United We Fall

The Rush to German Unity

by Konrad H. Jarausch
Oxford University Press, 272 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification

by Elizabeth Pond
Brookings Institution/Twentieth Century Fund, 367 pp., $28.95

German Unification in the European Context

by Peter H. Merkl, with a contribution by Gert-Joachim Glaessner
Pennsylvania State University Press, 448 pp., $18.95 (paper)

At the end of the diary that he kept from November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall ceased to be an effective barrier to free movement from east to west, until the Day of German Unity on October 3, 1990, Horst Teltschik, chief adviser on foreign and security policy in the West German chancellor’s office, described the scene in the Reichstag after the unification ceremony had been completed.

It is half-past one in the morning, he wrote:

Helmut Kohl and Lothar de Maizière [the East German minister president] are still sitting together in the Reichstag. Hannelore Kohl is present and so is Ilse de Maizière, as well as her daughter…. There are still tens of thousands of people standing outside. Their cries of “Helmut! Helmut!” show no sign of flagging. Over and over again the Chancellor steps to the window and waves to the people, and each time he urges de Maizière to come with him, but the latter hesitates. He seems weary, almost apathetic.

Wolfgang Bergsdorff [chief of the domestic department of the Federal Press Bureau] asks de Maizière’s daughter what she feels at the present moment. She reacts uncertainly. She was born in the DDR, and it has been part of her life.

At about two in the morning we walk in the direction of our hotel. There are broken fragments lying everywhere.

Germany is united.1

A passage rich in symbols for those who look for such things: the contrast between the moods of the supposed partners, the confusion and doubt of the generation that is now called upon to carry out the agreement that their seniors have made. And in the streets, after the crowd has dispersed, were the Scherben, a word often used in German to refer to the broken pieces that have to be picked up before a strained relationship can be put right. The feeling of triumph is muted and hesitant in this account, which ends on a note of almost forced optimism. Whatever Teltschik may have written, he must have known that Germany was not yet united, in any real sense, on October 3, 1990. It may be argued, indeed, that it is no more so today.

The state of mind of today’s Germans has been deeply influenced by the nature of the unification process and its immediate consequences. If it is difficult for people in the West to understand the current German malaise, this is largely owing to the fact that most of the writing on unification has been impressionistic, episodic, tendentious, or self-exculpatory. From journalists we have had exciting on-the-scene reports and exposés of the crimes of the DDR system; from the academics have come elaborate attempts to fit what happened in Germany into overall theories of revolution, as well as a great many highly technical studies of special problems. What has been lacking until now are comprehensive studies of the process as a whole, written by people who have a deep knowledge of German history and are familiar with contemporary German life, and solidly based upon such sources as personal interviews, the documentary evidence now available to scholars (federal and party archives, and special collections on unification, of which there are a surprising number in Berlin, Bonn, Leipzig, and other cities), newspaper files, the rich memoir literature, and, not least of all, the information to be derived by careful analysis of the opinion polls conducted by organizations like EMNID and the Allensbacher Institut für Demoskopie.

The three impressive works reviewed here are signs that the drought is ending. Konrad H. Jarausch is a distinguished student of the political and social history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany, who has written a notable biography of Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, chancellor between 1909 and 1917, as well as original works on universities, student life, and the history of the professions; Elizabeth Pond, a MacArthur Fellow in Germany, is a longtime European correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor; Peter H. Merkl, professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has written extensively on the politics of the German Federal Republic and is, among other things, an expert on public opinion polls, who was an associate of the Mannheim Institute of Electoral Research and a faculty member at Göttingen and the Free University of Berlin in 1990 and 1991. Their books, each filled with new information and insights, complement one another nicely and throw much light upon the current perplexities of the German scene.


In his brilliant account of living in Germany during 1989 and 1990, the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom included a photograph of Mikhail Gorbachev and Erich Honecker kissing each other during the Soviet leader’s visit to East Germany in the spring of 1989. Nooteboom writes:

People kiss, but what kisses itself here are states, strategies, political philosophies. The land that was unthinkable without the Soviet Union is kissed by the land that makes the downfall of the DDR, as it is, thinkable. The inherited orthodoxy of Lenin and Stalin is kissed by heresy. The philosophy that has set everything in motion kisses the philosophy that clings to the old. The common house kisses the separate house. One man embodies one of the greatest adventures in history, which the other now regards as treason against the revolution. Invisible in the photo are the others, those whom it concerns.2

There seems little doubt that without Gorbachev the forces of change in Germany would have had a harder time than they did. It was his desire to escape from his own difficulties that led him, in Elizabeth Pond’s words, to signal “to client governments that they were now on their own, just as long as they maintained control,” and that “if they got into trouble with their populations, the Soviet Union would not bail them out.” It was this in turn that prompted the Hungarians to institute reforms and, among other things, to open their frontier to Austria, which made possible the beginning of the mass exodus from East Germany, through Hungary and Austria, in 1989.

