Many Germans and foreign observers regarded the (re)unification of Germany in 1990 as more or less a natural development, as if the breaching of the Berlin Wall late the year before had ended an artificial national division in the heart of Europe. Finally, it seemed, the Germans had their nation-state back and could devote themselves to their national interests like any “normal” people. The celebrations were as heady in Berlin as they were further east when the iron curtain was pulled down after decades of Soviet domination. But concern accompanied euphoria from the outset. Some commentators worried that the breakup of the Soviet empire might herald ethnic chauvinism if the newly liberated nations reverted to nineteenth-century modes of identification to determine their boundaries and citizenship. And sure enough, the spirit of peaceful revolution did not long outlast the posing of the democratic question about the constitution of “the people.” The Czechs and Slovaks, for instance, soon decided on amicable divorce – though many of them united in hatred for Roma people – while corruption and economic stagnation belied the promise of capitalist prosperity that Thatcher and Bush had proclaimed in triumphant tones for postcommunist regimes at the end of history.
For Germany, the defining of a national people over the past sixteen years has proved to be a Sisyphean project. The country's pretensions to cultural uniformity were challenged in three ways.