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  • United Germany: Political System Under Challenge
  • Kurt Sontheimer (bio)

This essay centers on how Germany’s political system has developed since reunification on October 3, 1990. This period has been correctly defined as the “process of reunification” (Wiedervereinigungsprozeß). It is a process that began with the formal act of unification of the two separated Germanies, divided for the previous 40 years as a result of the East-West conflict. The former SPD chancellor, Willy Brandt, expressed his optimism in the smooth progress and final success of this process when he declared that “it will grow together what belongs together.” This process would reach its natural end when West and East Germans enjoy a relative homogeneity of living standards. This will not be attained for a long time.

This essay will attempt to investigate in what respect the process of reunification has affected the political system and its institutions, and whether the enlargement of territory and population has notably changed the Federal Republic’s political system. I will also try to analyze the principal problems and perspectives for the further course of reunification. The study should begin by noting that, for the German people, reunification was a gift from history. It was not brought about by a deliberate policy of the West German government, but by the loosening of the Soviet grip. German politicians were caught by surprise and consequently had no ready plan for implementing reunification. Everything had to be improvised. [End Page 39]

The Gift of Reunification

Why were the Germans so unprepared? After all, from its founding, the Federal Republic had made reunification of the two Germanies a primary—and constitutionally mandatory—goal. Yet it was not a goal within its power to accomplish. The “German Question” was not a question to be decided among the Germans, but a neuralgic point in international politics which affected the superpowers in East and West directly. During the Cold War conflict between East and West, no solution other than maintaining the German division seemed conceivable. The Germans could do nothing but mitigate the results of this partition. This was achieved through Brandt’s Ostpolitik starting in 1969. One of the preconditions for Ostpolitik was the formal recognition of Germany’s division. Hence, a solution to the German question—a coming together of the two German states or even their reunification—appeared conceivable only within the framework of a broader European construct.

No one anticipated the events that occurred in Germany—and before in the Soviet Union—between the fall of 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, and the fall of 1990. Yet the unimaginable did become reality. Even after the “peaceful revolution” that did away with the GDR’s regime, the most that could be imagined was a kind of confederation leaving both German states with relative sovereignty. With its communist single-party rule crumbling, it was conceivable that the GDR would develop independently as a democratic regime, while still maintaining important principles of socialism. Less imaginable were such constructs as a neutralized Germany, detached from the previous power blocs, which could cautiously grow together internally. The solution that finally occurred was one few at the time could have anticipated, given the forty-five year postwar history of the “German Question.” In effect, the Federal Republic of Germany was enlarged by the territory and population of the GDR. The GDR was dissolved as an independent sovereign state through accession (Beitritt) to the Federal Republic and its Basic Law. The Federal Republic remained—even with its territory extended eastward—a member of the North Atlantic Alliance, with all international ties from the European [End Page 40] Community to NATO remaining intact, while the GDR’s international treaty obligations simply disappeared. In short, the two German states which had been separated by a hermetically closed border—the Iron Curtain—for more than forty years, were unified by a complete takeover of the GDR by the Federal Republic.

The Federal Republic was, to be sure, delighted with this development; things could not have turned out better. It was an unexpected gift, placed in West Germany’s lap by an international constellation that had fundamentally changed due to the new policies of Gorbachev and...

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pp. 39-54
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