Ten years ago, in a book called Anmerkungen zu Hitler (“Annotations to Hitler”), Sebastian Haffner wrote:
Whether we like it or not, today’s world is the work of Hitler. Without Hitler, no divided Germany and Europe; without Hitler, no Americans and Russians in Berlin; without Hitler, no Israel; without Hitler, no de-colonization, at least not so fast, no Asiatic, Arab and Black-African emancipation, and no downgrading of Europe.
The list might be extended. Without Hitler, no burden of memory, no searing and indelible recollection of inhumanities committed and tolerated, no frightening new awareness of the fragility of republican government, no—or anyway less—nagging doubt about the stability of democratic institutions in our present and future.
It is these memories and doubts that sound the strongest note in, and give coherence and internal consistency to, the speeches and papers written for special occasions that are the substance of Fritz Stern’s new book. The Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University has never doubted the centrality of Germany in the Western experience, the fact that, “for over a century, ‘the German question,’ in all of its guises, has had a decisive bearing on the history of the world.” But he also feels that, while Hitler’s Third Reich was “a lesson in history that still haunts our collective memory,” it does so in a fashion that is progressively “dim and distorted,” and his new book is intended in large part to sharpen our recollection, to persuade us to ask ourselves once more how these things could have come to pass, and to help us be vigilant for signs of their recurrence.
It is entirely appropriate that Stern should begin his book with the lines from Heine’s long poem “Germany: A Winter’s Tale”:
The land is held by Russians and French,
The sea’s by the British invested,
But in the airy realm of dreams
Our sway is uncontested.
The Germans, for centuries atomized and powerless in comparison with the nation-states that surrounded them, were always dreamers. Even in the time of their greatest discontent, they had the dim memory of the glory of their medieval empire and the hope that Frederick Barbarossa might be a once and future king to sustain them; and in the nineteenth century these romantic notions were transformed into the liberal dream of a new united Reich, embodying constitutional government and civil liberties, that would be respected by other nations and would contribute to the promotion of the general welfare and international peace. This persisted even after the high hopes engendered by the founding of the empire in 1871 had been disappointed, and after what Friedrich Meinecke once called “the Pan-German-militaristic-conservative combine” had driven Imperial Germany into the fateful adventure in 1914. The resultant defeat was so shattering that it encouraged many in the Weimar years to believe that it must be the prelude to the final realization of their hopes for a peaceful Germany in a peaceful world.
This was the hope shared by the three men whose lives Stern celebrates in the first chapters of his book—Albert Einstein, the Nobel prize-winning chemist Fritz Haber, and Ernst Reuter, the mayor of postwar Berlin. All three were profoundly influenced by the experience of the First World War and each, in his own way, sought to overcome those forces in German society that had helped to cause it. If they failed, it was because they did not realize that other, baser desires and ambitions lurked in the subconscious of their countrymen and would soon be galvanized by a more seductive dream-maker than they.
From the moment in 1919 when the president of the Royal Society in London hailed the general theory of relativity as “one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of human thought,” Einstein was an acknowledged genius, probably, Stern suggests wryly, “the last of the German geniuses—before Hitler.” The juxtaposition of the two names is significant, for Hitler’s genius was applied to the realm of human affairs in which Einstein was most naive, and the scientist’s failure to appreciate the force of the irrational and the demonic in politics incapacitated him for effective opposition to the Nazi leader. His sporadic efforts to lend the weight of his prestige to such causes as pacifism and liberal internationalism and Zionism estranged as many Germans as they attracted, and as the brown tide rose higher he fled into permanent exile in the United States.
Haber, a distinguished scientist who had been appointed first director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft in 1912, served his country loyally and well during the First World War. He solved the problem of producing strategically vital nitrates and invented the first effective poison gas. At the war’s end, he rallied immediately to the republic and devoted his formidable energies and his international prestige to the task of breaking down the Allied intellectual blockade against Germany and reintegrating his country into the world scientific community. In this he was a valuable collaborator in Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann’s efforts toward peaceful revision of Germany’s situation under the Versailles Treaty. But, in the crisis years that followed that statesman’s death, he received small thanks for his efforts and in 1933, after the Nazi takeover of power, was forced, as a Jew, to lay down his offices and to go abroad, where he died in 1934, alone and nearly penniless.
