Taken by surprise, German leaders managed to steer the rapid – and largely ad hoc – process of reunification with steady, expert hands. One piece of advice for the potential architects of a new Korean nation in Seoul or Pyongyang would be: slowly does it
Germany’s reunification – sudden, dramatic, peaceful – took its leaders by surprise. Little planning had been made in Bonn before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.
In the months that followed, the combination of Helmut Kohl’s ambition and the vast weight of public opinion made unification inevitable, but too many decisions were improvised and too much hope was invested. Kohl famously promised East Germans “Blühende Landschaften” (blossoming landscapes). The harsh realities left a bitter aftertaste for many people.
“Two decades after reunification, euphoria has given way to normalcy and, Germans being Germans, this means a degree of sobriety and melancholy,” says Dr Leonard Novy, a fellow at the Berlin-based thinktank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung. While support for a united Germany remains high, there is widespread consensus that bringing together vastly different economies and societies proved far more difficult than expected.
“Policy choices made under the dramatic circumstances of the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989-90 effectively equalled a sudden absorption of East Germany into the West,” says Novy. “This soon came to be perceived by many Easterners as a colonisation process driven by the West’s political and economic elites.”
On the one hand the difference between East and West Germany does not mean a lot to the younger generation any more. Usually people will not be able to tell whether TV hosts or pop stars are from Munich or Dresden. But this cultural convergence is in contrast to the economic situation of the country. Wages in the East are still lower, growth rates trail behind and unemployment continues to be higher than in the West. “Despite the fact that overall the peaceful unification of the two Germanies must be seen as a resounding success, the Wall still casts its shadows,” says Novy.
The German experience – a breathtakingly rapid reunification at significant costs – supports the argument for a more gradual process in Korea.