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Fireworks explode over the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin as tens of thousands gather to celebrate the reunification of the two Germanys, Oct. 3, 1990.


Thirty years ago today, a country peacefully chose to stop existing. By itself, that’s one of the rarest things in history. But the October 3, 1990 dissolution of the communist German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and its absorption into the Federal Republic of Germany has turned out to be something else entirely, something like the creation of a new ethnic group.

Germans call it “reunification,” and today is a holiday known as Day of German Unity. But nobody who lives in the “new federal states,” as the former GDR is known, really sees it as anything resembling unity, except in the narrowly institutional sense.

Politically, the choice during the 11 months after the Wall fell to merge the countries rather than give the GDR independence was contentious. It was opposed by foreign leaders such as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and France’s François Mitterrand, who feared it would turn Germany into Europe’s powerhouse. They weren’t wrong about that. It was also opposed by Germans who feared GDR residents would become second-class citizens. They also weren’t completely wrong.

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Yet nobody could honestly say they made the wrong choice.

A recent incident made that profoundly clear. Two weeks before today’s anniversary, a woman who spent half her life as a citizen of the GDR, Angela Merkel, made the short journey from her office to the Charité Hospital, whose windows once peered westward over the Death Strip of the Berlin Wall. (Several attempted escapees were shot within their view.) There she had a private meeting with a man she had personally ordered rescued from Russia in a coma, democratic opposition leader Alexey Navalny, whose poisoning has been plausibly blamed on a former KGB spy once assigned to East Germany, Vladimir Putin. She told him, in fluent Russian: “I only did my duty.”

That is a profound historic reversal, on several levels. Yet that sense of having been rescued is not shared by everyone who grew up in that vanished country. What they do share is a sense of having been brutally traumatized, over and over, then left behind. My neighbours in the corner of ex-GDR where I recently lived still liked to use the phrase die Mauer im Kopf – the wall in your head – to describe their very different world view.

From outside, you’d think 30 years is long enough to recover from a dictatorship, especially since the GDR regime only lasted 41 years. Aren’t these the same Prussians and Saxons who lived here before the War?

To understand why they’re not – why they’re an entirely different people – you have to recognize the extraordinary series of traumas and population shocks they endured.

First was the war itself, in which much of the male population died, and most Jewish Germans were murdered or expelled. That experience was shared by all of Germany, but not what came next.

Second was the invasion flight. As Soviet troops marched across the Oder in 1945, better-informed Germans foresaw the coming rape and occupation, and fled to Hamburg or Hanover. By the end of 1946, the population of eastern Germany dropped by 18.4 per cent. Those who fled tended to be the most educated and able.

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Third was the brutal forced march of 12 to 14 million ethnic Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania and the Baltic states into postwar Germany immediately after the war. That brought at least four million impoverished, traumatized people into the eastern states.

Fourth was the isolation, during the 41 years of the Iron Curtain, from the outside world. As West Germany’s booming economy made it increasingly diverse and polyglot, East Germany went the opposite way – its only immigrants, other than Soviet soldiers, were Vietnamese and Romanian migrant labourers isolated in dormitories.

Fifth was a second flight of population after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The GDR economy was immediately converted on a one-to-one basis into more valuable Deutschmarks, a move that rendered the region’s businesses uncompetitive but meant anyone with a bit of savings suddenly had just enough to depart for the west. The former East Germany lost about 15 per cent of its population – and once again, those who departed were disproportionately educated, young, and female. To add insult, thousands of educated westerners headed east to take the better jobs funded by reconstruction money.

This week Wolfgang Schäuble, the conservative president of the German parliament and the politician who negotiated reunification for the west, confessed the process had been a mistake: “We didn’t understand enough what kind of completely different experiences the East Germans had,” he said. When you consider the full scope of those experiences, you realize that unity may be a political and economic reality, but the walls will remain in people’s heads.

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