X Close

Will East Germans ever feel at home? The nation's spirit was forged in the West

'East Germans, as a result, are expected to celebrate an origin story in which they feel they had no part' (Colin Campbell/Getty Images)

'East Germans, as a result, are expected to celebrate an origin story in which they feel they had no part' (Colin Campbell/Getty Images)


May 23, 2024   6 mins

In May 1949, something extraordinary happened: exactly four years after Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies, a new Germany was born. A democratic constitution was signed, which turned three of the country’s four occupation zones into the West German state. Called “Basic Law”, this constitution was enacted on 23 May, propelling Germany from a genocidal dictatorship towards a prosperous democracy. And yet, despite this feat, its 75th constitutional anniversary today will be a muted affair.

That’s not to say politicians, historians, journalists and teachers aren’t making an effort to mark it. In the former West German capital of Bonn, 11 public figures will issue “love declarations to the Basic Law”, while Berlin is hosting a three-day “Festival for Democracy” with workshops and music. But for all the attempts at fanfare, the anniversary of the Basic Law is no German Independence Day. Buildings won’t be bedecked in the national colours; street parties will be a rarity. As political expert Ursula MĂŒnch told the German press, “significant parts of the German people don’t give a monkey’s about this anniversary”.

A tempting explanation for the lack of public displays of affection for Germany’s legal framework is the country’s ultra-conscious relationship with history. But guilt alone doesn’t explain the absence of the “constitutional patriotism” that West German thinkers such as JĂŒrgen Habermas had hoped for. Germans have long found other outlets for post-war national pride, football being the most obvious example.

When West Germany won its first World Cup in 1954, fans bellowed a part of the German anthem that is now no longer sung — the bit that starts with “Deutschland, Deutschland ĂŒber alles” (“Germany, Germany above all”). Instead, they were supposed to sing the third stanza, the one about “Unity and Justice and Freedom”. Whether they did it out of habit or deliberately is hard to tell, but historians such as Joachim Fest have called that moment of national euphoria the true day when modern Germany was born. Similarly, the 2006 World Cup, which was held in Germany, transformed the country into a sea of black, red and gold. While critical voices remained, most Germans celebrated the summer of patriotic jubilation as a “fairytale” moment.

So, Germans can celebrate themselves under the right circumstances. But pinning a sense of national togetherness on a legal document isn’t as easy as it is on sporting success. It doesn’t help that republican democracy is not a form of government that lends itself to pomp and pageantry. With their interchangeable office holders, rules-based order and attendant bureaucracy, such systems are intended to be fair and sensible, not awe-inspiring and glamorous. How do you celebrate something that doesn’t like fanfare?

German politicians had already struggled to drum up passion for rational republicanism after the First World War, when they tried to set up the country’s first fully fledged democracy but found it difficult to compete with the ceremonial flair of the dethroned monarchy. When the new constitution was passed in 1919, “there was no jubilation, no address, no tribute, nothing”, a conservative newspaper grumbled. “The state’s constitution shuffled out into the country like an indifferent guest.” Harry Graf Kessler, a pro-democracy aristocrat, wrote in his diary, “the republic should avoid ceremonies; this form of government doesn’t lend itself to them. It’s as if a governess is dancing ballet”.

Such generalisations go too far. France and the US make a valiant effort each year to celebrate their republics, but both have rousing origin stories to draw on. When the French mark Bastille Day, they don’t remember the signing of a piece of paper but the day in 1789 when revolutionaries attempted to storm a hated political prison. It was a rebellious act that symbolises the defeat of dynastic rule by people power. Similarly, Americans see the Fourth of July as a celebration of the moment they gained national freedom. Both are dramatic stories of a victorious struggle for democracy.

Modern Germany’s story, by contrast, begins in defeat and shame. Nazism had bankrupted the nation politically, economically and morally. The country lay in ruins and its people were dejected and hungry when the Western Allies decided that they needed their zones to become a bulwark against communism in the emerging Cold War.

