Helmut Kohl’s election campaign drew to a close on a perfect autumn evening in the cathedral square of Mainz, capital of the Rhine Palatinate, where he had begun his political career. As night fell, the towers of the great sandstone church glowed a dusky red above the baroque market place, packed with supporters. Making his way to the front of this scene, the ‘Chancellor of Unity’ delivered a confident address to the crowd of Christian Democrat Union (CDU) loyalists, brushing aside the barracking from pockets of Far Left youth on the edges of the square. Security was not tight. On a screen beside the podium Kohl’s huge, pear-shaped face, with its bonhomous jawline and sharp feral eyes, was projected into the darkness. From surrounding cafés, bystanders watched the scene with low-key curiosity.

Forty-eight hours later, Kohl’s helicopter came in across the Rhine, low over the heads of strollers and cyclists along the river-path, and landed in the grounds of his residence in Bonn. Although the polls had not yet quite closed, he would already have known he had lost the election. An hour later, the first television projections – in Germany, with nearly perfect proportional representation, they are highly accurate – were greeted with relief and delight in Social Democratic Party (SPD) headquarters. But it would be difficult to speak of elation. Party workers remain proletarian in ways that have largely disappeared in Britain: victory is hailed not just with beer and sausages, but hampers overflowing with cigarette packets; a certain stolidity could be expected. But the oddly subdued atmosphere reflected national reactions as a whole. There was none of the jubilation surrounding Blair’s arrival in Downing Street, however forced much of that may have been.

The election campaign itself was in part responsible for the absence of excitement. Avoiding any sharp challenges or radical commitments, Gerhard Schröder promised no more than a reformist modicum, under the slogan ‘We don’t want to change everything, just improve many things’. In point of fact, the SPD platform involved a more thorough reversal of Kohl’s tax measures than New Labour of Major’s economic policies. But the general tone of its appeal to the electorate, ceremoniously respectful of Kohl’s stature as a European statesman, was a good deal less combative than the campaign mounted by Millbank in 1997. In the minds of party managers, the prospect of a grand coalition with the CDU was never far away, setting limits to the divisiveness of campaign rhetoric. Expecting – and often, according to opinion polls, wanting – such an outcome, voters were not greatly stirred. But the noticeably low-key reaction to the election result was indicative of something more pervasive. Living in Germany over the previous year, I was often struck by the reluctance of many Germans to register the scale of the changes about to overtake their country. Every opinion poll made it clear long in advance that, whatever the exact result, the next Chancellor was going to be a Social Democrat, after one of the longest spells of unbroken conservative rule in any West European society. At the same time, Berlin was about to become the capital of the country again – an upheaval of far greater significance, with no recent parallel in any other European country. Moreover, the national currency was scheduled to disappear with the arrival of European monetary union: a transformation with a quite special charge in Germany, where the Deutschmark has long served as a surrogate for more traditional forms of national identity. The sudden interlocking of three such basic alterations would make a formidable challenge for any society. Yet the prevailing mood could have been described as one of denial.

Against this background, the gap between the reception and the result of the September election is more understandable, though still very striking. Many observers recalled the popular enthusiasm for Willy Brandt’s victory in 1972, which put the SPD in power for a decade. The paradox is that the recent electoral upheaval, which did not generate anything like the same excitement, was far greater. There are two ways of looking at this. One is to compare the relative performance of the two major parties. Between 1949 and 1994, the CDU and the Christian Socialist Union (CSU) outpolled the SPD by an overall average of some 7 per cent – a structural predominance of the Right far greater than in Britain, let alone France. Even at the height of its success in 1972, the SPD could secure a margin of no more than 0.9 per cent over the CDU/CSU. This year, for the first time ever, the SPD was well ahead of its rival, scoring 5.7 per cent more than the CDU/CSU. This is a historic reversal. Another and more significant measure puts this success into proportion. In 1972 the SPD won the support of 45.8 per cent of the electorate. In 1998 it got just 40.9 per cent, well below its level even in 1980. There was no simple triumph of Social Democracy, old or new, in the result: overshadowing the performance of the SPD itself was the total score for the Left. With the Greens taking 6.7 per cent and the post-Communist Democratic Socialist Party (PDS) 5.1 per cent, the Left as a whole won a clear-cut absolute majority for the first time in German history – 52.7 per cent, a majority that the Left in Britain has never achieved.

