Lessons for Irish reunification from Germany: ‘Introduce new anthem and constitution’

Any successful unification, a German politician suggests, should take best from both societies rather than just impose one system on the other

33 years on from the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, many easterners feel 'excluded' and disenfranchised. Photograph: Michael Probst/Reuters

From his office in Germany’s federal chancellery, Carsten Schneider has one of Berlin’s best views. Before us, the historic Reichstag building – renovated with its modern dome and home to the Bundestag parliament since 2001 when Germany’s federal government made its historic move back from the Rhine to the banks of the river Spree.

As in other eastern German cities, the post-unification cranes have long vanished from the Berlin skyline. The physical scars of Germany’s four-decade division are nearly gone but Mr Schneider, as federal commissioner for eastern Germany, has been the full-time advocate of the region’s interests in the Scholz Cabinet since December 2021.

Having recently visited Ireland, the youthful 47-year-old remembers how, growing up in the eastern German region of Thuringia, Ireland was framed as the plucky “little man”, struggling with an imperial foe in London.

As London struggles in the post-Brexit era, Mr Schneider has been following growing talk of Irish unification.

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Though anxious not to offer unsolicited advice, he warns that any unification debate or process will “go wrong” if it is framed as Northern Ireland “joining” the Republic.

Carsten Schneider, federal commissioner for eastern Germany: “There has to be ironclad protection of minority rights to avoid the feeling of a hostile takeover.” Photograph: Thomas Koehler/Getty Images

“You need an intellectual and cultural openness for the other side and under no circumstances can there be talk of winners and losers, victors and vanquished,” he told The Irish Times. “There has to be ironclad protection of minority rights to avoid the feeling of a hostile takeover.”

That is a feeling that, many say, has lingered over Germany’s unification process for the last 30 years. By front-loading economic reform and infrastructure projects, Germany overlooked the human element and, Mr Schneider argues, soon took on a “West Germany-plus” framing.

German unification was unprecedented in speed and scale. Negotiated and agreed in just 11 months after the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, the unification process was, in reality, the socialist East Germany applying to join the capitalist West Germany.

Though criticised in hindsight, Mr Schneider says the express lane approach met demands on all sides for a quick deal: from eastern Germans who wanted the Deutschmark to Bonn politicians like Helmut Kohl who were anxious to strike a deal with EU partners before wariness of a united Germany in Paris and London turned into outright opposition.

Even three decades on, Mr Schneider still sees an emotional imbalance in the relationship. While many easterners were well-informed about their western cousins and headed West immediately in 1989 to have a look – or even live there – many western Germans still have uninformed opinions about their eastern neighbours.

Any successful unification process in Ireland, the politician suggests, should take the best from both societies rather than just impose one system on the other.

It’s taken 30 years, he points out, for some western German regions to reach access levels of childcare or women in the workforce that easterners already had in 1990.

Sinn Féin would be the strongest party in a united Ireland, research showsOpens in new window ]

Today, more than three decades after two Germanies became a lopsided whole, a radical reassessment is under way about what went right – and wrong.

Some argue the economic shock treatment – mothballing state-owned firms or selling them to western competitors – was painful but necessary; others say it was unnecessarily painful for older easterners who felt surplus to requirements in the new Germany.

The feeling of exclusion was confirmed in a January survey showing that, even today, just 14 per cent of top jobs in eastern German states – from board rooms to court rooms – are filled by easterners. Exclude Berlin and that figure drops to 7.4 per cent, suggesting that 1990s decisions to bring in western German “experts” to eastern regions has created a self-hiring, self-referential bubble.

Responding to the survey, Mr Schneider has brought into play the idea of a corrective quota to force change and end a “kind of unconscious discrimination against people from the east”, a fifth of the total population.

For best-selling author Dirk Oschmann, a binding “easterner” quota, similar to one for women on boards of public companies here, is the only way to overcome structural bias in German life.

In his radical new book, the East: a West German Invention, Prof Oschmann has hit a nerve by describing unification and its effects as a soft, insidious form of colonialisation.

“When you look at the centuries of England-Ireland tensions, our 30 years might seem like a joke,” said Prof Oschmann, a literature lecturer at Leipzig University. “Easterners in Germany knew they had to catch up and reform but they expected to be treated equally – that was the societal contract – but that hasn’t come to pass.”

Instead of equality, he argues in his polemic that West Germans moved in quickly to control the means of production, of framing reality and defining identity. In this post-1990 Germany, he concludes, “the East” was a second-rate aberration of western Germany.

In his analysis, eastern regions may have given Germany – and the world – Martin Luther, Bach and Catherine the Great but today’s easterners are consistently made to feel like communist yokels.

A decade ago, argues Prof Oschmann, many easterners began to give up on hopes of a shared German identity. By last year, a survey commissioned by Mr Schneider’s office, suggested just 39 per cent of eastern Germans were satisfied with democracy as they experienced it, down nearly 10 points in two years.

We should have had a new constitution and a new national anthem but it never happened. Those would have been important gestures

—  Author Dirk Oschmann

If growing anger in eastern Germany is the problem itself – or the symptom of a deeper problem of participation – what could Ireland do to avoid such pitfalls in its own unification debate? To build trust, Prof Oschmann suggests the Republic of Ireland should offer to make sacrifices that West Germany never did.

“We should have had a new constitution and new national anthem but it never happened,” he said “Those would have been important gestures from westerners and it would have allowed easterners to come to the table with their ideas.”

For now, the only winner of eastern Germany’s vicious circle of resentment and perceived exclusion is the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Now Saxony’s most popular party with 28 per cent support, politician Carsten Schneider says the future of eastern Germany, whether positive or negative, will be sealed by 2030.

By then, he hopes, positive effects will be palpable from major eastern investment such as Tesla in Brandenburg and Intel in Magdeburg. In particular, between direct and secondary employment, Mr Schneider hopes the new arrivals can reverse the post-1999 emigration wave. Young easterners who headed West for better lives, he suggests, are now in late middle age with ageing parents and skills badly needed in their home region.

While the eastern jobless rate has slipped to 7.4 per cent, just two points in advance of the western average, eastern regions are, without new arrivals, facing the steepest demographic cliff-edge in coming years.

“We are at a tipping point,” said Carsten Schneider. “Will we get a wave of open-minded people who want to make things happen in the east and help motivate those who remained and experienced only setbacks in the last 30 years? That is the situation in which we find ourselves now.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin