In the lead-up to reunification and the first all-German elections two months later, German chancellor Helmut Kohl had promised people on both sides a “blooming landscape” in the East within five years, and a country in which, “Things won’t be worse for anybody, and will be much better for many.”
The reality proved to be much more prickly. Many overstaffed and/or antiquated factories in the East were compelled to make wrenching changes or forced out of business. The five new states today suffer persistently high rates of unemployment and underemployment – and this in areas where for 40 years, unemployment didn’t officially exist.
Kohl and his coalition managed to squeak by as victors again in the national elections four years later. But in 1998, the main opposition party, the SPD, came up with a strong chancellor candidate, Gerhard Schröder.
By this point, Kohl had stacked up too many negatives (mainly the dire economic situation in the eastern states and the stubborn unemployment in the country as a whole): the ruling coalition was handed a resounding defeat, and the SPD returned to power, promising to get the German economy humming smoothly again. Plus, for the first time, the environmentalist Greens party entered the German national government, taking over as junior partners in the ruling coalition.
But the new government proved not much more effective at solving the nation’s economic problems and the woes of the eastern states. For all too many Germans, many of these were beginning to look like intractable problems. Despite widespread dissatisfaction, the SPD-led coalition managed to squeak by to victory in the 2002 national elections. The next one was scheduled for late 2006, but was forced up a year when poor showings in state and local elections undermined confidence in Schröder and his government.
Although the media-savvy Schröder ran a strong campaign, the sluggish economy and significant changes made in entitlement programs (necessitated by demographics and globalization) would not allow him to turn the tide and actually win the election. His SPD finished just behind the CDU-CSU partnership and brought about a Grand Coalition of the country’s two biggest parties.
The new Chancellor, Angela Merkel of the CDU, was both the first woman and the first politician from the former East Germany to occupy Germany’s highest political office. Her popularity since her election has, despite frequent dips, remained quite high. Many of Germany’s problems persist, but many believe they are at least being chipped at by the new government. Plus, having a former East German at the helm may help further heal some of the East-West split.
This, then, is Germany in this first decade of the 21st century, a country that bears the burdens of its history in a way few other nations do. Anyone wishing to live and succeed here needs some understanding and appreciation of this complex, star-crossed history in order to understand and appreciate the Germans themselves.