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From a fractious to uneventful relationship with the reluctant hegemon. German reunification from the Czech perspective

Czech-German bilateral relations have become stable and rather uneventful. Since the fractious debates of the 1990s on past injustices, diplomats of both countries have sought to find a robust common topic for discussion. Even though Prague is viewed by Berlin as a more or less unproblematic partner that oscillates within the desired margins of German foreign policy, Germany would prefer that Czechia presents clearer positions on grand European and global debates.

September 29, 2022 - Tereza Novotná Vít Havelka - Issue 5 2022MagazinerEUnify

Young Czechoslovak students gather during a protest rally at Wenceslas Square in Prague. Less than ten days after the East Germans dismantled the wall in the midst of Berlin, the Czechs found themselves busy with their own peaceful Velvet Revolution on November 17th 1989 and transition to democracy. Photo: Lubomir Kotek / Courtesy of the European Commission

When Germany commemorated the 31st anniversary of its reunification on October 3rd 2021, not that many people paid much attention. Despite the pandemic conditions, large outdoor festivities took place a year before to celebrate three decades of unified Germany. In contrast, the 31st birthday of the country was barely noticed. Among foreign dignitaries, South Korean Minister of Unification Lee In-young, a regular to the reunification events, was the  most prominent overseas guest who attended the ceremony in the East German city of Halle last year.

Yet the celebrations in the capital of Saxony-Anhalt were indeed quite special for a very specific reason: it was the last occasion for outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel to give a big speech in front of her fellow Germans after 16 years at the helm of the unified state. Merkel did not disappoint. Her 18-minute-long address offered a thoroughly personal and touching reflection on her experiences as an “Easterner” in unified Germany. She took aim at an author of an article outlining the history of the CDU party, who called her East German background a “ballast”. A few minutes later, she criticised another journalist who called her a German and European that was not born to be one but had to “learn” her German and European “citizen-ness”. She then asked if there are two kinds of Germans and Europeans – the original ones and those who have to prove their affiliation every day.

In Czechia the 31st anniversary of Germany’s reunification did not attract any great interest either. Czech President Miloš Zeman was confined to his residence due to his ill health at that time, while Prime Minister Andrej Babiš devoted the October Sunday to campaigning ahead of crucial parliamentary elections less than a week later. The 2021 commemorations of German reunification were nonetheless illustrative of two other broader aspects. Firstly, the Czechs – as well as most of their neighbours – are no longer concerned about the size of the “reluctant hegemon” in the midst of Europe. Since the 1990s the Czech bilateral relationship with unified Germany has been transformed from fractious to uneventful but with a vital bond. Secondly, it is now further afield in Korea, where politicians, academics and citizens look up to Germany for inspiration. This also concerns any dissuading lessons on how (not) to go about unifying two countries.

No reunification without the Czech (and Hungarian) contribution?

As Joachim Gauck, a leading East German activist and former German president once put it, “before the [German] unity, there was freedom.” In other words, before any efforts to unify the country could come to fruition, there had to be East Germans who would start the fight for their rights and liberties within the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). In brief, the process of reunification began with the process of democratisation. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall on the night of November 9th 1989 has become an iconic symbol of the downfall of the East German state and the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. Yet in many respects it was the culmination rather than the beginning of the democratisation process in the GDR (and CEE).

One can identify various other moments when the domestic situation in East Germany started changing before the system’s collapse. These include the peaceful demonstrations in Leipzig and other East German cities in September 1989, the visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to the GDR for its 40th anniversary on October 7th, and the big rally on Alexanderplatz on November 4th. The mass pressure on the East German leadership to allow free travel to West Germany, which ultimately resulted in the opening up of the Berlin Wall, nonetheless started in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

In the spring of 1989 the Hungarian authorities began to dismantle a fence between Hungary and Austria with the goal of allowing Hungarian citizens to cross the border to buy better goods and services. The barbed wire was completely removed with a fence cutting ceremony on June 27th and the Hungarian border to Austria was fully opened on September 11th. Thousands of East Germans who watched these events via West German television decided to take their chance and went to the border in the hope of being let out. By the time that the Berlin Wall fell, more than 50,000 East Germans had fled to the West through this escape route.

Another large exodus took place via the West German embassy in Prague. By the end of September 1989, the embassy’s Lobkowicz Palace hosted on its premises about 4,000 or 5,000 East Germans who had tried to reach Hungary but were stopped on their way. Negotiations that helped solve the East German refugee crisis were held on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York. In the end, the decision was taken to let the East Germans leave for their West German neighbour. However, they would have to travel through GDR territory in order to be officially “expelled”. West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher personally announced the news of free passage to cheering crowds of his Eastern compatriots from the balcony of the Lobkowicz Palace on September 30th.

