Getting it wrong
- In Europe’s Name by Timothy Garton Ash
Cape, 680 pp, £25.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 224 02054 4
Last November, I returned to Berlin for the first time since the Wall came down. I had first lived there for six months in 1979. Within days of my arrival I’d been lucky to be accepted into a Wohngemeinschaft, an institution which hovers between flat-sharing and communal life. The apartment was in SO 36, the heart of Kreuzberg, which at that time was notorious for its punk and squatter culture. My bedroom window looked out over the River Spree and beyond onto the quiet uniformity of die Zone; der russische Sektor; Berlin (Ost); or Berlin, die Hauptstadt der DDR, depending on your ideological perspective.
On many evenings I would sit on the embankment eating a Turkish takeaway. The grey motorised dinghies belonging to the River Section of the East German Border Police would occasionally dart out of their moorings to inspect their half of the Spree for any goldfish trying to make a break for it. The view of East Berlin past these zealous sailors was unremarkable but ruthlessly compelling. I would stare dumbly trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. In many respects the people of each half of the city shut out the presence of the other. The youth of West Berlin, busy in the vanguard of West Germany’s squatter movement, evinced a thorough, almost cultivated ignorance of their peers over the fence. Conversely, East Berliners were forced to suppress their curiosity and longing to acquaint themselves with the BKA (Das böse kapitalistische Ausland – ‘The evil capitalist abroad’) in order to concentrate on the everyday struggle of life in the GDR. And the two grew apart.
‘To say that Germany had become normal since unification was common sense,’ Timothy Garton Ash writes towards the end of In Europe’s Name. ‘Anyone who thought that it was normal to live with a wall through Berlin was not quite normal. It was more normal to take a bus from the Alexanderplatz’ – East Berlin – ‘to Bahnhof Zoo’ – West Berlin. People, however, have an uncommon ability to reach an accommodation with the abnormal and the absurd. When I first crossed the divide unhindered by the Wall, I was gripped, like millions of others since 1989, by a disturbingly weird sensation. To be able to drift in and out of East Berlin from the West felt wrong. I walked into Centrum, once East Berlin’s showcase department store and now called something like Kaufhaus-Xtra Billig, Preiswert und Günstig, and was shocked to see all manner of Western consumer items (few, if any, manufactured in the new Länder of East Germany). What had happened to the endless rows of alarm clocks embossed with the same silly clown’s face? And what had they done with the three designs of unspeakably ugly furniture from Romania which used to take up an entire floor? The only things remaining of the old East Berlin, beyond the dreary architecture, were the wonderful red and green men on pedestrian crossings: the former, his arm rigidly at 90 degrees to his body, looking like a scarecrow in a prison camp; the latter, frozen in a pose of forward motion, exuding a Leninist determination to get to the other side of the road. All else is going or gone. And yet East Berlin remains East Berlin.
Garton Ash assumes, rightly, that since 1945 all mainstream West German politicians had to make a central place in their thinking for the ultimate goal of reunification. This added a dimension to the politics of post-war West Germany which is hard, if not impossible, for other West Europeans to grasp. Another obstacle to understanding the two Germanies has been the virtual monopoly which German academics, politicians and journalists enjoyed over the subject – and, my God, they could be boring. In addition, public political debate in Germany is frequently synonymous, sometimes unintentionally, with obfuscation:
The Federal Constitutional Court, in a judgment calculated to confound all but the most hardened jurist, averred that the German Reich continued to exist in the frontiers of December 1937 – the original Allied definition of ‘Germany as a whole’. The Federal Republic, said its highest court, was a state identical with that German Reich but ‘so far as its territorial extent is concerned “part-identical”, so that to this extent the identity does not aspire to exclusivity’.
Vol. 16 No. 6 · 24 March 1994
Misha Glenny’s review of Timothy Garton Ash’s book, In Europe’s Name, was intriguing (LRB, 24 February). However, the debate sparked by Garton Ash’s book – about whether the Social Democrats’ policy stabilised the Communist regime in East Germany and thus made reunification less likely – is the wrong debate by the wrong people at the wrong time. One point that Glenny makes most forcefully is that nobody in the West really believed we would win the Cold War – not even Reagan and Thatcher. On the morning after the Wall came down, I took my daughter along to be among the thousands at the Brandenburg Gate. ‘History is being made,’ I told her, ‘and we’ve got to be there.’ But even then, if someone had told me reunification was less than a year away, I would have laughed in their face.
