought with it unintended and unforeseen consequences. Germany struggled with an economic downturn, the pressure of larger political integration with the European Union, spikes in both anti-Semitism and xenophobia, and the growth of splinter political parties on the far Right and far Left, while still facing the fundamental question of whether or not the Germans truly stand as one people.

One of the first steps after signing the official treaty to reunify the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic under article 23 of the Basic Law was to make provisions for including the former East German lands in the parliamentary system. In the first post-unification election, in Decem- ber 1990, Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won the most seats in four of the five former eastern states; the only state where the CDU polled the second-largest number of votes was in Brandenburg, where the Social Democratic Party (SPD) won more votes. The CDU continued to hold control of the government until the national elections of 1998 brought the SPD, under the leadership of Gerhard Schröder, into power. However, its inability to garner a clear majority of votes ushered in the so-called Red-Green coalition, building an alliance between the SPD and the Green Party. The CDU regained control over the government in the elections of May 2005, resulting in the election of Germany’s first female chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is also the first chancellor of reunified Germany to have come from the former eastern lands.

In June 1991 the capital of Germany was transferred to Berlin. By 1994 a plan for moving the institutions of government had been drafted, and the process was complete by 1999. This vote had important implications, economic as well as symbolic. Undertaking this massive transfer of labor, offices, and institutions from Bonn to Berlin was extremely expensive; some estimates of costs ranged as high as $70 billion. This was fiercely debated given the shaky economic ground of Germany in the early 1990s. However, moving the capital to its historic place had another set of meanings. Placing the seat of government within former eastern lands indicated the state’s commitment to full integration of the two portions of Germany and shifted the orientation of the government further to the east.

As a unified state, Germany is the most populous in western and central Europe at more than 80 million inhabitants. It is the third-largest state in terms of land and also one of the most industrialized and prosperous nations in Europe. But despite these advantages in population and industrial capability, the economic recession of 1992 had devastating effects on the newly unified German nation. The integration process proved to be ruinous for the eastern region; as demand for their products dropped off precipitously, hundreds of factories closed and millions of workers lost their jobs. Despite some optimistic projections, deindustrialization was the immediate effect, not economic growth. Between 1990 and 1991 the Gross National Product (GNP) of the East declined by 33.4 percent. Industrial production fell by 67 percent in 1990–92, while the prices of goods increased by 12 percent. A total of 3 million jobs were lost, amounting to close to 50 percent of its total workforce. The agricultural sector was particularly hard hit, losing 800,000 jobs from a total of about 1 million. Older workers were at a serious disadvantage, lacking the education and skills necessary in the transition economy. Of the workers aged 52 to 63 who were employed before the fall of the wall, 90 percent were unemployed following unification.

Economic development in the East would rebound slowly. Any waste was slashed at those entities that did manage to stay afloat. A complicating factor was that the “natural” market for their goods and services was floundering. Another difficulty encountered in the process was dealing with the claims (more than 1.5 million) of those who had lost property under the establishment of the communist state in 1949. When the Treuhand concluded its operations in 1994, it was running a deficit of 300 billion marks, a debt that had to be assumed by the unified German government.

When the economic recession of 1992 hit, its impact was even more severe in the East. By 1993 more than 10 percent of the German workforce was unemployed, the highest level in the West in more than three decades, and an unheard-of phenomenon in the east, where chronic unemployment underneath communism did not exist. Although unemployment reached its nadir in late 1994, it continued at rates higher than before unification. As of 1997 eastern unemployment stood at 18.3 percent, whereas in the West it was 9.7 percent. By the end of 2005 unemployment rates overall stood at just over 11 percent. The German government, under the leadership of Helmut Kohl, remedied this drain on economic resources in part through an increase in taxes. This tension between “Wessis” and “Ossis” persists, with many in the East feeling as if their entire former way of life has been discredited and devalued, and many in the West blaming the East for difficult economic times. A common expression is that a wall remains in the heads of many, still separating West and East.

One of the most visible, public reactions against the economic downturn and the dislocations caused by reunification was the backlash against foreigners. With the fall of communism across eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the regional conflict in the Balkans, the number of people seeking asylum in Germany jumped dramatically in the 1990s, at precisely the same time that the country was struggling to provide jobs, housing, and basic welfare to its own citizens. One aspect of the fallout from this development was an increase in the membership of right-wing political parties that emphasize “Germany for the Germans.” Although the public reaction against “foreigners” was even more negative in the former eastern lands than in the West, across Germany violence reached a height in

1992, with more than 2,600 violent acts taken against immigrants, their neighborhoods, and their businesses. This led to stricter asylum legislation in 1993 as well as widespread public demonstrations against the acts and the attitudes that lay behind them. A more recent development was a strong immigration stream of Jews, particularly from the former Soviet Union, which led to some spikes in anti-Semitism.

One of the largest groups suffering dislocations following unification was working women. In West Germany, women were not encouraged to hold full-time jobs and develop careers; in East Germany women were an integral part of the workforce. In 1989 at the time of the fall of the wall, only 51 percent of women were working in West Germany while 91 percent were employed in the East. After unification, as unemployment skyrocketed in the East, women were disproportionately represented among those who lost their jobs. Marriage and birth rates in the former eastern lands dropped drastically in the years immediately following unification, and divorce rates surged.

Germany’s position within Europe also shifted after unification, with important debates about the country’s role within larger institutions—such as NATO and the emerging European Union—garnering public attention both in Germany and in the larger international arena. Although the German government strongly supported moves toward greater integration and common action, the German population was less certain. For example, when the European Union was trying to launch its common currency, the euro, in 1998, six out of 10 Germans did not want to give up the deutschmark in exchange for the euro. In 2005 an attempt to adopt a political constitution for the European Union was defeated in both Germany and France. Although economic unification clearly had its benefits for the German economy, its people remained wary. However, the German public still strongly supported the military alliance, NATO, as a means of providing for security and coordinated international efforts to combat crime and terrorism.

See also Berlin blockade/airlift.


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