The first train carrying East German refugees departed from Prague via Dresden that same evening and arrived at the Bavarian border town of Hof within several hours. Nonetheless, the free passage to West Germany functioned as a “pull factor” and a new wave of several thousand East German refugees arrived shortly to Prague’s embassy and nearby areas. Another train transport was therefore organised for October 4th and 5th, while a fresh migration wave was temporarily halted by introducing visas for East Germans who wanted to visit Czechoslovakia. Yet the visa duty lasted less than a month and, on November 1st, the GDR government allowed free travel to West Germany for anyone who wished to pass through Prague without having to undergo the detour via East Germany. As a result, up to 20,000 East Germans fled to West Germany, whereas Czechia became the key changing station on their way to freedom.

The dramatic episode at the West German embassy in Prague was the first direct encounter for the Czechs with the unfolding events in the GDR that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain and, ultimately, the reunification of Germany. The East German exodus may have also encouraged some Czech citizens to start thinking about their own struggle for liberty and better living conditions. After all, the Czechs were confronted with many “Trabi” and “Wartburg” cars that were abandoned around Prague by the fleeing East Germans – a relative luxury good for many of Prague’s inhabitants. The German federal authorities have always been very grateful for Czechia’s assistance with the East German refugee flows and for serving as a transit country. A lively commemoration of the summer 1989 events took place thirty years later in September 2019, when the Lobkowicz Palace opened its gates once again and about 6,000 visitors participated in the “Road to Freedom” festival organised by the German ambassador to Czechia.

Nonetheless, it is a bit of an astounding paradox that, at the time of writing, the Czechs – both politicians and the public – are much less welcoming and accommodating to the new waves of refugees from the Middle East and Africa who want to use Czechia as a transit country to flee from oppression and economic hardships to the “West”. Similarly, Hungary is now building – rather than cutting – a barbed-wire fence to prevent refugees from travelling through its borders. Despite this, it is no exaggeration to say that without the Czech help, the road to German reunification may have developed quite differently.

East and West German views of reunification

One of the authors of this essay has previously argued that German reunification and the Eastern enlargement of the EU (including Czechia) illustrate two ways how countries and regions can undertake a unification. This involves transplantation and adaptation models of political integration respectively. To go into detail about both theoretical models as well as the two case studies would require at least another article. Here it suffices to say that once the prelude of democratisation driven by the East German masses (ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall) was over, the West in the form of Chancellor Helmut Kohl clearly became the moving force behind the reunification process. In the end, the GDR joined the Bundesrepublik within less than a year. At the same time, however, the standing of the East German actors – whether it was the people, oppositionists, reform communists, or the first elected government led by Prime Minister Lothar de Maizière – decreased from those who “pulled down the Wall” to those who dissolved their own state and joined another.

This is however not to say that the reunification of Germany was not welcome. The initial response of East Germans was indeed very positive. Not only did they reward Helmut Kohl with a resounding victory for his CDU in the first all-German elections in December 1990, but opinion polls conducted by Eurostat in late 1990 demonstrated overwhelming levels of support for reunification amongst both West and East Germans. Support was even higher in the East (93 per cent versus 85 per cent in the West), while those opposed to reunification amounted to only four per cent among East Germans and six per cent among West Germans.

Nonetheless, these headline figures mask more nuanced opinions revealed in other polls. In 2019, for instance, West and East Germans disagreed on who had benefited most from reunification. Thirty-eight per cent of West Germans and 22 per cent of East Germans think that reunification mainly benefited East Germans, while 15 per cent of West Germans and 28 per cent of East Germans see the benefits mainly for the West Germans. To compare these answers with the same question ten years before in 2009, 60 per cent of West Germans and 23 per cent of East Germans believed that the main benefits of reunification were for East Germans. At the same time, 18 per cent of West Germans and 34 per cent of East Germans saw the benefits mainly for the West German side.

Throughout the last 30 years, East Germans have therefore tended to view reunification as a kind of annexation in which they were afforded little opportunity to input and influence the process. The manner in which reunification was carried out, such as the transplantation of West German political structures and direct economic, personnel and legal structure transfers from the West to the East, planted the seeds of discontent. East Germans’ disillusionment with post-reunification developments is therefore not just down to – still – lower wages or nostalgia for the communist past, but to the ownership of the process.

Unifying Germany while improving relations with its Czech neighbour

Less than ten days after the East Germans dismantled the wall in the midst of Berlin, the Czechs found themselves busy with their own peaceful Velvet Revolution on November 17th 1989 and transition to democracy. Václav Havel, the newly minted Czechoslovak president, took the initiative and chose both East Berlin and Munich for his first state visits abroad on January 2nd 1990. Havel also launched a debate on how to deal with collective guilt. The state could apologise for the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from the Czech lands after the Second World War or emphasise that the roots of these actions lie in the Nazi crimes that preceded them.

