A Polish friend used to lecture me at length about the tragic complexities of her country’s past. Occasionally I would interpolate a comment, in a doomed effort to show that I had understood. No, she would insist, you don’t get it. At one point, I became somewhat exasperated and suggested resentfully that, for her, these were things that only a Pole could appreciate. “Not quite,” she replied. “Garton Ash—he understands.”

Indeed he does, and not just Poland. A recognized authority on contemporary Polish affairs, Timothy Garton Ash established himself during the Eighties as the leading English-language commentator on developments throughout East Central Europe. What is less widely known is that he began his career as a student of contemporary German history, a subject to which he has returned in his new book.

Timothy Garton Ash brings to the study of the recent German past unusual linguistic, analytical, and descriptive talents that have been sharpened by close acquaintance with the lands to its east. He combines the very best of the qualities that historians and journalists typically admire, or envy, in each other’s work: he has used a remarkable variety of secondary and primary sources to reconstruct events, including the recently opened Central Party Archives of the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands), the ruling party of East Germany. (His book has 183 pages of notes.) But he has also talked with most of the leaders involved in recent German history, East and West alike, from Erich Honecker to Edvard Shevardnadze, from Willy Brandt to Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, from Henry Kissinger to virtually the entire former East German Politburo. The result is a subtle account of German policy toward the East over the past quarter century, elegantly written and suffused with (mostly) gentle irony and original insights. It also has something urgent and important to say about the present and the future of both Germany and Europe and repays close reading.

The story Garton Ash tells is that of Ostpolitik, the opening to the East in West German foreign policy which began in 1969 when Willy Brandt’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) won a majority at the elections of that year and took office in a coalition with the Free Democratic Party, pushing the conservative Christian Democrats into opposition for the first time since the founding of the Federal Republic (FRG). Until then West German foreign policy had been dominated by Konrad Adenauer, who took the view that the new republic should be firmly tied to the West through the West European Union, the European Economic Community, and NATO, and that it must be unwavering in its refusal to recognize the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to its east. Claiming that the FRG alone represented Germany, Adenauer also refused to accord recognition to states that had diplomatic relations with the GDR, with the understandable exception of the Soviet Union, with which formal relations were established in 1955. Strictly speaking, the first breach of this principle came in 1967, when Brandt’s Christian Democratic predecessor, Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, established diplomatic relations with Romania, followed a year later by Yugoslavia. But Willy Brandt is deservedly credited with having made the breakthrough that led to new relations with the regimes to the East.

Brandt’s Ostpolitik consisted of two parallel undertakings. Between 1970 and 1974, Brandt and his foreign minister, Walter Scheel of the Free Democratic Party, negotiated and signed a series of commercial and diplomatic accords: treaties with Moscow and Warsaw (1970); a quadripartite agreement over Berlin in 1971, followed by a Basic Treaty with the GDR, ratified by the Bundestag in 1973; a treaty with Prague (1973); and the exchange of “Permanent Representatives” with the GDR in May 1974. For his contribution to these achievements Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. But despite the dramatic impact of these diplomatic accords it was the second strand of the new Ostpolitik which mattered more, and to which Garton Ash devotes his attention.

Willy Brandt and his éminence grise Egon Bahr, head of the West German Foreign Office planning staff, devised their approach to the East in order to achieve what Bahr called “Wandel durch Annäherung“—change through rapprochement. The aim was to “overcome Yalta” through a multitude of contacts—diplomatic, institutional, human—and in so doing to “normalize” relations between the two Germanies and within Europe, relations frozen ever since the end of the war and further chilled by the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. To this end Brandt made his famous visit in 1970 to the East German city of Erfurt, where he was greeted by rapturous crowds; in the same year he undertook his even better-known pilgrimage to Warsaw, where he knelt in homage to the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto. He conceded de facto the Russians’ claim of both the Oder-Neisse line separating Poland from Germany and the frontier on the Elbe dividing Germany itself. After the signing of the Moscow Treaty he spoke of a new relationship between Germany and its eastern neighbors “on the basis of the political situation as it exists in Europe.” Alluding to the price Germany must pay for Hitler, he insisted that “with this Treaty, nothing is lost that had not long since been gambled away.”


