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Will King Charles save East Germany? Reunification is far from complete

Charles drives a tank while visiting British troops near Paderhorn in 1987 (David Levenson/Getty Images)

Charles drives a tank while visiting British troops near Paderhorn in 1987 (David Levenson/Getty Images)


March 29, 2023   6 mins

The Germans might not be setting their capital on fire, but when King Charles touches down in Berlin this morning, he will do so knowing that he is visiting a country no less divided than its western neighbour. While France is being ripped apart by violent protests over very modern pension reforms, Germany is haunted by much older ghosts.

After two world wars, an aversion to military conflict has long hampered Berlin’s ability to act decisively and shoulder its fair share of responsibility as part of the Western alliance. In the past decade, Germany’s defence budget barely made it across the 1% mark of GDP, never mind the 2% required by Nato. When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exposed the fallacies of Germany’s unconditional pacifism, it plunged Berlin into an identity crisis. A national rethink was in order and Chancellor Olaf Scholz dramatically declared in February 2022 that a Zeitenwende, a watershed moment, was underway: “the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before.” While German aid to Ukraine was initially sluggish and always badly communicated, it is now among its biggest financial and military supporters. Only yesterday, 18 German Leopard 2s arrived in Ukraine.

There are many Germans who can’t and won’t kiss old certainties goodbye. But the two world wars at the root of modern German angst were all-encompassing catastrophes that plunged the entire country into a moral abyss. This trauma is a national one and, since Russia’s invasion, has triggered a lively public debate, leading to a degree of change. Alongside a vastly increased military budget for the German army, Berlin has also just announced that it wants to raise military aid for Ukraine from currently €3 billion to more than €15 billion in the next few years — a clear sign that it is beginning to come around to the idea of contributing to European security on a much greater scale despite its historical inhibitions.

The same cannot be said about another legacy of Germany’s tumultuous 20th century: the fact that it spent much of the latter half as two separate countries. Between 1949 and 1990 two Germanies existed: the Federal Republic in the West and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East. Each found very different ways to move on from the horrors of war and genocide. And unification in 1990 was not enough to foster agreement on Germany’s response to armed conflict, particularly not one that involves Russia.

When East Germany vanished overnight, 16 million people who had been born there became citizens of a country that was in many ways alien to them. Their fellow Germans on the other side of the Berlin Wall may have shared their language and cultural roots, but they had an entirely different understanding of modern Germany’s place in the world.

From West Germany’s very foundation in 1949, its first chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s transatlantic outlook and focus on reconciliation with France laid the groundwork for a thoroughly Western political identity. His American partners supported this process, seeing in West Germany the easternmost outpost of the democratic world, one they wanted to fortify against Soviet influence. As a result of its ringside seat on the fault lines of the Cold War, West Germany became a fully fledged member of Nato in 1955, a mere decade after the end of the most devastating war the world had ever seen. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower declared in 1951 that he did “not believe that the German soldier as such has lost his honour” in the Second World War. Adenauer was trusted to rebuild a German army, the Bundeswehr, in the early Fifties.

Adenauer saw no conflict in the fact that he was binding German soldiers to their former Western enemies. He declared in 1955 that Nato’s objectives were “in full harmony with the natural interest of the German nation”. While many Germans, particularly his opponents on the Left, disagreed with him, he pressed ahead, spending over 4% of GDP on defence in almost every year of his tenure, from 1949 to 1963. Bundeswehr pilots learned how to drop American nuclear bombs which were stationed on their soil alongside American nuclear-capable missiles. With male conscription reintroduced in 1956, West German men learnt to fight for and with Nato. Even as defence spending was gradually reduced and a powerful peace movement evolved in West Germany with anti-American strains, the bulk of society remained firmly Western in outlook. Nato was a partner, not the enemy.

It was this outlook that East Germans were expected to share when they joined the Federal Republic in 1990. After all, they had gleefully watched Western television in secret and obsessed over branded American jeans. They had eventually joined mass demonstrations to bring down their socialist system and then voted for parties that had advocated a swift and one-sided unification process. It seemed reasonable to assume that they had shared the pro-Western outlook of their counterparts on the other side of the Iron Curtain all along.

