// archives

Berlin Wall

This tag is associated with 2 posts

Germany at Thirty

30 September 2020

I have just spent two weeks driving around Germany interviewing people (mostly climate scientists, since you ask), and I have come to the conclusion that it is the best-run – and quite possibly just the best – major country in the world right now.

Some small countries are absolute jewels, of course, but it’s easier if you’re small. Big powers fight more wars, contain more divisions, suffer nastier and more ridiculous delusions of grandeur. But if you only consider countries with more than 50 million people, then Germany today is the fairest, the least conflicted, the most peaceful, actually the nicest major country on the planet.

That wasn’t true thirty years ago, and it may not be true thirty years hence, but it’s worth noting because Saturday marks the thirtieth anniversary of the unification of Germany in 1990, just one year after the Berlin Wall came down. Compared to what happened after the first time it was unified, it has all worked out rather well.

The first unification of Germany, in 1871, was achieved by war, and led to more and much bigger wars – not entirely Germany’s fault, of course, but certainly the consequence of the sudden appearance of a highly nationalistic new great power in the heart of Europe.

After the Second World War, Germany was divided into three. The eastern third was emptied of Germans and given to Poland (in compensation for the eastern third of pre-war Poland, which was kept by the Soviet Union). The middle part, also under Soviet occupation,
became Communist-ruled ‘East Germany’, while the rest, with most of the population, became ‘West Germany’.

The ‘two Germanies’ became the cockpit of the Cold War, with huge armies of tanks ready to roll and nuclear weapons not far behind them. Many people understood that this could not go on forever, that some day the country would have to be reunited – but they were terrified by the prospect. They feared that the process of reunification might trigger a war, and they also feared a reunited Germany.

Lord Ismay, the British general who became the first secretary-general of the NATO alliance (which included West Germany), put it bluntly: “NATO exists to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” French journalist and poet François Mauriac said it more elegantly: “I love Germany so much that I’m glad there are two of them.”

If the trigger to end the East German Communist regime had been in British, French and American hands, it might never have been pulled. But it was actually in the hands of the East Germans themselves, and in 1989 they brought down their oppressors without a shot being fired. All the other Communist states of eastern Europe followed suit.

There was great joy in both parts of Germany – the street party after the Berlin Wall came down was probably the best and certainly the longest I have ever attended – but there was considerable trepidation elsewhere. However Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist Soviet leader, reassured everybody by declaring that Moscow had no objection to German reunification, and the deed was done thirty years ago this week.

It has worked out very well. There are sad people and even wicked people in Germany, like everywhere else, but as a society it radiates contentment. Unflustered competence lubricated by a general tone of good-will make minor daily transactions less of an ordeal, and the strident nationalism that now disfigures so many other countries is conspicuous by its absence.

In the place of that the Germans have a dedication to the European project: like ‘Amens’ in a church, invocations of ‘Europe’ punctuate political conversations. And if you say this is a defensive reaction against Germany’s terrible history in the two generations before 1945, I would probably agree – but what’s wrong with that?

Even the economic contrast between the formerly Communist-ruled east and the rest of the country, to the great disadvantage of the former, is gradually eroding: average incomes among ‘Ossis’(easterners) are now up to almost 90% of ‘Wessi’ earnings. All the ‘coolest’ cities, the magnets that attract the young, are in the former east: Berlin, Dresden, and now Leipzig.

It’s not paradise, but when you compare it with the incompetent, belligerent populism that prevails in formally democratic countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and India, it looks pretty good. ‘Wir schaffen das” (We can manage this), said Chancellor Angela Merkel when over a million mostly Muslim refugees arrived in Germany in 2016, and four years later it looks like she was right.

‘Mutti’ (Mommy), as Germans call her, has been chancellor for half of the past thirty years, so there will be a collective holding of breath when she retires next year. But the world would be a better and safer place if there were more countries like Germany.