Nonetheless, the Czechoslovak government at that time was more interested in the future of the Warsaw Pact and withdrawal of Soviet troops from Czechoslovak territory. This is however not to say that the Czech ministers were ignoring German reunification. In fact,  much like Warsaw, Prague was very keen that the external side of German reunification negotiations – the so-called 2+4 talks – guarantee Europe’s post-war territorial integrity and Germany’s borders. In addition, the Czechs would have liked to receive confirmation that the 1938 Munich Agreement was illegal from the start. This was however as acceptable to the wartime Allies as the Czech (and Polish) demand to participate in the 2+4 negotiations. In the end, unified Germany and Czechoslovakia signed an agreement on good neighbourly relations and friendly co-operation in February 1992.

The German-Czechoslovak agreement became a starting point for the Czech–German Declaration on Mutual Relations and their Future Development from 1997, which should have been the final full stop regarding wartime and post-war atrocities and different interpretations of history. Although the declaration has significantly improved Czech-German relations and represented the right step towards mutual reconciliation, including through the establishment of the Czech-German Fund for the Future, the question of compensation for the expropriated property of the Sudeten Germans and the validity of the so-called Beneš Decrees have become recurrent themes in Czech politics. This includes the 2012 presidential campaign and the ratification of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty by President Václav Klaus.

Once the Czech Republic’s accession negotiations to the EU were in place, the Beneš Decrees became a political headache that could have torpedoed the entire enlargement. Although the accession process – in line with the adaptation model – proceeded much less spectacularly than German reunification, with a team in charge rather than a single leader and over the course of several years rather than being completed within a year, a political solution to the issue had to be found. In the end, a special commission found the decrees “extinct”, or not creating any new effects, thereby allowing for the Czech accession to the EU. Despite this, MEPs from the Christian Social Union (CSU) still voted against it in the European Parliament.

Current Czech-German relations and challenges        

More than 30 years after German reunification, the process of uniting the two German states is no longer a topic in Czech-German bilateral relations. The Czechs perceive Germany as a single entity, albeit with a higher degree of regional diversity and structural problems. Moreover, peaceful and correct relations are the main goal of Czech foreign policy towards its western neighbour.

Nonetheless, if we look at other levels, we can observe different dynamics. For instance, a sociological research project has shown that Germany is considered an integral part of the Czech cultural and geopolitical sphere. The Czechs view themselves as a nation in Central Europe which all four neighbouring countries also belong to and where the Czechs strive for as good relations as possible. This is an important difference to the German perception. Germans would probably not include themselves within the same cultural area as Czechs. In their mental map, the Czech Republic is an Eastern European country, albeit one located closer than, say, Romania and Bulgaria.

However, for the Czech society, Germany represents its main point of reference. The Czechs constantly compare their living standards, values and infrastructure with their German counterparts – usually arriving at the conclusion that Czechia is underdeveloped and that “everything is better” in Germany. Much like during the communist period, when the GDR was seen as a privileged state within the Soviet bloc due to its geographical proximity and family ties with West Germany, Czech citizens would also say that the East Germans were very lucky when the two German states merged. This is because they did not have to work as hard to achieve a higher economic standard. It is therefore an irony of history that what is considered a huge comparative advantage by the East Germans’ neighbours (this lack of a need to build their own institutions and economies by simply transferring them ready made from the West to the East, alongside the West’s vast financial backing) has been the cause of dissatisfaction with German reunification among the East German population.

The Czechs are furthermore cognizant of the fact that Germany is their closest trading partner and that the Czech economy is well integrated into Germany’s supply and production chains. Nonetheless, this awareness contributes to two crucial side effects. Firstly, the Czechs are wary of any excessive dependence on German politics and, to a certain degree, even feel exploited by German corporations. These fears are partly reminiscent of the Czech-German struggle in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the two nations shared one state and the Germans were perceived as those having the upper hand and oppressing the Czechs. Secondly, this alleged dependency causes anxiety regarding political developments in Germany and raises fears of “what will be the next thing that the Germans will want from us?” At the same time, however, it is clear that Czech public discourse “falls” about five to ten years behind the German (and West European) one when it comes to “progressive” issues. This includes climate change, LGBT+ rights and racism. This delayed debate results in an equally delayed willingness to actually pursue policies directed at tackling these future-oriented topics. For instance, whereas Germany moves fast towards decarbonisation and sustainability, the Czechs still doubt whether they should proceed and even if decarbonisation will pay off.