Yet East Germans were not asked to return to something they were once part of, but to blend into a state that had evolved without them. They had served in the National People’s Army, formed in 1956, and were integrated into the Warsaw Pact. Unlike the trust Adenauer had enjoyed from his American Allies, the East German leadership had a rather different relationship with Moscow. During the Prague Spring in 1968, when the Soviets suppressed political reform in Czechoslovakia, East German troops only formed supply lines and were kept directly under Soviet command. It was a decision made in Moscow, not in Berlin, that they weren’t deployed in open combat. The East German authorities didn’t even know how many Soviet troops were stationed on their own soil (still around 350,000 in the Eighties). They relied on guesswork based on water use in Soviet military installations to gain a vague picture. This peculiar mixture of being tied to Moscow without enjoying its confidence defined the East German experience for 41 years.

Military affiliation is just one facet of the worlds that collided in 1990. East Germans had learned Russian at school, they read Russian literature, watched Russian films, and had Russian partner schools and organisations. Meanwhile, West Germans learnt English and watched Hollywood movies.

Unsurprisingly, these differences still echo today. According to one survey carried out last month, only a quarter of Germans living in the former East think of the US as a “reliable ally”, as opposed to the majority of West Germans. Fewer easterners also deem Russia a threat to peace, (though the figure is still high at 73%). Meanwhile, East German politicians such as Michael Kretschmer, the Minister President of Saxony, or Sahra Wagenknecht, a vocal member of the far-Left party Die Linke, have been among the most ardent supporters of a swift peace in Ukraine — even if this means severe concessions towards the Russian aggressor.

On Russia and Ukraine, many Germans in the eastern states keenly feel the economic legacy of division. It is here that oil and gas connections, such as Druzhba, one of the world’s longest oil pipelines, once delivered Russian energy. Many German locals were involved in its construction in the Sixties. Today, however, sanctions and escalating tensions have seen the pipes dry up, leaving entire regions uncertain about their economic future.

Yet all these ongoing rifts have largely been ignored. East Germans are a minority: there are more than five times as many West Germans. In terms of actual representation, the picture is even more slanted. In his new book, Dirk Oschmann, an academic who was born in the GDR, points out that only 1.7% of the senior positions in media, research, the justice system and the civil service are currently occupied by East Germans. It has been a bestseller for weeks in Germany, obviously voicing concerns that many feel have been ignored for too long.

Will King Charles, caught up in the circus of his first foreign trip as monarch, also ignore them? It seems unlikely, given his special affinity with Germany. He has visited the country more than 40 times since his first trip at the age of 13, and has dazzled audiences with speeches delivered in fluent German. He will also make a point of visiting places in the former East, such as the rural village of Brodowin, 50 miles north-east of Berlin. The respect he will show small East German businesses — such as by visiting an Ökodorf, an eco-farm, where he will make his own cheese — makes the important point that a state visit to Germany should include its eastern regions. At a time when almost 60% of East Germans say they feel second-class citizens in their own country, Berlin’s political class would do well to take note.

For while Germany rethinks its position in the world and in Europe following Ukraine, it needs to rethink its society too. When the East German state disappeared in 1990, the life experiences of its former citizens did not. To airbrush 41 years of political, social and economic history out of the national story as a failed experiment, an anomaly or the side show to the continuity narrative is as ahistorical as it is unhelpful. Reunification was a step towards bringing the nation back together, not the happy ending of that path. A Zeitenwende in German foreign policy might be underway, but a domestic watershed is needed too.


Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.

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Peter D
Peter D
1 year ago

As a former resident of Germany back in the naughties, I can say that there certainly was still a divide between Wessies and Ossies. Since leaving, I have returned a few times. Covid put a dent in it but I was lucky enough to return last year and I was rather shocked because regional traditions are weaker than they were 20 years ago.
Sure, the period of East and West Germany plus the two World Wars have left a lot of scars on the psyche of this wonderful nation. But I find that mass migration is far more harmful. Being a foreigner, other foreigners were very candid to me about their feelings towards the Germans (which varied from dislike to hatred in general but some still had the odd German friend). Last year it was as if German culture and traditions were irrelevant, more something to remove. Foreigners would often hang in their cultures, dip their toes in others but ignore German things.
The East and West divide is a sad smoke screen. Things like quotas and representation don’t do anything to help anyone. German kids need more support and encouragement than “kinder mit migrations hintergrund”. We foreigners lucky enough to be granted the privilege to live in another country should show a great deal more respect. Instead it is taken for granted. The Germans though no fault of their own are hated in their own country for just being themselves. They never demanded that the foreigners come there. They have been incredibly welcoming, incredibly open. No matter how much they roll out the red carpet, it is just never enough for some.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter D