After Brandt was forced out of office by a political scandal in 1974 his successors in the Chancellery—the Socialist Helmut Schmidt and the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl—never deviated from this general line, pursuing it not only in public diplomacy but also, and more significantly for Garton Ash’s story, in multiple links with the GDR, official and unofficial, all designed to facilitate human contacts, smooth relations, and alleviate fears of West German “revanchism.”

Ostpolitik was addressed to a variety of audiences, not all of them compatible in their interests and expectations. In West Germany itself, Adenauer’s motives in anchoring himself to the West had not been entirely unmixed. In its early years, some 20 percent of the Federal Republic’s population consisted of Germans expelled from the east—from East Prussia, Silesia, Bohemia, and other regions. Many of these people had settled in Bavaria and were a crucial electoral constituency for the Christian Democrats’ sister-party there, the Christian Social Union. They harbored bitter memories of their lost homelands and opposed any acknowledgment of the permanence of the new frontiers. They did not share Adenauer’s instinctive preference for the West,1 but on the contrary represented in its extreme form a widespread West German feeling that the Germans “to the east,” whether in the GDR or in the remaining German-speaking communities of Eastern Europe, must not be abandoned to their fate. Accordingly, it was an article of faith for West German politicians and constitutional lawyers that no final settlement of frontiers and peoples had been reached, that the Yalta divisions had no de jure status, and that the legal fiction of the continuity of the December 1937 frontiers of Germany must be maintained.

This legal fiction and the emotional issues surrounding it account for the Christian Democrats’ initial reluctance to sign the Basic Treaty which established relations with East Germany in 1973 without formally recognizing it—and their own continuing emphasis upon keeping open the issue of the eastern frontiers. By the 1980s many of the expelled people were old and their children thoroughly integrated into West German society, but even so many of the West German political leaders were reluctant to take the risk of openly acknowledging the finality of the postwar divisions, even after the Helsinki Accords of 1975. That is one reason why the FRG never formally recognized East Germany as an independent state, and it explains Helmut Kohl’s embarrassing procrastination over accepting the eastern frontiers as late as 1989. Garton Ash acknowledges that Adenauer’s strategy of keeping open the eastern issue in order to secure his domestic base while pursuing a policy of international alliances with the NATO countries probably paid off. If he had not followed this dual policy his successors’ “opening to the East” might not have been possible. But as Garton Ash notes, “some” would say that Adenauer paid the price of keeping dangerous illusions alive and poisoning the international sphere.

If Willy Brandt was willing to risk a breach with the conventions of West German politics it was in large measure because of his experience as mayor of West Berlin. Indeed it is probably no coincidence that some of the most enthusiastic proponents of Ostpolitik in all its forms were former mayors of Berlin—Brandt, Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker, and Hans-Jochen Vogel, Brandt’s successor at the head of the SPD. To those who lived in Berlin it had been clear since August 1961 that the West (read the US) would take no untoward risks in an effort to overcome the division of the city, and that any improvement in the condition of Germans on both sides of the Wall could only be brought about by Germans themselves dealing directly with the authorities in the East. This Berlin-centered perspective explains, in Garton Ash’s view, why détente (Entspannung) for Germans meant something rather different from what it did for the rest of the West. For Brandt, for his Berlin constituents, and eventually for many West Germans, it meant breaking down the barriers—psychological, political, physical—which divided families and communities, and also separated Germans from their past. In short, it meant working to build connections, while avoiding the appearance of seeking to reunify the divided nation.