Yet even without perestroika and its effects, the DDR was ripe for an explosion. As Jarausch points out, popular discontent in the DDR had, according to opinion polls, decreased from 38 percent to 17 percent between 1982 and 1987; yet two years later 68 percent of the population felt that things were getting worse, and its most active elements were choosing to escape when the opportunity presented itself. Jarausch quotes a “devastating” Stasi analysis which acknowledged in 1989 that the great majority of refugees from East Germany resented “problems and deficiencies of social development, especially in the personal sphere,” that they were dissatisfied with the lack of consumer products and the poor service in shops and restaurants, that they were disaffected by the level of pay and the paucity of career opportunities, and that increasingly they objected to the lack of freedom to discuss these things openly and the mendacity of press coverage of social problems in general.

Some 343,854 people left in 1989, or about 2 percent of the remaining population, and they were generally from the most energetic and best educated and trained sections of society. Drawn disproportionately from East Berlin, the smaller cities of the southern parts of the country, and the heavily polluted industrial regions of Leipzig, Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz), and Dresden, 56.5 percent of them were between eighteen and forty. About two thirds of them were from skilled trades, and one sixth were university trained, many with medical or teaching degrees and experience. The effects of this loss upon industrial production and the efficiency of social services were comparable with those of the great exodus in the months before the building of the Wall in 1961. They were demoralizing for the leadership of the SED (the Communist ruling party in the DDR), and encouraged what amounted to a plot to unseat Honecker, a coup, however, that was long delayed because the members of the Communist elite were terrified of confessing their feelings and hopes to one another. Finally, the mass migration, in which many thousands of people showed that they were willing to take risks and change their lives, helped inspire the demonstrations that were soon taking place in the streets of Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin.

Jarausch points out that this Bürgerbewegung (citizens’ movement) was an authentic product of the DDR. It developed within socialism and was informed, at least originally, by “Protestant aversion to politics” and by the desire to “recover the humanistic essence of Marxism.” But under the influence of the mass flight from the country, it inevitably became a political movement, designed to bring about a reform of socialism that would make emigration unnecessary and, indeed, pointless. To carry this message to the streets was dangerous, as was shown in the brutal response of the police to the first demonstrations in Leipzig and Dresden, and the demonstrators showed extraordinary courage and devotion in persisting. But as their numbers grew—there were 70,000 in the streets of Leipzing on November 9 and five times that number by the end of the month—it became clear that neither the SED elite nor the Stasi had the stomach to attempt a Tiananmen Square in Leipzing or any other German city. It seemed better to them finally to unseat the obdurate Honecker and then to hope for the best. (Pond gives an excellent description of the plot against him and how it was carried out on October 17.)

Reading the accounts of the subsequent bumbling attempts of Honecker’s successors Egon Krenz, Günther Schabowski, Erich Mielke, e tutti quanti to ingratiate themselves with the crowds in the streets leads one to conclude that they were overcome both by panic and muddle-headedness. This is perhaps not surprising. As Jarausch writes, “East German leaders lived in a make-believe world, unaware of either actual economic conditions or mounting popular discontent.” They apparently had accepted their own propaganda about the success of what was in fact an increasingly run-down and polluted economy. In Wandlitz, their elaborate walled residential compound outside Berlin, they were cut off from the problems and cares of ordinary citizens. Even more stultifying was the fact that

the secrecy of Stasi reports allowed [Erich] Mielke [minister of state security] to manipulate information, rendering it impervious to challenge because there could be no independent corroboration. The injunctions of party discipline and sanctions against deviant leaders inhibited free discussion even within the inner circle.

When reality broke in, they were incapable of responding to it sensibly, and this as much as anything else explains why the new travel regulations that they issued in the hope of stemming the steady depletion of the population were so ambiguous and contradictory that they led, surely against their intentions, to the opening of the Wall on November 9.

It was this dramatic event that made German unification a political issue again, after years of being stifled in the East and all but forgotten in the West, largely as a result of Ostpolitik and its acceptance of the legitimacy of the two Germanys. Helmut Kohl, with that sureness of political instinct that was characteristic of him, decided to make the issue of unification his own, a decision that divided and eventually defeated the citizens’ movement in the East.

