Project Germay: The past, the present, and peace

Post-war Germany became two nations

by Rita Forbes and Valerie German

Checkpoint Charlie signs
Checkpoint Charlie signs are a reminder of when
Germany was divided.

One effect of World War II, with which Germans had to live for 40 years, was the division of their country. After the war, Germany was split into four zones, occupied by the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. In 1949, two separate nations were formed, with new constitutions and governments. The zone occupied by the Soviet Union became the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. The other three zones were combined to form the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany.

West Germany was a parliamentary democracy. Human rights and freedoms were protected by the constitution. The Bundestag, or national parliament, was chosen by the people in secret ballot. The Federal Constitutional Court, similar to the United States’ Supreme Court, was charged with protecting the constitution. A comprehensive system of social security mandated health insurance for all and provided unemployment and retirement benefits.

The German Democratic Republic was rather ironically named, for East Germany was anything but democratic. Although the constitution promised civil liberties and political freedoms, in practice these were disregarded. The country was controlled by the Communist SED, the Socialist Unity Party. In the East German version of elections, there was no choice between candidates. A ballot had only one possibility. Citizens “voted” for the single candidate chosen by the party. The Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, had an extensive network of agents who conducted surveillance on anyone perceived to be a threat to the political system.

Over 300,000 citizens demonstrated against the government in East Berlin on June 17, 1953, demanding better working conditions and political changes. This uprising was crushed by the military force of Soviet tanks. Dozens of people were killed and thousands were arrested, sending a clear message that the government was in control and would not tolerate protest.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled to West Germany each year, until in 1961 the Berlin Wall was built to stop the flow. This concrete barrier separated families and friends for 28 years. The number of people who died trying to cross it is still uncertain.

Reunification of the two countries seemed improbable. But in 1989, Hungary relaxed its border with Austria and thousands of East German citizens used that opportunity to escape to freedom. Many also took refuge in West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw, and were eventually allowed to immigrate to West Germany. All over East Germany, citizens began peacefully demonstrating for political and social change. “Wir sind das Volk (We are the people),” they chanted, gathering weekly in Leipzig and other cities.

On November 9, 1989, in an effort to appease the people, a new policy lifting certain restrictions on travel to West Germany was announced. Government spokesman Günther Schabowski was handed information about the new regulations shortly before a live press conference. Put on the spot when journalists asked for more details, Schabowski incorrectly announced that the regulations were effective “immediately, without delay.”

Germans on both sides of the Wall heard the news at the same time. The border guards had no warning; thousands of people suddenly appeared at the gates, demanding to cross into West Berlin. Radically outnumbered and hesitant to fire on the crowd without direct orders, the confused guards eventually opened the border. There was no going back: the Berlin Wall was history.

Free elections were held in East Germany several months later, and the people expressed their desire for reunification. On October 3, 1990, Germany once again became a single nation, after 50 years of being severed by the Iron Curtain. It was the actions of the Volk, the people, that brought this about – more quickly and peaceably than anyone could have dreamed possible. The “Peaceful Revolution” is a bright spot in German history. In a century filled with violence, this is an event that instills pride in Germany and merits the respect of the world.