The restoration of a German nation-state through the accession of the five new Länder raised a pivotal question: What kind of country should the expanded Federal Republic of Germany be? Leading intellectuals began to debate the precise meaning of a so-called return to normalcy. Could Germans now shed the burden of guilt and be proud of their country like other Europeans or should they continue to cultivate a sense of responsibility for the crimes committed in their name? Conservative journalist Rainer Zitelmann called for the rejection of German self-hatred and the return to a national confidence that would finally heal the traumas of the past. Alarmed by this attack on their discursive hegemony, leftist intellectuals such as SPD politician Peter Glotz vigorously warned against a “false normalization” that would simply restore older prejudices and make Germans unfit to live in an integrating Europe. Moderate commentators, such as the East German theologian Richard Schröder, pleaded instead for a sober “democratic patriotism” that would provide a sense of belonging while being anchored in human rights.
One practical consequence of the debate on German identity was the question of where the future capital should be located – Bonn or Berlin? In the parliamentary debate, Bonn proponents such as Norbert Blüm stressed the civilizing effects of the provisional Western capital. Berlin advocates such as Wolfgang Schäuble invoked historical tradition and the city’s openness to the East, narrowly triumphing in the final vote. To escape Rhenish provincialism, the journalist Johannes Gross pleaded for the establishment of a more urbane “Berlin Republic” that would reconcile politics with culture. When the Bulgarian-French artist couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Reichstag building, transforming the former site of a failed and badly tarnished parliament into a work of art that pleased millions of citizens, they made a fresh and thought-provoking contribution to the debate on the federal government’s return to Berlin. The costly reconstruction of Berlin's city-center and the complicated relocation of the federal chancellery, the Bundestag, and most government ministries from Bonn to Berlin in 1999 resulted in a dazzling set of new federal buildings that gave German democracy an open and cosmopolitan air.
At first, however, the discussion of the implications of unification focused on dealing with the remnants of the second German dictatorship, the defunct GDR. Former East German dissidents such as Rainer Eppelmann seized the chance to indict Communism in the widely publicized hearings of a parliamentary commission of inquiry [Enquete-Kommission], which sought to delegitimize the fallen SED regime. The prominent East German writer Christa Wolf found herself attacked by West German journalists in a fierce Literaturstreit (i.e., quarrel about literature) over her complicity with the SED dictatorship, even though she considered herself more of a critic and victim of real existing socialism. Eventually, widespread deindustrialization, the return of property to former owners, and the cultural dominance of the Western media produced a popular nostalgia for the SED regime, which provoked sharp criticisms of the Western system from intellectuals such as author Daniela Dahn. Disappointment over the collapse of the Eastern economy also continued to fuel charges that little progress had been made in achieving inner unity.
Finally, the new Germany also had to define its position towards the dark shadows of the more distant Nazi past. In a highly controversial speech delivered upon his acceptance of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade [Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels], author Martin Walser expressed his unease with public rituals of contrition and emphasized the personal nature of conscience. Alarmed at what he viewed as an effort to relativize Nazi crimes, Ignatz Bubis, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany [Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland], warned against the tendency to forget and called for continued vigilance in the fight against anti-Semitism. In order to avoid nationalist backsliding, the president of the Bundestag, East German intellectual Wolfgang Thierse, tried to reinforce Germany’s moral commitment to atonement and tolerance during the opening of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. In an op-ed piece, journalist Josef Joffe, therefore, stressed that Germans had learned something from their terrible history and that their successful democratization might become a source of justifiable pride.