Teltschik has written: “The Federal Chancellor recognized a historical opportunity at the right time, exploited it with determination, and at the proper moment made the proper decisions.” 3 They would not have seemed so proper, of course, if they had not been successful, and Elizabeth Pond points out, more persuasively than anyone else has done before, that they would not have been successful without the firm and consistent support of the United States. It should be remembered that the opening démarche in Kohl’s policy—his Ten Points Program of November 28, 1989, for accelerating European integration by encouraging the formation of “confederal structures” between the two Germanys—was greeted with consternation and ill-concealed anger by other powers. Mrs. Thatcher intimated that it might be proper to talk about German unification in five or ten years but certainly not before, a view shared by the Belgians and the Dutch. M. Mitterrand seemed to think that even that estimate of the time that would be needed was overgenerous and set off to Kiev to consult Mikhail Gorbachev (although in her just-published memoir Mrs. Thatcher accuses the French leader of failure of resolution and of concluding that unification was unstoppable).

The only exception to this chorus of disapproval was the United States government. The Bush administration had shown no desire to continue the exchange of recriminations between Washington and Bonn that had been the result of the controversy over the modernization of the Lance missiles which had erupted at the end of 1988. Mr. Baker made peace with Foreign Minister Genscher; Vernon Walters, the US ambassador in Bonn, cheerfully predicted on more than one occasion that unification was not far away; and President Bush made it clear in April 1989, and again in press interviews in September and October, that he endorsed reunification and saw no reason for the fears of revived German nationalism expressed by his allies. His confidence made Europeans unhappy, and after his October interview Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote in The Times of London that, unless the Soviets intervened, a Fourth Reich was inevitable in the near future, with a statue of Adolf Hitler in every German town.

These dark forebodings did not worry George Bush. In the months that followed, Elizabeth Pond writes:

The United States…was totally supportive of reunification and played a crucial activist role in achieving it, both in reversing British and French opposition and in persuading the Russians that they could survive German unity with their dignity preserved.

Pond proceeds with great skill and authority to describe how this was done, with some interesting comments on the differences between the State Department and the National Security Council concerning the tactics to be used in handling the Russians. But she is plainly puzzled about why George Bush has never received much credit for what was, after all, a considerable diplomatic achievement. She writes:

Oddly, conventional wisdom in the United States discounts American activism and presumes that the extraordinary unification of Germany on the West’s terms came about almost accidentally. The reasons for this blind spot lie, perhaps, in the Bush administration’s fixation on the Gulf War as the main show, in the left’s reluctance to attribute skills in foreign affairs to Bush, and in the right’s reluctance to acknowledge that Bush’s “soft” solicitude for the Russians (and trust of the Germans) in this period was the right policy.

As Kohl went his way, with American support, the movement for a reformation of socialism that would assure the DDR an independent existence and might permit it to find a Third Way between communism and capitalism wavered and declined. The discovery at the end of 1989 of the special privileges enjoyed by the nomenklatura in Wandlitz aroused so much popular anger that it forced the government of Egon Krenz from power. There was little general confidence that things would be much different under his successor, Hans Modrow, despite his willingness to take part in the Round Table that had been established by the citizens’ groups and the churches to promote a national dialogue on solutions to the nation’s problems. Most of the citizens’ groups, it should be emphasized, did not advocate reunification. They wanted a new, more democratic and humane East German state. But the almost daily revelations of the true state of the economy, which are admirably described by Jarausch, and of the extent of ecological disaster in the factories and farms deeply shocked the population, and eroded the kind of identification with the DDR that would have been needed to spark revitalization.

The prestige of the Bürgerbewegung began to decline rapidly among the working class, who saw no results coming from the endless discussions and relapsed into their innate suspicion of the intellectuals. Jens Reich, a respected biologist and a co-founder of New Forum, one of the most important of the activist groups, has written that this popular distrust of “the types with the cheaters (Brillenheins)” and the “arsehole in the Audi” was entirely justified, since intellectuals in the DDR had always been Leporellos to the SED’s Don Giovannis: that is, they grumbled a lot but always obeyed the orders of their masters. Reich came to believe that, even when the civic revolution was issuing calls for change, such innovations as the Round Table and such events as the attack on Stasi headquarters on the Normannenstrasse in January 1990, which New Forum helped to incite, were essentially “theater.” They were produced for TV, with the intellectuals in the starring parts and the Volk in supporting roles.4

Jens Reich’s criticism of the dissident movements seems a bit too broad to be entirely plausible, and it may be exacerbated by his own pessimism and guilt feelings. Clearly he is unhappy that he and other professionals tolerated the Communist regime for many years and did not try to organize opposition sooner. But there is no doubt that he is right in saying that the ordinary citizens were fed up. As Jarausch writes, by February,

[they had] sensed that the Round Table pursued the Third Way rather than the improvement of living conditions. Instead of a more humane world, most people wanted prosperity through unification. Confident that “we have the power,” demonstrators began to defect from the civic movement. They intoned a new chant: “Neither brown nor red—Helmut Kohl [is] our bet!”