On the other hand, it is not quite right to say that reunification as an issue was a ‘heinous thought crime’ in the East and a matter of public indifference in the West from the latter part of the Fifties onwards. In the East, Stalin’s strategy of German reunification as a step on the way to socialism was replaced by the tenet that socialism in the West was a precondition for reunification. In the West, the building of the Berlin Wall created an immense outpouring of national feeling; but, paradoxically, the origins of the SPD’s Ostpolitik can be clearly traced to President Kennedy’s attempt in the years 1961-63 to dampen this feeling and, more specifically, to provide West Berlin’s then Mayor Brandt with an alternative to the dangerously militant gestures Brandt had suggested the United States undertake. This is the context and content of the famous ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech.
Brandt realised that the USA was committed to containing (and possibly rolling back) Communism in Vietnam and maintaining the status quo in Europe. A weak man, and an opportunist by nature, the later Nobel Peace Prize winner re-aligned and became the only European statesman to host South Vietnam’s dictator Ky, while at the same time cultivating a relationship with Russia’s dictator Brezhnev which developed into personal friendship. Ky’s reception in Bonn led to the occupation of the city and its town hall by anti-war demonstrators. When Brezhnev visited West Germany, Brandt suspended civil rights in the whole Ruhr area, and had police erect road blocks and detain thousands in specially prepared bunkers and barracks in order to prevent the peace of Brezhnev’s visit from being disturbed by (left-wing) demonstrators.
More important than the broken crowns of the demonstrators (of whom I was one, as I had been in Bonn, I’m proud to say) were the ideological implications of Brandt’s Ostpolitik. Egon Bahr’s policy of Wandel durch Annäherung – change through rapprochement – sounded good, but, since nobody really believed in reunification, it really meant Annäherung, period. And this, again paradoxically, or rather dialectically, meant change in the intellectual structure of West Germany – or the mental structure of West German intellectuals, most of whom had been strictly anti-Communist in the Fifties. Up till 1989 it was almost a given in wide circles of the intelligentsia that East Germany, however disappointing in detail, was somehow ‘the better Germany’, or at least representative of that ‘better Germany’. Being morally correct – always a German preoccupation – engendered political correctness, which was defined as being vaguely anti-capitalist and somehow subscribing to socialist ideals. Of course, this was true of British intellectuals of the period, too, but in Germany, given the fact that one-third of the country was Communist, the implications were and are more disturbing.
The collapse of East Germany and the subsequent release of documents showing that the regime was just as bad as the ‘reactionaries’ always said it was – worse, in fact – has led to a profound crisis, almost a form of collective depression, among West German intellectuals, similar to the collective depression among the East German working class who now realise that capitalism is just as bad as their leaders always said it was. We don’t hear much about this crisis in the context of the debate sparked by Garton Ash’s book, partly because Garton Ash himself wasn’t concerned with this aspect of Ostpolitik, partly because the politicians are too busy mudslinging to bother about it, mainly because the intellectuals who control the discourse in the media are nursing their bad consciences and repressing their symptoms.
However, the repressed has a nasty habit of returning. The problem about German anti-capitalism is that it has always had an explicitly or implicitly anti-American (in the 19th century, anti-British), anti-semitic, and anti-democratic twist to it. All these elements were very much in evidence during the Left’s last big fling in Germany, the huge demonstrations against the Gulf War (or rather, against America, Britain and Israel; there was no demonstration against the annexation of Kuwait, and there have been hardly any demonstrations against the war in Yugoslavia). Glenny is surely being rather too complacent when he describes the main danger in Germany as coming from the radical Right. This could mean getting it wrong again. Of course the neo-Nazis are dangerous. But the alliance forged by Gysi of the ex-Communist PDS and Diestel, an East German member of the far right wing of the CDU, in the ‘Committees for Justice’, is reminiscent of what is happening in Russia. Throughout German history, from Luther via Wagner to Goebbels, we have seen disaffected revolutionaries become virulent anti-democratic, anti-semitic, nationalist reactionaries. Interestingly, the German intelligentsia, while not engaged in seriously reviewing its relationship to Communism (the discussion has basically been reduced to the question of who denounced whom to the East German Secret Police, i.e. a moral question), is at present involved in a debate over ‘1968’, the democratic revolution in West Germany. And the voices condemning the ‘excesses’ of 1968 and calling for a return to conservative cultural values seem to be louder than those defending ‘the achievements of 1968’. The Wohngemeinschaft Glenny lived in during his stay here was one of those achievements – so, with his contacts, Glenny should have been able to feel the pulse of the city’s intellectuals more closely.