Ernst Reuter, who had hoped that the war might put a permanent end to the gulf between the bourgeois and working classes in Germany, returned to his country from Russian imprisonment to work for that ideal and for the freedoms enunciated in the Weimar constitution, first as a Communist and then, when he discovered that Lenin’s direction of the movement was too dictatorial, as a member of the Social Democratic party. He too misjudged the temper of his time and the baleful attractions of fascism, and it was only after the Second World War, when he returned to Germany from his long exile in Turkey and reentered politics and became the ruling Bürgermeister of Berlin and the heart and soul of that city’s defiance of the Soviet blockade, that he realized that Hitler’s victory was rooted in what he called “the catastrophic basic attitude of the German middle classes…that made them so susceptible to unpolitical and purely emotional suggestion.”
In October 1933, after his forced retirement, Fritz Haber wrote to a friend, “I am bitter as never before. I was German to an extent that I feel fully only now.” His feelings were shared by many other German Jews who in 1933 had to face the hard realization that their dreams of final acceptance in a country that they loved and regarded as their own had come to nothing. They had long been aware, and reconciled themselves to the fact, that there were large spheres of public and professional life that were barred to them and that anti-Semitism was pervasive, but they were encouraged to be hopeful by the thought of how much they had accomplished since the unemancipated days of the eighteenth century.
Their talents had, indeed, been ideally adapted to the requirements for success in a capitalistic secularizing age. Unfortunately, as Stern points out in a fine chapter called “The Burden of Success,” secularization affected Jews as much as it did Christians, and in some ways more deeply, for
their faith had ensured their survival as a distinct group,…and as the new secular faith of nationalism beckoned, the danger of ever greater alienation from their own traditional identity became considerable.
This tended to disarm them morally for the dreadful trial that awaited them. The Germanness in which they took pride was already denied by many of their countrymen and, once Hitler came to power and officially nullified it, along with all the other rights won by a century of progress, they were involved in a tragic crisis of identity.
In Stern’s view, secularization also provides one of the answers to the question of why so many Germans responded positively to Hitler in 1933. The silently acknowledged death of God in the nineteenth century led to what Max Weber called an Entzauberung or disenchantment with modern civilization, a sense of emptiness and boredom that was not satisfied by attempts to identify the divine with the nation and its existing order. The collapse of 1918 devalued those surrogates for faith and completed the crash course in politics that the war provided for the unpolitical German middle classes—a form of education, Stern says, that “inculcated not civic rationality, but ideological simplicity and vast distrust.” The democratic governments of Weimar proved incapable of restoring their material well-being or satisfying their resentments or alleviating their Zerrissenheit. By then the German middle classes were pathetically eager to believe in Hitler’s promise of miracle, mystery, and authority. Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker once wrote that he had himself come close to succumbing to National Socialism, not because of its ideas, but in an elemental reaction to what seemed an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in 1933. Hitler’s promise, Stern points out, also “had an immediate resonance in groups that had been brought up on older dreams of national rebirth, on deeply rooted anti-Western sentiments, on all manner of cultural despair.”
Amid the ruins to which their messiah reduced their country, Germans had little time after 1945 for dreams of greatness and seemed content to take refuge in hard work, and this has resulted in the creation of a democratic state that is generally considered to be as stable as it is prosperous. Stern is not so sure. During the late 1970s, he says, he became concerned, not only by evidence of growing disenchantment in the Federal Republic with the United States and Europe, but also by intimations of what would in Freudian language be called a return of the repressed—in this case, of repressed feelings of guilt, shame, and hidden longing. Germans began to talk about their history again and to worry about their identity and to think about their brothers and sisters in East Germany. The question of reunification surfaced, with potentially dangerous consequences for European peace. He cites with apparent approval The Economist’s comment in 1982:
The West Germany that is preparing to get rid of Helmut Schmidt is a more worrying place than it has been at any time since 1945. In acquiring one sort of self-confidence—as western Europe’s economic giant no longer in need of having political allowance made for it—it has lost another: the sort that goes with knowing exactly who you are, and where you stand in the world.
And he adds that it is perhaps well for us not to forget that Germany is the one country in Europe with a deep national grievance.