The rush to unification was now accelerated and made unstoppable by two events. The first was the tremendous victory of the Christian Democrats in the March elections to the DDR parliament. This was helped by the failure of the citizens’ groups either to protest effectively against the intrusion of the Western party organizations in the election campaign or to organize themselves as electoral parties; and it was greatly helped by the disarray of the West German SPD and its ambivalence on the unification issue. But essentially it was Helmut Kohl’s triumph, won by his impressive performances in Erfurt, Chemnitz, Magdeburg, Rostock, Cottbus, and Leipzing during the last week of the campaign, when he reached almost one million people, about 10 percent of the electorate.

In doing so he made promises that he doubtless regretted later on. He told the voters that instant prosperity would follow unification, that “thousands of entrepreneurs” would come to invest “and quickly build, together with you, a flourishing land,” that pensioners, the unemployed, and small savers would be supported by the “proven safety net” of the West, that unification would not be annexation but a doorway to a better life, and that their vote would assure the future of the “German fatherland [and a] common future in Europe.” All this proved irresistible, and, in an election in which 93.38 percent of the electorate voted, the CDU won 192 seats in parliament to the SPD’s 88.

The second event was Kohl’s meetings with Gorbachev in Moscow, and then in Stavropol in the Caucasus, in July 1990, which cleared away the last diplomatic barriers to Germany’s unification. The agreement between the two leaders stipulated the right of the GDR to make its own security arrangements, that is, to continue its membership in NATO, which was a Western condition of unification. It was agreed also that the joint German army after unification should be reduced to a level of 370,000 men and that German NATO units would not be stationed in the former DDR until Soviet occupying forces had been withdrawn. In his diary, Teltschik labels this “the miracle of Moscow” and treats it as a victory of Kohl’s personal diplomacy,5 but it was very much a team effort, with Foreign Minister Genscher and his staff preparing the way by a skillful use of promises of financial aid and with George Bush in the background, applying pressure in Moscow when it was needed. Pond tells us that it was hard to persuade the American press that this was so, and that there was much talk about “Stavrapallo” and slipping American influence. But diplomatic reporting has never been an American long suit.

There was nothing left to do now but tie up the loose ends, which was quickly done. In August 1990, the two German governments set rules for the first all-German elections and concluded their unification agreement; in September, the foreign ministers completed the so-called “two plus four negotiations,” i.e., between the two Germanys, plus the four occupying powers, the US, the USSR, the UK, and France, which terminated their “rights and responsibilities for Berlin and Germany as a whole.” On October 3, the formal unification ceremony was held in front of the old Reichstag in Berlin; and on December 2 the first truly national elections since Hitler’s time resulted in a triumph for the center-right coalition in Bonn.


The time has come perhaps, after what has been said about the changing tides of feeling in eastern Germany, to ask how popular the idea of unity was in the Federal Republic. This is not an easy question to answer. In the long years since the victors in Hitler’s war had divided Germany, the desire for unity had moments in which it flamed brightly—immediately after the workers’ rising in East Berlin on June 17, 1953, and again after the building of the Wall in August 1961—but in general it shriveled into an article of faith that was repeated automatically (and usually preceded by the words “of course”). It was an issue haggled over at diplomatic conferences by powers that were, even on the Western side, not very anxious to reach agreement. At the same time, the expectation that unification would be accomplished within a foreseeable period declined steadily, from 13 percent of people polled in 1968 to a mere 3 percent in 1987. According to Peter Merkl, by 1989 reunification was “a disembodied issue of…high ideological symbolism and no policy content whatever.”

The events of that tumultuous year changed all that, and the fervor for unification mounted as its attainability became more apparent. But Merkl, who has mined the vast amount of polling data with assiduity and skill, points out that the popularity of unification was always affected by significant generational and material factors. It was supported most heavily by those over fifty, members of Helmut Kohl’s World War II generation; the younger generation, especially those under twenty-five, were at best lukewarm about it. Young West Germans quizzed by the press and television were quoted as saying that they knew nothing about East Germans and saw no reason to regard them as different from, for example, the Czechs or the Swiss. It was rare that they regarded unity “as a value in itself or as a national task of absolute priority,” according to one observer. The same seemed to be true of their contemporaries in the East, only half as many of those under thirty being in favor of unification in May 1990 as of those over sixty.

Fear of the future was already coloring opinion long before the treaty of unification was signed. “Rarely have optimistic expectations, fears, and apprehensions lain so close to each other in such contradictory mixtures as they did in mid-1990,” wrote Hans-Joachim Veen of the Adenauer Foundation. Sympathy for East Germans fleeing to the West had already begun to decline sharply as early as January 1990—from two thirds of respondents before the breach of the Wall to 10 percent in April 1990, with half or more of those responding to questionnaires demanding a reduction of the benefits that, they believed, attracted the refugees. The same revelations of economic collapse in the DDR that made East Germans abandon the citizens’ movement and support unification began to concern West Germans who worried about the potential costs of unification and how much in the way of taxes it would require.

