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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.

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A Writer's Advice For How To Read The Words Of Politics

Colombia's reformist president has promised to tackle endemic violence, economic exclusion, pollution and corruption in the country. So what's new with a politician's promises?

Image of Colombian President Gustavo Petro speaking during a press conference in Buenos Aires on Jan 14, 2023

Colombian President Gustavo Petro, speaks during a press conference in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on January 24, 2023.

Manuel Cortina/ZUMA
Héctor Abad Faciolince


BOGOTÁ — Don't concentrate on his words, I was once advised, but look at what he's doing. I heard the words so long ago I cannot recall who said them. The point is, what's the use of a husband who vows never to beat his wife in January and leaves her with a bruised face in February?

Words are a strange thing, and in literal terms, we must distrust their meaning. As I never hit anyone, I have never declared that I wouldn't. It never occurred to me to say it. Strangely, there is more power and truth in a simple declaration like "I love her" than in the more emphatic "I love her so much." A verbal addition here just shrinks the "sense" of love.

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