Stern’s book ends, therefore, on a somber and questioning note. This is all but absent from Henry Turner’s short history of the two Germanies. Turner does, to be sure, make an oblique reference in his last paragraph to the heart of Stern’s concern, the fact that divided Germany is the keystone of the European balance and that any fundamental change in Central Europe would be a matter of deep political and military significance. But for the rest his attention is directed to a description of the birth of the two German states during the tension of the evolving cold war, the elaboration of their governing structures, the twenty-year ascendancy of Konrad Adenauer in the Federal Republic and Walter Ulbricht in the DDR, the Machtwechsel that brought the Social Democratic party to power in 1969, and the era of mutual accommodation under Erich Honecker and Helmut Kohl.
Turner’s is a well-organized, clearly written, and meaty book. Since it does not promise to be anything but a political history, it includes virtually nothing on cultural matters, although Turner has not neglected to give an entirely adequate description of the major shifts in the DDR’s policy toward its intellectuals, a sad record of hypocrisy and vacillation that extends from the stifling conformism of the first postwar years to the timid post-Stalin thaw—which never amounted to much beyond allowing writers a slightly greater latitude in the choice of themes (fewer books about production norms and more about World War II)—and from the so-called Bitterfeld experiment of the 1960s, which, in the books of Christa Wolf, Jakov Lind, Wolfgang Dobrowski, Stefan Heym, and others, gave promise of a real flowering of East German literature, to the new expulsions and persecutions of the 1970s.
Because of the brevity of Turner’s book, the activities and achievements of all but the major political actors are necessarily slighted, and the reader will find nothing here about such matters as the contribution of the socialist leader Kurt Schumacher and the liberal Theodor Heuss, later the first president of the Federal Republic, to the debates of the Parliamentary Council in 1948 or the eloquent appeal of Gustav Heinemann, Heuss’s second successor, for the rule of law during the civil disorders that followed the attempt upon Rudi Dutschke’s life in April 1968. On the other hand, the treatment of Adenauer, Erhard, Brandt, and Schmidt is balanced and insightful, and Turner’s brief characterizations of Ulbricht and Honecker are comprehensive. In the former case, he shows how closely the East German leader must have studied the early career of Joseph Stalin, writing:
Ulbricht’s success did not result from popularity. Never a colorful or personable figure, he was an inept orator who wrote and spoke in stilted party jargon. He excelled, however, at what many perceived as the dull work involved in overseeing personnel matters and bureaucratic procedures…[and] exploited that role to build a network of loyal followers by manipulating party patronage…. His close ties to the Russian occupation authorities placed him in a position to impose his will at crucial junctures by calling upon them for backing.
Turner’s view of Erich Honecker is that, while he commended himself as Ulbricht’s successor by being “a model apparatchik, a loyal servant of the SED leadership,” he suffers less than Ulbricht from ideological rigidity and is more flexible in his attitude toward the West, although this may in large part be dictated by his dependence upon it for trade and hard currency.
Turner’s discussions of constitutional and institutional developments are detailed and thoughtful. In his analysis of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic, he emphasizes the safeguards that protect the democratic institutions it established and concludes that “by a combination of clear delimitation and flexibility it has enabled the complex federal system to function with a minimum of friction.” In his description of the establishment and evolution of the Bundeswehr, he describes the measures taken to prevent a regression to the evils of the older military system, in the first instance by careful selection of officer candidates and elimination of persons with dubious political associations and subsequently by provision for political education in the training programs. Institutions are always, of course, dependent upon the behavior of individuals. It is well known, for instance, that not all Bundeswehr officers are happy about the civic education requirement, feeling that this is unprofessional and gets in the way of troop training.
Similarly, the effective operation of the parliamentary system authorized by the Basic Law is at the mercy of the integrity of the political parties, and the fact that all of them have been affected by financial scandal and charges of influence peddling—it is now well established that the Flick concern has paid large sums of money to politicians of every persuasion (except the Greens) in return for special favors—arouses some doubt about the moral foundations of the current regime. Turner mentions these matters and, indeed, says of the Flick affair that it and the clumsy attempts of both the Schmidt and Kohl governments to depreciate its importance left “the integrity of the whole political establishment in Bonn…badly shaken”; but he is not very specific about this and does not attempt to draw its implications, or to discuss its repercussions among academic youth, or to reflect upon its effect on the general moral climate.
