Takeover: German Reunification Under a Magnifying Glass

My first personal experience with the unification of my home country was an unlikely encounter in an unlikely place. In July 1990, I was strolling across the Ponte Vecchio in Florence when I saw something so bizarre that it stopped me in my tracks. At the southern end of the bridge, deep in the pedestrian zone – off limits to automobiles – and right in the middle of the tourist crowd, was a lonely car, occupied by four obviously disoriented people. It was not just any car but a small, drab, and amusingly antiquated vehicle puffing bluish smoke from a whining two-stroke engine. I barely trusted my eyes: it was a “Trabbi,” the standard-issue East German automobile. At this moment, I realized that the political landscape of Europe as I had known it no longer existed. In the world in which I grew up, citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) were not allowed to drive out of Eastern Europe, and they did not have the Western currency to pay for such an adventure. There were simply no “Trabbis” on this side of the iron curtain. But in the previous fall, the Berlin wall had come down suddenly and, just a few days before my encounter in Florence, West German currency had been introduced in the GDR. Apparently these East Germans grabbed the first Deutschmarks available, jammed into their tiny car, drove across the previously impassable border, and braved the high-speed race on Western freeways in their hopelessly underpowered vehicle to make a dream come true: to drive to Italy and see a world they knew only from postcards. As I watched these visitors from another world struggling to find a way out of their predicament, I understood that complete unification would only be a matter of time. In the end, it came much more quickly than most people deemed possible.