Germany in flux fetes 25 years of post-Wall unity

2nd October 2015, Comments 0 comments

Germany celebrates 25 years Saturday since its historic reunification just as a record influx of migrants and a massive cheating scam at iconic carmaker Volkswagen have sparked a national bout of soul-searching.

The silver anniversary of the day communist east Germany and the capitalist west reunited as one country comes as Europe's top economy stands at a crossroads.

This year, the annual party will be held in the business capital Frankfurt and Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck, both of whom grew up under communism, will attend ceremonies at a concert hall with the resonant motto "Overcoming Borders".

Merkel, who will mark 10 years in power in November, is grappling with a record influx of refugees and migrants fleeing war and hardship, whose numbers are expected to hit a million by the year's end.

German voters, buoyed by a robust economy and job market, have largely backed her policy of extending help to the world's desperate people.

Volunteers have welcomed thousands with open arms and mountains of donated clothing and other essentials in moving scenes Merkel said made her "proud of this country".

However as the numbers have grown, Merkel's popularity has shown signs of slipping as she seeks to beat back rebels within her ruling conservative bloc who say Germany has hit the limit of its capacity.

In her latest weekly podcast, Merkel called on Germans to recapture some of that "can-do" spirit that gripped the country in the heady months between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the remarriage of east and west.

"That general feeling -- when we are faced with a major task that we can achieve -- that, I believe, we can absolutely remember how to do," Merkel said.

- 'Lust for fame' -

Historian Paul Nolte said Merkel had her finger on the pulse of a nation that had grown up in the last quarter-century and felt capable of taking on new responsibilities -- as long as she did not push it too far.

"There may be setbacks, naysayers or people who express fears," said Nolte of Berlin's Free University, pointing to the foothold gained by populist anti-migrant movements in eastern regions.

"But there is a large liberal middle class in Germany, particularly in the west, which is doing relatively well economically, for whom this 'we can do it' feeling resonates."

The anniversary also coincides with revelations about widespread pollution test cheating at Volkswagen, a global champion virtually synonymous with the 'Made in Germany' brand, that have shaken the country's self-image of righteous success.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, the face of hardline Germany during the eurozone debt crisis and one of the architects of German reunification, diagnosed "greed" at the root of the scandal.

"Everyone wants to be the biggest," he said. "It's the lust for fame, for recognition."

Many have also criticised the cosy ties between politicians and the auto industry, with one in seven Germans relying on the sector for their jobs.

- 'Major differences' -

After World War II, the victorious powers carved defeated Germany into four zones.

With the advent of the Cold War, the Soviet-backed leaders of East Germany erected a border with the three western Allied sections, including the Wall that split Berlin in two.

On October 3, 1990, just under a year after the Wall was pulled down in a bloodless revolution, the reunification treaty bringing the two halves of the country together came into effect amid joyful scenes.

Ever since, this date has been a public holiday to mark Germany's national day.

Yet divisions persist.

In a recent poll, 66 percent of Germans said they believed reunification had been the right decision.

But 71 percent of westerners and 83 percent of east Germans said "major differences" endure between the two halves, according to the survey for private opinion research firm YouGov.

Unemployment remains higher in the eastern states than in the west, but the spread has shrunk to nine percent versus six percent.

Social differences abound too, with far more eastern children born out of wedlock and cared for outside the home.

The main festivities will carry on throughout the weekend in Frankfurt, with pop bands, fireworks and an art installation on the Main river illuminating 25 bridges.

And Berlin will stage a street party Saturday at the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of German unity.

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© 2015 AFP

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