Unification of East and West Germany in 1990: History & Major Facts

The unification of East and West Germany in 1990 was a pivotal moment in world history, symbolizing not only the culmination of the Cold War tensions but also the triumph of democratic ideals over authoritarian rule.

European historians at World History Edu take an in-depth look at the historical context, key events, and significant impacts of this landmark event.

Historical Background

After World War II, Germany was divided into four zones, each controlled by one of the Allied powers: the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France.

This division was meant as a temporary administrative structure, but geopolitical tensions soon manifested into a permanent split.

In 1949, two separate German states were formed: the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) or West Germany, supported by the US, UK, and France; and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany, backed by the Soviet Union.

The Cold War Era

The division of Germany became a symbol of the broader Cold War that saw the world divided into capitalist and communist blocs. West Germany developed into a thriving economy with a democratic government, becoming a member of NATO and the European Economic Community.

Conversely, East Germany, with a socialist state-controlled economy, became a member of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet-led military alliance.

Life in East Germany was marked by economic difficulties and political repression, which led to widespread dissatisfaction. The Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, maintained a tight grip on the population, stifling dissent and freedom of expression.

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The Fall of the Berlin Wall and Path to Unification

The late 1980s marked a period of significant change across Eastern Europe. Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, introduced policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), which decreased the strict control over communist bloc countries and paved the way for more autonomy in Eastern Europe.

In East Germany, public unrest and mass demonstrations became more frequent by 1989, particularly in Leipzig and Dresden. The East German government, led by Erich Honecker, was initially resistant to change, but mounting pressure from continuous protests and an exodus of citizens fleeing to the West through newly opened borders in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, forced Honecker out of power.

Image: Erich Honecker (1912 – 1994)

His replacement, Egon Krenz, sought to stabilize East Germany through limited reforms, but the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, was a clear signal that the days of a divided Germany were coming to an end. The spontaneous demolition of the Wall by jubilant Germans from both sides became an iconic moment in history.

The unification of East and West Germany was not just a significant historical event but a testament to the power of democratic aspirations and peaceful revolution. Image: Berlin Wall in 1988.

Political and Economic Factors Leading to Unification

The path to unification accelerated after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor of West Germany, presented a 10-point plan for the eventual merging of the two German states, emphasizing rapid economic and political integration. In East Germany, a new government took over after the first free elections in March 1990, led by Lothar de Maizière, who was committed to German reunification.

The unification treaty was negotiated and signed on August 31, 1990. It stipulated that the GDR would adopt West Germany’s currency, economic policies, and legal system. This adoption was critical in addressing the economic disparity between the two economies.

International Reactions and Challenges

The process of unification was watched cautiously by the four Allied powers and by neighboring European countries, which had concerns about a unified Germany.

The Two Plus Four Agreement, signed by the two German states and the four Allied powers in September 1990, granted full sovereignty to the unified Germany and set the stage for its NATO membership.

The agreement also addressed boundaries and military limitations, ensuring neighboring countries of Germany’s peaceful intentions.

Impact and Legacy of Unification

Economically, unification brought immense challenges. The “Aufbau Ost” (Rebuilding the East) program aimed to revitalize the Eastern economy, which suffered from deindustrialization and high unemployment rates after the merger. The social impact was also significant, as the integration of two culturally and politically different societies took its toll.

Politically, reunification cemented Germany’s role as a major player in European and global politics. It contributed significantly to the European integration process, leading to the expansion of the European Union and strengthening the region’s stability.

Culturally, reunification has been a mixed journey. While there is a shared national identity, some Eastern Germans still feel like second-class citizens due to economic disparities and cultural differences. However, the overall trend has been one of gradual convergence and shared growth.

The reunification of Germany marked the end of the Cold War in Europe and set a precedent for the peaceful resolution of political conflicts. The process of growing together remains ongoing, demonstrating the complexities of integrating societies with divergent historical experiences. Image: October 3rd 1990 in Berlin. Germans gather to mark the Day of German Unity.

Frequently asked questions about the reunification of Germany

Here are some frequently asked questions about the reunification of Germany:

What led to the reunification of East and West Germany?

The reunification was primarily driven by the collapse of Communist control in East Germany, economic disparities between the East and the West, widespread public unrest and demonstrations in East Germany, and the policies of openness (glasnost) and restructuring (perestroika) introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which reduced the Soviet Union’s control over Eastern Bloc countries.

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How did the Berlin Wall fall?

