Germany at the Frontier

It was “historic,” to be sure, but exciting it was not, this first free all-German election in nearly sixty years. Indeed, it was a considerable national achievement to make such an important election campaign so consummately boring. I say this with only slight irony. For there is something truly remarkable in the matter-of-fact normality with which Germany has settled down to being a united democratic state.

A victoryon December 2 for the existing coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Free Democrats (FDP) was, in the last weeks of the campaign, taken to be a foregone conclusion. The only outstanding issues were the precise numbers, and hence the new balance inside the governing coalition, and the fate of the smaller parties. In the event, fears that the German party landscape would fragment under the impact of unification—the ghost of the Weimar Republic was painfully revived to walk the ramparts just one more time—proved thoroughly unfounded. On the contrary, there was an overall consolidation of the existing party landscape.

Following a ruling by the constitutional court, the 5 percent hurdle was applied separately to the region of the former GDR and to that of the former West Germany—loosely but universally called simply “East” and “West”—although only for this one election. As a result, the coalition in the East of the Greens and the Alliance ‘90—which includes some of the people who actually started the “October revolution” of 1989—got into the new Bundestag, as did the seventeen candidates of the so-called Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS)—the successor to the ruling Communist party—which polled 11 percent of the vote in the former GDR. But to judge by present trends both these parties would seem likely to disappear from the Bundestag at the next federal election in 1994. Meanwhile the Greens in the West, who had even more problems than the Social Democrats in accepting unification, and whose ecological themes had been successfully taken up by the established parties (“We are all Greens now”), failed to reach the 5 percent hurdle and therefore did not reenter the Bundestag.

Consequently, the first democratically elected parliament of the new Germany is dominated by the four long-established parties, the CDU and the Bavarian CSU—to which it is permanently, if stormily, married—the FDP, and the SPD, whose title now once again accurately reflects its position, for its D has always stood for Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands). The CSU is in a slightly weaker position than after the last election, partly because it got only (only!) 52 percent of the vote in Bavaria, but mainly because it did not manage to establish itself in the East (that is, geographically to Bavaria’s north). Earlier in the year it seemed possible that Saxony and Thuringia, at least, might give a significant vote to a CSU sister party called the DSU, but in the event virtually all those votes went to Chancellor Kohl’s CDU. The CDU and FDP, by contrast, did even better in the East than in the West.

The Free Democrats, with an overall 11 percent of the vote, got the best result of all. On top of their regular voters, a curious combination of business and intelligentsia, they apparently won many floating or new voters convinced by the argument that the Christian Democrats should not be given an absolute majority and/or by the personal appeal of the veteran foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Contrary to a widespread perception abroad, Genscher rather than Kohl is Germany’s most popular politician. In a series of opinion polls conducted by the news magazine Der Spiegel, well over 80 percent of those asked regularly say they would like him “to play an important role in the future.” This is a good 10 percent more than for any other politician, and around 20 percent more than for Kohl.


At first glance, it might seem that the internal balance in the coalition would have shifted slightly toward Mr. Genscher. On the other hand, since the Social Democrats did so badly, securing less than 34 percent of the vote, Mr. Genscher’s Free Democrats can no longer even contemplate playing their old game of threatening to abandon the present partner in order to form a coalition with the other side. They have nowhere else to go. The results of the strange, ritualized Bonn cockfight known as “coalition negotiations” will be important for domestic politics, and of course for individual careers, but for the outside world one can reckon with the same basic mixture as before. “King Kohl” and “Genschman,” as the German tabloids nicely characterize them, are firmly back in the saddle.

What are the implications for German foreign policy? German policy-makers today are like long-distance walkers who have suddenly had to run a four-minute mile. After the extraordinary diplomatic and political exertions of the year of German unification, they are frankly exhausted. Clinging to the television interviewer’s table for physical support, Mr. Genscher wearily repeats that Germany will continue its “policy of the good example.” But what this policy will in practice be we shall discover—if at all—only after they have had a good Christmas break. The course-setting “government declaration”—the German equivalent of the British Queen’s Speech or the President’s report to Congress on the state of the nation—is due for mid-January.

