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A New, New Reich?

A History of West Germany Volume 1: From Shadow to Substance, 1945–1963; Volume 2: Democracy and Its Discontents, 1963–1988

by Dennis L. Bark, by David R. Gress
Basil Blackwell, Vol. 2, 567 pp., $34.95 each volume

The Federal Republic of Germany at Forty

edited by Peter H. Merkl
New York University Press, 505 pp., $20.00 (paper)

Germany, America, Europe: Forty Years of German Foreign Policy

by Wolfram F. Hanrieder
Yale University Press, 509 pp., $29.95

Men and Powers: A Political Retrospective

by Helmut Schmidt, translated by Ruth Hein
Random House

La Nation orpheline: Les Allemagnes en Europe

by Anne-Marie Le Gloannec
Calmann-Lévy, 308 pp., 130.00F

The Germans: Rich, Bothered and Divided the fall)

by David Marsh
Century (a revised edition will be published by St. Martin’s Press in, 364 pp., £16.95

A German Identity, 1770–1990

by Harold James
Routledge, 240 pp., $25.00

At the end of October, an international colloquium of scholars gathered at Harvard University to commemorate the fortieth birthday of the German Federal Republic and found themselves, as they read accounts of the demonstrations in Leipzig and the mounting tide of East Germans fleeing to the West, contemplating the possibility that there might not be a forty-first.1 The novelist Peter Schneider, the author of Der Mauerspringer (The Wall Jumper), put the prospective dilemma in its starkest terms. “If the GDR comes to the door and says ‘You’ve been saying you loved me for forty years. Here I am! Take me!’ how can anyone forbid the union?” The conferees laughed uneasily and talked of the necessity of giving European unity precedence over that of Germany, but no one was very clear about how that might be managed.

Nor has that question been answered now that the possibility of Mr. Schneider’s script being enacted has become much greater than it was in October. During the past weeks, the newspapers and the air waves have been full of statements by European leaders from Whitehall to Warsaw intimating that they would prefer German reunification to be adjourned to the Greek calends. Mrs. Thatcher, to be sure, has intimated that she might settle for ten or fifteen years, and Mr. Gorbachev has told President François Mitterrand that reunification might be a suitable subject for discussion at an all-European conference meeting sometime next year, but neither betrayed the remotest degree of warmth for the idea.

Even President Bush has abandoned his earlier position that the possibility of reunification should be a source of concern to no one. Although it is apparently now the administration’s position that it would not in principle oppose reunification if it were to come as a result of free elections, in the wake of the Malta summit the President talked of additional conditions, telling his allies in Brussels that

unification should occur in the context of Germany’s continuing commitment to NATO, an increasingly integrated European Community, and with due regard to the legal role and responsibilities of the Allied powers. In the interest of general European stability, moves toward unification must be peaceful, gradual and part of a step-by-step basis [sic]. And lastly, on the question of borders, we should reiterate our support for the Helsinki Final Act.2

Leaving aside the question of whether the Soviet Union could be expected to agree with any form of reunification in which the Federal Republic’s present Western connection was made to apply to the new united state, Mr. Bush was noncommittal about how he intended to go about imposing these terms, and observers in Germany were skeptical about the feasibility of any restraints. “With the announcement of free travel [by the East German government],” wrote Josef Joffe, the foreign editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, “de facto reunification has already been proclaimed…. How much can governments slow this process? Governments can sign treaties, but diplomacy is not equipped to deal with mass movements of people.”3


It is clear enough why President Bush should be so firm about the necessity of preserving Germany’s Western alliance, for there is no doubt about the benefits that the United States and the Federal Republic have derived from it over the last forty years. For the US, it has facilitated the process of containing the Soviet Union, bringing—although more slowly than Washington wished—half a million well-trained troops into the NATO battle line and eventually, although at the price of German unity, restoring the balance of power in Europe. It also gave the US government a measure of control over its partner, as alliances are apt to do, thus relieving the worry, which Washington shared with Konrad Adenauer, that the impressionable Germans might be led into evil ways by the Soviet Union. To the West Germans, it brought security, prosperity, and an unfortunate degree of amnesia, for during the heady days of economic boom and competitive armament, many Germans saw little need for facing up to the meaning of the recent past or to their responsibility for the crimes of Hitler’s New Order.

Still, the Germans were by no means the worst of Europe’s amnesiacs, and there were powerful and persistent voices among them—Paul Celan, for example, and Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll, Siegfried Lenz, Karl Jaspers, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and Jürgen Habermas—who persisted in reminding their fellow citizens of things they might have preferred to forget. And there were others, starting with the generation of leaders that included Konrad Adenauer, Theodor Heuss, Ludwig Erhard, Kurt Schumacher, and Ernst Reuter, who dedicated themselves to the task of laying the foundations of a democratic commonwealth in which such things would never be possible again.

