The man in the S-Bahn was disappointed by the way the election campaign was going. He had hoped that for the first time in his life he would be offered a rational debate on the issues of the day; that the different parties and politicians would declare their principles and their policies, as in a well-ordered marketplace. Instead they merely slanged and denounced each other. And yet I thought he had acquired the first prerequisite for a functioning democracy: scepticism.

The taxi driver had plenty of that. Promises, promises, he said, a menu without prices. He was sceptical on minor matters, too. ‘It won’t be called that much longer,’ he said, referring to the street-signs on the broad avenue leading into Leipzig. It was called the Street of German-Soviet Friendship. Our destination was the Karl Marx Platz, that windy open space, walled in by Sixties systems buildings, made famous by the Monday-night vigils that toppled the regime, where Chancellor Kohl was to address his last great rally of the GDR’s election campaign. The posters coyly announced the location as ‘der Platz vor der Oper’ – the square in front of the opera – the limbo of nomenclature symbolising the suspended animation of the whole country. Five months earlier, that very square teetered on the brink of becoming Europe’s Tiananmen. A month later, the Berlin Wall was breached. And yet a year ago every expert in West or East Germany would have told you that the country was shrouded in the peace of the graveyard.

‘Why did it happen? And why did it happen so quickly?’ asks Timothy Garton Ash in his splendid new We the people.* I merely jib at the ‘and’, for it is evident now that the rulers of the GDR were right when they asserted that orthodox Marxism-Leninism was the sole raison d’être of ‘the first workers’ and peasants’ state on German soil’. Once ‘it’ happened, it was going to happen very quickly, all the way. I say this is evident now, for at the time there was an alternative programme, with three sets of actors: a small, courageous dissident movement, numbering some two to three thousand, a rapidly swelling mass of the discontented and a panic-stricken Party leadership. All three were necessary for the course events took, but one of them was decisive on two occasions, both during the demonstrations of October and November and on polling day, 18 March – namely, the mass of the discontented.

What did they want? They wanted what all revolutionaries want. ‘Under the concerted assault of the modern debunking sciences, psychology and sociology, nothing indeed has seemed to be more safely buried than the concept of freedom,’ Hannah Arendt has written. ‘Crucial to the understanding of revolutions in the modern age is that the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide.’ In that sense it was a true revolution. Revolutions, Arendt argues, produce spontaneous forms of action; they are demands for participation, not representation. They are, in one form or another, soviets. But their ‘fatal mistake has always been that they themselves did not distinguish clearly between participation in public affairs and administration or management of things in the public interest.’

In other words, revolutions are momentary events. They are good for overthrowing tyrannies and establishing freedom. They are not a system of government. There is no such thing as a polis or mountain canton of 16 million people. Within five months the great dissidents, those who kept the flame alight while others were indifferent – the painter Bärbel Bohley, the writer Stefan Heym, the conductor Kurt Masur – were brushed aside. The New Forum, the one major legitimate political organisation in the GDR in October, got a miserable 3 per cent in the election. Its leaders felt bitter and betrayed, they saw the election hijacked by party hacks, the political essence of the state grabbed by carpet-baggers from Bonn. It is as if all the suffering and resistance of the previous forty years, all the attempts to humanise and democratise the GDR without selling out to the materialism of the West, had been in vain.

It is easy to understand this bitterness, but also to understand the vote of 18 March and the campaign that preceded it. Precisely because the GDR made sense only as a Marxist-Leninist state, there was no significant reform wing in the state party, the SED, no organ of civil society like the Catholic Church or Solidarnosc in Poland, no alternative intelligentsia as in Charter 77. The GDR produced no Vaclav Havel, no Imre Poszgay, no Bronislaw Geremek. The politicians the population could identify with came from over the border: Kohl, Brandt and Genscher were the crowd-pullers. Of the locals only the acting Prime Minister, Hans Modrow, of the reformed SED, now called PDS, had any following.

But there were other reasons why the carpet-baggers took over. The first was logistical. The most basic campaign materials were lacking: newsprint, poster paper, word-processors, photocopiers, even paper clips. The PDS, though now ‘democratic’, retained a near-monopoly of the media. The second was that West German politicians were fighting their own election in the GDR. The campaign rapidly became a trial run for the Federal Republic’s own election on 2 December. But even that, though resented by many, had a certain logic to it. Whatever the ideals of the dissidents might have been, whatever ‘the people’ might have imagined themselves to want in their candle-lit processions, the fact was that the GDR economy was on the point of collapse and in the first 11 weeks of this year 144,000 East Germans had moved to the West. That required urgent, practical measures. The choice before the electors, therefore, was not ‘whom do you want as Prime Minister of the GDR?’ but ‘which West German politician can deliver what you want?’

The man who could deliver, and who made sure every East German knew he could deliver, was the man in charge in Bonn. Helmut Kohl played his only card and it turned out to be trumps. He has promised the East Germans the West German benefits system, and the West Germans that there would be no tax increases. Squaring that circle will be difficult. He caused unnecessary annoyance to his Eastern and Western neighbours by ambiguities on the Polish frontier. He will have to satisfy the population of East Germany on those items they regard as the positive achievements of the GDR – free school meals, crèches for working mothers, security of tenure, the expropriation of the Junker estates. There is in the GDR a very volatile mixture of hopes and fears. No one quite knows who would benefit from a backlash. It could still be the Social Democrats, who, to their own consternation, were squeezed between those who said yes to unity now and those who said no. Their ‘yes, but’ was the worst of both worlds. But it could also be the reconstituted PDS, which, in a brilliant public relations exercise, succeeded in presenting itself as the reformed conscience of the Left that had absolutely nothing to do with forty years of oppression and economic mismanagement. The electors rewarded it with 16 per cent.