Obviously they will be preoccupied for years to come with the business of completing Germany’s unification in social, political, legal, and economic practice. The reconstituted states (Länder) of the former GDR currently exist on paper, but not as functioning administrative units. In a kind of self-occupation, West German civil servants are flown in by the planeload to build the new regional governments. Literally by the planeload: Every working day, before dawn, an aircraft full of officials leaves the military airfield near Bonn. It is known as the Beamtenbomber. More help comes from individual Western Länder. Fifteen hundred officials are being transferred from North Rhine Westphalia to the new-old Eastern state of Brandenburg alone. (The Rhinelanders’ revenge on Prussia? Frederick the Great must be turning in his grave.)

As for economic reconstruction, Chancellor Kohl has a “can-do” style worthy of a New York banker. This has served him and his party—but also, arguably, his country—very well over the last year. It has hardly prepared people for the huge bills that will now start to roll in and the other difficulties described by Simon Head in his article in this issue (see page 41). Almost every day one hears of new billions: a billion DM for the pensions of the former East German armed forces, a billion DM for equipment ordered from the Soviet Union by those same armed forces, to name but two that I heard on the car radio going out to the airport.

Germany therefore has more than enough unfinished business at home, between the Rhine and the Oder. There are nonetheless a few matters on which it can be expected to take some initiative in foreign policy. The least significant of these, at any rate in the short term, is the promised change to the constitution allowing German troops to serve outside the NATO area. At present the federal government follows a restrictive interpretation of the constitutional clause that forbids participation in “acts tending to and undertaken with the intent to disturb the peaceful relations between nations, especially to prepare for aggressive war.” Common sense—and even, which is quite a different matter, some lawyers—would suggest that this clause should not prevent Germany from playing its part in defending the Middle Eastern oil supplies on which it depends far more than the United States or Britain. Chancellor Kohl basically agrees. But to avoid the potential legal embarrassment of an appeal to the constitutional court, and the political embarassment of making even a notional commitment before the election, he has said that the constitution should first be changed.

He wants the constitutional authority to use German troops “out of area,” i.e., outside Europe, for any task authorized by the United Nations. Mr. Genscher wants such authority for the much more narrowly defined UN peace-keeping forces: blue helmets only. In a few years’ time this small step for Bonn might just be a big one for mankind, but for the immediate future it is unlikely to make much practical difference. Reaction to the Gulf crisis has shown once again that German public and published opinion is extremely reluctant to see armed force used anywhere in any circumstances, and Kuwait is a faraway country about which the German viewer or reader learns little. (One must, however, feel for the GDR’s ambassador to that country, who, on the day of German unification found himself a private citizen—and therefore a hostage of Saddam Hussein.)

Immediately significant, by contrast, is Bonn’s commitment to further steps toward political, monetary, and economic union in the European Community. It is true that a few people on the margins of German politics will ask: “Do we really need the EC any more?” And there is an important sense in which Germany “needs Europe” less now that it has achieved reunification than it did over the forty-five years when it was working (more or less insistently) toward achieving it. But this is not the mood, perception, or analysis of those who now (again) hold power in Bonn.

Until a year ago, Mr. Kohl hoped to go down in history as the man who had completed the work that Adenauer had begun: the irreversible integration of West Germany into Western Europe. He saw himself as the architect of European unity, not of German unity, which seemed at best a very remote prospect. History—“life itself” as Mikhail Gorbachev likes to call it—has given Mr. Kohl the chance that he did not expect to have, and he seized it admirably. But if there is one more thing he still wants to do, it is to seize the opportunity he did expect to have. The EC Inter-Governmental Conferences on political and on economic and monetary union, which opened in Rome in mid-December, give him that chance.

Mr. Genscher has thus far been more interested in the East. Where the young Rhinelander Helmut Kohl’s formative experience was reconciliation with France after the Second World War, the young Genscher’s formative experience was fleeing from Communist oppression in Halle. Yet now that the work of unification is done, he too—and with him much of the German political and policy-making establishment—is turning with renewed interest to the EC. They do this not least because they seek reassurance, support, and partnership in confronting the enormous problems they see coming toward them from the east, starting with the problem of immigration. (If international security studies were the European flavor of the decade in the 1980s, immigration bids fair to be the flavor of the Nineties. Yesterday, the experts were still counting warheads, tomorrow they will be counting refugees.)

One of the minor pleasures of the new Germany is to take a walk down the west bank of the River Oder, now the eastern frontier of the Federal Republic. Because it was until recently a tightly controlled East German frontier zone, nature has been left undisturbed. The flora and fauna are wonderful. Just across the river you see villages that were German until 1945, but are now Polish. The former East German frontier guard, now in a West German uniform which doesn’t quite fit (they only sent the small sizes), tells how, on a Sunday, they used to watch through binoculars as the Polish frontier guards put their rifles into a pyramid and marched gaily off to church. Unthinkable in the old GDR!