Turner is at his best when describing events in the history of the two republics that were turning points of one kind or another. These include the East German rising of June 17, 1953, the suppression of which destroyed the illusion that the division of Germany was only temporary and would be ended by the West’s “policy of strength,” and the building of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961, which ended the drain of population and intellectual resources from East Germany and gave the Democratic Republic a new stability and basis for economic progress by forcing its subjects to reconcile themselves to the existing situation. On a somewhat different level was the Spiegel case of October 1962, when the measures taken by the Adenauer government against the news weekly’s editors for alleged breaches of state security proved to be so flagrantly unconstitutional that they resulted in a wave of public indignation and a cabinet shake-up, thus demonstrating that West German democracy had come of age.
On the significance of these and other events, Turner’s judgment is shrewd, as it is also in the case of the Werbellinsee meeting between Erich Honecker and Helmut Schmidt in December 1981. Turner notes that this meeting came at a time when Soviet-American relations seemed headed for a new ice age, and when, as a result of the suppression of the Solidarity movement by the Polish Communist regime and the declaration of martial law, President Reagan had imposed trade sanctions against both Poland and the Soviet Union. The tightening of alliance lines that usually accompanied East-West crises was not, on this occasion, observed by the two German leaders. “At least for the time being,” Turner writes, “[they] had clearly concluded…that their interests were best served by a continuation of détente between Bonn and East Berlin.” Although nothing very tangible was accomplished during their talks, the meeting encouraged a growing belief in the possibility of what Schmidt’s colleague Egon Bahr once called Wandel durch Annäherung (change through contact).
The Werbellinsee meeting was not an end, but a beginning, and Turner’s last pages demonstrate the depth and variety of the mutual accommodation that has characterized the most recent phase of relations between the two Germanies. Faced with common or similar demographic, environmental, economic, and strategic problems and increasingly conscious of their common past and shared culture (the DDR’s fitful attempts to deny this ended dramatically when Frederick the Great returned to his old place in Unter den Linden), the two republics have moved closer together, a process encouraged by the waning of ideological zeal on both sides of the curtain. They have sound reasons for economic collaboration, and, in other respects, they are, for quite natural reasons, inextricably involved in each other’s affairs. As Turner writes,
A common language made possible a continuous flow of information, particularly through the electronic media but increasingly through personal contact as travel restrictions lessened. Whatever happened in one part of Germany soon became known in the other, affecting expectations and behavior there. Unavoidably, the two Germanies were constantly measured against each other by their citizens.
All of this raises once more the question of the potential danger of such accommodation, and the answer to this, one supposes, is that it depends largely upon the temper of West German opinion. Unfortunately, everything that one hears about this is not encouraging. In June of this year, Fritz Stern went to Bonn to address the Bundestag on the occasion of a commemoration of the East German uprising of June 17, 1953. In the course of his remarks,* he pointed out to his audience that this event, which he said must be enshrined in German history as “one of those great moments when people rise against force and inhumanity,” had not been a demonstration in favor of reunification but a courageous demand for freedom and reform, which, even if it did not succeed, would serve as a message of encouragement and hope to Germany’s neighbors, the Poles, the Hungarians, and the Czechs. In contrast, “undivided Germany had brought unspeakable misfortune to other peoples and to itself,” a fact that no German could afford to forget.
These observations, and Stern’s additional comment that the current debate in the Federal Republic about Germany’s past was a kind of seismograph of German consciousness, which was already causing much concerned talk abroad about “the restless Germans,” aroused a not inconsiderable amount of indignation in the Bundestag and the press. The Hamburg weekly Die Zeit was moved to remonstrate that the violence of the reaction against Stern showed that there was indeed a considerable amount of nationalistic neurosis in the atmosphere and to warn against the delusion of believing that a peaceful European order was compatible with a West European campaign for reunification. West Germans, it continued, must get their priorities straight and realize that freedom, for both Germanies, was more important than unity, and that to the extent that walls were made permeable in both directions they ceased to be barriers.