To remedy this, in 1948, a Parliamentary Council was summoned under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer who would soon become West Germany’s first chancellor. They discussed, drafted and redrafted the articles under the watchful eye of the Allies, and agreed them on 8 May 1949. There was no pathos. In lieu of the anthem they didn’t yet have, the delegates sang the 19th-century song “Ich hab mich ergeben” — “I have surrendered myself”. Over the next few days, the Allies signed off on the document and so did all regional governments (with the exception of Bavaria, which didn’t agree to it but acknowledged it as lawful). On 23 May, the West German constitution became law and created a new German democracy.

The origin story of the Basic Law isn’t the stuff of national legends. Many West Germans have much stronger feelings about post-war chancellors like Konrad Adenauer or Willy Brandt, the first Social Democrat to take office in 1969. There is an intense collective memory of the so-called “economic miracle” of the Fifties in which Adolf Hitler’s people’s car, the Volkswagen Beetle, somehow became one of the most iconic vehicles in automotive history. While the Basic Law enabled the economic, political and social stability that emerged, it remained a largely unsung hero.

Another problem with using the birthday of the German constitution as a national rallying point is that it didn’t unite the country, but rather cemented its post-war division. It only applied to West Germany and was deliberately designed to be provisional until reunification with the Soviet Zone of Occupation could be achieved. Its last article, Number 146, said the Basic Law would stay in place until a permanent constitution was “freely adopted by the German people”. At the time this meant that a West German state was founded with its own currency and legal system. The formation of East Germany was a response to that and followed on 7 October 1949.

During the country’s reunification in 1990, heated discussions ensued over whether the merger of two states necessitated a new constitution with input from Easterners. But Wolfgang SchĂ€uble, the West German Minister of the Interior who led the reunification negotiations, made the situation very clear: “This is not the unification of two equal states,” he declared. “There is a constitution, and there is a Federal Republic of Germany. Let us start with the assumption that you have been excluded from both for 40 years. Now you are entitled to take part.” There wouldn’t be a new constitution. East Germany would join the West German system.

This has contributed to the resentment many East Germans continue to feel about the way their former country was dissolved without much input from them. Such resentment is difficult to overcome and even more difficult to turn into enthusiasm for a document over which they had no say. In the first free elections in 1990, the majority of Easterners had voted for parties that offered quick unification, but this is not the same as having explicit input into the country’s constitution.

East Germans, as a result, are expected to celebrate an origin story in which they feel they had no part while few former West Germans would consider the history of East Germany their own. The East remains the anomaly to Western normality. As the historian Frank Trentmann put it, drawing a straight line from the West German constitution to today risks making East Germany “little more than an inconvenient detour that, with reunification, rejoins the main road to the liberal democratic West”.

“East Germans, as a result, are expected to celebrate an origin story in which they feel they had no part”

Meanwhile, a number of German commentators are also doubtful about the self-assured celebrations of German democracy because of the rise of the Right-wing Alternative fĂŒr Deutschland (AfD) party, which polls as the second largest party in many surveys. The political magazine Der Spiegel is running a stark cover this week featuring a swastika covered by Germany’s red-black-and-gold tricolour and the heading “Haven’t we learnt anything?”, which seems to imply that voting for the AfD is akin to abolishing democracy in the way Hitler did in the Thirties.

Of course, few would deny that Germany is today a deeply divided country with many voters looking for ways to express their discontent outside of the established political boundaries. But the same is true for many other Western democracies who don’t, by and large, mistake a mismatch of political offerings and voters’ concerns as a sign that people are fed up with democracy itself. This equation doesn’t work out for Germany either. In a recent survey, 85% of Germans considered democracy a good form of government. If people are losing faith in parties, politicians and institutions, they still believe in the values of the Basic Law.

Where does this leave today’s anniversary? While bombastic celebrations of the Basic Law may not be appropriate for a number of reasons, few would disagree that Germany is right to take a moment to reflect on the long and winding road that took it back into the fold of the liberal democracies of the West. It is a country that takes its lessons from the past more seriously than most and has bound them into the very fabric of its political system. Passionate “constitutional patriotism” may never have materialised in Germany, but a strong commitment to democracy has. And that is well worth celebrating.

