The dreadful thing about the German question is the way it forces people to take sides. Some are afraid for Germany, others are afraid of Germany. It is not easy to decide who makes one more impatient, the fierce detractors or the uncritical admirers of the Federal Republic. In fact, as a practical issue of politics, the German question has gone stone cold. As the focus of international tension swings decisively from Europe to Asia, even those who have played it hardest are coming to realize that they are flogging a tired horse. Contrary to predictions from the Left, the Federal Republic has not proved to be merely a temporary halting place on the road back to Hitler. Contrary to predictions from the Right, the division of Germany has not endangered world peace. No sensible person today pays much heed to what a Swiss writer has called “the hypocritical wailing” about reunification. It has become a ritual, like prayers for rain in a dry summer. But the bogies raised by Left and Right ten years ago, at the height of the controversy over the Paris treaties, have dissolved into thin air, like smoke from a dying bonfire on a still evening in the fall.

This, of course, is no reason for complacency, and the professional apologists who paint the Federal Republic as a democratic paradise (and the People’s Republic as a hell on earth) are doing Germans no service. The Federal Republic, as we meet it in the pages of Professor Grosser and Herr Leonhardt, is not a peculiarly likeable place. It is also not a particularly stable place. It would be surprising if it were. A people that has suffered so many ups and downs in so few years is unlikely to land on level ground. But it is also not a particularly dangerous place. The simple but decisive fact about the Federal Republic is that it has come to rest, almost gratefully, in the ranks of the second-rate. It has come to terms with ineluctable demographic facts. The folie de grandeur, which seized Germany between Bismarck’s fall in 1890 and Hitler’s suicide in 1945, has burnt itself out. In a world of super-powers, where even President Sukarno rules over a hundred million people, no country of 55 millions can aspire to a “world mission.” Despite Hitler’s pleas to the contrary, it looks today as though Germany is going, after all, “to terminate its life as a secondary Holland or a second Switzerland.”

That means, of course, that the Federal Republic is a very mediocre, if not a dreary sort of place. Professor Grosser, a leading French expert on German affairs, has contrived without difficulty to make it respectable, but even he, sympathetic as he is, cannot make it exciting or even very interesting. On the whole, however, this is probably the most level-headed account of the Federal Republic we possess. Its sober professionalism marks it off from Herr Leonhardt’s long, discursive, and thoroughly journalistic book. Herr Leonhardt may be described as a German John Gunther and those who enjoy Gunther’s style will like Herr Leonhardt’s too. For myself I found it slightly too apologetic, though refreshingly free from self-pity and self-righteousness. Cast in the form of a dialogue between himself and an imaginary group of foreigners (American, British, French, Austrian, and Swiss), whom he conducts through the Federal Cloud Cuckoo Land, it is a disarming book, perhaps a little too deliberately disarming. “You will find good and bad in Germany as everywhere else in the world,” Herr Leonhardt seems to say; “your reproaches and accusations are reasonable enough, but they are only half-truths.” As a means of breaking down the stereotypes which have bedeviled all discussion of post-war Germany, it is an effective device; but it leaves a good deal left unsaid.

It is, of course, quite true that there is good and bad in Germany as everywhere else in the world. What distinguishes it is the special quality of the good and bad. When Herr Leonhardt admits that there are more people in Germany who fanatically believe the most arrant political nonsense than are to be found in any other country, he tacitly concedes the point. When he says that anyone in West Germany who forgets to refer to the D.D.R. as “Pankow” is “automatically under suspicion,” we sense undertones peculiar to Germany. When he points to the strength of the German equivalent of McCarthyism in the Bundesrepublik and adds that he “can see no Ed Murrow among us to oppose it,” it is the qualification that is significant. These, after all, are the distinguishing factors. It is no doubt true, as Professor Grosser says, that “the decline of parliament is common to all European countries,” but there is a world of difference between the (relative) decline of the British parliament and the effeteness of the Bundestag, which has never in its short career acted as an efficient check on Government.


These things are said not to disparage West German democracy—to show it up as a “sham,” which it is not—but to indicate that the Federal Republic is sui generis. Most of our fears and anxieties, and many of our misunderstandings, about western Germany since the war have arisen because we expected it to conform to American or British standards. There was never any reason why it should. By its own standards it has not done badly. Ten years ago it was common to compare Bonn with Weimar, looking anxiously for the cloven hoof which brought the Weimar Republic toppling down. Today it is obvious that Bonn has succeeded where Weimar failed. The reasons are many. Chief among them, perhaps, is the fact that it has not been saddled, as Weimar was, with responsibility for the lost war, nor is it regarded as an alien regime imposed on an unwilling people by a victorious enemy. In addition, as Professor Grosser points out, the political elites whose hostility ruined Weimar have disappeared. Above all, the social strata which provided the mass of Hitler’s supporters—the “petty bourgeoisie” struggling against proletarianization—are no longer an effective political force.

Western Germany today is a middle-class society in a new sense. Its ruling element is not the middle-class of shop-keepers, nor the patrician middle class of the Buddenbrooks vintage, nor German-Jewish upper-middle-class liberals like the Warburgs, but a new middle class of salesmen and businessmen and (increasingly) salaried technocrats and managers spawned by Erhard’s vaunted “social market economy.” It is easy to mock at its grossness, its provincialism, the crass vulgarity of its pleasures; but before we do so, we had better think hard about the possible alternatives. It is preferable, at least, to the goose-stepping Germany of Hindenburg and Hitler, and not its least significant feature is the low standing it accords to the military. On the other hand, it would be absurd to idealize it. For one thing it is bitterly intolerant and conformist, for intellectuals (as one of them remarked to me) almost a spiritual ghetto. More seriously, it is heavily weighted against the working class. Both Herr Leonhardt and Professor Grosser stress the extraordinary weakness of organized labor, which the latter rightly contrasts with its power in the United States. It is not merely that German workers, as he says, “have never been represented in the government of the Federal Republic.” There is in addition what Herr Leonhardt calls their “low social status.” And the democratization of education has hardly begun: the number of working-class children who attain higher education of any sort still does not exceed 5 per cent.

When we speak of West German democracy, we must therefore be careful what we mean. Whatever is done for the workers—and in a practical way it is a good deal—is done from above; the middle-class “structures of society,” as Professor Grosser tactfully puts it, “are never in jeopardy.” Still, the result is a relatively satisfied, conservative, and, above all, pacific society, and there is no reason why it should not remain so, provided there is no economic crisis to shake its foundations. Every year that passes, as Professor Grosser points out, reduces the number of “embittered and impenitent” and strengthens the younger generation, which lives in the present, at the expense of the older generation, which cannot forget the past. The one thing that might change the whole situation would be German reunification; but neither Professor Grosser nor Herr Leonhardt holds out much prospect of that. Even those, the latter says, “who feel it politically expedient to deny the D.D.R. will one day have to admit [the existence of] two separate states.” Professor Grosser is even more categorical. “The theme of reunification,” he says, has already “passed into the background”; confronted with a choice between striving after national unity and maintaining their existing social and economic structure, “the people have clearly opted for the second.” It is a startling conclusion, coming from two writers who do not hide their abhorrence for the East German regime; but even the Germans themselves are becoming as sick of the “German problem” as the rest of us.

This Issue

October 22, 1964