Germany After Communism

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the evolution of Germany after the reunification of East Germany and West Germany in 1990. We will also review the lasting legacy of communism in unified Germany. Read through the lesson, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Germany After Communism

Breakups are hard. Whether it's a divorce or the split of two long-term partners, the process is never easy. As difficult as breaking up can be, the same two people coming back together is usually an even more arduous task. It's not that much easier for countries. But it was exactly this process which occurred in 1990 in Germany. What made it even harder was that Germany's two halves had completely different economic and political legacies; West Germany was a democratic, capitalist state, while East Germany was a single-party communist country. In this lesson, we will explore the trials of the newly reunified Germany and the lasting legacy of East German communism.


Germany was split into two different countries at the end of WWII due to tensions between the capitalist west (mainly Western Europe and the United States) and the communist east (the Soviet Union and her satellite states in Eastern Europe). Immediately after the war, West Germany was occupied and controlled jointly by the United States, Great Britain, and France. In the 1950s, West Germany regained most of its independence and ability to govern itself. East Germany, on the other hand, remained largely under the thumb of its occupiers, the Soviet Union. Though East Germany was technically its own country, the communist party held dictatorial power in the country and the East German communist party took most of its orders directly from Moscow.

Division of Germany post-WWII
Map of how Germany was split

The two countries, operated by vastly different regimes, were separated for nearly a half century. By the 1960s, East and West Germans were entirely cut off from one another; attempts to cross the border could, and often did, cost someone their life. The two nations grew apart economically, socially, and even culturally. Only as the Soviet Union began to weaken and disintegrate in the late 1980s did reunification of the two countries seem even remotely possible.

As the Soviet Union weakened, the East German regime did as well. In 1989, after an East German official mistakenly told a television audience that passage to West Germany was possible immediately, the Berlin Wall was opened. In free elections the following year, the East German Christian Democratic Union won a majority of seats in the East German government, in part by promising a quick reunification of the two German states. By October 1990, East Germany and West Germany were no more; the two countries collapsed to become a unified Germany for the first time since the end of WWII.

Germans celebrating reunification
Germans celebrating reunification


Almost immediately after reunification, Germany held its first all-German elections in December and elected Helmut Kohl, leader of the Christian Democratic Union, as chancellor. While Germans across the country celebrated, the unification created more problems than anyone had imagined. Economically, the two halves of Germany were incredibly different. While West Germany had spent a half century engaged in world trade, East Germany had spent that same time period closing its economy off from every market that was not communist.

Because of this, what few companies existed in the former East German provinces were woefully unprepared for the rigors of capitalism and the international market. The already weak economy that existed in the former East German provinces collapsed, and the region depended heavily upon subsidies and transfer payments from the federal government to survive. These issues were compounded by the global economic downturn in the 1990s. Unemployment across Germany rose to more than ten percent, and was much higher in many eastern states.

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