This week Germany marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I remember watching the dramatic TV pictures of East Germans flocking through checkpoints on the night of November 9, 1989. A dozen years later, I moved to Berlin, and since then have seen the city and country grow together.
It has been an enlightening experience because, beyond the appropriate official ceremonies, debate still rages on what reunification has meant for Germany, especially for those in the east. After the initial euphoria, for many people reunification meant unemployment and a sense of insecurity. Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself from the east, said last month: “We must all…learn to understand why for many people in east German states, German unity was not solely a positive experience.”
Raw emotions remain near the surface. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), the right-wing populist party whose leaders often espouse xenophobic and anti-immigrant views, is much stronger in eastern Germany than elsewhere. How some east Germans perceive the legacy of reunification is seen as one factor for this support.
So it’s important that the underlying significance of reunification – how unity made such political debates possible for those in the east – is also being celebrated. Almost overnight, 16 million people in communist East Germany who had for 28 years been penned in by a repressive government were free. And not just to travel. Free to say what they liked and protest when they liked, without fear of constant surveillance.
Indeed, the end of the surveillance state, and how Germany has handled its legacy, is a theme this week. In a gesture of accountability admired beyond its borders, after 1989 Germany opened to the public the archives of the Stasi, East Germany’s much-feared security service, enabling – so far – some 7 million survivors of surveillance to see their files.
The debates this week also show that Germany still faces many human rights problems. Human Rights Watch’s annual review lists attacks on migrants, xenophobia, and anti-semitism among such concerns. Yet unity means Germans, wherever they live, have for 30 years been able to rely on state institutions, built on the rule of law, to tackle such problems. That is an achievement – and one worth celebrating.