But today should also be a day for Germany to reflect on how to grow democracy out of its West German infancy. When the Basic Law was enacted 75 years ago, it introduced people-power to a deeply Nazified population that had never experienced a functioning democracy and looked to self-assured men like Adenauer to lead the way. Those days are gone. Today, a vocal, confident and well-educated population wants to be able to voice concerns and criticism without being chided by politicians for doing democracy wrong. Article 20 of the Basic Law says: “All state authority is derived from the people.” Some 75 years after those words were enshrined in law, they provide a pertinent reminder of what democracy is all about.


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

hoyer_kat

Join the discussion


Rejoignez des lecteurs partageant les mĂȘmes idĂ©es qui soutiennent notre journalisme en devenant abonnĂ©s payants.

Subscribe

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

26 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
T Bone
T Bone
1 month ago

The collapse of Communism and fall of the Berlin Wall along with the Reunification of East and West Germany is an outstanding Origin story. It signaled the total defeat of Ideological Totalitarianism. As far as “pathos” goes, I’ve watched David Hasselhoff’s song on Wall probably 50x. Pretty uplifting stuff!

From a far, Germany seems like a cynical technocracy scared to embrace any sense of National pride when all it has to do is embrace it’s own victory over domestic Totalism.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago

Good to see Katya Hoyer back. I always enjoy her articles.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago

I have always felt sorry for East Germans, because an accident of geography meant that they had to suffer 40+ years of Communism, whereas those in the West did not. The story is more than a little personal for me, as my mother’s family was from what was then East Prussia. However, they had the good sense to head West as soon as practicable. That said, there is no point in pretending that the former East Germany had any merit whatsoever, and its being subsumed by the West was an entirely good thing.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 month ago

It is said East Germans are expected to celebrate an origin story in which they feel they had no part. But cold assessment also shows most West Germans had no part either. Basic Law was drafted by a tiny group of people long since passed away. It became law without any vote by the people.

The tiny group of people that drafted Basic Law were, by virtue of the Allies’ control of the regional governments, essentially electoral winners of the Allies’ handpicked list of “permitted” politicians. They were not freely elected representatives of the West German people. Further, the modern federal structure that is at the heart of Basic Law was a technocratic creation of the Allies’ between 1945 and 1949 to administer the three Western zones.

Rightly or wrongly, Basic Law was imposed on West Germans too.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Indeed. One might be tempted to cynically clarify article 20. All state authority is derived from the people….who actually won the war.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

This is an interesting theoretical argument that is historically utterly meaningless – of course the Allies after the most destructive war in history weren’t just going to allow the German state and “people” do whatever they wished. And it has almost no purchase amongst the modern German population, who are pretty content with their state and have despite recent missteps done vastly better than the previous regime’s “supremacy or damnation” offer!. The National Socialists talked a good ideological game, but attained power by pretending to seem some kind of conservative “normality”, not the radical revolutionary destructive war mongering and virulent anti-Semitism that were actually Hitler’s only true priorities.

Handpicked list of permitted politicians”. A wide range of political parties from Left to Right were permitted, just not including the Nazis or Communists. Since those extremist parties both theoretically and in practice between the wars were fundamentally devoted to the destruction of liberal democracy, you could well argue that was very sensible, not to say essential call. Are you suggesting here that perhaps the allies should have permitted the ongoing legal organisational existence of National Socialism?

Of course above all this, no such state ever existed because “the people” (so often defined as those people who agree with me!) willed it – there are and always will be elites, as Machiavelli knew. Are the elites somehow of the same “blood and bone” as the indigenous population sometimes they are, very often they are not as with the Normans. In any case, some form of “liberal democracy” offers the best opportunity for people to have a say on steering the overall direction of society, or at least feel they do, which is not nothing, while preventing overwhelming concentrations of power, mandated by majorities or not, crushing individual freedoms.

John Hughes
John Hughes
25 days ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

The post-WW2 constitution of Japan was written by experts from the United States, under Macarthur’s direction, and in effect issued to the Japanese politicians in 1947. The politicians (who had been selected by Macarthur’s staff to form civilian government) had been asked to produce a democratic constitution themselves, but had offered one that resembled the original Meiji Restoration structure of 1868 – the constitution that had been undermined by the military and autocratic forces in the 1920s. This was not accepted. Instead the writers were largely American. The great irony is that it is a British-type constitution. It has a constitutional monarch, a powerful lower house (whose confidence the Prime Minister must hold to be appointed to form a government), an upper house (indirectly elected by local authorities) which has less power and which the government does not have to control to get legislation passed, and parliamentary (not judicial) supremacy. And this was promulgated by General Macarthur, an American of stern republican traditions who had no love for the British Crown! The Japanese constitution has stood the test of time – apparently no amendments to it have ever been needed since 1947. The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany has similarly stood the test of 75 years.

