‘You are going much too fast,’ Mrs Thatcher said on the News at One on Friday, 10 November, ‘first Poland, then Hungary, then – er, Czechoslovakia, now Eastern Germany ... ’. Heigh-ho, this was Neville Chamberlain’s ‘Czechoslovakia’ all over again, the far-away country of which we know little. The second half of the sentence was omitted from the television interview shown later that day. The slip of the tongue shows the extent of Mrs Thatcher’s informed interest in the quiet revolution that is happening in Central Europe, the levée en masse of which the Czechs had at that stage formed no part.
The East Germans, however, whose armies occupied Bohemia and Moravia 51 years ago, and who, in the eyes of ordinary Czechs and Poles, combine the human warmth of Prussia and the tolerance of Communism – the despised East Germans have in less than two weeks achieved liberties and promises of democratic rights far beyond what their eastern neighbours would have dreamed possible. Some of the sickeningly bland double-talk of the discredited Party officials goes on. The Army and the Police – the two sources of state power – show no signs of disobeying government orders. But the Government itself is in flux, its orders are more conciliatory by the day – and there is no anarchy. The great ‘experts’ on the conduct of ‘the masses’, from Le Bon and Freud to Ortega y Gasset and Canetti, have been put utterly to shame; their ‘laws of mass behaviour’ turn out to be arrant (and arrogant) nonsense. For this is a nonviolent, good-tempered and – so help us – gentle revolution, the very thing Lenin ridiculed when he observed that German workers couldn’t occupy a railway station without first queuing up for platform tickets.
What is happening in the eastern half of Berlin has its precedent in the Berlin not of Dr Goebbels but of Theodor Fontane’s novel, Before the Storm. 1813 was the year when, forced by a series of popular uprisings, the King of Prussia declared war on Napoleon’s France: paradoxically, these patriotic German rebellions were inspired by the French Revolution. ‘And where does all this come from?’ asks Fontane’s ultra-conservative hero, and he answers himself: ‘From over yonder, borne on the west wind.’ For 1813 represents the beginning of the horrendously long-drawn-out process of the Westernisation of Germany; and with the knocking down of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 (the 51st anniversary of Kristallnacht) the last stage of that Westernisation has begun. The liberty which the 17 million Eastern Germans aspire to, and which is now within their reach, doesn’t come as a gift from President Gorbachev, though without the discrediting of the Communist Party’s apparat that his reforms have brought about this orderly revolution could not have begun; nor does it come from Lech Walesa, though one fervently hopes that a comparable figure will arise in Eastern Germany, to consolidate the gains already achieved and make possible a peaceful transition to full democratic government.
What inspires the tens of thousands who are moving westward and the millions who don’t want to move but will no longer put up with the material, moral and intellectual restraints of an inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy can hardly be described in terms of an ‘ism’. Even ‘socialism’ has for them become an empty word, yet another bit of ideological patter. Nor does one hear much of individual freedom of conscience and of ‘the spirit’ (which the German philosophers have so often extolled and theorised over). No doubt we shall in due course invent a new ‘ism’ to describe what motivates these cheerful thousands. For the present, at all events, their goal is political liberty within the bounds of a welfare state of the Western European dispensation. ‘If modern Germany has a historic patron,’ Edward Pearce wrote recently, ‘it is not Marx, nor Bismarck, nor the Frederick the Great celebrated by East Germans’ –or at least by the party hacks who were dictating Kulturpolitik as relentlessly as the National Socialists had done – ‘but Walther Rathenau, the industrialist-statesman murdered [in 1922] by the proto-Nazi Freikorps,’ not least because he was a liberal-minded Jew. But it was Willy Brandt who took the first steps toward a reconciliation with Eastern Europe, and made these first steps toward a better Europe possible.
With a mere 11 years to go, the last bit of Germany is moving into the 20th century, the century in which ordinary men and women, reasonably well-fed at last, have obtained a voice in the political arrangements which guarantee them a modicum of liberty. Such arrangements (Hobbes concluded) don’t make for human felicity, but at least they ‘make felicity not impossible’.