That’s very interesting Peter. Are you British? How does the integration of foreigners compare between the two countries in your view? It seems to me that integration is pretty much a given here, as seen by the huge number of immigrant’s children in powerful positions – Sunak, Braveman, Cleverly, Priti Patel, Sadiq Khan, now Humza Yousaf. Maybe we go a bit too far – mixed race couples on every advert etc – but I have never experienced an Us and Them distinction between people who’s great-grandparents were English and those whose people arrived more recently. Or am I naive?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

I don’t think that you are naive. However, I do think that there is a small, but powerful clique, who are determined that the integration that is still happening in the UK is stopped and reversed. There is another small, but mostly powerless clique, who just hate any foreign-born or -decended person and want them gone. We, rightly, call the latter “racists”, but most people are reluctant to apply the same term to the former – but they should.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

That’s right Linda, the Woke Mob are the true enemies of stable integration of immigrants. After all, if the native culture is as hateful as they claim, why should anyone want to assimilate its values? Or if it is immoral to have borders and anyone should be able to come to the country uninvited, why bother integrating at all?
The other clique – the NF types – is barely large enough to fill a parish hall. But the Woke Mob needs to constantly exaggerate their numbers and influence to justify their own designs.
Edit: Not sure why people have downvoted you Linda

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

I don’t know either, but, unfortunately, this is a common problem on here. I don’t mind discussing points with people who disagree, but if they don’t say what they disagree with then I can’t join in a discussion. It rather closes down any productive dialogue.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 year ago

Agreed. When I first subscribed to UnHerd I had high hopes for the Comments section. The posts were often quite intelligent and perceptive. I still have hopes, (I suffer from an excess of positive thinking; untreatable, alas). But these days…

Phil Rees
Phil Rees
1 year ago

Since you explicitly ask, I do not recognise either of the ‘groups’ you describe, and I find your post repellant in its advocacy for the left’s catch-all term of abuse ‘racist’; now so over-used as to have lost all meaning. I’m sorry to see it appearing in a discussion that was otherwise seeming useful and constructive.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 year ago

Agreed. When I first subscribed to UnHerd I had high hopes for the Comments section. The posts were often quite intelligent and perceptive. I still have hopes, (I suffer from an excess of positive thinking; untreatable, alas). But these days…

Phil Rees
Phil Rees
1 year ago

Since you explicitly ask, I do not recognise either of the ‘groups’ you describe, and I find your post repellant in its advocacy for the left’s catch-all term of abuse ‘racist’; now so over-used as to have lost all meaning. I’m sorry to see it appearing in a discussion that was otherwise seeming useful and constructive.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

I don’t know either, but, unfortunately, this is a common problem on here. I don’t mind discussing points with people who disagree, but if they don’t say what they disagree with then I can’t join in a discussion. It rather closes down any productive dialogue.

Andrew Stoll
Andrew Stoll
1 year ago

Too many foreigners are destructive to indigenous populations anywhere in the world. Whether they are tourists, colonists, refugees or migrants, legal or otherwise, local cultures and the environment are always adversely affected by too many people. Especially by those who do not care to fit in.
It’s about numbers, harmony and integration, not hate or ethnicity. The majority’s sentiments in this regard ought to be respected!

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Stoll
Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

That’s right Linda, the Woke Mob are the true enemies of stable integration of immigrants. After all, if the native culture is as hateful as they claim, why should anyone want to assimilate its values? Or if it is immoral to have borders and anyone should be able to come to the country uninvited, why bother integrating at all?
The other clique – the NF types – is barely large enough to fill a parish hall. But the Woke Mob needs to constantly exaggerate their numbers and influence to justify their own designs.
Edit: Not sure why people have downvoted you Linda

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
Andrew Stoll
Andrew Stoll
1 year ago

Too many foreigners are destructive to indigenous populations anywhere in the world. Whether they are tourists, colonists, refugees or migrants, legal or otherwise, local cultures and the environment are always adversely affected by too many people. Especially by those who do not care to fit in.
It’s about numbers, harmony and integration, not hate or ethnicity. The majority’s sentiments in this regard ought to be respected!

