The reunification of Germany in 1989/90 caught almost everyone on the intellectual scene in the Federal Republic by surprise. On the left, Germany’s division had long been regarded as part of the price paid for the crimes of Nazism, and advocates of reunification as dangerous reactionaries who harked back to the days of the Bismarckian Empire if not the pan-Germanism of the Third Reich. Communist East Germany was depicted in neutral, even to some extent favourable, terms, often simply as a different kind of democracy, rather than a tyranny that had to be overthrown, or a part of Germany wrongfully under foreign occupation. Militant anti-Communism of the sort which became commonplace in the United States once more under the Reagan presidency appeared threatening because any serious attempt to conquer East Germany by force would inevitably lead to a war on German soil, with massive devastation caused by the use of tactical nuclear weapons. On the whole, therefore, reunification was opposed on the West German left because it raised old ghosts of German history and conjured up the nightmare of a nuclear holocaust.
When reunification actually happened, the left was completely wrongfooted. Some writers, most notably Günther Grass, openly opposed it from the outset, seeing in it a dangerous stimulus to the revival of old-style German nationalism. Most, however, were completely silent. The compromise position adopted by the Social Democratic Party—reunification was inevitable, but it ought to be accomplished more slowly and in a more cautious manner—may have been retrospectively defensible in the light of the problems which the pace of events, pushed on by Chancellor Kohl, subsequently brought, but to the German electorate it looked like curmudgeonly carping from the sidelines, and was judged as such. The elections of 18 March 1990 were a triumph for Kohl, whose vague but heady promises of prosperity and national unity won the day. Both politically and intellectually, the German left was in total disarray.
Reunification also disrupted existing ideologies of the right. Throughout the Federal Republic’s existence, German conservatism had been built on anti-Communism. Germany, after all, was on the front line of the Cold War.