At certain occasions, however, the former GDR appears in the current Czech public discourse. The Eastern Länder and their support for Alternative for Germany (AfD) is often described as a voice of rationality by more radical Czech citizens. At the same time, the Czech illiberal forces adopt the AfD’s discourse at times that “they know how a dictatorship feels like”. They therefore say that they can identify it easily when it is coming, pointing to the migration crisis a few years ago and to the recent COVID-19 anti-pandemic measures. Collaboration between the AfD and Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), a Czech far-right party, was indeed evident during the migration crisis. Former Czech President Václav Klaus has also attended various AfD meetings in (the Eastern parts of) Germany, embracing the AfD’s Eurosceptic rhetoric.

This brings us to the subject of relations between Czech and German political parties. All the major German political parties have offices in Prague. They represent the main tool of co-operation between the Czech and German political groupings. The Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung usually communicates with the Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD) and labour unions, whereas the Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung has close ties with the Christian and Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People’s Party (KDU-ČSL) and Tradition Responsibility Prosperity 09 (TOP09), the two Czech Christian Democratic parties. During the election period of 2013-17, Czech politicians from KDU-ČSL also often visited Bavaria’s CSU and worked with its representatives on Czech-German reconciliation.

All in all, Czech-German bilateral relations have become stable and rather uneventful. Since the fractious debates of the 1990s on past injustices, diplomats of both countries have struggled to find a robust common topic for discussion. Even though Prague is viewed by Berlin as a more or less unproblematic partner that oscillates within the desired margins of German foreign policy, Germany would prefer that Czechia presents clearer positions on grand European – and global – debates such as migration and decarbonisation. Czech diplomacy is however not able to come up with constructive positions, which significantly hampers any mutual dialogue. Nonetheless, it is important to point out that these rather “boring” bilateral relations are also the result of conciliatory Czech politics. In contrast to Budapest and Warsaw, Prague has not been provoking the EU, and Germany, with any heavy illiberal tendencies and limitations on a free press and independent judiciary. Unlike its two neighbours, the Czech Republic is a moderate EU member state, not a troublemaker.

In contrast to bilateral diplomatic relations, transregional co-operation flourishes, especially with regards to the states of Bavaria and Saxony that share borders with the Czech regions. In the borderlands, the Czech and German authorities have integrated their emergency systems, while Czech labour often commutes for work to Germany. In recent years, transregional relations have received a new boost through plans for a high-speed railway that should connect Prague with Dresden by 2027. It is therefore most likely that we will witness further integration and partnership between the Czechs and Germans at the regional level. The reunification of Germany will most probably remain yet another historical event that will be commemorated every year, but will not play any major role in the bilateral relationship.

Mutual lessons

Returning to Angela Merkel’s emotional reminiscing during the 31st reunification anniversary, she did not forget to thank Germany’s friends in Europe – West and East, including in the Czech Republic – for their support in overcoming the division of Europe and her homeland. The text above has also provided an audit of German reunification and the Czech contribution to it. Even though the Czechs – and other Central and Eastern Europeans – may envy the fact that the East German Länder did not have to build their democratic institutions and political and economic systems from scratch, or to work hard over the course of several years to join the EU, it is this lack of an input into the reunification process that makes the East German population still hesitant about its benefits.

In the September 2021 federal elections, over 19 per cent of East Germans voted for the AfD, while ten per cent cast their votes for Die Linke, the traditional left party which is partially composed of East German post-communists. The German election results thus stand in stark contrast to the outcome of the Czech elections that took place only about two weeks later. For the first time in its post-1989 history, the Czech Communist Party did not enter parliament, while SPD, the Czech equivalent and partner of the AfD, reached almost ten per cent. This is about half of the votes of the AfD in Germany’s East. With a degree of hyperbole, one could argue that it is the Czechs who are starting to resemble the West Germans – at least in their political inclinations – more than their East German compatriots.

When it comes to the outlook for the Czech-German relationship, we can presume that Prague will eventually have to come up with a constructive position on the EU’s grand debates and cooperate with Berlin in areas such as digitalisation, automation and the energy sector. This is especially true given the fact that Czechia is not very likely to join the eurozone anytime soon. Should the current ambiguity persist, the Czechs will be forced to follow the EU’s general consensus and German politics anyway. Such stagnation would however be a shame given the fact that Czech-German ties will not receive any significant boost and will continue to linger.

Needless to say, having an uneventful bilateral relationship with your largest neighbour is not a bad option at all. A boring relationship means that there are no disputes that need to be settled. For the Czech economy, it is beneficial if the country is considered a relatively safe and stable haven, where investors are not afraid of setting up their businesses. In the end, the Czechs – as well as the Germans both in the East and the West of their country – will have to hope that their mutual partnership will remain uneventful for the foreseeable future.

Tereza Novotná is a senior associate research fellow at EUROPEUM Prague and the Korea-Europe Center Fellow at Free University Berlin.

Vít Havelka is a research fellow at EUROPEUM Prague.

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