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Stoll
Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

British people with migrant background, who recently became successful politicians or business people, are mostly second or third generation, therefore well adjusted to this country. In Germany you had/have a huge wave of millions of new immigrants (especially since 2015) , who use up huge resources like housing, welfare etc. and are often resented by the native population, especially in Eastern Germany, where people feel much more patriotic and are sceptical about their willingness to integrate and accept German culture.
On the other hand you had immigrants to former West Germany in the 60s (Italians)and 70s (Turks), who worked as so-called “guest workers” and were actively recruited by German companies. They immediately got jobs and their children are now mostly well adjusted and integrated.
17% of the German population has now a migrant background, and history will show how well the new immigrants, especially the recent wave, will integrate and adjust to German culture.

Last edited 1 year ago by Stephanie Surface
Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

Thanks Stephanie, makes sense. I guess Peter was referring to Merkel’s Wir Schaffen Das immigrants rather than those from earlier waves.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
1 year ago

The mistake has been for a host country not to state what assimilation is required of the immigrant. Then if the immigrant does not wish to assimilate they can leave. it is is like staying in someone’s house, fit in or leave. In France there is the concept of Laicite; if an immigrant finds it unacceptable leave. Another is that all are equal before the law, man or woman,people of all religions or none.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

Thanks Stephanie, makes sense. I guess Peter was referring to Merkel’s Wir Schaffen Das immigrants rather than those from earlier waves.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
1 year ago

The mistake has been for a host country not to state what assimilation is required of the immigrant. Then if the immigrant does not wish to assimilate they can leave. it is is like staying in someone’s house, fit in or leave. In France there is the concept of Laicite; if an immigrant finds it unacceptable leave. Another is that all are equal before the law, man or woman,people of all religions or none.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

I don’t think that you are naive. However, I do think that there is a small, but powerful clique, who are determined that the integration that is still happening in the UK is stopped and reversed. There is another small, but mostly powerless clique, who just hate any foreign-born or -decended person and want them gone. We, rightly, call the latter “racists”, but most people are reluctant to apply the same term to the former – but they should.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

British people with migrant background, who recently became successful politicians or business people, are mostly second or third generation, therefore well adjusted to this country. In Germany you had/have a huge wave of millions of new immigrants (especially since 2015) , who use up huge resources like housing, welfare etc. and are often resented by the native population, especially in Eastern Germany, where people feel much more patriotic and are sceptical about their willingness to integrate and accept German culture.
On the other hand you had immigrants to former West Germany in the 60s (Italians)and 70s (Turks), who worked as so-called “guest workers” and were actively recruited by German companies. They immediately got jobs and their children are now mostly well adjusted and integrated.
17% of the German population has now a migrant background, and history will show how well the new immigrants, especially the recent wave, will integrate and adjust to German culture.

Last edited 1 year ago by Stephanie Surface
Phil Rees
Phil Rees
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter D

“Last year it was as if German culture and traditions were irrelevant, more something to remove” I know nothing directly of modern Germany. But for me ‘German culture’ brings memories of Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Wagner, Kant, Schopenhauer, Mann, 
 The greatest contribution of any country to European culture.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter D

That’s very interesting Peter. Are you British? How does the integration of foreigners compare between the two countries in your view? It seems to me that integration is pretty much a given here, as seen by the huge number of immigrant’s children in powerful positions – Sunak, Braveman, Cleverly, Priti Patel, Sadiq Khan, now Humza Yousaf. Maybe we go a bit too far – mixed race couples on every advert etc – but I have never experienced an Us and Them distinction between people who’s great-grandparents were English and those whose people arrived more recently. Or am I naive?

Phil Rees
Phil Rees
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter D

“Last year it was as if German culture and traditions were irrelevant, more something to remove” I know nothing directly of modern Germany. But for me ‘German culture’ brings memories of Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Wagner, Kant, Schopenhauer, Mann, 
 The greatest contribution of any country to European culture.