The need to avoid such appearances derived not only from a desire to appease the fears of the Soviet Union, but also from the wish to make Ostpolitik acceptable to another foreign audience, that of the West. Brandt, like Adenauer, was committed to “Europapolitik,” the need to maintain and further secure West Germany’s place in the European Community. Moreover he, like his successors, could hardly have been unaware that for many Western statesmen and politicians, whatever they said in public, the division of Europe was not a bad thing. Indeed, the British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, was disarmingly honest on the subject. As he watched the old order crumble in December 1989, he commented ruefully that this was a system “under which we’ve lived quite happily for forty years.” The division of Europe, Germany, and Berlin had not served Western Europe ill—the French in particular were not well pleased to see it overcome. The US, on the other hand, was more consistently committed to maintaining a critical position toward the Soviet bloc, paying lip service and something more to the need to address human rights violations there. To keep good relations with Washington, German politicians could not be seen to press too enthusiastically for improved interstate relations with the East at any price.


The proponents of Ostpolitik had thus to walk a fine line. West Germany needed the continued support of its allies, and could not risk being thought to be slipping out of the Western alliance and into a more neutral, middle position between East and West. At the same time Brandt and his heirs were ever more deeply committed to détente and loath to risk a breach in their dealings with the Soviet Union and its satellites. Hence German anxiety following the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and the Bonn government’s near-panic at the time of the international crisis precipitated by the declaration of martial law in Poland in December 1981. To compensate for his manifest desire to maintain the momentum of the eastern policy, Helmut Schmidt, Social Democratic chancellor between 1974 and 1983, was willing to accept the December 1979 NATO proposal to follow a “two track” policy, under which new intermediate range missiles in West Germany were to be deployed if disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union broke down. This reassured Americans about Schmidt’s continued loyalty to his Western alliances, but it provoked deep misgivings in Schmidt’s own party and cost him vital domestic political support. Worst of all, it threatened his efforts to continue improving the Federal Republic’s relations with Moscow and the GDR.2

For the Soviet Union, too, was an audience for Ostpolitik, arguably the most important one. From Willy Brandt’s first negotiations with Brezhnev in 1970 through Gorbachev’s visit to Bonn in June 1989 and the subsequent “Bonn Declaration” on shared German-Soviet objectives, all West German plans for “normalization” to the east passed through Moscow and everyone knew it. In Helmut Schmidt’s words, “naturally, German-Soviet relations stood at the centre of Ostpolitik.” Once the West Germans and the Russians had agreed on the permanence of Poland’s new frontiers,3 and Bonn had consented to recognize the People’s Democracies, Germans and Russians found much common ground. Indeed, Garton Ash is probably not exaggerating when he suggests that by 1989, Ostpolitik and Gorbachev’s image of a “Common European Home” amounted to much the same thing.

That this could be so required a degree of humbug on both sides, of course, and a careful blurring of certain non-negotiable positions: the Soviet Union’s insistence upon the permanent division of Germany, Bonn’s refusal to abandon the legal fiction of the frontiers established by 1937. But in Garton Ash’s words, “When two states wish to establish better relations they often reach for the highest common platitude,” in this case “peace” and “stability.” Schmidt and Brezhnev, at their first encounter in May 1973, even managed to share warm memories of their common wartime experiences—Schmidt recalling that he “fought for Germany by day and at night privately wished for Hitler’s defeat.” Garton Ash quotes Willy Brandt’s comment in his memoirs, “When war reminiscences are exchanged, the fake and the genuine lie very close together.”

However illusory the reminiscences, the shared interests were real. The USSR had its postwar gains confirmed; the West Germans got Moscow’s backing for improved relations with the GDR, whose leaders, following instructions, responded accordingly. Although initially suspicious of approaches from Bonn, the GDR was drawn ever more into West Germany’s orbit. In 1969 Brandt renamed the Ministry for all-German Questions as the Ministry for Inter-German Relations, intending thereby to allay East German fears that the Federal Republic would continue vociferously to assert its legal claim to speak for all Germans, and indicating a readiness to treat with the GDR as a distinctive and enduring entity.

Indeed, Bonn’s willingness to set aside the thorny question of unification corresponded to a change in the attitude of the GDR (and its Moscow advisers) on this subject: whereas the 1968 constitution of the GDR spoke of a commitment to unification on the basis of democracy and socialism, the phrase is absent in the amended constitution of 1974, replaced by a vow to remain “forever and irrevocably allied with the USSR.”4 Meanwhile the Federal Republic continued to accord all the inhabitants of the GDR automatic citizenship of the Federal Republic should they manage to come west, but acknowledged in the Basic Treaty of 1972 that there were “separate jurisdictions” and that these would remain.

