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Assignment: The Great Merger

Assignment: The Great Merger

Assignment: The Great Merger


The Great Merger: Democracy Triumphant

For three decades, East Germans, whose living standards were far below West Germans’, had not been allowed to emigrate or even to visit relatives across the border.* It was the reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who opened the floodgates.

East Germany’s end came at a time when rebellion was rife in Central and Eastern Europe: Poland and Hungary had already taken giant steps toward dismantling communist rule, and Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria were not far behind. For East German Communism, the unraveling started with a mass exodus and ended with the bulldozing of the Berlin Wall following the collapse of the East German regime in late 1989.

Following free elections in the former GDR in the spring of 1990, the two Germanys entered into a formal union, with Berlin restored as the capital. Together, the nearly simultaneous collapse of Soviet power and German reunification set the stage for the eastward expansion of the European Union.

The remaking of Germany carried a big price tag. West Germans paid for the economic rehabilitation of East Germany with a 7.5% income tax surcharge and a higher sales tax. Nonetheless, unemployment in eastern Germany remained high in the 1990s, hovering around 18%, nearly twice the rate in western Germany.

Germany’s postwar responsibility for Europe’s condition is still costing Germans in all sorts of ways. In 2011-2012, for example, with the “euro crisis” threatening to spread like a contagion, Europe expected Germany to bear the burden of bailing out Greece and saving Europe’s common currency. Meanwhile, in Greece and elsewhere, Germany was scorned and excoriated for demanding tough austerity measures as the price of bolstering the embattled euro. To understand Germany’s turbulent history, it is necessary to go back to the bitter (for Germans) legacy of World War I.The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 aimed at keeping East Germans from escaping to the West highlighted the dramatic difference between the two Germanys. Berlin and “the Wall” became a metaphor for the Iron Curtain, proof that the peoples of the East living under communism were “captive nations” in the most literal sense, and a reminder to all in the West of the need for vigilance and unity in the ongoing struggle between freedom and tyranny