Was German Unification Inevitable?

In January 1871 Bismarck declared the German nation united. Following a tragic 20th century, Germany reunified once more in 1990. Four historians offer their perspectives on both events.

Proclamation of Prussian king Wilhelm I as German Emperor at Versailles, Anton von Werner, 1885. Wiki Commons.

‘The unity of the German-speaking lands goes back a long way’

Len Scales, Professor of Late Medieval History, Durham University.

There was once a time when German historians searched avidly for the emergence of the ‘first German state’ or ‘first Reich’. Usually they discovered it sometime in the late ninth or early tenth century. Unity, they were convinced, was the German people’s destiny and destination. Understandably and rightly, the days of such thinking are long gone.

The long view seems still less defensible when we remember that the ‘German state’ that emerged out of the collapse of Charlemagne’s Frankia was the Holy Roman Empire, long a byword for political sleepiness and more recently championed as pre modern prototype for the trans-national EU. The fact that after its demise in 1806 the Empire appeared such an unappealing form of German statehood explains why no modern German state, whether in 1871, 1918, 1933, 1949, or 1990, staked any serious claim to its inheritance. Successive incarnations of modern German statehood have tended to appear instead as bolts from the blue, chance strokes of good or ill fortune.

The interesting word here is ‘unification’. Loosely defined, the unity of the German-speaking lands goes back a long way. The political heartlands of Otto I (r. 936-73), the first Holy Roman Emperor, match a modern idea of ‘Germany’ more closely than most tenth-century kingdoms resemble any contemporary European state. This remained for many centuries a highly limited unity. Plurality had got there first. The Empire’s ruler was chosen by the German princes and it was their word, not his, that mostly prevailed in their regions. Yet the idea was well established from early on that the Empire’s pluralism was a German pluralism. And across many centuries down to its extinction in 1806, its German-speaking core displayed remarkable stability.

Thereafter things changed, but underlying patterns endured. Disunited but stable unity, federated commonality, appears as a scarlet thread through centuries of German history. Its reappearance in a new guise therefore seems unsurprising. It is instead the long half-century from 1933 to 1990, of militant hyper-unification followed, after 1945, by walls and razor-wire, that looks anomalous. When Berlin’s ministers quarrel with federal chiefs over Covid-19 rules, they are re-enacting in postmodern dress a time-honoured German political ritual. Disunited unity has come home.

‘Was the creation of a German state inevitable in 1871? Certainly not’

Maiken Umbach, Professor of Modern History at the University of Nottingham

Inevitability is a tricky concept for historians. First, there is the problem of chronology. Was the creation of a German nation state inevitable in 1871? Certainly not. It was the outcome of a host of contingent factors: change any of them and history would have taken a different turn. But was German unification inevitable at some point in this period? That’s a trickier question. It had been attempted before, notably in 1848.

Not just the geopolitical situation was more favourable in 1871. Structurally, the German territories were moving towards closer integration throughout the second half of the 19th century. The improvement of transport infrastructures, the rise of a national press, the mass migration of rural workers into large cities and the increasingly national outlook of the German labour movement are just some of the notable factors. It is also true that these centripetal forces intensified in the decades after 1871 – raising the question of whether unification was a product of nation-building tendencies, or whether nation-building tendencies were the product of unification. But the emergence of Germany as a superpower was only tangentially related to the events of 1871. German-wide institutions and constitutional law predated unification by decades and, in some instances, by centuries. So did the emergence of a German print culture, a highly innovative education system, the iconography of German nationalism and even a German colonial imagination.

By the same token, the transformation of Germany into a distinctly modern country before and after 1871 was, in large part, driven by the dynamism of its constituent parts: individual German states such as Bavaria, Hamburg, or Prussia. The Germany reunified in 1990 still thrives on the diversity of the different Länder. Many of the new national institutions created in 1871 proved problematic, contributing to plunging Germany, and the world, into the First World War and failing to adopt a robustly republican ethos during the Weimar years. The Germany we have come to know as a great European success story after 1945, and, albeit to a lesser degree, after the events of 1990, owes more to its federal traditions.

‘The notion of historical inevitability trivialises change’

Helene von Bismarck, Independent scholar

No. Nor is it really appropriate to speak of ‘reunification’. The Germany that came together in October 1990 was very different from the Germany of 1871, the Germany of 1919, or the Germany of 1945. Unification is the term we should use to describe the events of 1990 and they were not inevitable, because nothing in history is. This may sound like a platitude but it is the anchor of all my thinking. The notion of historical inevitability trivialises change.

Memory is a misleading thing. The image most people connect with German unification is the fall of the Berlin Wall. The surprise of it all, the emotion, the celebrations, are impossible to forget. The merger of West and East Germanies into one state 11 months later appears almost like an afterthought. It wasn’t.

When the Wall came down in November 1989, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that Germany would unify at all, let alone so quickly and as a full member of the Western alliance. The emotional night in Berlin was followed by months of frantic international diplomacy. This wasn’t just an issue to be resolved between the two Germanies. The entire postwar settlement in Europe was called into question.

Unification depended not just on the wishes of the German people, nor on the economic collapse of the DDR, but on the consent of the former Allied powers, notably the United States and the Soviet Union. President George Bush was, in contrast to Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand, immensely supportive of unification, but he was insistent that a unified Germany had to be part of NATO. Had Gorbachev not accepted this in the summer of 1990, the course of history could have been very different.

One of the most famous quotations about unification are Willy Brandt’s moving words: ‘Now what belongs together will grow together.’ On an emotional level, this resonates strongly with me as a German. But analytically, and looking into global history, I know that feelings of ‘belonging together’ have never been an impediment for being kept apart.   


‘The matter was decided by the East German people’

Joachim Whaley, Professor of German History and Thought, University of Cambridge

Before 9 November 1989 no one predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall or the reunification of Germany. In January 1989 the East German leader Erich Honecker boasted that the Wall would still be in place in 100 years and in early October 1989 he presided over the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the DDR. Why did no one foresee its imminent demise?

The Soviet Union created the DDR because it was determined to hold the ground won in the war against Hitler. Dominated by a communist elite, the new state enjoyed some popular support, but over three million East Germans fled west before the construction of the Wall fully sealed the frontier in 1961. Discontent and widespread low-level resistance persisted, however; between 1961 and 1988 nearly 400,000 East Germans formally applied to leave and oppositional networks increasingly flourished. Soviet support remained unwavering, but a rift developed when the systemic crisis of the Soviet Union in the 1980s led Mikhail Gorbachev to urge his Warsaw Pact allies to follow the example of Soviet reforms.

The DDR refused, for they knew that might well lead to demands for freedom of movement, which would simply revive the problem solved by the Wall. Discontent culminated in mass protests during the summer of 1989 and the regime panicked. A leadership change achieved little. Vague promises of reform generated misunderstandings; one of them led to the opening of the Wall.

What about the Federal Republic? Early western hopes for unity receded during the Cold War. Successive governments emphasised that reunification might happen in the long term, perhaps in a united Europe. From the 1960s left liberals argued that the division should be permanent to prevent a return to the nationalism of the past. The matter was decided by the East German people. Initially, they demanded a democratic reform of the socialist system. Once the Wall was opened, their chant ‘We are the people’ changed to ‘We are one people’. As growing numbers of East Germans migrated west again, the government of the Federal Republic responded with plans for speedy reunification; this was achieved on 3 October 1990.