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Germany Reunited

Germany Reunited

by William H. Benson

May 4, 2017

      The Iron Curtain split Europe into two parts: the free countries to the west, and the Soviet-controlled bloc to the east. On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill stated in blunt words the case that, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent.” Two Germany’s, Western and Eastern; and two Berlin’s, West and East.

     Because West Berlin was situated inside East Germany, and accessible by train from West Germany, it was a free island, inside Communist, Soviet-dominated East Germany. Between the end of World War II, in 1945, until 1961, 3.5 million young and well-educated East Germans poured into West Berlin, and from there, they boarded the train that carried them to a free West Germany.

     That escape route ended in August 1961, when East German and Soviet workers constructed an imposing concrete wall that encircled West Berlin. It stood 3.5 meters high, ran for 156 kilometers, and guard patrolled the wall from 300 watchtowers and 50 bunkers. Guards shot at all those who attempted  to cross the wall. For forty-four years the Berlin Wall, that symbol of oppression, stood tall and mighty.

     The first fissure in the Iron Curtain appeared on May 2, 1989, when Hungary’s officials began to dismantle the barbed-wire fence that separated Communist Hungary from free Austria. On August 19, 1989, Hungary’s officials began to allow the few East Germans who resided in Hungary to pass also into Austria. Over the next few months, 13,000 East Germans escaped to the west via the Hungary / Austria border. “Then the tide was unstoppable.”

    Chancellor Helmut Kohl said, that it was in Hungary where “the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall.” It is now called “Der Erste Riss in der Mauer,” or “The First Crack in the Wall.”

     On November 9, 1989, guards opened the Berlin Wall’s Brandenburg Gate and allowed East Berlin’s citizens to cross into West Berlin. On June 13, 1990, officials began to dismantle the wall, and on October 3, 1990, East and West Germany reunited. The days of Soviet control over Germany ended.

     The exodus out of East Germany alarmed its officials. A writer for the Economist stated the situation, “Nearly 30 years after unification the region still suffers the aftershock from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when millions—mostly young, mostly women—fled for the west.” Those young women chose freedom and opportunity in the west, rather than babies and motherhood at home.

     Some 1.7 million former East German citizens, or 12% of the East’s population, chose to flee to the West in those first months, and demographers predict that eastern Germany’s population will continue to slide throughout this century. “Those women who remained in the former East Germany had record-low birth rates.” By 1994, the east’s total fertility rate fell to .772, “far below the natural replacement rate of 2.1.”

    The forecasts appear grim. Social scientists predict that, “The east’s population will shrink from 12.5 million in 2016 to 8.7 million by 2060.” Frank Swiaczny from the Federal Institute for Population Research in Wiesbaden said, “Kids not born in the 90’s, also didn’t have kids in the 2010’s. It’s the echo of the echo.” The schools suffer. “Two-thirds of kindergartens and over half the schools in the east have closed since 1990.”

     Mayors, town councils, and school boards across eastern Germany face a difficulty: a lack of children in the schools, and yet an overabundance of senior citizens. As a result, care for the elderly has boomed in Germany’s eastern section. Nursing homes are “desperate for more geriatricians, nurses, and trainees.” It is a dilemma: “when does a community turn its school into a care home?”

     Care unit officials refuse though to rely upon recent immigrants from Syria or Afghanistan, due to “educational, religious, and ethical barriers for care jobs.” Germany struggles with the second highest number of migrants worldwide, second only to the United States. At least sixteen million immigrants reside in Germany, but 96.1% of those reside in Germany’s western sections. If a recent immigrant arrives first in Germany’s eastern region, “those who do have the right papers leave quickly.”

     Each year on the eve of April 30, Germans in both east and west celebrate Walpurgisnacht. Local folklore believes that on that night witches meet on Brocken Peak in Germany’s Harz Mountains. Children dress up in witch and devil costumes, and at midnight, a fireworks display drives away the witches and welcomes in May Day.

     The German-speaking people define resilience. Of all peoples, they have suffered the very worst: defeat in two World Wars, the terrors of a Nazi Germany, a Holocaust, a Cold War, an Iron Curtain, and a concrete Berlin Wall. Their current difficulties—a massive influx of Syrian immigrants and a declining population in the east—appear less than significant. Whether split or unified, Germans come together each year on the eve of April 30 to remember Walpurgisnacht.