On these fragile foundations contacts grew. In 1969 a mere half-million phone calls had been placed from West to East Germany. By 1988 there were some 40 million of them. Telephone contact between West and East Berlin, virtually unknown in 1970, had reached the level of 10 million calls per year by 1988. Most East Germans had virtually unlimited access to West German television by the late Eighties; indeed, the East German authorities even went so far as to lay cable into the “valley of the clueless” around Dresden (so-called because of the local topographical impediments to West German television signals), in the wishful belief that if East Germans could watch West German television at home they would have less reason to seek permission to emigrate. These and other arrangements, including the reuniting of families and the release to the West of political prisoners, redounded to the credit of Ostpolitik and reflected the Communists’ growing confidence in the West German policy of “stability” and “no surprises.” They also, of course, reflected East Germany’s desire for international recognition and its growing need for deutsche marks, as we shall see.

In spite of the difficulty of balancing competing international and domestic expectations, then, the Ostpolitik of a generation of West German politicians and policy makers was apparently successful, at least within its prescribed limits. It reestablished West Germany as an autonomous international force, with a policy and strategy of its own. It achieved, at the cost of a certain amount of vagueness and waffle on difficult issues, some real reconciliation with neighboring states, German and non-German alike. And it did so without wholly abandoning the promise, held out in domestic politics, of an eventual unification. However, “unification” in any form was clearly not the objective of Willy Brandt and his heirs. As Brandt himself put it in 1988, unification was the Lebenslüge—“life-lie”—of the Federal Republic.

By the end of the Eighties unification was not even a political issue. According to Garton Ash, polls taken in the Fifties and Sixties suggest that up to 45 percent of the West German population felt unification was the “most important” question of the day; from the mid-Seventies on, the figure never exceeded 1 percent. When in 1983 the Christian Democratic Party and Christian Social Union restated their commitment not only to keep the German question open but to be “actively engaged” in the German right to “unity in freedom,” they were already speaking largely from habit. Unification may have come about at the end of a long era of Ostpolitik but it was not to have been its main point. On the contrary—West German politicians of all parties constantly reiterated their desire to avoid provoking any difficulties, political or existential, for their eastern neighbor. In 1970 the West German Free Democrat Walter Scheel described Ostpolitik as an effort to bring about a European order “in which countries of different political orders and social systems are equally members”; fourteen years later Heinrich Windelen, the minister for inter-German relations in a conservative coalition, announced that “We have no intention of harming or destabilising the GDR.” That the GDR collapsed in 1990 and the German nation was peacefully reunited could thus be understood as the happy, but largely unintended, postscript to a generation of careful diplomatic work.

For Timothy Garton Ash, however, the history and experience of Ostpolitik raises serious problems. In the first place, there was always about the policy a whiff of old-fashioned German Realpolitik. The insistence upon cooperating with Communist states “despite system differences” was selfcontradictory—in many cases it was the very Communist system itself which precluded effective cooperation, as when dealing with ecological problems. It was also ethically suspect. It meant ignoring the domestic policies of repressive regimes in order to foster happy relations with those in power—Garton Ash draws a damning portrait of West German insouciance in the face of Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law in Poland.

Not only was there a consistent preference for “peace” over any other objective,5 but there was as well, on the part of West German leaders, a steady and increasingly comfortable collaboration with their East German counterparts. In 1978 a West German Socialist politician described Zbigniew Brzezinski to a visiting East German Communist dignitary as a “fanatical Polish nationalist.” Björn Engholm and Oskar Lafontaine, two national leaders of the SPD, are both quoted as making curiously compromising (and hitherto confidential) statements to high-ranking East Germans when they visited the West. Engholm in 1987 described the domestic policy of the GDR as “historic,” while the following year Lafontaine promised to do everything in his power to make sure that West German support for East German dissidents was muted. “The Social Democrats,” he said, “must avoid everything that would mean a strengthening of those forces.”