What was the pattern of this victory? In West Germany after the war, religion was always the most reliable index of the regional strengths of Right and Left. Christian Democracy was inter-confessional, but invariably predominated in the Catholic South – Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and Rhine-Palatinate; whereas Social Democracy always did better in the Protestant North and Centre – Lower Saxony, the Ruhr, Hessen. The exceptions were Schleswig-Holstein in the far north, where the large refugee population from the East initially tipped the balance towards the CDU, and the industrial Saar in the far south, with its iron and coal the most working-class of all Länder, which later swung to the SPD. The correlation was always asymmetrical, since a majority of practising, as opposed to passive, Protestants voted Christian Democrat, so that the dominance of the SPD in Lutheran Germany was never as secure as that of the CDU in Catholic Germany; and over time the link between religion and partisan preference has weakened.

In 1998, however, the confessional gradient in the West German electorate was as striking as it had ever been. The SPD’s highest scores – above 45 per cent – came in the three northernmost Länder (higher still in its traditional strongholds in the city-states of Hamburg and Bremen), followed some way down by a middle belt of Hessen and the Rhine-Palatinate at 41 per cent; ending in the far south with Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, the two firmest bastions of Christian Democracy, at around 35 per cent. The Saar was once again the exception, with over 52 per cent, the highest SPD vote in the country. Nationwide, the CDU/ CSU took 46 per cent of the Catholic and 36 per cent of the Protestant vote, the SPD, vice versa, 46 per cent of the Protestant and 32 per cent of the Catholic. It was among non-believers that the SPD opened up a crushing margin – 41 to 21 per cent – over its rival.

Class has been the other great determinant. In the West, Christian Democracy this time lost more working-class votes than Social Democracy gained – the SPD increasing its share by only a percentage point. Schröder’s appeal, pitched expressly to ‘the New Middle’, proved most effective with white-collar employees, where the SPD gained 6 per cent nationwide, and pulled over significant numbers of the self-employed, some of them former Green supporters. There was little gender variance in the vote, with the exception of young women under 24, who went for the SPD much more strongly than their male counterparts.

The truly dramatic change, however, came in the East. Traditionally, this was uniformly Protestant terrain, with sizeable working-class concentrations in Berlin, Leipzig, Chemnitz, Dresden, Merseburg – enlarged by DDR industrialisation after the war. It had long been reckoned natural SPD territory, in the event of reunification. The CDU’s complete command of the democratic Anschluss of 1990 ensured the exact opposite. Promising ‘blooming landscapes’ to the Eastern compatriots he had released from bondage, Kohl won a landslide in the former Communist Länder in 1990 and the critical margin for victory in the much closer national race of 1994. Four years later, disillusionment was complete, and popular anger at the collapse of employment in the East scythed the CDU vote, which fell to little more than a quarter of the total – a drop twice as steep as in the West. For the first time the SPD became the leading party in the region, if still with a much lower vote than in the West (35.6 to 42.4 per cent). Post-Communist success made the difference. The PDS took over 20 per cent in the East: more than two million votes.

In the electoral geography of Germany, these results are likely to prove the real landmark. The political complexion of the East is now quite different from that of the West, and will probably remain so. The contrast in the total vote for the Left (SPD, Greens, PDS) in each ‘nation’ makes this plain: 60.3 per cent in the East against 50.6 in the West. Here was the pivot on which the precise Parliamentary arithmetic of Schröder’s government finally turned. It was the 12 ‘excess’ mandates – beyond its proportional quota – won by the SPD in the East that gave the Red-Green bloc its majority in the Bundestag. If the CDU had kept its losses in the East to their level in the West, there would have been a Grand Coalition instead.

What we are looking at, then, is the potential emergence of a long-run sociological majority for the Left in Germany, as the East reverts to what might be called a historical ‘default position’, where the SPD and PDS regularly dominate. The religious landscape could be critical here. The one durable legacy of the DDR was Jacobin: within two generations, it achieved an astonishing dechristianisation of the population. Today 80 per cent of East German youth have no religious affiliation whatever – the comparable figure is 10 per cent in West Germany – and no more than 7 per cent of Easterners are churchgoers of any kind. Lutheranism has given way to an irreligion still more inhospitable than the Evangelical Church to any hegemony by a Christian-Democratic Right.

What kind of government has come out of this drastic shake-up? Conventional wisdom compares Gerhard Schröder with Tony Blair. One genuine point in common is that both were effectively picked as candidates by the media before they were chosen by their party, comparison with Blair, in Schröder’s case, being part of the anointing process itself. Telegenic looks, rhetoric of modernisation, pursuit of the New Middle, inspirational calls (‘time for a change’ etc): other parallels are ready to hand. But in some ways the parallels are misleading. With his private schooling, his stint at Oxbridge and his lucrative practice at the Bar, Blair is a typical product of a privileged upper-middle-class background, while Schröder, whose father was killed on the Russian Front, comes from the debris of postwar German society. His mother was a charwoman; his first job was behind the counter in an ironmonger’s shop; his degree was eventually obtained at night school. He became a leader of the Jusos, the SPD’s youth organisation in the early Seventies, when it was a rebellious outfit well to the left of the Party, and took active part in mass demonstrations. In the Eighties, though no firebrand, he helped topple Helmut Schmidt and, as late as 1994, was blocked by party elders, who considered him too unreliable to run for Chancellor. The aura of moderate pragmatism is quite recent. But there is no lack of charm: sturdy good looks, attractive thick voice, mischievous smile. Blair appears an over-eager adolescent by comparison.

