Lange: Becoming One Nation

Sep 30, 2015

Germany is in the news a lot these days as it struggles to take in the thousands of refugees that arrive each day.

Twenty-five years ago, the country faced a different challenge - but one with certain parallels.  On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany officially reunited.  In legal terms, what actually happened was that East Germany joined West Germany. 

For East Germans, this meant that the state of which they had been citizens up to that day simply vanished – along with much of their frame of reference.  For many, especially those middle-aged and older, reunification meant not only celebration, but also culture shock: Trying to figure out the intricate webs of meaning by which people navigate their everyday lives.  

Sure, East and West Germans spoke the same language  – though after 40 years of near total separation, a number of differences in usage had developed.  And unlike today’s refugees, they didn’t come from thousands of miles away.  But they, too, had to learn how to function in a new society, one that operated by a different set of rules – most fundamentally, those of a market economy instead of a planned economy. 

Much of East Germany’s economy, which had long been near collapse, did not survive integration.  Unemployment in the East skyrocketed.  Those who were able to find new jobs often discovered that their skills and mindsets were quite unsuited to what was expected of them, and that Western colleagues seemed to think that life in the East had been an unmitigated disaster.  When Easterners tried to talk about aspects of life they had appreciated and were now missing – like their favorite brand of coffee, the TV shows they had watched, job security, or the greater sense of community they had experienced - they were often met with blank faces by Westerners, who felt that they should stop complaining and just appreciate their new and better lives.

The challenges faced by the refugees arriving in Germany these days are on a different scale.  Still, my hope is that Germans can draw on the process of reunification for inspiration in helping the refugees get settled. The country’s dominant – though not unchallenged - spirit these days is one of Zuversicht – a kind of “Yes we can” attitude. It‘s a spirit that needs to be actively cultivated, in Germany and everywhere – and it’s one that seems appropriate for celebrating the Day of German Unity.