Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification, 1800-1996

By Richard J. Evans | Go to book overview

18

GERMAN REUNIFICATION IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

German reunification in 1989/90 caused a lot of anxiety in the world. The sight of vast crowds in Leipzig waving the national flag and roaring for ‘Deutschland, einig Vaterland!’—‘Germany, united fatherland!’—awakened uncomfortable memories of the nationalist enthusiasms of the past. Chancellor Kohl’s evident reluctance to acknowledge the validity of the present Polish-German border, the Oder-Neisse line, until forced to by his liberal coalition partners and by hostile international opinion aroused the suspicion that a united Germany might look for territorial gains in the East, at a time when an economically shattered country such as Poland hardly seemed in a position to resist whatever pressure the new colossus in Central Europe might bring to bear. National feeling was reviving all over Central and Eastern Europe, and the violence to which it has given rise in a number of areas, from Abkhazia and Azerbaijan to Bosnia and Bulgaria, is grimly suggestive of the emotive power which nationalism still possesses as the twentieth century draws to a close.

And there can surely be no doubt any more of the strength and resilience of feelings of national identity in Germany itself. Only a few years ago, before reunification, observers were proclaiming Germany to be a ‘postnational’ society, where local and regional identities and a general feeling of being European had largely superseded the national identification of the past. Opinion polls showed that only a minority of West Germans were proud of being German, in stark contrast to the strong feelings of national pride recorded by the pollsters in Britain or, still more, the USA. West German conservatives were lamenting the loss of national identity and orientation among the populace and trying to revive it by arguing for a more positive attitude towards the German past. The question of reunification figured well down the list of political issues which West Germans identified as urgent or important.

In the East, the Honecker regime was busy trying to create a separate sense of national identity through inventing a separate historical tradition for the regions which it occupied. Martin Luther, who was the subject of massive anniversary celebrations in 1983; Prussian heroes such as Frederick

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