A special feature of Germany is the fact that it was politically partitioned in the period from 1949 to 1989, which gave rise to different political, economic and societal developments. 40 years of planned socialist economy in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) led to environmental damage on a massive scale. The productivity of the economy in 1989 was just one third of that of the Federal Republic. The capital stock was completely outdated. Urgent investments in the environmental infrastructure had not been undertaken, and there were acute risks to human health because of air and water pollution.
Following the collapse of the political system of the German Democratic Republic and the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, the ecological rehabilitation and development of the new Länder became one of the most pressing environmental policy tasks. The essential provisions of the environmental legislation of the Federal Republic Germany came into force in the GDR as early as 1 July 1990 – at the same time as the economic, monetary and social union took place. Transitional periods were fixed in order to meet the standards involved. Comprehensive aid programmes were set up in order to support ecological reconstruction. The environmental legislation of the Federal Republic also came into force in full in the new Länder with the accession of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thüringen to the Federal Republic of Germany on 3 October 1990.
By virtue of the measures that were adopted in order to avert risk and for the modernisation of the infrastructure, the environmental situation in the new federal Länder already improved remarkably quickly in the course of the 1990s. The objective of bringing ecological living conditions in the two parts of Germany into line with one another, as stipulated in the Unification Treaty, was achieved. Specific federal environmental policy measures for the new Länder are today directed towards safeguarding the valuable national heritage of national importance and the transformation of contaminated sites left over from the lignite open cast mining operations in the GDR into new, attractive lake landscapes in ‘Europe’s largest landscaping site’.
In both German States, from 1950 to 1990, the main emphasis of economic activity shifted away from the primary sector (agriculture and craft trades) to the secondary sector (industrialisation) and then to the tertiary sector (service economy). By comparison with the GDR, however, the German Federal Republic was years ahead on the development path towards a post-industrial society: it transformed itself into a service economy in the 1980s. The primary sector in the GDR also declined in the first two decades, and development of all three sectors virtually stagnated from 1970 onwards. Despite slight growth in the tertiary area, the secondary sector still represented the dominant area of employment in the GDR in 1989.
The German economy today is determined predominantly by the secondary and tertiary sectors. The automobile, commercial vehicle, electronic, mechanical engineering and chemical industries are competitive areas of German industry. Although Germany can look back on a long tradition of mining and still possesses significant raw material reserves of coal, salt and building materials, it is dependent as a highly industrialised country on imports of mineral-based raw materials.
In the last 35 years, rising prosperity and consumption have led to an unparalleled increase in the level to which private households are equipped with consumer goods. The technical equipment of private households in the last ten years has gained further momentum as the result of changing patterns of consumption. The current level of equipment of households indicates that the car, domestic appliances of various kinds, consumer electronics, computers and mobile phones, for example, are now taken for granted by a large proportion of German households. Enormous rates of growth for individual consumer goods have been noted between 1993 and 2008: more than 200 % in the case of computers, more than 100 % in the case of dishwashers, tumble dryers and microwave ovens. These rates of growth can be attributed in part to the ‘catch-up development’ in the new federal Länder. The material equipment of households has now more or less equalised 18 years after reunification. New product lines such as devices from the field of information technology and communication are also increasingly finding their way into households, and there is an increasing use of technology in everyday life as the result of an extended range of consumer goods. The result of this, sooner or later, will be the increasing ‘computerisation’ and ‘digitalisation’ of households, which will increasingly impact heavily upon our day-to-day lives as a result of current trends for ‘digital/multimedia networking’ in households (keyword: ‘smart homes’).