Peter D
Peter D
1 year ago

As a former resident of Germany back in the naughties, I can say that there certainly was still a divide between Wessies and Ossies. Since leaving, I have returned a few times. Covid put a dent in it but I was lucky enough to return last year and I was rather shocked because regional traditions are weaker than they were 20 years ago.
Sure, the period of East and West Germany plus the two World Wars have left a lot of scars on the psyche of this wonderful nation. But I find that mass migration is far more harmful. Being a foreigner, other foreigners were very candid to me about their feelings towards the Germans (which varied from dislike to hatred in general but some still had the odd German friend). Last year it was as if German culture and traditions were irrelevant, more something to remove. Foreigners would often hang in their cultures, dip their toes in others but ignore German things.
The East and West divide is a sad smoke screen. Things like quotas and representation don’t do anything to help anyone. German kids need more support and encouragement than “kinder mit migrations hintergrund”. We foreigners lucky enough to be granted the privilege to live in another country should show a great deal more respect. Instead it is taken for granted. The Germans though no fault of their own are hated in their own country for just being themselves. They never demanded that the foreigners come there. They have been incredibly welcoming, incredibly open. No matter how much they roll out the red carpet, it is just never enough for some.

Josef O
Josef O
1 year ago

How could Germany accept to have a Prime Minister without a democratic upbringing for 16 years is beyond me. And it shows.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
1 year ago
Reply to  Josef O

More and more convinced every day that she was an asset.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
1 year ago
Reply to  Josef O

More and more convinced every day that she was an asset.

Josef O
Josef O
1 year ago

How could Germany accept to have a Prime Minister without a democratic upbringing for 16 years is beyond me. And it shows.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

It always amuses me how few people in Britain forget that we have a German Royal Family!

Michael Marron
Michael Marron
1 year ago

It always amuses me that those who maintain that the act of crossing the border into the UK makes migrants British are the first to point out that our monarchy had German roots centuries ago.

Michael Marron
Michael Marron
1 year ago

It always amuses me that those who maintain that the act of crossing the border into the UK makes migrants British are the first to point out that our monarchy had German roots centuries ago.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

It always amuses me how few people in Britain forget that we have a German Royal Family!

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

Interesting article. Just shows how quickly an imposed border seeps into minds.

R E P
R E P
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

The Eastern and Western European mental border is still very powerful…Norman Davies book on the subject highly recommended.

R E P
R E P
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

The Eastern and Western European mental border is still very powerful…Norman Davies book on the subject highly recommended.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

Interesting article. Just shows how quickly an imposed border seeps into minds.

John Hicks
John Hicks
1 year ago

An interesting and helpful article. Dr.Hoyer has the ability, and scholarship capable of “joining the dots” where most of us are barely able to grasp the completed “big picture.” Many thanks.

John Hicks
John Hicks
1 year ago

An interesting and helpful article. Dr.Hoyer has the ability, and scholarship capable of “joining the dots” where most of us are barely able to grasp the completed “big picture.” Many thanks.

B Timothy
B Timothy
1 year ago

They really ought to restore the Kaiser, but Lord knows the Germans are far too rational a people for something so intelligent.

B Timothy
B Timothy
1 year ago

They really ought to restore the Kaiser, but Lord knows the Germans are far too rational a people for something so intelligent.

Ben Shipley
Ben Shipley
1 year ago

France is not tearing itself apart. The east-west divide in Germany is no worse than the divide in other countries between regions separated by geography and culture. The last thing Germany needs now is to cloud its peaceful ascendancy in Europe by bringing back the jackboots. Only in the Anglo world, and especially in the US, do you hear that it’s time for a return of the German military. German tanks rolling into Ukraine? Good grief.

Ben Shipley
Ben Shipley
1 year ago

France is not tearing itself apart. The east-west divide in Germany is no worse than the divide in other countries between regions separated by geography and culture. The last thing Germany needs now is to cloud its peaceful ascendancy in Europe by bringing back the jackboots. Only in the Anglo world, and especially in the US, do you hear that it’s time for a return of the German military. German tanks rolling into Ukraine? Good grief.

justin fisher
justin fisher
1 year ago

Insightful.