Germany in Europe: Twenty Years After Unification

Mar 12, 2009

10th Gerd Bucerius Lecture at the The Fairfax at Embassy Row, Washington DC | Speaker: Prof. Dr. Kurt Biedenkopf

Professor Kurt Biedenkopf is chairman of the board, Hertie School of Governance and former Minister President of the Free State of Saxony, 1990–2002.

Event Report

The Tenth Gerd Bucerius Lecture was delivered by Kurt Biedenkopf, chairman of the board of the Hertie School of Governance and former Minister President of Saxony (1990-2002), who spoke on the topic "Germany in Europe: Twenty Years After Unification." Biedenkopf was introduced by Hartmut Berghoff, Director of the GHI, and Tatiana Matthiesen as the representative of the ZEIT Foundation, which sponsors the Bucerius Lecture Series.
In the first part of his lecture, Professor Biedenkopf argued that German reunification was in many ways a "missed opportunity" to reform the whole of Germany, which was already facing a number of serious problems in 1990. Chief among these problems were: first, the demographic challenge of an aging society, which will necessitate a major reform of the social insurance and pension system; second, the transition from a production-based to a primarily science-based economy, which demands important educational reforms; and third, the ecological challenge of how to protect a threatened natural environment. The postponement of efforts to solve these problems, he noted, has only made them harder to solve.
Biedenkopf also argued that, somewhat paradoxically, German reunification was not experienced as the reunification of a nation because, due to the Nazis’ abuse of the concept of the nation, Germans still had a very ambivalent attitude to national identity. In the years since unification, this ambivalence has receded somewhat as German, especially the younger generation, have developed a more normal type of national identity, which is, however, firmly rooted in European integration. Reunification, Biedenkopf concluded, was a "success story" because the East German population successfully adapted to West German ways of doing things, participated in the transformation of their society and economy, and came to recognize their own contribution to this process.
In the second part of his lecture, Biedenkopf commented on the role of Germany in Europe and the world, with special emphasis on the current international economic crisis. In his analysis of the crisis, Biedenkopf stressed that since the true causes of the financial crisis are not yet fully understood, it is extremely difficult to decide on the proper remedies – very much like having to prescribe "therapy without a diagnosis." Given this uncertainty regarding both causes and remedies, Biedenkopf insisted that it was all for the good if different countries tried different policies. While there is an international consensus on the need for more financial regulation, there is substantial disagreement – especially between the United States and Europe – on the wisdom of government stimulus legislation along the lines just enacted by the U.S. The very real danger that the stimulus approach presents, Biedenkopf argued, is the risk of a bubble of state deficits that could eventually endanger the government’s role as lender of last resort.
In conclusion, Biedenkopf reminded the audience that beyond the current economic crisis Germany and Europe still face the pressing long-term issues whose solution has been put off too long: How to maintain growth and prosperity in an aging society? How to foster the transition to a science-driven economy with an aging population? And finally, how to manage the distribution of limited natural resources in a world whose population is still growing at a rapid pace.
Richard F. Wetzell (GHI)