William Murphy
William Murphy
1 month ago

I am enjoying a fascinating holiday in the Saarland, which has its own indescribably complex history. From 1947 to 1956 it was a sort of semi independent state with its own flag and football team. The currency was the French franc and the French controlled the coal mines. Then the people voted to reunite with West Germany and the DMark became the currency.

From my travels in East Germany, my impressions were that some places (e.g. Weimar and Magdeburg) had done OK out of reunion and others (like Cottbus and Frankfurt-on-Oder) had a long hard road ahead. I read that one intractable problem was that the big German corporations were snuggly at home in places like Cologne and Munich and their senior people were not going to uproot their families from their nearby villas to pursue levelling up in Postdam or Dresden.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 month ago

No mention of East Germans showing higher support for both the extreme right and the extreme left. The survey quoted doesn’t show the support for democracy by region, only by party. I would expect the support for democracy to be lower in the East. (As far as I can see the survey has also totally ignored voters for extreme left parties). Nor is the extremist views of East Germans put in a historical context – German militarism arose in Prussia.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago

German militarism arose in a lot of places actually. At least a third of the soldiers who fought for England in the American Revolution were so-called ‘Hessian’ mercenaries, so named because they haled from the German states of Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau. They had a reputation as excellent soldiers for hire and had been used by the British in other conflicts. They were far from Prussia and were not annexed by Prussia until the late 1800’s when Prussia consolidated the several remaining independent kingdoms of greater Germany around Prussia into a single nation. If one takes a look at the modern state of Hesse, which includes these and a couple other kingdoms, one will note that the area is closer to France than to Berlin.
It could be said however, that German nationalism and the idea of a unified Germany did arise in Prussia. There wasn’t much of an idea of Germany or Germans until the Prussian monarchs began using the concept as a way to grow their power and influence at the expense of the rival Austro-Hungarian empire which lacked a common language or ethnicity, being comprised of several modern day nations with many nationalities, religions, and languages.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

This is an interesting enough discussion but the fact that there were mercenaries from Hesse – which was a common way of recruiting armed forces – does not mean that Hesse was a militaristic society in the way that Prussia was by deliberate state design. Was Switzerland a militaristic society because of the earlier fame of Swiss mercenaries?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Well, my overall point was that militarism and highly professional soldiers who were a source of local and national pride and international reputation could be found in other places that are now part of Germany, and other parts of Europe as well. I just thought it was unfair to single out Prussia for their militarism when they were mostly doing the same things other European kingdoms and states were doing. Militarism arose in many places during that era of the late feudal and early industrial period. I think we tend to associate militarism with Prussia because of events that happened afterwards, namely the world wars, but we can hardly lay that conflict on Frederick II. The causes of WWI are still debated but it’s generally accepted that blaming Germany was not justified and a major contributor if not the sole cause of WWII, which was justifiably blamed on Germany and the Nazis in particular.
I concede that Prussia was a driving force in German nationalist sentiment that contributed to the later problems. This is, to my mind, the more pertinent and proper criticism. In other words, I was picking nits, so apologies for that.

John Dewhirst
John Dewhirst
30 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

The German state came from the unification of various kingdoms and principalities. Not vastly dissimilar to the EU project.

Barry Murphy
Barry Murphy
27 days ago

Sorry, but it is support for the government – not support for democracy itself – which is lower in the former East Germany.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 month ago

My, did that article take some time to get to the subject of the headline…
It might have also mentioned June 17th as The Day of German Unity which was celebrated, until it was moved to October after reunification.

karlheinz r
karlheinz r
1 month ago

A completely trite article that may sit well with our increasingly undemocratic government and its officials but doesn‘t address the current state of democracy in Germany.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago
Reply to  karlheinz r

Interesting comment; can you set out your own views on the state of democracy in Germany?

