// archives

East Germany

This tag is associated with 3 posts

Germany and Refugees

No good deed goes unpunished.

Two months ago Chancellor Angela Merkel amazed the world by opening Germany’s borders to all the genuine refugees (mostly Syrians and Afghans) who could get that far. She must have known her own people well, because ordinary Germans showed extraordinary sympathy and generosity to the new arrivals.

Even when the first estimate of 800,000 refugees coming to Germany this year went up to 1.5 million, the “welcome culture” stayed strong. Only one month ago Merkel’s action still had the approval of half the population, with only 40 percent thinking her policy was wrong.

Now those numbers are reversed, and the voices of dissent are multiplying. Even Horst Seehofer, the prime minister of the state of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union,(CDU), has lost patience, saying that “no society can cope with an influx on this scale.” In fact, he’s theatening to challenge her policy before Germany’s Constitutional Court.

That’s just “compassion fatigue”, you might say, and you would be right. Bavarians have seen 175,000 refugees arrive in their midst in just the past month. That’s almost 1.5 percent of the state’s population in just thirty days. Many of them will move on to other states eventually – but another 175,000 will probably arrive in the coming month.

The scale of the refugee influx into Germany is almost unprecedented in modern European history: one and a half million people in six months (for the refugees only started arriving in large numbers in July). It’s as if the United States, with four times Germany’s population, were taking in one million Syrian and Afghan refugees every month. Americans would never accept that.

What’s surprising is not the fall in support for Merkel’s policy. It’s the fact that it is still so strong, even though no other member of the European Union is being anything like so generous in its refugee policy. (Britain has offered to take in 20,000 refugees over the next five years.) There must be something special about the German response.

There is certainly something special about modern German history, though most people elsewhere have forgotten it or never knew it. Not the Nazis and the war, but what happened at the end of the Second World War and just afterwards. As the Soviet army rolled west across eastern Europe in early 1945, huge numbers of ethnic Germans fled before it.

Hundreds of thousands of them died of cold, hunger and the constant bombing, but between six and eight million made it into what is now Germany before the fighting ended. Almost as many more were expelled from Eastern European countries in the following five years, mostly from Czechoslovakia and the parts of Germany (about a fifth of its current area) that had been given to Poland by the victors.

Between 1945 and 1950 some twelve million German refugees arrived in Germany – a Germany that had been bombed flat and was desperately poor. Even food was scarce in the early post-war years. But the Germans took the refugees in, shared what they had with them, and together they gradually pulled their country out of the hole it had dug for itself.

Germans don’t like to dwell on this period of their country’s history, but it hasn’t been forgotten. Indeed, one-fifth of today’s Germans are those now elderly refugees and their children and grandchildren. Deep down Germans have an understanding of what it is to be a refugee that no other Western Europeans can share.

Does this explain why Merkel did what she did? Nobody can say except herself, and she isn’t saying. She certainly hasn’t been a strong advocate of large-scale immigration in the past.

At a meeting with young CDU party workers in Potsdam five years ago, she said that the idea of creating a multicultural society in Germany had failed utterly: “The concept that we are now living side by side and are happy about it does not work.” Indeed, she even said that Germans had Christian values and “anyone who doesn’t accept that is in the wrong place here.”

But she grew up in the town of Templin in northern Brandenburg, in what was then East Germany. When she was a child and a young woman, that area, not very far from the new Polish border, had a population that was 40 percent refugees.

Does their own refugee heritage explain why half of Germany’s 80 million people still support a policy that, so long as it lasts, will be adding one and a half million more non-German-speaking Muslims to the country’s population each year? Yes, it probably does.
___________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“At a meeting…here”)

Ukraine Ceasefire?

Angela Merkel grew up under Communist rule in the old East Germany. She speaks fluent Russian. She has been the chancellor of Germany for the past ten years. And for all that time she has been negotiating with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on wide variety of subjects – including, for the past year, Ukraine. They may not like each other much, but they certainly know each other.

So listen to what Angela Merkel said about the debate in the US military, in the Congress, and even in the White House about sending direct American military aid to the Ukrainian government. “I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily,” she said. “I have to put it that bluntly.”