How this was accomplished is the subject of Dennis Bark and David Gress’s new history of the Federal Republic, a work of impressive scholarship, comprehensive scope, and narrative power, which will doubtless be the standard history in English for years to come. Certainly no previous work offers such circumstantial accounts of the evolution of the Bonn political system, from the days of the Parliamentary Council to the present, and of the great crises that the new republic had to survive—the Berlin blockade, the rearmament debate of the early 1950s, Khrushchev’s Berlin ultimatum of 1958 and the subsequent building of the Wall, and the oil crisis of 1973. The book also includes accounts of the so-called Machtwechsel of 1969, when power shifted from the right to the left, and both domestic and foreign policy were fundamentally changed under the Brandt-Scheel government; of the acrobatics of coalition politics in the subsequent period; and of the peace movement and the rise of the Greens and the missile debates of the 1970s and 1980s. There may be readers who will complain about its length, but because of its attention to detail and its richness in illustrative anecdote and illuminating quotation, A History of West Germany is immensely readable.

There is no doubt in the authors’ minds that the story they tell is a success story—at the very outset they say that the Federal Republic has been

a stable and successful democracy, offering more freedom with responsibility and better chances for a satisfying spiritual and material life for its citizens than any other state that has ever existed in Germany.

They find the key to this in the “vision and personality of Adenauer.” It would be hard to disagree. More than any other single person, Konrad Adenauer was able to overcome the automatic tendency of his countrymen to assume that leaders could be taken seriously only when they wore uniforms; his political style, which was stern, earnest, and patriarchal, convinced them that the stability for which they longed could be found in a democratic government under his leadership; and his long tenure in office provided the time to lay down an effective infrastructure for the democratic state and the continuity that invested democratic practice with an aura of normality.

At the same time, he set his face against the traditional preoccupation of the Germans with their uniqueness, which had often taken illiberal forms, and against the nationalism and fascination with power that had had such tragic results in the past. “In the lands of the German West,” he declared, “there is a natural longing to escape from the confines of national narrowness into the fullness of the European consciousness,” and he sought to give that desire effective form by making a reconciliation with France the major objective of his policy, an effort that eventuated in the conclusion of the Franco–German Treaty of Friendship of January 1963. This and Adenauer’s integration of his country into the free world were fundamental and impressive achievements.

But it is a pity that their admiration for the Federal Republic’s first chancellor should make Bark and Gress less than tolerant of his critics and opponents and lead them to denigrate them as leftists, liberals, and moralizers. To say, for example, that Gustav Heinemann, who resigned from Adenauer’s first cabinet because he opposed German rearmament, did so “on moralistic grounds” is obtuse; Heinemann, an active member of the Confessing Church throughout the Nazi period, did have strong moral objections to the raising of a new army, which is understandable in view of militarism’s disastrous role in the German past, but he resigned also because the chancellor had given Western leaders military assurances without consulting the cabinet, and because he was aware that rearmament would stiffe Soviet opposition to German unification.

Similarly, to give the impression that the Spiegel affair of 1962—in which high-handed and illegal actions by the defense minister, Franz Josef Strauss, which were defended by Adenauer, caused a nationwide wave of outrage that drove Strauss from office and shortened the chancellor’s own term—was the result of a deep-laid plot on the part of Der Spiegel‘s publisher, Rudolf Augstein, is misleading. It also distorts the historical significance of the case to write that the affair marked the transition to “a liberalism which often put individual designs and purposes before principles of state.” In retrospect the affair can be seen rather as a grass-roots protest against the authoritarianism that had come to characterize the last years of Adenauer’s term of office and, by extension, the first real sign that democracy had come to stay.

The contributors to Peter Merkl’s The Federal Republic of Germany at Forty are, like Bark and Gress, certain that West Germany’s journey toward democracy has been successful, but since most of them are political scientists rather than historians, and less interested in narrative than in analysis and interpretation, they go about demonstrating this in different ways. Their essays discuss such matters as the nature of the political culture, the governance and financing of political parties, the role of trade unions, of churches, and of special groups.

There is a fine essay, for example, on the changing identity of women by Joyce M. Mushaben, who finds that, despite the continuation of “many deep-seated socio-cultural biases in the country,” women’s fight for greater representation in politics—their “long march through the institutions”—has been successful. Other essays consider the effect of the growing secularization of society in shifting public attention from anticommunism to social issues and the evolution of social partnership—between capital and labor, for example, in the restructuring of the Ruhr steel industry in 1987—and social conscience. The latter is illustrated by a perceptive article on German morality and the state of Israel by Lily Gardner Feldman, who argues that the special relationship with Israel, which John McCloy once said would be the test of German rehabilitation, has flourished and been strengthened over the years, although it may be severely tested over the next decade by changes in generational attitudes in Germany and departures from humanistic Zionism in Israel.

Change and dissent, to which Bark and Gress take a highly conservative approach, are welcomed by Merkl’s contributors as signs of strength. Indeed, the unifying theme of the book is generational change and the effect this has had upon traditional German values and structures. The often bitter domestic disputes and confrontations of the past forty years have, Merkl concludes, changed social attitudes for the better and engendered significant and substantial change in the direction of tolerance:

  1. 1

    1949–1989—The Federal Republic as History,” a colloquium organized by the Center for European Studies, Harvard University, and The German Historical Institute of Washington, DC, Adolphus Busch Hall. Harvard, October 27–29, 1989.

  2. 2

    The New York Times, December 7, 1989, p. A 14.

  3. 3

    Mare Fisher, “Germany May Be Reunifying Already,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 7, 1989, p. A 31 (reprinted from The Washington Post).

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