Such doubts probably explain why those in the West who feared an outburst of triumphalism when unification was consummated were surprised by the prevailing mood in the country in October 1990, which was free of any trace of exultation and marked more by apprehension. There were no flags in Frankfurt or Würzburg or Erlangen. In Bavaria the atmosphere was so somber that the CSU politician Theo Weigel called for “ein bisschen mehr Freude und ein wenig mehr Dankbarkeit” (“a bit more joy and a little more gratitude”). Even in Berlin, when the great moment came at midnight on October 2, the mood was solemn and earnest, and the ceremonial was stripped to the barest of essentials—some Beethoven, the tolling of the Freedom Bell, the raising of the republican banner, a one-sentence proclamation, and the singing of the third verse of the Deutschlandlied.6


And now sorrows came, not single spies but in battalions, along with economic dislocations that were worse for being unanticipated. It had simply not been realized that the economy of the former DDR, supposedly the strongest in eastern Europe, had been in decline since the oil shocks of the 1970s and that since the 1980s the regime had, in Merkl’s words, retreated into

a shell of autarky and selfdelusion, blissfully ignoring its economic problems and squeezing the last ounce from shrinking natural resources such as lignite, regardless of the environmental and other costs.

Because of neglect and unrealistic planning, all major East German industries—steel, machine tools, chemicals, and synthetics, manufacture of cars and trucks, housing construction, and textiles—were far below Western standards and hence difficult to make competitive without investment that was hard to come by once the true state of the economy emerged. The transportation network was in deplorable condition, with highways, rolling stock, and railroads in urgent need of modernization. Of the environmental horrors caused by decades of Communist industrial and agricultural abuse, Merkl notes in particular that Soviet open-pit uranium mining in the south had left many square miles of irradiated soil that would cost billions of marks to clean up, while sulfur dioxide emissions in the neighborhood of Bitterfeld, which reduced life expectancy of adult workers and stunted the growth of children, could be corrected only by shutting down the plants involved at the cost of mass unemployment.

No one knew what it would cost to set such disastrous situations right. The belated attempts to calculate the total costs of reunification terrified and angered people—the “fair guess” of Klaus von Dohnanyi, the respected former mayor of Hamburg, was that about a trillion deutsche marks of public funds and about 1.5 trillion of private investment would be needed to modernize the former DDR by the year 2000. Kohl’s easy promises during the March campaign of 1990 seemed in retrospect to have been deliberately disingenuous, and, seeing a future of mounting taxes, prosperous West German citizens reacted violently against him and against the “Ossis” who were causing his problems.

To the Ossis, with their trade drying up, their plants closing because they could not operate without investment that was unavailable, with half of the jobs in the industrial sector disappearing, and with conditions beginning to resemble those in the Great Depression, unification began to seem a cheat and the Wessis in general an exploiting class. In March 1990, the East German Volkskammer had set up a Trust Agency (Treuhandanstalt) to start carrying out the privatization of the economy by selling off Volkseigentum (public property), while assuring the citizens of a share in the proceeds. Placed under the supervision of Kohl’s ministry of finance after unification, the agency, in the judgment of W. R. Smyser, “began excruciatingly slowly, delaying rather than speeding the movement of investment funds to eastern Germany.” By late 1991 it had sold only about 3,500 firms for several hundred million deutsche marks, with about 20 percent of the purchases being management buy-outs.7

The Trust Agency was also soon being accused of discouraging foreign investment by giving preference to West German buyers—a charge given some credibility by its decision to favor Lufthansa in the bidding for the East German airline Interflug and by the sale of twenty-eight modern Interhotels, including two at the corners of Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden in Berlin, to one West German real estate complex at what was rumored to be a ridiculously low price. Mistakes in its handling of its agricultural holdings (some 4 million hectares)8 caused senseless cutting down of orchards and expulsion of farmers from their holdings. Altogether the impression grew that the Treuhand was an instrument of Western exploitation and colonization, and this inspired, among other things, the dramatist Rolf Hochhuth’s blistering collection of sketches called Wessis in Weimar: Scenes from a Land Under Occupation,9 which appeared in 1993, at a time when the euphoria of unification had long been dissipated and East-West relations were at their nadir.

By that time there were lots of other things to worry about, not the least of which was the loss of national reputation that resulted from the faulty perspective and maladroitness of postunification German foreign policy. The respect that Helmut Kohl’s diplomacy won in 1989 and 1990 was trifled away by his unrealistic assessment of the economic and psychological effects of unification. He could not prevent questions of constitutional interpretation from paralyzing the Bundeswehr’s ability to support peace-keeping operations by Germany’s allies; and he attempted to compensate for this during the Gulf War by a checkbook diplomacy that many Germans found as demeaning as it was self-defeating. He insisted at Maastricht upon the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia and subsequently refused to share the burdens that this recognition, and its frightful consequences in Bosnia, imposed upon other powers.

