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Germany Unbound

So when around half past two on the morning of October 3, as we wandered through the streets of Frankfurt, none of our party being perhaps entirely sober, Adam Michnik turned to me and said, “Now tell me, Tim, what do you really feel about German unification?” my immediate response was “You know, I really am pleased.” And when, seven hours later, and not perhaps entirely rested, I set out from the Hotel Unter den Linden in the former East Berlin to walk westward through the Brandenburg Gate (look for the new asphalt, it’s all that’s left of the Wall) and across a corner of the Tiergarten to the official ceremony for German unity in the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall, my step was light.

At first glance I thought the governing mayor had acquired a wig. But when he began to speak I, together with the rest of the gala audience in the Philharmonic, soon realized that this was an uninvited guest. He had walked through all the security controls and right up to the microphone. Before him, in the first row, sat President Richard von Weizsäcker, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, grand old Willy Brandt, and behind them the country’s most important political leaders. If the uninvited guest had been a terrorist with a gun, he could have decapitated the German body politic, on the day of unification.

Fortunately he was just a nut with a cardboard folder containing a long speech. “Allow me fifteen minutes,” he said, and began a complicated tale of some outstanding grievance against the Justice Ministry. After several seconds of silent bewilderment, the audience began loudly to applaud him, hoping to clap him away. He would not stop. The master of ceremonies, in white tie and tails, politely asked him to leave the stage. On he went, describing in detail the excellent wine he had drunk in the course of his extensive litigation. The interior minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, could be seen rising from his seat. After whispered consultations, and a good minute more of barmy speech plus ironic applause, two plainclothes policemen very gently led this Herr Mitty away. (According to subsequent press reports they simply took him out to the entrance and released him into the holiday crowd.) Then, at last, we looked down on the familiar bald pate of the governing mayor of Berlin, the next speaker on the official program.

Far more than any of the official speeches, the proclamations of peace and good will to all men, the painfully responsible press commentaries, more even than the grave and beautiful cadences of Richard von Weizsäcker, this little incident exemplified everything that was good about the unification ceremonies, indeed that is good about the forty-one-year-old Federal Republic of Germany: civil, civilian, civilized. The small deed matched the big words—and the music, which was splendid.

With hindsight, since Wolfgang Schäuble was actually shot and badly wounded by another disturbed man at a rally less than a fortnight later, the episode looks less amusing. And of course, the German police are not always so civil. That same afternoon there was what seemed a quite excessive police turnout in the center of Berlin to control a demonstration against unification by squatters, anarchists, and the far left. Riot-squad vans roared through the former Checkpoint Charlie (now a flea market) into the former East Berlin, and police helicopters chuntered overhead, as if to say, “We are the masters now.” Yet the way in which Herr Mitty was treated was nonetheless representative of celebrations that were peaceful and merry, without being triumphalist.

In fact, it all seemed almost too good to be true. Like the East Central European revolutions of 1989, the German wonder of 1990 was so swift, peaceful, and civil that it is still hard to believe it has really happened. If the first unification of Germany was made with blood and iron, the second took only words and money. Among the countless intellectuals asked by newspapers for their response to unification, the (once East) German writer Reiner Kunze stood out. “I expect of Germany,” he replied, “that after October 3, 1990, it will prepare itself for this day.”

There is still a vast gulf between the new pays légal and the pays réel, between the legal fact of unity and the social fact of continued division. On the backstreets, in the factories, and in many, many heads, the GDR still exists. Something like one out of every ten in the former GDR workforce is unemployed. Pensioners have been terribly hard hit by the upward leap in prices. Tenants fear for their security—not to mention their low rents—as old private landlords return, or new ones arrive. And the psychological adaptation after forty years of socialism is perhaps even more difficult than the material ups and downs.

How long will it take before Germany is prepared for October 3, 1990? Estimates vary widely of the number of years it will take before the five Länder of the former GDR are pulled up to a level comparable with that of even the poorest Länder of the old Federal Republic. Undeterred by their failure to reveal the full disastrous state of the East German economy in the past, economists and research institutes are making confident predictions about its future. As diverse are the estimates of the financial cost of reconstructing East German industry. The round figure of a trillion Deutschmarks over ten years is tossed about, but the greatest part of this would be private investment. Chancellor Kohl has bravely promised an official guess at the costs, even before the federal election on December 2. The finance minister, Theo Waigel, does not quite say “read my lips,” but reckons the government should be able to get by without major tax hikes. In the former GDR, as elsewhere in the former Eastern Europe, the costs and problems of economic transformation are far bigger and more fundamental than in Western Europe after 1945. But if anyone in Europe can master the task of postcommunist economic reconstruction, it is the Germans.