Does anybody think that Angela Merkel is wrong about this? Does any sane person think Putin would flee in panic if he hears that the US is going to send Ukraine “defensive weapons” (anti-tank weapons, anti-artillery radar and the like)? If not, then this is crazy talk.

Nobody in the United states is talking about sending state-of-the-art US tanks and planes to Ukraine, and they’re certainly not offering to send American troops. Secretary of State John Kerry is merely talking about giving some sophisticated “defensive weapons” to an army that doesn’t even use the weapons it has very well. The Ukrainian army is poorly trained, badly led, and controlled by a government in Kiev that is as incompetent as it is corrupt.

It sometimes wins when it is fighting the equally ragtag troops of the two breakaway “republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk. But if the Ukrainian government troops and the assorted volunteer battalions that fight alongside them start to win, then the Russians send in a few thousand well-trained soldiers and push the Ukrainians back.

That’s what happened last August, and now it’s happening again. Putting more advanced “defensive weapons” in Ukrainian hands is not going to change this pattern, and military professionals in Washington know it. This proposal is pure, strategy-free tokenism.

Of course, Putin’s stated concerns about Western plots to draw Ukraine into NATO are not very rational either. He’s exceptionally ill-informed if he thinks that Western European countries like France and Germany would let Ukraine join NATO, since that would mean they were taking on a treaty obligation to fight Russia on Ukraine’s behalf.

He’s completely deluded if he takes his own military’s hoary arguments about Ukraine’s military importance seriously. It is 2015, not 1945, and Russia has lots of nuclear weapons. It simply doesn’t matter whether NATO’s tanks are far from Russia’s border or close to it. Wherever they are, nuclear deterrence still works.

And Putin can’t really be worried about the example that a democratic and prosperous Ukraine might set for his own people. Ukrainian incomes are far lower than Russian ones (thanks mainly to Russian oil and gas), and the West shows no inclination to pour money into Ukraine in quantities large enough to change that. And though Ukraine is more democratic than Russia, its government is no less corrupt.

What drives Putin, therefore, is a grab-bag of emotional motives. His man in Kiev got overthrown, and he doesn’t like to lose face. Even if Ukraine has little strategic or economic importance, it was part of Russia for 300 years, and he hates the idea that it might just slide into the West on his watch. He shares the paranoia about the evil intentions of the West that every Russian inherits (for very good historical reasons).

None of this is worth a full-scale war in Ukraine, let alone a serious military confrontation with the West or a new Cold War. Maybe if the United States were prepared to go in boots and all, showering Ukraine with weapons, money and even US troops, Putin might back away, although it would be a terrible risk to take.

But some token “defensive weapons”, basically to make Americans feel better? That involves less risk of a huge Russian over-reaction, admittedly, but it would still be a big step towards a new Cold War, and for no possible gain.

That is why Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande flew to Moscow last Friday: to head Kerry off by patching up some new ceasefire (or reviving the old one) in eastern Ukraine. They will be meeting with Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk on Wednesday in the hope that they can make it happen.

At best, that would mean the effective loss of Ukrainian sovereignty over two more provinces (Crimea is already gone), and a semi-permanent “frozen conflict” on Ukraine’s eastern border. Not great, but realistically Ukraine has no better options anyway.

We know that Putin is willing to settle for such “frozen conflicts” in order to cripple disobedient former Soviet republics, because he has already done it with Moldova and Georgia. We know that the victims of such tactics can thrive despite Moscow’s games. Georgia certainly does, and Ukraine could do even better with strong European Union and US support.

There is no satisfactory military solution for either side. Settle for a stalemate, and move on.
______________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 9. (“It sometimes…tokenism”; and “And Putin…corrupt”)

25 Years Later: The Berlin Wall

In China, the Communists had just massacred the students in Tienanmen Square and won themselves another quarter-century in power. On the other hand, the Poles voted overwhelmingly for Solidarity in June, and by September Hungary had opened its border with the West.  But it was the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November, 1989, that really opened the flood-gates.