Perhaps most damaging of all, Kohl’s government was unable to moderate the terms of the charter of its central bank in order to accommodate the fiscal policies of its allies. The Bundesbank’s policy of keeping interest rates high, in order to restrain inflation caused by heavy loans to meet the costs of unification, wreaked havoc on Western financial markets, and made recovery from recession all the more difficult. The policy threatened, Craig R. Whitney wrote on August 1, 1993, to defeat the economic and financial goals of the European Community and to make a “monetary union and the Maastricht treaty itself a dead issue for the rest of the century.”10

In an interesting study, Christian Hacke has attributed the uncertainty of German foreign policy, and the ceaseless debate and moral and ideological attitudinizing that it elicits, to the fact that unification was so long an academic issue before 1989 that no systematic thought was devoted to thinking about what Germany’s policy would be when it came. In 1990, there was simply a lack of an informed public and a foreign affairs establishment that could define German interests and support an effective policy. In the parties and the electorate, there was neither a coherent national consciousness nor any basic agreement about national objectives, nor even any understanding of what may be called the anatomy of foreign policy, that is, the ideas that must animate it, its inherent costs and limitations, the central importance of decisions in diplomacy and the fact that both making them and not making them have consequences. Not least of all, the German politicans were reluctant to recognize the indispensability of power as a factor in policy. This ignorance explains the self-defeating irrationality of much of recent German policy.11

Much more serious because closer to home were the troubles attendant upon the flood of immigrants from the east and, rising out of that, the vicious and unprovoked attacks by juvenile thugs and bands of skinheads upon foreigners. Since most of the latter occurred initially in East Germany, it was comforting for West Germans to rationalize them as passing manifestations of the disruption caused by unification. But they persisted, and they spread to West Germany, where the bombing of a Turkish hostel at Mölln and scenes of dreadful violence in Solingen exceeded the earlier horrors. In Germany as a whole there were 561 attacks upon foreigners in the first six months of 1993, as well as twenty-four attacks described as anti-Semitic.12

Were these outrages symptomatic of a reversion to old-style nationalism and racism? Certainly the Nazi paraphernalia and battle cries of the skinheads were disturbing, as was the open enthusiasm of some of the crowds that witnessed their brutalities. So was the fact that the extremist Republican Party and other rightist political groups seemed to grow in strength as the attacks continued. Moreover, it was notable that, although some of the Turkish victims had lived in Germany for as much as thirty years and some of the younger ones had been born there (without, however, ever having been granted citizenship), the attacks on them did not seem to arouse any special sense of outrage in the general population.

The poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, always a powerful polemicist in time of political crisis, has addressed himself to these problems in a small book called The Great Migration and more recently, in July, in an article in the news magazine Der Spiegel. 13 He does not seem to be particularly worried about the possible revival of nationalism. What, after all, do the skinheads know about Adolf Hitler or about German history in general? Their motive is blind hatred rather than ideology, and they would surely find other targets if foreigners were not at hand. The Republicans have a long way to go before they can be regarded as a major threat to the other parties, and the more strident their playing on the national note, the more young voters they are likely to alienate. As for racism, the German attitude to immigrants is much the same as that of their neighbors in France and Switzerland. Like passengers in a first-class carriage, they bridle at the intrusion of other travelers. For many reasons aside from race, integration with outsiders does not attract them. It may well be that German sympathy for the plight of the exiles is not what it might be, but then,

The fact is that Germans cannot stand themselves or one another. The feelings that came to the surface at the time of the German unification leave no doubt about that. Anyone who doesn’t like himself will necessarily have more difficulty than others with love for the remote (Fernstenliebe).14

The really disturbing problem, Enzensberger writes, is quite different. It is that in the face of a palpable loss of the state’s legitimate monopoly of power, in the form of armed nihilistic assaults upon the public order, Germans are acting as mere onlookers and are allowing their public servants to do the same.

In face of the appearance en masse of bands of thugs in both parts of Germany, the apparatus of repression, from the police to the courts, is reacting with a hitherto unheard-of moderation. Arrests are the exception. When they are made, the criminals are almost always released the next day. The federal bar and the criminal investigations department, once picked to pieces by the media for their zeal in seeking to avert harm from the German people, are as still as if they had been granted temporary leave. The federal border guard, which only a few years ago occupied every highway crossing, looks as if it had been swallowed by an earthquake.15

This paralysis of the agencies charged with upholding the law promises to create political conditions like those that obtained in the last years of the Weimar Republic. The consequences should be clear.

