Why German Unification Is Still Unfinished Business

There is much to admire about Germany's nearly 70-year-old constitution. But it also contains a serious flaw.

Celebrating 'German Unity' day in Berlin on Oct. 3, 1990
Celebrating "German Unity" day in Berlin on Oct. 3, 1990
Heribert Prantl


MUNICH — Some constitutions have all the pomp and circumstance of a parade. The preamble blares, and the constitutional articles that follow puff up like yeast dough. Germany's Basic Law, in contrast, is a modest constitution. It originated from the post-war rubble, written on still shaky ground, and yet is still full of hope for a better Germany, for a good Europe.

We might ask ourselves looking back where the men and women who wrote the Basic Law found this hope. And we admire them all the more at this point in time, when world events seem so desperate and all we want to do is drown our sorrows.

Our Basic Law treats fundamental rights with great seriousness, and starts with the principle that: "The dignity of man is inviolable." It is a constitution based on the idea that the state is there to serve the people, and not the other way around. It provides the people with a homeland.

All of this will be celebrated next year, when the Basic Law turns 70 year. We also had an opportunity to honor these ideals on Oct. 3 — German Unity Day — even if the fundamental rights have, at certain points in the republic's history, been trampled on.

It was far from a "perfect" process.

And yet, as praiseworthy as our constitution is, it also contains a statement that is not only boundlessly self-satisfied, but also essentially untrue: Germans, it insists, are living in complete and perfect unity and freedom.

The triumphalist assertion didn't appear in the original version of the Basic Law. It was added later, in 1990 to be precise — after reunification, at a time when the old Federal Republic was struggling to maintain its footing.

The statement followed the agreement — laid out over 356 pages in the Federal Law Gazette — that made Germany whole again. The agreement was a brilliant bureaucratic achievement. And it had a huge impact, especially on East Germany. Indeed, never before in world history had a state been so orderly and meticulously dissolved as was the case for the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

In the former GDR, no stone was left unturned. For Germans living there, everything changed "except the time and the season," as the journalist Peter Bender wrote in his book Deutschlands Wiederkehr ("Germany's Comeback"). For West Germans, on the other hand, all that really changed were the postal codes. Germany may have been reunified, but it was far from a "perfect" process. That the constitution suggests otherwise is basically a lie, and a significant one.

A one-sided process

A few years ago, Thomas de Maizière, who recently served as federal minister of interior, said matter-of-factly that at the time of reunification, West Germany had no interest in adapting. The willingness to change, he said, was "nonexistent." The then interior minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, justified it at the time as follows: This is about bringing the GDR into Federal Republic, he said, "not the other way around."

Unity was actually the expansion of West Germany, not the union of two equivalent states. Yes, it was what GDR citizens wanted. But the way it was handled was nevertheless a mistake, because for the the majority of people in the GDR, the experience of unification — with its sudden shift toward a market economy — was a systematic humiliation.

The system ate what people in the East had: their past lives, their experiences, their self-esteem. It ate everything that had been bad about GDR, but also what had been good: the old role models, the Eastern elite, state-mandated anti-fascism, parental authority, self-confidence, pride, and even security.

Living in complete unity? Anti far-right protest in Mannheim on Oct. 3 — Photo: Michael Debets/Pacific Press/ZUMA

Little wonder that critics at the time warned against the "annexation" of the GDR. They used the Basic Law itself — specifically Article 146 — to argue that as part of the unification process, a new, common constitution should be written. And they were right. The Basic Law establishes that there should have been a new constitution, one that all Germans had a chance to vote on. That, then, would have remedied the Basic Law's basic birth defect: that it was approved by only part of the now unified country.

"The unification is complete" is a happy and comforting phrase.

But there was no time for such a thing, said the then chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and his ministers. And later, when there was time, no one bothered to revisit the issue. The Unification Treaty provided for a two-year examination period for the Basic Law, and a Constitutional Commission was to consider the experience as felt in the East. But the commission was only there for the sake of appearances; its work was more theatrical than anything else. The final report, issued 25 years ago — in October 1993 — is testament to its failures.

"The unification is complete" is a happy and comforting phrase. It's like the pop of a champagne bottle, signaling that now's the time for celebration. But if unification had really been so flawless, why would studies still show such huge discrepancies between East and West regarding how satisfied people are with the process? The Basic Law tells us that unification is a done deal. Reality tells us instead that there's still a lot of hard work to be done.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!