The Price of Unity Was the Deutsche Mark Sacrificed for Reunification?

As the German people celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, the governments in Bonn and Paris were secretly haggling over European monetary union. According to internal government documents, the negotiations almost collapsed. Was West Germany's beloved currency, the deutsche mark, sacrificed at the altar of reunification to win France's support?


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The architect of Germany's reunification is furious. Current Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, the interior minister under the then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, has deep furrows on his brow as he fires off a series of expressions of his immense dissatisfaction. They are harsh words, but ones the chief negotiator of his country's reunification treaty does not want to see in print.

Schäuble holds a thick book in his hand. On its cover, Schäuble's predecessor as finance minister -- Peer Steinbrück of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) -- looks resolutely into the distance. Not that Schäuble, a member of the governing center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has anything personally against Steinbrück. Schäuble recently listened to a speech Steinbrück gave about democracy and the media. Nor does Schäuble disagree much with Steinbrück's theories on the financial crisis.

What Schäuble is annoyed about is an unassuming sentence in the second chapter of Steinbrück's book, hidden in a long treatise about the "lame duck" that is Europe. "Abandoning the deutsche mark for the (equally) stable euro was one of the concessions that helped pave the way to German reunification," Steinbrück wrote.

There aren't very many political statements that can rile the long-serving Schäuble. But claiming German unity was achieved by way of a swap against the deutsche mark is clearly one of them. "No such trade-off ever occurred," Schäuble insists. The question of European monetary union had played "at best a minor role" in the decision-making on German reunification.

Steinbrück, however, is convinced he is right. He says that for anyone who meets with French government representatives, this theory will be backed up dozens of times.

Twenty years have passed since the collective euphoria of 1990, when the two halves of the divided Germany were brought back together again. For 20 years now, Germans have explored every aspect of what it was that led to the miracle of reunification: The bravery of the East German civil rights movement, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the determination of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

However, for most Germans the very notion that the relinquishment of their beloved deutsche mark may have had an influence on the reunification of the communist East with the capitalist West is a remote one -- not least because of the timeframe. The first euro notes and coins first came into circulation in early 2002, more than a decade after Germany's reunification.

A Debate That Runs Along the Franco-German Border

Nevertheless, the politicians of the time have for years been locked in a bitter dispute over the question of whether or not the two most important political and economic mergers of the last two decades were indeed linked. And it is no coincidence that the front line in the debate often runs along the Franco-German border.

Hubert Védrine, who served as an adviser to then-French President Francois Mitterrand, for example, is convinced that his boss would not have consented to any expansion of Germany without German concessions on monetary union. "Mitterrand did not want reunification without advances toward greater European integration," Védrine says. "And the currency was the only topic that was open to debate."

Védrine's German counterpart, Joachim Bitterlich, who was the liaison with Paris at Kohl's Chancellery in Bonn at the time, denies any suggestion that the two countries' heads of state struck a deal. "European monetary union would have taken place even without German reunification," Bitterlich says.

At issue is more than just a dispute between politicians and ministerial officials. It is about how history will judge the central governmental projects of the last few decades. After all, if the French are right, it would do more than cast a shadow over Germany's day of national celebration.

A 'Sickly Premature Baby'

It would also damage the euro, which had been taking a beating in Germany even before the European Union was forced to bail out Greece and other ailing euro-zone countries. Critics like former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder have always suggested that the single European currency was a "sickly premature baby." Now they can even claim that Germany was basically forced into accepting the euro.

Historians like the British euro chronicler David Marsh have long known that important decisions on reunification and monetary union were interwoven in those fateful fall days of 1989.

Previously classified documents from the archive of the German Foreign Ministry, which SPIEGEL has obtained, now show that the connection was far closer than previously known. The papers reveal that a broad Western European alliance threatened to oppose reunification, and that the long-standing Franco-German relationship was at breaking point. At the time, Mitterrand bluntly warned the German government that it could find itself as isolated in Europe "as in 1913," in other words, the period leading up to the World War I, when imperial Germany found itself up against an alliance between England, France and Russia.

The documents also show that history might have taken a very different course had Bonn and Paris not settled their differences in those dramatic days with regard both to the international negotiations about German reunification and those relating to monetary union.

After all, up until the precipitous events of late 1989, the debate over a single European currency had progressed at the usual tempo for any undertaking of what was then the European Economic Community (EEC); that is, slowly and ploddingly, as matters had so often been since the end of World War II. European statesman had repeatedly tried to promote the idea of a common currency ever since the days of Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle, West Germany's first chancellor and France's first postwar president respectively. Never had these ideas got off the ground. Time and again such attempts faltered because of the clash of interests between the high-inflation southern member states -- Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy -- on the one hand, and the so-called hard-currency belt centered on Germany and the Netherlands on the other.


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