Somalia is not our priority, but Hoyerswerda and Rostock, Mölln and Solingen. That’s what we’re responsible for.16

But this slackening of the will, it should be added, was not restricted to the police and the courts. The post-unification years showed no urgency on the part of the political leaders to rise to the challenges of the time in any sphere. The country was shaken by new party scandals, the most shocking of which led to the fall of the SPD leader Björn Engholm, who was forced to admit that he had not been as unwitting a victim of CDU dirty tricks during the 1987 elections in Schleswig-Holstein as he had pretended to be and that he had given false testimony to an investigating committee. The Bundestag seemed so remote from reality that the only appropriate description of the situation there was the old tag Senatu deliberante, Saguntum periit. The mood that this inspired in the country was expressed, perhaps not so elegantly but certainly with scornful force, by the formidable word Politikverdrossenheit—fed-upness with politics—which had become a journalistic cliché by 1993.17


But the word that one heard even more frequently in Germany in 1993 was Angst. Coleridge once said, in his Table Talk, that there is “a nimiety—a too-muchness—in all Germans. It is the national fault,” and this is certainly true of them in their anxious moments. There are in the whole world no more convinced believers in Murphy’s Law, that if anything can go wrong it will, and they have never heard of its cheerful American corollary, that you can always find someone to fix it. To them the ceiling is always about to fall in, and catastrophe is lurking around every corner. Throughout the history of the old Federal Republic every minor crisis was greeted with a chorus of predictions that the democratic system was on the verge of collapse, and this tendency has become more pronounced with the achievement of unity. Talking of conversations that he had with Germans in 1990, Cees Nooteboom wrote:

These days the foreigner plays a rather remarkable role in some otherwise enlightened circles. People want to know what he thinks about it all and to try their own disquiet, aversion or Angst on him…. One has the impression that they are afraid of themselves and want to have this confirmed by an outsider, and then again not. It is difficult to take more seriously than one really does the extremist publishers and the Republikaner, despite the historical reflections and the repugnance they arouse. In this connection I found a very good thought in an article…in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “History is shy about repeating itself.” But for the most part the people I talked with don’t share that view. It must be a funny feeling to have Angst about one’s fellow countrymen, but it is not unusual here.18

By 1993 the brooding fear of things that might go wrong was so pervasive that the Political Club of the Evangelical Academy in Tutzing decided to hold an international conference under the title “Germany Possessed?: Essays on the Anatomy of an Angst.”19 This gathering did not shed much light on the conference’s theme. Only one of the German speakers talked about current problems, and he did so in a state of deep despondency. Two others appealed to the audience to seek comfort from current woes in an “inner nationalism” and in the image of “das heilige Deutschland.” The foreign participants tended to be jocular and puzzled by the German mood, Professor Henri Ménudier of the Sorbonne accusing his audience of “suffering from a collective neurosis,” of being a “frustrated society that prepares itself persistently for a catastrophic end.” Even if we grant that the country is in a crisis, not the least troubling aspect of which is the deterioration of Franco-German relations since 1990, why—he asked—is there so much helplessness? Why all the larmoyance? Was Germany a mere fairweather democracy?

It is worth noting that foreigners seem these days to have more confidence in the Germans than they have in themselves. Jarausch, Pond, and Merkl all end their books on reasonably optimistic notes, and Western economists seem to have few doubts about the Germans’ future, provided they get their strategy straightened out.20 But perhaps such sanguine expectations miss the heart of the problem. One senses that the pervasive German Angst may really be a particular form of the paralysis with which, Nietzsche said, history affects the Germans. The memory of the Nazi times makes them hesitant, and indeed fearful, about taking up the position and responsibilities in Europe to which their size and essential strength entitle them. Too many of them dream impossibly of becoming another Switzerland.

They fear that the present troubled state of relations between the two halves of the country is not caused by problems that can be corrected but by the DDR’s long history of apartness, which will continue to be an intractable obstacle to effective unity. At the same time, the old problem of “coming to terms with the past” (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) has surfaced again with the Stasi standing in for the Nazi regime, and with the Western German press sniping at eastern writers like Christa Wolf and eastern politicians like Manfred Stolpe, the minister president of Brandenburg, for their alleged Stasi connections. Marion Dönhoff, Peter Bender, and other like-minded writers, scholars, and theologians have just issued an eloquent manifesto entitled “Because the Country Needs To Be Reconciled” in order to point out the predictably ruinous effect of this obsessive use of the past for the purposes of recrimination.21

