1990: An Epochal Break in German History?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016, 6:00 to 8:00pm
Lecture at the GHI
Speaker: Martin Sabrow (Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam / Humboldt Universität zu Berlin)

Martin Sabrow delivering the 2016 German Unification Symposium. © Chester Simpson

While over the past 25 years the GHI German Unification Symposium followed a tradition of inviting “Zeitzeugen” to present their personal memories, the 2016 Lecture for the first time took a “historical perspective”. Martin Sabrow, Director of the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam and Professor of Modern History at the Humboldt University Berlin, in his capacity as one of the leading experts on Eastern German History, addressed the question if October 3rd, 1990 represents an epochal break in German History.

Sabrow began his lecture with the argument that the search for turning points in history stems from a general desire to pose an order. He stated that due to the presence of historical upheaval, the change of so far immobile matters within only month and days, and most importantly the transformation of Germany into a nation state within undisputed borders, the argument of 1990 as historical break seems to be self-evident for both contemporary and later interpretation. October 3rd, 1990 ended the socialist idealist experiment and lead to an upheaval of the Western free market capitalist world order. It set an end to the 20th century’s rivalry of competing world orders and ideological camps and introduced political faith and change. It framed an end point that forced contemporary historians to take a different perspective aiming to transform the unforeseeable into the undisputed normal. As Sabrow stated: “Erich Honecker’s statement from January 1989 that claimed ‘the wall would still stand in 100 years’, now seems surprisingly absurd”.

Yet, Sabrow challenged the above described master narrative as a romantic interpretation: the events leading to October 3rd 1990, only affected 1/3 of the republic. In the rest of the nation, life carried on normally. This means that October 3rd is not really a national day in character. Further, due to the shock of change and pressure to adapt it is only now that not only outsiders but also GDRians - the third generation more specifically – can take such a perspective. Sabrow continued that the challenge of the ‘turning point argument’ becomes even more evident when looking at it from a global perspective. Since German Unification, a fallback into socialistic regional orders and a competing ideology to the Western world order have occurred in many places, mostly in Russia and the former USSR. Also, the threat of terrorism, the fall of nation states in the Middle East and the migration crisis show that globalization is now unleashed and uncontrollable, meaning that 1990 did not create a new permanent order. Instead, according to Sabrow a new North-South-Barrier, in Europa and Germany itself, was created that brought back resentiments against a strong Germany, now culminating in the position taking on the Euro and refugee crises. In this scenario, Angela Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das” rather captured the Janus-like character of the after 1990 society.

In summing up, Sabrow argued that for a historical understanding October 3rd 1990 stands for a desireable disrupture in Germany’s search for authenticity. It turned “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” into “Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung”, which stresses the duty of rememberance. This marked a clear change of the cultural role of history since it now stressed a longing for healing and giving satisfaction to the victims of persecution. After 1990, the idea of a “lost past” – as it was lived in the GDR – was gone and replaced with authenticity.