The vote on 18 March was a vote for the quick fix over the slow fix. What will follow is, to all intents, an Anschluss. Does that mean, as the critics maintain, that East Germans have chosen to exchange one form of servitude for another? That this is yet another failed German revolution that owes more to Gorbachev and to Hungary’s decision to open the Austrian frontier than to its own insurrectionary force? The woman from the Independent Women’s League, which got 2 per cent in a joint list with the Greens, bewailed the way East German women had never had to fight for anything. Equal rights (on paper at least), maternity leave, crèches, abortion rights had all been granted from above, as a present from the regime. It is the old story of the German as subject, not citizen. All this, though valid, is one-sided. It does not neutralise the dignity and euphoria of those days last autumn when an oppressed people found its voice.

In every revolution there are victors and vanquished. What was it that was defeated in the GDR and, for that matter, all over Eastern Europe in the wake of perestroika? Stalinism certainly: its survival in Albania only underlines what an anachronism it has become. Marxism-Leninism, too: the idea of a vanguard whose leaders have a monopoly of political consciousness, the idea of one party permanently entitled to a leading role, is surely too discredited ever to revive. The vanguard party has not merely died: it has committed suicide. The petty and the major privileges that the leadership arrogated to itself, from Honecker’s hunting-lodges to the Ceausescus’ golden dog-bowls, can only be explained by their own recognition that the crusade had come to a halt. The heroic generation of Communist leadership, Stalin and Dimitrov, Mao Zhe Dong and Ho Chi Minh, even Khrushchev, may have been politically corrupt in the abuse of power and their cynical acceptance of the cheapness of human life. But their personal life-style was modest, informed by a puritanical ethos. The rot finally set in with Brezhnev. Khrushchev could say, and even believe, of capitalism that ‘we will bury you.’ In the Brezhnev era it was evident that nothing of the kind would happen. The regimes of Eastern Europe were no longer moving with the tide of history. Power could no longer be justified as a means to an end. There was only one thing to do with it: enjoy it while it lasted. After them, the deluge. But this has implications for Marxism, too, however multifarious its forms. At its core is the belief that the truth in politics is knowable, that one form of ownership of the means of production is demonstrably superior to all others, that the best possible form of human economic relationships can be prescribed. If it has rendered no other service in the last one hundred and forty years, it has reminded us of human fallibility.

And who has won? For the moment, the market economy and the primacy of the tribe over class. Nothing is final in human history and the market economy will no doubt generate its own discontents in time. In any case, market economies come in many shapes and sizes. Twenty-eight years of conservative-led governments in West Germany have not resulted in Thatcherism. What Helmut Kohl sold to the East German crowds was not only consumer affluence, but the West German welfare state. East Germans want both, like most of the human race. The West German recipe was accepted on approval. If the roses turn out to have too many thorns, trouble may yet come: strikes, mass emigration, a revival of the old wolf in its new sheep’s clothing.

It is the triumph of the tribe that has caused most alarm. Will there, after all, be a Fourth Reich? There are few signs of it at the moment. When the state ideology collapses, when patriotic loyalty cannot, as in Poland or Hungary, cement a new consensus, only one form of acceptable identity remains. That is why das Volk, ‘the people’, quickly become ein Volk, ‘one people’. In 1990 there are few nations in Europe less militaristic than the Germans, with a rate of conscientious objection that almost threatens the viability of the J Army. According to an opinion poll taken on polling day, 77 per cent of West Germans regard the Oder-Neisse line as final, and only 14 per cent do not; among East Germans the majority is overwhelming. It is the Bundesbank, not the Bundeswehr, that will march over the great Eurasian plain. Why make war, when you can make money?

The dangers that arise out of a new German nation-state, however firmly reined in by the EC, Nato and the world trade system, are different. There is the risk of a new consensus that German is best: that efficient, hardworking Germans, who know how to get up in the morning, whether for the factory, the office or the beach, are an example to the rest; that they have a mission, not to colonise the world, but to boss it about. Domestically, this can express itself in one of the waves of xenophobia that periodically sweep the country, East and West.

Beside it there is the risk that the slate of history will again be wiped clean. In East Germany, 1990 is a bit like 1945. Ask how it was that the regime survived for forty years, that the security apparatus functioned perfectly, that three million citizens belonged to the SED, and you will meet either silence or excuses. Niemand war dabei – nobody was involved. Hence the hatred now vented on Honecker, Krenz or the security chief Mielke, as scapegoats for a collectively dishonourable past. To put it like that is no doubt unfair. Collusion with the regime was almost compulsory; survival meant being implicated. It was the regime’s deliberate policy to ensure that. But the temptation to suppress this memory will be enormous. And a generation will grow up who, when they question their parents, will be told: ‘You can’t know what it was like.’ Even more serious in the GDR is the profound ignorance of the Third Reich. Its horrors were committed by an alien race known as ‘the Hitler fascists’, bravely resisted by the working class. That its foot-soldiers and accomplices went on living in the GDR was never hinted at, nor did the state acknowledge any continuity with its predecessors: for example, by accepting responsibility for restitution to Jews.

There is, finally, the risk that unification will be a great act of self-forgiveness. The division of Germany, however agonising for individuals and painful for the whole nation, was at least a permanent reminder that something had gone terribly wrong in recent German history. With that reminder gone, will the memory vanish?

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