Yet history may have a liberating as well as a paralyzing effect. The union of October 1990 resolved what the novelist Martin Walser once called “the historical deficit” that was depriving both German states of completeness and self-confidence22 and brought them back into the continuum of German democracy that extends backward from the present to the Weimar Republik, to 1848, to the Prussian reforms of 1806–1813, and to the ideals of the Enlightenment. The historian Heinrich August Winkler, who in 1991 left his chair in the University of Freiburg to go to the Humboldt University on Unter den Linden in Berlin, has just written a splendid new history of the Weimar Republic. At the end of it he points out that the Weimar regime seems to have come closer to us: it is no longer a mere preface to National Socialism but an experiment in democracy from whose achievements and failures the expanded Federal Republic can, through reflection upon them, profit, as it can from other parts of its collective history. 23 One of the things that both Wessis and Ossis can perhaps learn from that process is that what has come together really belongs together.

  1. 1

    Horst Teltschik, 329 Tage: Innenansichten der Einigung (Berlin: Siedler Verlag, 1991), p. 375.

  2. 2

    Cees Nooteboom, Berliner Notizen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1991), p. 93.

  3. 3

    Teltschik, 329 Tage, p. 375.

  4. 4

    Jens Reich, Abschied von den Lebenslügen. Die Intelligenz und die Macht (Berlin: Rowohlt Verlag, 1992), pp. 8, 18, 21, 23, 163.

  5. 5

    Teltschik, 329 Tage, p. 313 ff.

  6. 6

    Gordon A. Craig, “German Unification in Historical Perspective,” The Jayne Lecture of the American Philosophical Society, delivered at Stanford University, October 4, 1990, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 135, No. 1 (1991).

  7. 7

    W.R. Smyser, The Economy of United Germany: Colossus at the Crossroads, second edition (St. Martin’s, 1993), p. 155. A detailed discussion of the Treuhand’s mandate and the technical difficulties associated with it can be found in Gerlinde Sinn and Hans-Werner Sinn, Jumpstart: The Economic Unification of Germany (MIT Press, 1992), pp. 81–136.

  8. 8

    According to Gerlinde Sinn and Hans-Werner Sinn, Jumpstart, p. 97.

  9. 9

    Rolf Hochhuth, Wessis in Weimar: Szenen aus einem besetzten Land (Berlin: Verlag Volk und Welt, 1993). See also William Pfaff’s column for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, June 12, 1993.

  10. 10

    Craig R. Whitney, “Reluctant Giant: Germany Balks at Leading Europe to Unity,” The New York Times, August 1, 1993. See also the editorial “Chancellor Kohl’s Dilemma,” The Washington Post, August 31, 1993, p. A18. The Bundesbank relented and lowered rates in the first week of September.

  11. 11

    Christian Hacke, Weltmatch wider Wille: Die Aussenpolitik der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, expanded paperback edition (Berlin: Ullstein, 1993).

  12. 12

    For an incisive look at the problem, see Jane Kramer, “Neo-Nazis: A Chaos in the Head,” The New Yorker, June 14, 1993, pp. 52–70.

  13. 13

    Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Die grosse Wanderung: 33 Markierungen, seventh edition (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1993); “Ausblicke auf den Bürgerkrieg,” Der Spiegel, No. 25, 1993, pp. 170–175.

  14. 14

    Enzensberger, Die grosse Wanderung, p. 52.

  15. 15

    Enzensberger, Die grosse Wanderung, p. 71 ff.

  16. 16

    Enzensberger, “Ausblicke auf den Bürgerkrieg,” p. 175.

  17. 17

    On December 18, 1992, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said that it was the “word of the year.” See p. 104 of Klaus J. Bade’s article “Immigration and Social Peace in United Germany,” Germany in Transition, Daedalus, Winter 1994. Bade attributes its currency especially to “misjudgments and neglect concerning the issues of immigration, integration, and politics [that were] largely self-imposed and had been repeatedly warned of and predicted,” p. 97.

  18. 18

    Nooteboom, Berliner Notizen, p. 199.

  19. 19

    Daemon Deutschland?: Versuche zur Anatomie einer Angst,” Politischer Club der Evangelischen Akademie Tutzing, March 19–21, 1993.

  20. 20

    See Smyser, The Economy of United Germany, p. 302.

  21. 21

    Marion Dönhoff, Peter Bender, Friedrich Dieckmann, Adam Michnik, Friedrich Schorlemmer, Richard Schröder, and Uwe Wesel, Ein Manifest II: Weil das Land Versöhnung braucht (Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag).

  22. 22

    Martin Walser, Über Deutschland reden (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1988), pp. 21, 90–100.

  23. 23

    Heinrich August Winkler, Weimar 1918–1933: Die Geschichte der ersten deutschen Demokratie (Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck, 1993), p. 616. See also his article “Rebuilding of a Nation: The Germans Before and After Unification,” Daedalus, Winter 1994, especially p. 124.