Hundreds of thousands gathered to mark “30 Jahre Mauerfall” in Berlin, and as they look to the future, Germany’s leaders face three big challenges.
From open-air exhibitions at the Brandenburg Gate, to the former headquarters of the Stasi, and other sites around the city, hundreds of thousands of Germans celebrated the anniversary of the opening of the Wall that happened on November 9, 1989.
It was very German and uplifting, but there’s still an angst lurking beneath all the revelry. Nearly three decades after reunification, Germany is still struggling to solidify its own identity and to stake out its place in the world.
As its people look ahead to the next 30 years, Germany’s leaders face three big challenges.
Germany is still, in some ways, two countries: Reunification was one of the great political accomplishments of the 20th century, but today people in the former East still make about 15 percent less than those in the old West. Meanwhile, just 42 percent of people in the East think Germany’s current democracy is the “best” form of government, compared with 77 percent of people in the West. This sense of being second class citizens, along with fears about how refugees may change Germany’s culture, are what have given rise to the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a largely East-based party that is the first far-right group to enter the national legislature since World War Two.
Mutti won’t be around forever: The woman who has been a steadying force in both German and global politics for nearly 14 years – half the time since reunification – isn’t going to be on the political scene much longer. By 2021, and maybe sooner if her grand coalition continues to lose support, Chancellor Angela Merkel, the world’s longest serving leader of a democracy, will be leaving her post. The increasingly fractious state of Germany’s domestic politics makes it hard to tell who, exactly, will take her place.
What’s Germany’s role in the 21st century? How will Berlin position itself in a world where the US is retreating from its commitments to traditional allies, and China is seeking greater global reach as an authoritarian technology superpower? There is little political will to massively boost Germany’s defense spending to fill the gaps where the US no longer wants to. And challenging Beijing on issues of authoritarianism and surveillance (something you might say Germany knows a thing or two about) is hard when Germany’s major industries – like the auto sector – are hugely dependent on exports to China.
Where were the world’s leaders 30 years ago?
Despite high hopes, three decades later, an invisible barrier still stretches across Germany. It is slowly disintegrating, but it’s still there.
If you were one of today’s most powerful world leaders, here’s where you were in those heady days of ’89:
- You’re a young chemist in East Germany, studying the vibrational properties of surface hydroxyls using non-empirical model calculations including anharmonicities (really, you are). As you walk past the Berlin Wall every day, you dream of the world beyond it. When it falls, you will enter the politics of a reunified Germany and rise to become Chancellor Angela Merkel.
- You’re the governor of a coastal province in China, building deeper economic ties with Taiwan, which is across the water. You are on the rise through the Communist party. Over the summer, you watched your government crush the Tiananmen protests – your future wife may even have serenaded the troops there. You see the Berlin Wall fall and you are dead certain: the Party must never relinquish control. A quarter of a century later you will be President Xi Jinping, the most powerful ruler of China since Mao Zedong.
- You’re a bored young KGB agent in Dresden, dreaming of being a dashing spy, but stuck in something of a Cold War backwater, playing ping-pong and getting fat. As you tell it, you are infuriated at Moscow’s humiliating paralysis as the Eastern Bloc crumbles. Eleven years later you will be Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man on a mission to Make Russia Great Again and expose the hypocritical moralizing of Western leaders.
- You’re a brash young real estate tycoon in New York City. You’re building the city’s nicest ice-skating rink and one of its tallest buildings. You’re expanding your casino empire, and have gone shopping for airlines. If all goes well, you’ll create a rival to Major League Baseball too. You’re also provoking outrage by urging the death penalty for five young men (wrongfully) convicted of a rape that shook the city. You’re learning that being a headstrong provocateur can work – 30 years later you’ll carry that to the White House as President of the United States.
- You’re five years old. Soon your dad will teach you some basic computer programming. A decade later you’ll design a “social network” to rate the appearance of your female classmates at Harvard. That will grow into something much…much bigger. Today that thing is under fire for undermining precisely the freedoms that 1989 seemed to make inevitable. You are, of course, Mark Zuckerberg.