This – something like this – is what the Western Alliance helped to initiate in their three ‘zones’, and what the inhabitants of the fourth zone are achieving by their own resolve: with no help from those Western fellow-travellers who used to speak of ‘the tragic misunderstood Wall’, though with abundant, not at all disinterested assistance from beyond the crumbling divide. The welcome the Federal Germans are giving to those ‘from over there’ is warm and generous. Lubeck and Hamburg may have said, ‘Enough is enough,’ but even the mafiosi Bavarians, with their traditional hatred of everything Prussian and Protestant, for whom ‘socialism’ and ‘atheism’ are synonyms, got schools, town halls and Ratskeller ready to receive the masses pouring over the frontier which runs through the Bohemian Forest. Of course, this Sunday mood will not last. Jealousies and distrust sprang up when the post-war emigrants from the East arrived, with no more of their possessions than they could carry, and it took time to integrate them into the communities in which they settled. Indeed, some members of the associations they formed in the late Forties, as well as some of their descendants, remain irredentist to this day; and it is they who have been trying to use the present exodus as an excuse for ‘re-opening the question of Germany’s eastern border’. They may not be without political influence – should things go wrong on a national scale. But of course just now things aren’t going wrong, and Helmut Kohl – tirelessly energetic and hard-working, on the obese side and a little short of tact but full of optimism and good will – represents the country’s buoyant mood. The new immigrants – the bulk of them young skilled workers: the very people whom the Party sought to attract and hold – are quickly finding jobs, and most of them will settle down. No doubt some, perhaps a quarter, will want to return; many of them because the working pace in the West is too fast. But it is clearly inconceivable that they will be returning to the country they left: to the same constraints and lies, the same monotonous speechifying by self-regarding functionaries; the same ‘critical works discussions’; the same pretend-democracy.
While English children love ‘playing shops’, German children play at being postal workers: weighing parcels, franking letters, issuing postal orders and registering mail. To follow the proceedings of the East German deputies on West German television is to see a lot of grown-up men and women playing at being democratic parliamentarians with the eagerness and earnestness of children engaged in a game of make-believe.
‘Democracy is discussion’, T.G. Masaryk the presiding genius of the first Czechoslovak Republic, used to say. And the Czechs, who believed him, have been paying the price of that mistake ever since. Democracy is of course more than the ironing out of conflicts of interests within the framework of a consensus, more than parliamentary ‘discussion’. To survive, it must include readiness for action in its defence – the sort of action the Czechs (let alone the Slovaks) were not ready to take in 1938, or 1948, or in 1968. In the present instance it includes a people’s readiness ‘to vote with their feet’: to leave behind all they have (and what that means for German working people with their deep emotional attachment to possessions it is not easy to assess) and to move into an uncertain future in a land full of promise but full of unknown hazards, too. The wonder of this levée en masse, which has no parallel in history, is its lack of that ghastly ‘Germanic’ earnestness which in the past has so often spilled over into aggressiveness, fanaticism and violence; and its rehabilitation of that once terrible word, das Volk. Of all the slogans I have seen on television (and surely this is the first historical movement in which television has played an important positive role, if only because most of Eastern Germany is within range of Western transmissions) the one that best summed up the people’s mood-was the motto on an East Berliner’s T-shirt: ‘Last one out switch off the light!’
Ever since the days of Heinrich Heine, German intellectuals and writers have been on the side of gloom, et pour cause. Not one of my many German friends has foreseen these developments, no writer I know of (except Fontane) has given an inkling of them. On the contrary: the more Western intellectuals analysed the status quo in the East, the more they affirmed it and the less they believed in the possibility of change.