Plus there’s no speed limit at all on the autobahns. Where else can you drive at 160 kph and have cars whooshing past you all the time?
__________________________________
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 15. (“In the place…Leipzig”; and “Plus…time”)

A European Germany, Not a German Europe

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago on Saturday, was one of the best parties I ever went to, and certainly the longest. But when I finally sobered up, it was also quite frightening, because nobody knew what was coming out of the box next.

There had been scary moments in Germany during the Cold War, of course, with Soviet troops in the eastern part and troops from practically every Western country in the western part, but a divided Germany had become part of the landscape.

For many people on both sides, in fact, it was a quite satisfactory landscape. As François Mauriac once said: “I love Germany so much I’m glad there are two of them.”

For the older generation of Europeans, Germany had always been the problem (two world wars), and the post-1945 division of the country was a kind of solution, since it kept foreign troops in both parts of Germany. They weren’t formally occupation forces any more, but they served as a sort of guarantee nevertheless. And now, in November 1989, that solution was collapsing.

On a brief visit to Moscow just weeks before the Wall came down, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader: “We do not want the reunification of Germany. It would lead to changes in the (post-1945) borders that would undermine the stability of the entire international situation.”

Indeed, Thatcher added, Gorbachev should ignore any statements to the contrary by the West. The NATO alliance might have to make pro-reunification statements to keep its German partner happy, but the other members didn’t really want to abandon the post-war settlement and “de-communise” Eastern Europe. But she was wrong about that.

Most of the senior politicians in what was not yet called the European Union understood that German reunification was a risk that had to be accepted. There was a new German generation in charge, and you had to trust them.

Western Europe’s other leaders also understood that ‘de-communising’ eastern Europe might finally deliver the free and democratic Europe that should have followed the victory over Hitler in 1945, and they had the steady support of the senior President Bush in both those choices. But it really was a gamble, and it might all have gone wrong.

A reunited Germany could once again have used its wealth, numbers and central position to seek domination over Europe, as it had done under both the Kaisers and the Nazis. The countries of Eastern Europe, freed from Russian rule, might have ended up as a string of squabbling tinpot dictatorships, as most of them did when they first got their freedom after World War One.

The main reason it didn’t all end in tears was the European Union, a more comprehensive version of the existing European Economic Community that was negotiated in 1990-92 and declared in 1993.

Creating the EU (and giving it a common currency, the euro) provided a structure big and strong enough to contain a united Germany and not be dominated by it. It also saved the former ‘satellite’ countries of Eastern Europe from a potentially ugly fate.

The EU countries had all the things that Poles, Slovaks and Bulgarians longed for: prosperity, personal freedom and democracy. And although it is not a charitable institution, the EU decided to let the Eastern European countries join, provided that they also became law-abiding and relatively uncorrupt democracies. So that’s exactly what they did.

The fall of the Berlin Wall did not led automatically to the benign reunification of Germany. It created the opportunity for positive change, but making it happen took clear thinking and hard political work. The happy outcome in Eastern Europe was not some quirk of fate either. It was the product of social engineering on an international scale.

There is no ‘German question’ today. It has been solved. The economies of Eastern European countries are far bigger than they were 30 years ago (four times bigger for Romania, six times for Poland), and average incomes are catching up. In 1990 Poles earned only a quarter of what Germans did; now it’s almost two-thirds.

There are some problems with populist/nationalist regimes in Poland and Hungary at the moment, but it’s still far better there politically than it ever was before 1989. It’s better everywhere – so why is the United Kingdom, the second-biggest member of this organisation that has put an end to centuries of war and tyranny in Europe, now planning to leave the EU?

Because the English don’t get it. Britain is an island that hasn’t been successfully invaded for almost a millennium, so they don’t realise that the EU is primarily about preserving democracy and keeping the peace. They think it’s just an economic deal, and a lot of them believe (mistakenly) that they can get a better deal elsewhere.

They are, as Napoleon allegedly remarked, “a nation of shopkeepers.” (Actually, it was Adam Smith who said it first.) A nation of shopkeepers who haven’t even noticed that their shops are closing down.
________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 6. (“For…them”; and “On a brief…about that”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.