It is true that the West Germans could claim in mitigation (though they did not say so at the time) that they were dealing with regimes which were fundamentally corrupt, and that a hard-headed approach was required if anything was to be achieved. Starting in 1963, the GDR was willing to sell prisoners for cash, the sum depending upon the “value” and qualifications of the candidate. By 1977, to obtain the release of a prisoner from East German jails Bonn had to pay DM95,847, approximately $43,000. (The figure was originally set at DM96,000 but according to a high East German official interviewed by Garton Ash it was reduced by DM153 so as not to look like a fixed ransom.) The rate in the 1980s for reuniting a family was DM4,500 per head (a bargain—Ceausescu was charging DM8,000 per ethnic German allowed to emigrate from Romania in 1983).

If one adds to these humanitarian “costs” the fees that the GDR extracted for material services—roaduser fees, transit charges, sewage and garbage collection in Berlin, etc.—it emerges that from the first informal efforts in the early Sixties to obtain release of prisoners and travel privileges for pensioners and family members to the last payments before unification, the total cost to West Germany was approximately DM3.5 billion—for 34,000 prisoners “bought free,” two thousand children reunited with their parents, and 250,000 cases of “regulated” family reunification.

Garton Ash calculates that the total of state-to-state transfers between West and East Germany in the years between 1972 and 1989 was about DM14 billion. In defense of that and other payment proponents of West Germany’s Ostpolitik used to assert that they were also contributing to the “reform” of the GDR and other Eastern European states by advancing them credit, offering them trading privileges (the GDR was a de facto associate of the Common Market, at the insistence of Bonn), and reducing tensions. Garton Ash has little difficulty in dispensing with this claim. Most of the money that went to the GDR either passed into private hands or else went to the purchase of foreign consumer goods to head off domestic discontent. Deutsche mark diplomacy afforded Communist states the opportunity for what Garton Ash calls “reform-substitution,” i.e., a way to avoid liberalization. The last Communist prime minister of Hungary confirmed this openly. According to Miklós Németh, the DM1 billion loan from Bonn granted in October 1987 and portrayed by West German politicians as a contribution to Hungarian economic “reform” was handled thus: “we spent two thirds of it on interest and the remainder importing consumer goods to ease the impression of economic crisis.”

We have here the makings of an elegant paradox. By pouring hard currency into East Germany and showering that state with recognition, attention, and support, the West German officials effectively closed off the possibility of internal reforms, including reforms of its polluted, antiquated industrial economy. By “buying out” political opponents and prisoners they deprived East Germany’s opposition of some of its potential leaders. By “building bridges,” twinning towns, paying their respects, and distancing themselves from Western criticism of Eastern domestic practices they afforded the leadership of the GDR a false sense of stability and security. Accordingly, when Gorbachev began encouraging the leaders of the satellite parties to be more flexible and support change and innovation, it was the East Germans who were the most recalcitrant, the most convinced of the correctness of their own position—and they were confirmed in this view by their apparent success in obtaining concessions and resources from Bonn. Thus in helping shore up the GDR, the West German proponents of stability helped, without so intending, to bring it down.

Garton Ash notes the irony of this, but his criticism goes further. West German public figures, especially those in the SPD but others too, not only encouraged illusions among the nomenklatura of the GDR, they deluded themselves. Simply by repeating that Ostpolitik was having the effect of easing tensions to the east they came to believe it. Obsessed with “peace,” “stability,” and “order,”6 they ended up sharing the point of view of the Eastern politicians with whom they were doing business. The influential SPD writer Peter Bender, speaking at a party symposium on “Mitteleuropa” in 1987, asserted that “in the desire for détente we have more in common with Belgrade and Stockholm, also with Warsaw and East Berlin, than we do with Paris and London.” As a Soviet report to the East German Politburo had noted in October 1984: “Many arguments that had previously been presented by us to the representatives of the SPD have now been taken over by them.” Or as Volker Rühe, a Christian Democratic critic, put it in September 1989: certain SPD leaders had moved from change through rapprochement (Wandel durch Annäherung) to Wandel durch Anbiederung (change through sycophancy).7