Last year, ordinary East Germans tried to swim the river to the east, in order to get to West Germany via the West German embassy in Warsaw (going east in order to go west). Now the frontier guards catch Poles, Romanians, gypsies, and even Indians and Pakistanis trying to get in to the new Germany from the east. At the moment, the eastern frontier of Germany looks remarkably tranquil, but if the transition in Poland fails and the collapse of the Soviet Union continues….

The federal government is in principle committed to offer visa-free access to Germany for Poles as well as for Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks. But there are already strong anti-Polish sentiments, especially in Berlin and the former GDR, where they have been stimulated by the swarms of Polish shoppers and street dealers. Both the individual states and Germany’s EC partners have a major say in these matters. An even more sensitive issue, in the light of German history, is the immigration of Soviet Jews. At least one state government has already said it intends to impose quotas for Soviet Jewish immigration.

Beyond this, the press conjures up an alarming picture of millions of people from inside the Soviet Union flooding toward the eastern frontier: those huddled masses yearning to share in the prosperity that many West Germans are reluctant to share even with the other Germans. Ryszard Kapuscinski, who has spent the last year traveling through the Soviet Union, says that this flood of Soviet immigrants is precisely what they must expect—and the Russians are already piling into Poland as the Poles used to pile into Germany.

What is to be done? Thus far, there has been a large popular response to Chancellor Kohl’s appeal for help to starving Mother Russia. Gratitude for Gorbachev’s permission to unite, even though one might not actually like the consequences of unification; pricks of conscience about the wrongs done in the past by Germans to Russians, and about the truly staggering excesses of present-day German Christmastime consumption; memories of older German-Russian ties; fear of the consequences of a collapse of the Soviet Union—all play their part in this response. In a nice irony, the food reserves built up in West Berlin against the eventuality of another Soviet blockade are now being sent to the Soviet Union.

This is not a wholly rational response. So far as one can gather, few people in the Soviet Union are actually starving in the way that people in Africa are starving all the time. Where they are going hungry, it is not because the food is not there—the Soviet Union has just had its best harvest in years—but because the distribution network has broken down, through neglect, inefficiency, and corruption. Now hundreds of relief trains line up at the Polish-Soviet frontier—they can’t change the wheels onto the wider gauge fast enough—and much of the food sent will plainly never reach those who need it.

Even the moral-emotional justification can be a little complicated. In Berlin, I took part in a television talk show which started with the appeal for Russia. One of the other guests was a brilliant Russian Jewish pianist from Leningrad who had emigrated to Germany. What did he think of the charitable action? Well, he felt deep affection for Russia and the help would be a good thing…”if it gets there.” And what did he think of the Germans among whom he had come to live? Why, they had been very nice to him, very helpful, very generous. But surely, urged the anchorwoman, here in Germany he had encountered unpleasantness, hostility, anti-Semitism? Well, he replied, nothing compared with the anti-Semitism he had experienced in Russia. After all, that was why he had left. And for a moment, just for a moment, one felt the audience wondering why exactly they were meant to be sending help—and to whom.

In the very best case, the Kohl-Genscher government might be able to build on this emotional popular response to create a consensus behind a serious long-term policy for sustaining the transition in Eastern Europe and in at least parts of the Soviet Union. But one does wonder whether the outpouring will last even as long as did the initial euphoria greeting the East Germans who flooded through the open frontier: and that was not very long. One cannot help fearing that many of the same people who send care packages today will tomorrow support closing the eastern frontier—and, who knows, even armed defense of that same frontier by, among others, former East German guards in West German uniforms. It is one thing to send a food package to—as you fondly imagine—some starving babushka huddled by her antique stove. It is quite another to have her knocking at your door, or even indirectly making a serious claim on your purse.

Yet whether it is a matter of letting people in, keeping them out, or, best of all, creating the conditions in which they will wish to stay at home, this is a field in which Germany definitely does not want to be left alone. Here, perhaps, is that external challenge—the new Soviet Union threat!—which will provoke a united European response. The question is, however, whether the combined response will be to tackle the causes of immigration, in a European Ostpolitik, or merely to treat the symptoms, by building a European Wall.

December 20, 1990