East, West, German – an Interview with Eckart von Klaeden

Eckart von Klaeden is Head of Daimler AG’s External Affairs unit since the end of 2013 and previously held various positions in federal politics. He describes his experiences of the reunification of Germany, and his view of the political developments of the last 30 years.

Mr. von Klaeden, I'm sure you still remember when the wall came down 30 years ago. What has your experience been at the time of German reunification?

When the wall came down on November 9, 1989 I was a student in Göttingen. Like many others presumably, I sat in front of the television and could hardly believe what was happening.

Signs of change were already becoming apparent in the municipal elections held in East Germany in May 1988. The state and party leadership were no longer able to present a completely uniform result. The people used their ballots as a means of protest.

In October 1989, I accompanied a group of American tourists to East Berlin. We heard an East German news broadcast on the radio. Correctly interpreting the choice of words, the uncertainty was already clear. The large demonstrations in cities such as Leipzig and Berlin also showed that unrest was brewing under the surface. During my trip, I accompanied some of the group to the exhibition “40 years of the GDR”. The omens of East Germany’s downfall were multiplying, but its 40th anniversary was being celebrated at the same time – this felt quite bizarre.

What happened in the time after the wall came down? Did everything suddenly change?

In December 1989 I took a trip to East Germany with Hermann Gröhe, the Federal Chairperson of the Junge Union, the youth organization of the CDU party, at the time. We met the Central Council of the Free German Youth, the FDJ, as well as opposition groups. The FDJ were still called the State Youth, but a deep unsettledness of its leaders was noticeable here, too.

Like many others, I still remember Helmut Kohl’s speech on the Cathedral Square in Erfurt and later that of Willy Brandt, both of which inspired tens of thousands of people. Helmut Kohl was the main reason that the Alliance for Germany won the legislative elections on March 18, 1990 and formed a government together with Social Democrats and Liberals.

What is your opinion of Germany’s development since 1989?

I think it’s good that we have had an East German woman as German Chancellor since 2005, and that we have already had an East German President. At the same time, of course, it is important not to forget that there are still not many East Germans in charge of companies and authorities.

Personally, I see the decision in favor of Berlin as the capital of a reunited Germany to be an important step. For the people in East Germany, nearly everything had changed on the political field. If Bonn had remained the capital – although it had been promised otherwise for decades – this would have been a devastating effect on German Unity.

Germany has developed favorably on the whole, and the reunification is a success story. There are regions such as Halle, Leipzig and Dresden that are booming. They have overtaken other regions of West Germany in terms of economic muscle, and the picture has become more differentiated.

Nevertheless, the impression held by many people that there is still an imbalance between east and west is correct. In the 1990s, many East Germans left home and moved to the west to work and study. Some regions of East Germany are missing an entire generation. This movement has now been reversed - among students at least, because East German universities now offer excellent conditions that are often better than those in the west.

If it was possible to turn back time, what do you think should have been done differently or better?

Looking back, I think it would have been a good idea to make East Germany a special economic zone, and to build up more industry in the new federal states. Their economic substance was unfortunately universally overestimated. There were debates in the Bundesrat about the share of the profit from reunification that would be allocable to the West German states. It was assumed that there would be a net gain, therefore, but it later became apparent that the industrial capacities were in much worse state than had been thought.

Your children were born after 1989. Do you ever talk about the division of Germany or the fall of the wall?

Actually, my children only ask me about it if they need information for their history lessons. My eldest daughter was born twelve years after reunification, so for all three of them it’s ancient history. My children have grown up in a united Germany. We often vacation in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, and they don’t see any differences between East and West.

What lessons would you give young people from the reunification?

Learning from history is always difficult. I think you have to know history - each generation has to decide for itself what lessons it draws from it.

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