Here we find ourselves crossing the uncertain frontier between political illusion and moral confusion; in contrast with other Westerners, West Germans were notoriously reluctant to establish links with or provide support for the opposition groups in Eastern Europe, for fear of “upsetting” the regimes with whom they now shared common objectives. During the Eighties visitors to the apartments of Polish, Czech, or Hungarian dissidents were likely to rub shoulders there with British philosophers, French intellectuals, Italian Communists, or American human rights activists. But a German presence was rare, and sympathetic visits by German Socialists all but unheard-of. As Václav Havel noted, in remarks about Ostpolitik addressed to a German audience in October 1989: “It signified, of course, the first glimmer of hope for a Europe without Cold War and iron curtain; yet at the same time—alas—it more than once signified the renunciation of freedom, and hence of a more basic condition for any real peace.”8

These moral ambiguities of West Germany’s Ostpolitik are at the heart of Timothy Garton Ash’s account, which is informed by his special awareness of how these things looked when seen from Poland, Czechoslovakia, or Hungary. They also account for the title of his book. Because of Germany’s recent past, its policy makers felt a special reluctance to construct a foreign policy, or even a domestic one, around the idea of German national interest. Hence the emphasis upon Europe. From beginning to end, Ostpolitik was presented as a policy for Europe. In sewing back together a divided Berlin and a divided Germany, in creating networks of human contacts back and forth, across and around the barricades, Bonn was also helping to overcome the division of Europe. In building trade and other links to the East, according to Helmut Schmidt, “Europe” was only doing what it had done for centuries. “Europeans believe trading with a close neighbour is politically and psychologically a good thing.” As Garton Ash comments, “for ‘Europeans’ read ‘Germans.”‘ There was of course a tactical objective in all the talk of Europe—to ensure that Western Europeans in particular did not feel threatened by German undertakings. But according to Garton Ash official West German thinking, as revealed by its internal policy documents, ended up itself conflating the two categories.

This is not, of course, a uniquely German practice. When French politicians today wish to promote distinctively French policies, whether for agricultural subsidies or to protect French culture from American movies, they habitually wrap their demands in the comforting cant of Euro-chat.9 But in Germany the roots go deeper. Germany’s uncomfortable Mittellage, its location in the center of Europe, has encouraged the idea that the country might serve as a point of reference for the whole continent, or else a “bridge” between East and West, a natural diplomatic objective for politicians and statesmen from Bismarck to Schmidt. Consistent with such concerns, the 1992 amendment to the German constitution’s basic law, when it deleted from the Federal Republic’s objectives the goal of “openness to other parts of Germany,” replaced it with “realization of a united Europe.” And while it would be an overstatement of the case to treat Ostpolitik as an echo of Gustav Stresemann’s efforts in the Twenties to overcome the effects of the Versailles Treaty through the steady international rehabilitation of Germany, the historical and geopolitical parallels are not altogether without relevance.

At this point Central and East Europeans might be forgiven for expressing some misgivings. As 1989 recedes into the past, recollections in Europe are becoming clouded—Timothy Garton Ash is not the first to have noted the “remarkable transformative effect of unification on so many German memories.” Their own country freshly united, German leaders are all too often tempted to forget that they sought neither to unify their country nor to overthrow communism, the necessary condition for any unification. And when these things did come about, it was no thanks to Bonn. Countess Marion Dönhoff can perhaps be forgiven for her 1988 assertion that the “differences between…social systems need be no obstacle” to good relations, since some of the social systems in question have now disappeared from history. But she was only one of many German public figures whose version of a united Europe took little or no account of the views of a whole class of non-German Europeans, those who lived involuntarily under one of those social systems and sought to oppose it from within. Many of the East European dissidents, now active participants in the reconstruction of their own countries, may also feel more than a little dismayed to find that Germany once again sees itself as a bridge “between West and East” just as they are trying with all their might to become and remain part of the “West” itself.