The real question is less the economic cost as such than the political implications of the economic cost. These will be seen first on the streets rather than in parliament. The enthusiasm with which ordinary West Germans greeted their liberated compatriots a year ago has largely evaporated, as the newcomers take scarce housing and jobs from poorer West Germans, and jam the check-out lines at the cheaper supermarkets. But the swelling resentment against the so-called Ossis (as opposed to Wessis) is sweetness and light compared with street attitudes to Poles, Romanians, and Turks. In a West Berlin supermarket a sign says: “Polish citizens may only purchase one carton.”

At present the new Germany is home to some five million foreigners, out of a total population of 78 million. With the social tensions that will arise from the reconstruction of the East, the tolerance even of those foreigners who have lived in Germany for a long time is likely to diminish. Already one hears of second-generation Turkish-German citizens losing their jobs to East Germans. It is here, on the streets, that the political culture of the Federal Republic will be put to the test.

At the same time, with the combination of political liberation and economic disintegration in the former Eastern Europe and the Soviet Disunion, the press of would-be immigrants or Gastarbeiter (“guest workers”) will increase, adding to the existing pressure from across the Mediterranean. A new specter is haunting Western Europe: the specter of a postcommunist Völkerwanderung. This is a formidable challenge for the whole European Community, but for Germany above all.

How will it cope? By building a new wall along Germany’s new eastern frontier, the Oder-Neisse line? Or by opening to the East while supporting, with more billions of Deutschmarks, the transformation to a market economy from Poznan to Vladivostok, thus encouraging the Völker to stop wandering westward? The answer given by Germany’s political leaders is, not surprisingly, a qualified version of the latter possibility rather than the former. “We lift our voice for a constructive and common Ostpolitik,” said President von Weizsäcker in his October 3 speech. “All the frontiers of Germany should become bridges to our neighbors.” But even as he spoke, on the day of unity, a visa requirement was introduced for all Poles, many of whom had previously been able to travel without visas to East Germany and West Berlin. So if the German–Polish frontier was a bridge, it was a half-closed one. Reality did not quite match up to rhetoric. However, the Bonn government has now declared its readiness in principle to lift the visa requirement for Poles as they have already done for Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks.

Altogether, the problem with the foreign policy of the new Germany would seem to be not that it has any bad intentions but that it has too many good ones. Hans-Dietrich Genscher says: “We Germans want nothing else than to live in freedom, democracy, and peace with all the peoples of Europe and the world.” A modest aspiration. Germany, he declares, will have “a policy of the good example.” No one will use Bismarck’s famous phrase about Germany as Europe’s “honest broker.” But as Richard von Weizsäcker’s unification speech reached its crescendo with an appeal to Germans to set about “preserving the creation” (i.e., the natural world), I could not help recalling the description of Germany’s possible role that Bismarck rejected in his “honest broker” speech. Germany, said the chancellor of the first unification, should not aspire to be the schoolmaster of Europe.

The schoolmaster of Europe—that seems to me perhaps the best summary in a phrase of the aspirations of Germany’s present political leadership. The schoolmaster has passed his own exams over the last year with flying colors. There is a great deal of sense in what he has to say. But one does wonder how much of the school book can ever be translated into practice, even by the Germans themselves—let alone by more recalcitrant pupils (J. Delors, smirking in the front row; F. Mitterrand, looking grandly out of the window; M. Thatcher, giving her own lesson in the corridor). Are they not perhaps aiming a little too high? As Robert Browning has it in “A Grammarian’s Funeral”:

That low man goes on adding one to one His hundred’s soon hit:
This high man, aiming at a million, Misses an unit.

In the immediate future, German foreign policy will face some hard choices. American readers may think first of the decision about how far, and in what form, Germany should take greater responsibility outside Europe. Within Europe, I see two major choices, which in a deeper sense are one. The first concerns the former Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the second, the (West) European Community.

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