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 month ago

I attended the 2006 World Cup Final in Berlin. The Germans were certainly enjoying hosting the tournament but I should point out that the final was between France & Italy. Italy won in einen Elfmeter schießen.

Jim McDonnell
Jim McDonnell
1 month ago

As the author notes, the US and France don’t celebrate the day their constitutions were approved either. If Germany wants to have something like its own Fourth of July or Bastille Day it might want to celebrate its unification. As to the states that used to be in the DDR, they lag behind the western states in most quality of life indicators and this is not just a hangover from the days of Soviet rule but the legacy of decades of underinvestment by the federal government. When Brandenburg and Saxony generate statistics that look like Bavaria’s and North Rhine-Westphalia’s, the Ossis will stop feeling like second-class citizens.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim McDonnell

That’s a big ask! Converting the East German marks into Deutschmarks at a one-to-one rate was a de facto massive subsidy to East Germany. And the German government did indeed invest vast sums directly into the East in the years and decades following reunification. However as we should know by now, this can’t in itself somehow miraculously create a sustainable and productive economy. We should know this from the British example, which arguably has an even worse regional economical divide, but without the excuse of having had communist rule in the north of the country for decades!

It will be a marvelous thing for the world if eventually the northern Korean state collapses, but it will undoubtedly be an even larger challenge for Korea to integrate the two economies and societies.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

The political magazine Der Spiegel is running a stark cover this week featuring a swastika covered by Germany’s red-black-and-gold tricolour and the heading “Haven’t we learnt anything?”, which seems to imply that voting for the AfD is akin to abolishing democracy in the way Hitler did in the Thirties.
That’s not very helpful but it is very intentional and while the implication is more explicit in Germany, the same sentiment is aimed at “far right” parties emerging elsewhere in Europe. This default mentality of “everything not like me has to be Nazis” mindset is poisonous, but it also demonstrates a complete lack of self-awareness among the left.
The rise of the right, whether it’s called extreme or not, has not happened in a vacuum. It arises from the consequences of policies forced on the people, beginning with the immigration fetish and continuing with green policies and other things that are wholly undemocratic. Did the farmers vote for their livelihoods to be destroyed? Of course, not. Did anyone vote for stupidity like regrowth? Again, no. Perhaps Der Spiegel could dispense with the insults and try some introspection.

Barry Murphy
Barry Murphy
27 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Der Spiegel is a joke of a magazine. One would struggle to find a political magazine more supportive of the government (in this case the German government) in any other democratic country. As for the headline “Haven’t we learnt anything?” this is what I (as someone who lives in Germany) asked myself many times during Germany’s draconian Covid restrictions and the associated mistreatment of the “unvaccinated”. Of course, it was difficult to ask the question out loud as you would be accused of making an outrageous comparison.

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
27 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Der Spiegel used to be a decent news magazine, but has deteriorated into a standard leftist rag. That process began in the early 2000s, and accelerated in recent years. They have been plagued by scandals, and their readership is declining even faster. To retain the few readers they have on the far left, they have to cater to that audience or else they will disappear into oblivion.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 month ago

Having studied German constitutional law, I can confirm that the German constitution does not make one want to party. It makes one want to recline in a darkened room with one’s face turned to the wall.
One has respect for it, not fluttery lovey-dovey feelings.

c donnellan
c donnellan
1 month ago

Many ‘East Germans’ want to preserve Germany as German. American occupation for 80 years has made the West of Germany thoroughly politically and socially degenerate. The people placed in power by the Western Allies after the war with a few notable exceptions were generally people who hated Germany and its people. The third generation of this ruling elite wants to replace the German people entirely it seems altogether.

John Hughes
John Hughes
25 days ago

Katja Hoyer has given an excellent and enjoyable outline of the German history of the 19th century, starting with the ending of the Holy Roman Empire by Napoleon and explaining how the myriad small principalities were reduced in number by him, and covering the 1848 events and the creation of the German Empire by Bismarck, to Steven Edginton on Telegraph TV. This was recorded in 2022 and can be seen on youtube at
h ttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gge14wZPURU
Anchorless Germany is yet to find its place in the 21st century | Katja Hoyer interview
Go to 30 mins in. Katya starts with the late C18th.