They and others may also remember how relatively little the needs and sufferings of non-Germans to the East figured in the German version of a “European” policy. This is not to say that the Federal Republic has been inhospitable to foreigners in need—quite the contrary; witness the 440,000 “asylum-seekers” there in 1992 alone. And whereas Britain found room for just 4,000 Yugoslav refugees in 1992 and France a mere 1,000, Germany took in nearly a quarter of a million. But from the very start of the Ostpolitik, special attention and privileges were accorded to Volksdeutsche, Germans still living beyond the frontiers of Germany, to the east or south. Defined by family or ethnic origin, such people were accorded full citizenship if they could reach the Federal Republic. Little wonder that hundreds of thousands of residents of the Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Hungary, and elsewhere suddenly rediscovered German backgrounds they had been at great pains to deny for the previous half century. In Garton Ash’s words, “Germans in Poland multiplied like relics of the true cross.” In 1989 the number of returning German outsettlers arriving “home” from the East reached 377,000. There were thus many who benefited from this approach to the “knitting together” of Europe. But there were many more who came to feel that there were now two distinct classes of “Europeans,” at least in Central and Eastern Europe: Germans and the rest.

As a guide to such matters. Timothy Garton Ash’s book is timely and wise. He is careful and balanced in his use of official and unofficial documents, acknowledging the risks of relying too heavily on the partial and partially available material from Eastern sources.10 Only rarely does his deep personal sympathy and involvement with the Central European opposition of the Eighties spill over into a tinge of distaste for the more egregious forms of “inter-system” collaboration. He is perhaps a little guilty of deploying hindsight to his own advantage. Knowing as we do that communism has collapsed, we too can easily forget that there was a time not so long ago when such an outcome seemed unlikely, and German unification a preposterous idea. In such circumstances, compromise with “real existing regimes” and a strategy of “incremental stability” may not have been morally worthy, but it was not wholly unrealistic, given the objectives which he himself assigns to West German policy.

His conclusions, however, seem almost unimpeachable. Politicians and writers who invoke 1989 and after as grounds for passing blithely over what was said and done before not only traduce the past but help to blight the future. In 1992 the new German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel was already making overtures to Beijing, talking of the need for “long overdue normalization.” If the Germans, Garton Ash concludes, are to contribute helpfully to the remaking of Europe they would be well-advised to think more sensitively not only about such ominous abstractions as “normalization” but also about the real meaning and interests of a Europe, many Europes, whose needs cannot always be conflated with those of Germany but whose future, for better or worse, will be shaped in large measure by German policy and actions. For, he suggests, the Central European problem is once again about to become the central European problem.11

The combination of “skepticism and hope” with which Garton Ash ends his book would be more convincing if the skepticism were directed not only toward the prospects for a rethinking of German policy, but also toward the European premise itself. It is characteristic of Central European political thinking today that it continues to place a great deal of faith in the idea of a European community. That faith has been sorely tested by the selfish response of the leading members of the existing European Community (now the “European Union”) to the needs and fears of its eastern neighbors. Maastricht and the accompanying Schengen Accords on “open frontiers” within the European Community are already having their predicted effect: in France, Germany, and elsewhere, the “free movement of goods and persons” among member countries is made politically acceptable by closing down the gates to the EC. If the French are to allow Germans to wander unchecked across their common border, they want to be sure that the Germans are keeping out the Poles, Czechs, and others on their eastern frontier.

But even within Western Europe itself national and regional sentiment and divisions have grown rather than diminished in recent years. There is still much talk of “Europe,” more than ever, in fact. Germany is not the only state to identify itself with Europe when it suits its needs, merely the most important. But any honest assessment of the prospects for the formerly divided continent must begin by acknowledging that Germans have not been alone in telling themselves comforting stories this past quarter century. We have all in some measure been dealing with the illusion that a benevolently united Europe was emerging, an illusion whose moral and institutional credibility depended more than anyone realized upon not putting it to the test. Since the Wall fell we can no longer discuss with such optimistic equanimity the idea that some inspired future Europe will come to the rescue of the present one, with all its faults and fault-lines. We must at least wonder whether Bismarck, of all people; was not half right: “qui parle Europe a tort. Notion géographique.”

This Issue

December 16, 1993