On This Day

german reunification, german unity day, german flag reichstag
Hansjoerg Krauss/AP
The Reichstag pictured during the
reunification celebration, Oct. 3, 1990.

On This Day: East and West Germany Reunited

October 03, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Oct. 3, 1990, Germany was officially reunified after 45 years of post-war division.

The Reunification of Germany

In the years following the end of World War II, Germany was divided into democratic West Germany and communist East Germany, which was run as a Soviet satellite. The East German border was closed in 1952, isolating its citizens not only from West Germany but from the entire Western world.

The situation in East Germany began to change in the mid-1980s, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev instituted the liberalizing perestroika and glasnost reform measures. East German leader Eric Honecker rebuffed Gorbachev’s calls for openness, and the country remained one of the most repressive in the Eastern Bloc.

In August 1989, Hungary opened its borders, and thousands of East Germans escaped through Hungary to Austria or flocked to the West German embassy. Meanwhile, calls for openness in East Germany grew louder, as peaceful protests in the cities of Leipzig and Dresden drew tens of thousands of people. In October, Honecker resigned and was replaced by the more liberal Egon Krenz, who was open to reunification with West Germany for economic reasons.
Struggling to stop the flood of refugees, the East German government decided on Nov. 9 to allow limited and regulated travel across the West German border, including through the Berlin Wall, which kept democratic West Berlin, located in the heart of East Germany, cut off from East Berlin. That night, hundreds of thousands of East and West Berliners gathered around the wall and began tearing it down with hammers and chisels.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, which had stood as a symbol of the division of Germany, signaled the end of East Germany. East Germans fled the country in droves, mostly to West Germany, prompting West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to introduce a 10-point plan for reunification.

Those who stayed in East Germany demanded democratization. In March 1990, in East Germany’s first free elections, the pro-reunification Alliance for Germany coalition won a plurality of the votes.

“Events proceeded at breakneck speed, and the feeling of needing to seize the moment drove both German-German and international negotiations,” explains the German Historical Institute.

East and Western German leaders entered negotiations with the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union, known as the “Two-Plus-Four” talks. In order to allay fears of a more powerful Germany, the German leaders agreed to limit the size of its military and promised to respect international borders.

On Aug. 31, 1990, East and West Germany signed the Unification Treaty, which called for the accession of five states of East Germany to West Germany effective on midnight of Oct. 3. On Sept. 12, the Two-Plus-Four talks concluded with the signing of a treaty allowing for the reunification of Germany.

On Oct. 3, Germans took to the streets to celebrate the official reunification of Germany. “Forty-five years after it was carved up in defeat and disgrace, Germany was reunited today in a midnight celebration of pealing bells, national hymns and the jubilant blare of good old German oom-pah-pah,” wrote The New York Times.

Background: The Division of Germany

The leaders of Allied powers Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union decided at the February 1945 Yalta Conference and the July-August 1945 Potsdam Conference to divide Germany into four sections, each controlled by the three countries plus France. They did the same with Berlin, located in Soviet-controlled sector.

The Allies initially agreed to “treat Germany as a single economic unit with some central administrative departments in a decentralized framework,” according to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. and Britain attempted to rebuild the German economy by forming a unified economic zone, the Bizone, in 1947, and the U.S. provided economic aid through the Marshall Plan. The Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent France, feared a powerful Germany and was reluctant to see it rebuilt.

Meanwhile, relations between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union had broken down as the Soviet Union seized much of Eastern Europe and placed it under communist rule. Germany became a center of the ideological battle between Western capitalism and Soviet communism. In June 1948, the Soviets imposed a blockade of West Berlin in an attempt to drive out the West; the blockade was unsuccessful, and it cemented the divide between the East and West sectors.

In May 1949, the U.S., British and French sectors formed the Federal Republic of Germany, commonly known as West Germany. Later that year, the Soviet Union established the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany.

More than 3.5 million East Germans fled to West Germany between 1945 and 1961 to escape the poor economy and repressive government of East Germany. Needing to stop the flow of emigrants, the East German government closed the West German border in 1952. Nine years later, in order to stop its citizens from escaping through West Berlin, East Germany constructed the Berlin Wall dividing East and West Berlin.

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