German Unification Symposium/Hertie Lecture 2013

Growing Together? Processes and Problems of German Unification

Thursday, October 3, 2013 2:00 - 4:00 p.m.
Lecture at the GHI - Directions
Speaker: Konrad Jarausch

Konrad Jarausch is the Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. From 1998 to 2006,he was the co-director of the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam. He has researched and written on a wide array of topics in 20th-century German history. He is currently at work on a history of 20th-century Europe focused on the theme "taming modernity."

The Hertie Lecture and German Unification Symposium is generously supported by the Hertie Foundation.

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  • Event Report

    The 2013 Hertie Lecture was delivered by Konrad H. Jarausch, the Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With more than 40 books and nearly 300 articles and book chapters, he is not only one of the most productive but also one of the most influential historians of 20th century Germany and Europe. Jarausch, who made important contributions to the theory and methodology of history, is also an eye-witness of the turmoils of Germany history. He was born in 1941 in Magdeburg in an educated, conservative, protestant milieu. His father died as a German soldier of typhoid in 1942; son and father never met. (In Reluctant Accomplice, the son edited the father's wartime letters.) Jarausch completed his German Abitur but left Germany in 1959 for a very unusual transatlantic career. He studied at the University of Wyoming and the University of Wisconsin, moved to Princeton and the University of Missouri, Columbia, before moving to a chair in history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. As a U.S. citizen, Konrad Jarausch chaired the joint U.S.-GDR sub-commission on history, sponsored by the International Research and Exchange Board, in the late 1980s and served as a director at the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Studien, Potsdam, from 1998 to 2006. His scholarly life history is surely one of the reasons why he never tires of questioning complicity with the Nazi and the SED dictatorships and discussing why German democracy finally succeeded.

    Jarausch began his lecture "Growing Together? Processes and Problems of German Unification" with some general remarks on the German national holiday. October 3rd, the day of German Unity, is a challenging opportunity to discuss the different perspectives still present in public memory and in academia: Broadly speaking, there are still two contrasting narratives: While the former East German opposition and most former west German citizens celebrate the liberation from the SED and Stasi regime and an inefficient and unsustainable planned economy, many former Easterners still regard unification as a kind of colonization and an unaccomplished promise of better, fairer, and more peaceful Germany.

    As an alternative to such Manichean interpretations, Jarausch offered five theses reflecting a more nuanced understanding of the processes and problems of German unification. First, the transfer of the political institutions was relatively successful. This was prepared by the peaceful revolution and its culmination in the election campaign of March 1990. Institutional changes were supported by broad western aid. However, it took time for the easterners to become part of the political game in united Germany, and chancellor Angela Merkel and president Joachim Gauck are still quite exceptional success stories. Although the institutions of the Bonn Republic offered a proven order, the institutional transfer foreclosed political alternatives and blocked the inclusion of some eastern structures. The political transformation was managed by western politicians and wounded the pride of large sections of the eastern population.

    Second, the economic transformation was more problematic. This resulted not only from the very low productivity of the East German economy but also from a politically motivated 1:1 conversion rate for the East German Mark. East German firms lost most of their foreign markets, collapsed, and were taken over or driven out of business by western competitors. The results were structural unemployment and a fragmented process of contradictory developments. While some regions flourished, others faced significant decline and depopulation. Jarausch stressed, however, that the catch-up process was remarkable and that today the economic situation in eastern Germany is better than the media coverage suggests.

    Third, the social transformation from a collectivist to a more individualized society was complicated and often not really successful. The cash nexus replaced many traditional social relations based on "quid pro quo" principles (or Vitamin B). Differences between individuals grew and cultures of sameness tumbled, although they are still alive in the public mind. Unification led to severe social changes, and the overthrow of the SED regime ended the privileged position of party members, officers in the People's army, and the Stasi, but also of many intellectuals and academics. Although the majority benefited from the social transformations, unification also reshaped the differences between generations. While young and older people profited from much higher pensions and new opportunities to travel and to make a living, the middle generation had the hardest time adjusting. Women were also negatively affected as Eastern claims of gender equality were simply a myth.

    Fourth, the cultural merger was also contentious. After unification, East German intellectuals were often marginalized in the national media and cultural institutions. The poisoned heritage of the Stasi led to fierce debates on the character of the GDR and the involvement of intellectuals in the SED dictatorship. One paradoxical result was a nostalgic notion of an idealized GDR, called Ostalgie (Jarausch emphasized that there was also an important Westalgie). Today the GDR past is still a dominant topic in the thriving scene of writers and filmmakers, while the future of united Germany and Europe are neglected.

    Jarausch's fifth thesis was that unification enabled unified Germany to become a civilian power and not a European hegemon. As the strongest power in Europe, Germany did not simply "normalize" foreign policy in accepting more responsibility in the international sphere. Although German troops were active in many conflicts in Europe and abroad, German foreign policy still prefers multilateral approaches and support in building up public infrastructures and political institutions in areas of conflict and war. Germany, as a regional hegemon, has to find a middle way between the military-based politics of the United States and the fears of its neighbors of a resurgence of a "Fourth Reich."

    Jarausch concluded that German Unification was both privileged and problematic because it took the form of a national unification. It was not a merger of equals but the incorporation of a bankrupt state into one of the most successful western states. This path offered an attractive shortcut to material prosperity and political liberty but was accompanied by rapid deindustrialization and West German paternalism.

    One hundred twenty people attended the lecture, among them representatives and prize winners of the START foundation, a branch of the Hertie foundation, supporting young, qualified, and socially engaged people from migrant families. Jarausch's lecture was followed by a lively discussion, whose topics included possible alternatives to the 1990 Treaty of Unification, comparisons between the U.S. reconstruction era after the Civil War and the process of unification, and the differing attitudes of younger Germans and those of different ethnicity towards German unity. Additional questions concerned the relative weakness East German opposition resulting from the open border before 1961 and the willingness of the western part to redeem political prisoners, German's foreign policy obligations as the dominant European power, and the development of the German military after unification.

    The key arguments of the 2013 Hertie lecture can be read in Jarausch's introduction to United Germany: Debating Processes and Prospects, edited by Konrad Jarausch and published by Berghahn Books in July 2013.

    Uwe Spiekermann

  • Invitation
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    Growing Together? Processes and Problems of German Unification

Please RSVP (acceptance only) by Sept. 26. Tel: 202.387.3355 - Fax: 202.387.6437 -  E-mail