I had been spending a lot of time in the old Soviet Union since 1987, when I visited Moscow after a five-year absence and found the place unrecognisable. People had lost their fear: in the kitchens, and sometimes in the streets, they were saying what they really thought. It was the first time I had gone to Russia without feeling that I had left Planet Earth.

So I went home and told my friendly neighbourhood network that something very big was going to happen. I didn’t know exactly what, but if they gave me a travel budget I’d spend a couple of weeks in the Soviet bloc interviewing people every three months, and when the big thing happened I’d give them an instant radio series on it. Networks had more money and more nerve in those days, so they said yes.

By 1989 I had kind of worked out what was going to happen, but I didn’t know if it could all be done non-violently. The signs were good – I had spent much of the summer in the Soviet Union, and the first big demos had already happened peacefully in Moscow – but where and when the dam would finally break was still anybody’s guess. Then in early September I flew from Moscow to Hungary for a quick look around on my way home.

On the way in to Budapest from the airport, the streets were full of abandoned East German cars, mostly pathetic Trabis that any sensible person would abandon. But still….

The taxi driver explained that Hungary had opened its border with Austria. East Germans were coming down in droves across the “fraternal” Communist country of Czechoslovakia (no visa needed), to travel onwards to Austria and thence to West Germany. So I had the taxi take me up to the Young Pioneer camp in the hills behind Buda that was serving as a transit camp.

Every few minutes a taxi would pull up and East Germans – usually a young couple – would get out. Every hour an enormous coach would drive up and take them all off to the West. And after an hour or so interviewing them as they arrived at the gate, I knew what was going to happen next.

They didn’t see themselves as refugees fleeing to start a new life in the West. They were taking advantage of an opportunity to see the West, and they’d be safe there if things went badly wrong in East Germany, but most fully expected to be home again, in a democratic East Germany, within a year.

When I got on the plane home, I started writing a piece in which I compared East Germany’s Communist regime to a Walt Disney character who had run off a cliff – but wouldn’t actually start to fall until he looked down. And as soon as we landed, I booked a ticket back to Berlin for late October. I was just in time for a great party.

What astonished everyone was the way the old system just rolled over and died. This amazing new technique of non-violent revolution had been working well in Asia since 1986 – the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh – but taking down a COMMUNIST regime seemed like a much more dangerous and doubtful enterprise, especially after Tienanmen Square.

The party was so great because most people were enormously relieved that it had been so easy. They were fed up to the back teeth with the petty-minded, boring Communist bullies who dominated their lives, and they were sick of being poor, but nobody wanted to die in an old-fashioned revolution. Yet the Communist ideology OBLIGED the believers to launch a civil war rather than surrender power peacefully.

So when it turned out that non-violence worked even against Communists, at least in Europe, people quite rightly felt that they had been very lucky. And as a bonus, the threat of a nuclear World War Three went away. The old NATO alliance still trundles on a quarter-century later, picking up work wherever it can, but it has become the sound of one hand clapping.

There were some problems later on in places like Romania and Russia, but it was a radical, amazingly peaceful revolution in a part of the world that was not best known for its ability to change peacefully. So once the celebrations died down in Berlin I rented a car and drove off to Warsaw to see how the new post-Communist government was doing in Poland.

I parked outside a government ministry right on Nowy Swiat, and while I was inside interviewing the minister somebody broke into my car and stole my bag, including all the interview tapes from Berlin and the piece of the Wall I was bringing home to my daughter. The soldiers who were marching back and forth inside the fence saw it happen, but pointed out that stopping thieves was not their job.

So I reported the theft to the police for insurance purposes, and explained to them that if they spotted a well-dressed man who was limping badly, it was probably the thief. The stolen bag contained the suit I wore for interviewing presidents, but I had mistakenly packed two left dress shoes with it. They didn’t laugh – they had been trained by the Communists, after all – so I drove off down to Prague for the next revolution.
_________________________________________
This article is somewhat longer than usual, in case you want to use it as a weekend feature, but it cuts down to the same length as usual. To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 11 and 12. (“So…yes”; and “The party…clapping”)