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10-08-2015, 22:22

Germany: The Party’s Over

For the peoples of Western Europe as well, the end of the Cold War brought changes in their lives. Perhaps the most challenging situation was faced in Germany, where the decision to unify the two zones created serious strains on the economy. Chancellor Helmut Kohl had benefited greatly from an economic boom in the mid-1980s. Gradually, however, discontent with the Christian Democrats increased, and by 1988, their political prospects seemed diminished. But unexpectedly, the 1989 revolution in East Germany led to the reunification of the two Germanies, leaving the new Germany, with its 79 million people, the leading power in Europe. Reunification, accomplished during Kohl’s administration, brought rich political dividends to the Christian Democrats. In the first all-German federal election, Kohl’s Christian Democrats won 44 percent of the vote, and their coalition partners, the Free Democrats, received 11 percent. But the euphoria over reunification soon dissipated as the realization set in that the revitalization of eastern Germany would take far more money than was originally thought, and Kohl’s government was soon forced to face the politically undesirable task of raising taxes substantially. Moreover, the virtual collapse of the economy in eastern Germany led to extremely high levels of unemployment and severe discontent. One reason for the problem was the government’s decision to establish a 1:1 ratio between the East and West German marks. This policy raised salaries for East German workers, but it increased labor costs and provoked many companies into hiring workers abroad. Increasing unemployment in turn led to growing resentment against foreigners. For years, foreigners seeking asylum or employment found haven in Germany because of its extremely liberal immigration laws. In 1992, more than 440,000 immigrants came to Germany seeking asylum, 123,000 of them from former Yugoslavia alone. Attacks against foreigners by right-wing extremists—many of them espousing neo-Nazi beliefs—killed seventeen people in 1992 and became an all too frequent occurrence in German life. East Germans were also haunted by another memory from their recent past. The opening of the files of the secret police (the Stasi) showed that millions of East Germans had spied on their neighbors and colleagues, and even their spouses and parents, during the Communist era. A few senior Stasi officials were placed on trial for their past actions, but many Germans preferred simply to close the door on an unhappy period in their lives. As the century neared its close, then, Germans struggled to cope with the challenge of building a new, united nation. To reduce the debt incurred because of economic reconstruction in the east, the government threatened to cut back on many of the social benefits West Germans had long been accustomed to receiving. This in turn sharpened resentments that were already beginning to emerge between the two zones. Although the Berlin Wall had been removed, the gap between East and West remained (see box on p. 186). In 1998, voters took out their frustations at the ballot box. Helmut Kohl’s conservative coalition was defeated in national elections, and a new prime minister, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroder, came into office. Schroder had no better luck than his predecessor, however, in reviving the economy. In 2003, with nearly five million workers unemployed, the government announced plans to scale back welfare benefits that had long become a familiar part of life for the German people.