The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, amidst a wave of revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe. The immediate cause was a botched announcement by an East German official who mistakenly said that East Germans could cross into West Berlin immediately. This led to crowds swarming the wall, overwhelming the border guards who, unprepared and unsure, opened the gates.

What were the major steps in the process of reunification?

Key steps included the fall of the Berlin Wall, the subsequent democratic elections in East Germany, the unification treaty (signed on August 31, 1990), and the Two Plus Four Agreement (signed on September 12, 1990) which gave full sovereignty to a unified Germany and set conditions related to its borders and military capabilities.

What was the Two Plus Four Agreement?

The Two Plus Four Agreement was a treaty negotiated by the two German states (East and West Germany) and the four Allied powers (the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France). It resolved issues regarding Germany’s full sovereignty, its borders, and the withdrawal of Allied forces, and played a crucial role in paving the way for German reunification.

How did reunification affect the economy of the newly unified Germany?

The reunification had significant economic impacts, particularly on the economy of the former East Germany. The East adopted the West’s currency and economic system, leading to an initial economic downturn characterized by deindustrialization and high unemployment. Massive financial transfers were required from West to East to upgrade infrastructure, industries, and social services to Western standards.

Were there any international objections to reunification?

Yes, there were initial concerns and objections from various countries. European neighbors like France and the United Kingdom were wary about the potential dominance of a unified Germany. The Soviet Union was concerned about the implications for its security and influence. However, these issues were addressed through diplomatic negotiations, resulting in the Two Plus Four Agreement.

How did reunification impact Germany’s international relations?

Following reunification, Germany emerged as a significant power in Europe, fostering closer European integration and playing a pivotal role in the European Union. It also continued to strengthen its position within NATO and fostered relationships that were instrumental in the broader European peace and integration processes.

What social challenges emerged from reunification?

The reunification brought to light significant social and cultural differences between East and West Germans, often referred to as the “wall in the mind.” Eastern Germans faced challenges like unemployment and adaptation to a new economic system, leading to feelings of inequality and disillusionment that persisted for years.

The reunification of Germany in 1990 is a significant event in European history, often accompanied by various questions regarding its causes, processes, and impacts. Image: The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin is a significant monument in German history.

Is the reunification of Germany considered a success?

While opinions vary, the reunification is generally considered a success in terms of political and administrative integration, the establishment of a stable democratic government across the unified nation, and the significant strides made in leveling economic disparities over the decades. However, cultural and social integration is still an ongoing process.

Timeline of the Reunification of Germany

The reunification of Germany was a process marked by significant events that unfolded over several years, culminating in the official unification on October 3, 1990. Here is a timeline of key events that led to the reunification of East and West Germany:


  • May 2: Hungary begins dismantling its border fence with Austria, which later enables East Germans to escape to the West.
  • June 4: Poland holds partially free elections, leading to a non-communist government, signaling change in Eastern Europe.
  • August 19: The Pan-European Picnic, a peace demonstration held on the Austrian-Hungarian border, results in hundreds of East Germans crossing to the West.
  • September 10-11: Thousands of East German refugees flee to the West via Hungary after the Hungarian government opens its border with Austria.
  • October 7: East Germany celebrates its 40th anniversary, but faces widespread protests against the regime.
  • October 18: Erich Honecker, the long-time leader of East Germany, resigns amid growing protests.
  • November 9: The Berlin Wall falls after a mistaken announcement by an East German official that border crossings were open effective immediately.
  • December 1: East German Volkskammer (parliament) abolishes the constitutional provision granting the Communist Party the leading role in the state.

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  • February: Round Table talks between the government and opposition in East Germany propose free elections.
  • March 18: East Germany holds its first and only free parliamentary elections. The Alliance for Germany, a coalition favoring quick reunification, wins decisively.
  • April 12: The GDR and FRG agree on a monetary, economic, and social union.
  • July 1: Economic, Monetary, and Social Union: East Germany adopts West Germany’s currency (Deutsche Mark), tying its economy to West Germany’s.
  • August 23: The East German Volkskammer votes in favor of accession to the Federal Republic of Germany effective October 3, 1990.
  • August 31: The Unification Treaty, officially merging the legal and political systems of East and West Germany, is signed.
  • September 12: The Two Plus Four Treaty is signed in Moscow by East and West Germany and the four Allied powers, granting full sovereignty to Germany.
  • October 3: Official Day of German Reunification. East Germany joins West Germany under the name of the Federal Republic of Germany.


  • July 2: The capital of the reunited Germany is decided through a vote, moving from Bonn to Berlin.

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