This was the message of the great speech by the president of the Federal Republic, Richard von Weizsäcker, before the German Protestant Ecumenical Congress on June 8, 1985, in Düsseldorf, which has now been reprinted in translation in the collection A Voice From Germany. Speaking on the theme “The Germans and their Identity,” Herr von Weizsäcker said:
The subject of unity, as it presents itself to us today, is primarily a pan-European matter. Its actual substance is not a matter of borders and regions, but human worth and human rights, and responsibility for peace, nature, and a just development in the Third World…. Unity of Europeans means neither administrative unity nor an equivalence of political systems, but rather a shared path based on humane progress in history. The German question is, in this sense, a European responsibility. But to work towards such a goal in Europe, by peaceful means, is above all a matter for the Germans.
Here is a dream that is nobler than the nationalistic aspirations of those who resented Stern’s Bundestag speech, and one that is, despite his gloomy forebodings, probably more in accord with the temper of most West Germans. The Germans may be restless but they have long memories.
A Voice From Germany contains, in addition to the speech just cited, five other addresses, including the one delivered on May 8, 1985, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II, a speech that Henry Turner describes as “the most forthright declaration by a West German leader since formation of the Federal Republic about the heavy moral burden which the German past unavoidably imposed upon the citizens of the Federal Republic.” One cannot read these speeches without reflecting on the differences in political discourse, and, as a consequence, in democratic leadership, in the United States and the Federal Republic. Stern tells us that in 1913 Ernst Reuter said, “The fate of democracy depends on a faith in history,” adding that history both offered enlightenment and imposed duties. Weizsäcker’s speeches reveal the same belief, and those printed here are characterized by deep reflection upon the past and an earnest attempt to draw both political lessons and moral support from it.
This is equally true of the farewell speech that Willy Brandt delivered to a special assembly of the Social Democratic party on June 14, 1987, on the occasion of his laying down the chairmanship of the party. No other single leader in the twentieth century has done more to shape the fortunes of German socialism than this follower of Kurt Schumacher, who returned after the war from exile in Norway to enter Berlin politics and rise to the position of ruling Bürgermeister. Against the violent opposition of many of his fellows, he brought the party into the government of the Great Coalition in 1966, thus putting an end to long years of oppositional politics and preparing it for the responsibilities of leadership. He became federal chancellor three years later, launched the new Eastern policy with his dramatic trip to Erfurt in 1970, and won parliamentary approval for it after a series of stormy battles against the opposition. After relinquishing his post in May 1974, when an East German spy was discovered in the chancellor’s office, he continued as party chairman. David Binder once wrote in The New York Times that Brandt’s most durable achievement might turn out to be, not his foreign policy, but his success in “institutionalizing the practice of democracy in a nation with limited democratic experience.”
In his farewell address to a party that in recent years has been riven by personal and ideological differences, Brandt reminded his comrades of their responsibility to the democracy that they had done so much to create, invoking the proud traditions of the party that had fought for political and human rights for more than a century and had suffered the persecution of Bismarck and Hitler. Perhaps the most impressive passages in this remarkable valedictory are those that warn the party against its historical tendency to feel happier in opposition than in power. “It is from the governmental benches that we can accomplish more for the people to whom we are responsible,” Brandt said, and he went on to point out that unwillingness to take up that challenge would leave the field open to the inveterate enemies of democracy, that “alliance of hidebound nationalists, conservative party liberals, and reactionary confessional politicians” that had been active in German politics since the Hottentot elections of 1907 and had helped undermine the Weimar Republic.
It has been a long time, perhaps not since the days of John F. Kennedy, since American presidents or presidential candidates have tried to look for lessons in our history or to consult it before launching their own programs, and the results are there for all to see. In any case there is no room in American political discourse for extended meditation on history or anything else, most speeches being collections of disarticulated fragments, all designed to be fitted into one-minute television slots. The result of this, and of the general tendency to emphasize personality at the expense of issues, has been a degeneration of the political dialogue in this country. Perhaps we need someone as forthright as Willy Brandt to say to us as he said to his party in June: “I should like urgently to advise those who succeed us to be very much on guard against the use of organized Verdummung (stultification) and clever vulgarisms as political methods.”
October 8, 1987