Wolfgang Thierse is a former President of the Bundestag, currently a member of the board of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. He was leader of the Social Democratic Party in East Germany in 1990, before becoming deputy leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany from 1990 until 2005.
On the 4th of October 30 years ago – a day after the formal unification of the two German states – the first common German Bundestag debate took place. In a sense, it was the parliamentary implementation of unity, the beginning of everyday democratic life. 77 deputies were sent from the freely elected East German Volkskammer into what had been until then the West German Bundestag, to participate as full members in a shared parliamentary discussion fittingly held in the Berlin Reichstag building.
I was not only there but permitted to give my first parliamentary speech. I will never forget it, because it was an enormous experience for me: to be an actor in a successful parliamentary democracy, the fulfillment of a political dream from my youth. A dream that I never believed could be realized, at least not until the peaceful revolution of 1989. And that is why I spoke about astonishing joy in the wonderful turn in German and European history.
In this speech, there is also a worried admonition: “let us not make German unification the victory of one over the others!” Indeed, unification was not the coming together of equals. One part was strong and successful, the other part was a shattered and spent system. One was a norm, the other had to rise to meet the norm. The relative role and consequence of each side was clearly divided. One would be the teacher, the other the student. One simply integrated without major changes, the other had to change everything. I don’t say this with reproach. History is seldom just. But in this imbalance was the worry that I expressed in my appeal: “my faith and claim to Germany is not a commitment to a past which has caught up with us, nor a confession that the Federal Republic of Germany is right and proper in all things, but rather it is a firm yes in response to the call to contribute to the future in a new way, a yes to a Germany as it should become.” (Back then a line like this would still win applause from all those assembled.)
The work towards a common Germany and on its reform should have been the chance for East Germans to act and effect change with the entirety of their very different history and experience as equal members of a new society. That was my wish then. It took a long time for West Germans and the representatives of the Kohl government to grasp the hunger for reform in the country, until finally the painful and necessary reforms could win a functional majority.
30 years on, we know that German unity is not yet complete. Social-Economic differences are still visible, despite enormous efforts. But we have to recognize that German unification is also fundamentally a cultural process, a process of interpersonal exchange, of shifting mentalities, of civil society change. And perhaps it is a process that is inherently un-completable! A task that goes far beyond politics. For the Bundestag, it remains an obligation to do everything possible to achieve “establishment of equivalent living conditions throughout the federal territory” (Article 72 of the German Basic Law).
In recent years I have frequently been asked when the oft-invoked “inner unity” of the German people will be reached. My answer: first, when solidarity and support no longer moves vertically, but horizontally – from west towards the east. When the difference between east and west looks more like the difference between Schleswig-Holstein and Baden-Württemberg. After all, economic, social, and cultural differences were always and remain part of German life. Secondly, when East Germans judge their history in the former German Democratic Republic to be less important than their achievements in a shared Federal Republic of Germany. When Germans from west and east engage with equal rights in self-explanatory and mutually respectful coexistence. Now is the time – 30 years after the peaceful revolution and state unification! The history of this unification is as much completed as German history generally, but it is now a self-evidently shared German and European history.
Translated from the German by Lauren Schwartz