A complicated mixture of historical factors has made this moment possible, among them that ‘cunning of reason’ of which Hegel wrote. However eager right-wing German historians have been to ‘revise’ the past, a Western consensus has accepted responsibility for it in fact and deed if not in words. This has enabled the Federal Republic to profit from its lessons, partly through fear of repeating the horrors of the Third Reich, partly by providing a democratic framework for the advances in technology and management which the Weimar Republic failed to achieve. Repudiating all responsibility for the National-Socialist past, the rulers of Eastern Germany learned nothing from it. The open and articulate repudiation by the East German people of every one of the old gang who offers to stand again for office, as well as the suicides among the middle echelon of party leaders, indicate the gravity of the regime’s human and political failure.
The Communists were oppressive, but not oppressive enough to prevent people from acting on the knowledge and experience of their daily lives: the knowledge and the experience that (to quote Brecht) ‘the measures taken’ to secure the workers’ paradise did not work. In the face of endless indoctrination to the contrary, people conceived the uncertain hope that social justice and the benefits of the welfare state can be separated from the paralysing pressures of single-party rule. In this hope they were strengthened by the example of the Federal Republic and the economic aid, unashamedly political in its intention, which has been given to them throughout the last decade.
They were also supported by their Churches – mainly by the Lutheran clergy, the only section of East German society that accepted its share of responsibility for the horrendous past. ‘For seven days Joshua marched round Jericho with his people,’ the Pastor of St Nikolai’s in Leipzig preached on Monday, 13 November, ‘and on the seventh day they blew their trumpets, and the Walls of Jericho fell down. For seven days we have prayed in this church, and now this great wall has fallen down.’ The old story conveyed a better message to the people than did the assorted ideologies from Rosa Luxemburg through Herbert Marcuse to Jürgen Habermas.
Deep worries remain. Is all this not bound to lead to demands for the reunification of the two Germanies? When Chancellor Kohl declaimed, Wir sind ein Volk, could most of his audience fail to recall the rest of that slogan: ein Reich, ein Führer? This of course is what Conor Cruise O’Brien meant when (in an article reported in the German press with astonishment) he warned of a Fourth Reich with a statue to Hitler in every town. (It is no thanks to Dr O’Brien’s country that there isn’ t one in every British town.) Dr O’Brien is unlikely to be reassured, but unification is not on anybody’s agenda. If right now the SPD Mayor of Berlin seems eager to discuss it, this is because his party is out of power and thinks the occasion opportune to secure its patriotic credentials. However, when unification does become a live issue, it will not be within the context of the sovereign ultra-nationalist states of the Thirties, but within a European context; and President Mitterrand is right to ague that the more fully contained Germany is within such a context, the greater the advantages to Europe as a whole. Wisely, Willy Brandt spoke not of ‘unification’ but of ‘a greater degree of unity, in whatever form’. That form nobody can foresee at present; perhaps German-Austrian relations since the last war offer at least an approximate parallel. However that may be, the need for free elections in the East overshadows all other I considerations. For the conceivable future, O’Brien’s ‘Fourth Reich’ is a chimera.
The Poles and the Czechs, on the other hand, are bound to be frightened. For a long time to come they will go on recalling their wartime suffering. This is the memory that keeps the Communists in Prague in power (in spite of incompetence and corruption on the East German scale), and this, too, is the subtext of all Polish-German negotiations; nor can the few Jews who, victims of the victims, have survived in Eastern Europe be expected to view the German development with anything but fear. Yet the Europe – which one hopes will include Great Britain – that may arise as the old Iron Curtain goes up should assuage all those fears and at last rise to the grand occasion.
Thinking about Berlin in November 1989, I recall Bertolt Brecht’s finicking his way through the tragic uprising of the workers of Berlin in the summer of 1953. In nothing he wrote did he foresee what is happening today. On the contrary: the chances are that, hating capitalism more than he loved the workers, he would have sided with the oppressors – for the sake of ‘the cause’ to which he committed his poetry and his plays. But poetry, like reason, has its strange cunning. He is a great poet – among the three or four greatest German literature has to show in this century. We must therefore accept the fact that, although his expectation of the nature of the liberation to come was mistaken, yet he described the circumstances in which it would come with unequalled poignancy:
Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
Could not ourselves be friendly.
But you, when the time comes at last
And man is a helper to man,
Think of us with forbearance.