A man celebrates on the Berlin wall on November 12, 1989 in Berlin, Germany.
Pool CHUTE DU MUR BERLIN—Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
November 9, 2014 8:00 AM EST

We didn’t know what to expect after the heady days of November 1989. What exactly would follow from the fall of the Berlin wall? Would this mean the end of communism? Would Germany reunite? And, if so, could the country ever truly overcome its divisions? Despite those open questions, all but the most obtuse observers had to know that this was a momentous event—one that would lead Europe, and especially Germany, to redefine itself.

Looking back in 2014, that process of redefinition has been both surprisingly successful and radically incomplete. East and West Germany have overcome their divisions better than most had dared to hope. But Germany missed a unique opportunity to rethink its identity and redefine its role in the world. Over the past years, it has become increasingly evident how heavy a price Germany—and its neighbors—may have to pay for this omission.

Reunification turned out to be less of a fusion between two parts of the country than a takeover: the governors in Bonn simply extended the West a few hundred kilometers to the East. In the process, West Germany gave the East what it had craved: its constitution, its currency, and its freedoms. Alongside those great achievements, West Germany also exported some lesser signs of its dominance. Within a few years of reunification, for example, the simple, old-fashioned and rather beautiful signs that had long announced station names in East Germany were quietly replaced by their bland, corporate equivalents in the West.

The unrelenting totality of these changes caused understandable resentment among some East Germans, who experienced their newfound freedom primarily as the shock of an unaccustomed insecurity. Their factories closed. Their jobs disappeared. When the German Democratic Republic vanished from the map, they lost a part of their identity. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ostalgie, nostalgia for the recent past, conquered the East. Some celebrated the once ubiquitous Trabbi cars, others pined over the closing of a beloved manufacturer of half-sour pickles. Harmless for the most part, Ostalgie at times also took a harder, more illiberal edge—as when leading East German politicians refused to acknowledge that the GDR had been a dictatorship, or street mobs gave violent voice to their hatred of immigrants.

At the time, the persistent cultural and political divide between East and West raised fears that Germany might remain a land forever divided. Today, that handwringing has itself come to look outdated. Germans from the former East are now represented at the top levels of the country’s most important institutions: boardrooms, the national soccer team, the Chancellorship. The country feels—and, thanks to those railway signs, looks—much the same on both sides of the erstwhile border. Sure, a range of social indicators, from religiosity to the number of infants in daycare, shows that East and West have not become mirror images.

Perhaps they never will. But it is, after all, not unusual for nation states to retain significant regional differences. Twenty-five years after the fall of the wall, it is clear that reunification has been a cultural success.

In fact, it is even starting to look as though the West’s policy of cultural standardization, which has long seemed so obtuse, may have contributed to this success. Homogenizing Germany not only alienated an older generation of East Germans; it also ensured that those who were born as citizens of a unified Germany no longer saw a salient distinction between East and West.

But while West Germany’s refusal to redefine itself after 1989 has proven an effective strategy for reunification, it also means that the country’s leaders passed up on an important opportunity to address the Federal Republic’s key failings. First, Germany has neglected to use reunification as an opportunity to redefine itself as a country of immigrants. While East Germans gained their new passports within less than a year of the fall of the wall, most of the immigrants from outside of Europe who had arrived in West Germany since the 1960s remained excluded from citizenship for another decade. Parts of the political class are finally catching up to the fact that Germany will need to integrate those who have their roots outside the country as well as those who rejoined it in 1989. But opposition to this new, more inclusive conception of the nation remains politically and emotionally powerful. The question of whether Germany—as well as the rest of Europe—can operate as truly multiethnic is key to the continent’s future.

Second, Germany has not embraced its responsibilities as a world leader. During the Cold War, West Germany enjoyed a long holiday from history: because of its geostrategic importance, it could outsource the protection of freedom and democracy to the United States.

The foreign policy elite of the new Germany has, so far, failed to realize that this holiday from history has now come to an end. The country’s leaders have been happy to impose their rules on the Eurozone, but not to lead the Eurozone out of crisis when those rules proved inadequate. They have become more willing to send the Bundeswehr on occasional peacekeeping missions, but they shirk from protecting allies in Central and Eastern European from Russia’s expansionism.

Finally, Germany has failed to realize that its new status as a global leader creates a need for far-reaching domestic reform to environmental policy and military spending. The country has long prided itself in its ecological conscience and its pacifist-ish approach to foreign policy.

But if Germany wants to avoid being servile to Russia’s whims for the foreseeable future, it needs to slaughter some of those sacred cows. German leaders will not dare provoke Putin so long as he can threaten the life of Germany’s pensioners simply by switching off the gas—a state of dependence that will only deepen if the country goes ahead with plans to shut off its nuclear power plants. Nor will Germany’s leaders be able to negotiate with Putin as equals so long as only a fraction of the Bundeswehr’s equipment is in working order.

Internally, Germany’s reunification has panned out better than most had dared to hope.

Today, the remaining differences between East and West are much smaller than could reasonably have been expected. That’s a great achievement. But as we look back to 1989 and reflect on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the degree of continuity in West Germany’s conception of itself is just as striking.

The changes that are afoot today are much less obvious than they were in 1989. But, though it may be more difficult to recognize now than it was twenty-five years ago, the need for the whole of Germany to redefine itself is just as urgent.

Yascha Mounk is a fellow at New America, where he writes about technological solutions to the political and environmental challenges of the 21st century. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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