The larger difference, however, is institutional. The SPD is not in thrall to its Chancellor. It is a very different party from New Labour. Twice the size, with 700,000 individual members, its culture remains noticeably more working-class. The atmosphere of an SPD rally in any big industrial town is closer to Labour meetings of the Sixties or Seventies than to anything in Britain today. This has much less to do with any lag of modernisation on the part of the SPD, whose Bad Godesburg programme of 1959 turned to the middle class long before Labour, than with the strength of German manufacturing, the world-class performance of which has shielded workers in the West from the extremes of de-industrialisation that have so largely broken up the traditional identity of the British working class. Trade unions in Germany weathered the Eighties better, and enjoy stronger relations with the Party.

A still more important difference between the two organisations lies in the regional distribution of power in the SPD. Germany’s federal structure means that political careers are made first and foremost in the Länder, whose rulers always provide a repertoire of possible candidates for Chancellor. By winning four successive Federal Elections, Kohl achieved a remarkable concentration of power in the CDU, but even he could not stop bitter enemies in the Party from becoming important regional figures, like Biedenkopf (‘King Kurt’) in Saxony. The SPD has never allowed the same personalisation of authority. When it has been in power, the pattern has always been a diarchy – Brandt and Herbert Wehner, or Schmidt and Brandt – with the Chancellor flanked by a powerful and independent Party Chairman, not to speak of the regional prime ministers.

Schröder, catapulted within six months of winning a provincial election in Hanover to leadership of the country, is entitled to his party’s gratitude. But he has no deep-rooted following within it: indeed, he was widely distrusted, the Party’s attitude recalling the view expressed by one of Claud Cockburn’s characters that ‘charm and dependability so rarely go together.’ The favourite of members and apparatus alike remains Oskar Lafontaine, whose skill, charisma and discipline galvanised the SPD machine in the years of Kohl’s decline. Lafontaine was another postwar orphan from a poor family, educated by Jesuits in the Saar, who became the brightest of ‘Brandt’s grandchildren’, the generation of SPD politicians that came to prominence in the Eighties. With fluent French from his borderland upbringing, he is intellectually better prepared than Schröder, with more decided views about the future. As Minister of Finance, and Chairman of the SPD, his position in the new regime is unusually strong. Lafontaine is the first Western politician of aggressively Keynesian outlook in 25 years. He has already seen off Schröder’s attempt to install a wan version of Richard Branson as Minister of the Economy, and shaken the composure of the Bundesbank.

The direction of the Government, of course, will not be set by the SPD leadership alone. The rules of any German coalition give significant leverage to the lesser partner. The Greens did not do particularly well in the September election, losing about 100,000 votes after a lacklustre campaign, distinguished mainly by sectarian attacks on the PDS. The Party, always somewhat erratic, has been losing direction in recent years, as some of its less attractive features have taken their toll – what might be called the bohemian versions of the Spiessbürger smugness of the Bonn Republic, especially evident in attitudes to the East, where the Party is virtually non-existent. On some fiscal and social issues, its exclusively middle-class base, not insensible to the attraction of neo-liberal notions, can put it to the right of the SPD. Even so, the Greens are likely to pull the Government in less conventional directions than Social Democracy, left to its own devices, would follow.

The figure of Joschka Fischer, the new Foreign Minister, indicates why this should be so. Son of another victim of the war, a labourer expelled from Bohemia in 1946, he is an expressive survivor of the student radicalism of the late Sixties. In those years, he led one of the most daring ‘spontaneist’ groups in Frankfurt, Revolutionary Struggle, fellow spirits of the better-known Lotta Continua in Italy. With his comrades, he took a job on the assembly line in an Opel factory to rouse the working class to revolt. When GM flushed them out, Fischer turned to the squatters’ movement in Frankfurt, organising a mobile strikeforce, the ‘Putztruppe’, to block police action against housing occupations, matching violence with violence where need be. Eventually a demonstration against the death of Ulrike Meinhof in 1976 got out of hand and a policeman was nearly killed. Fischer was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder, but released for lack of evidence.

Changing his mind about the legitimacy of civil violence, he spent some years driving a cab and dabbling in philosophy; then joined the Greens and quickly rose to the top as their most flexible and articulate leader. Witty, trenchant, unencumbered with doctrine, he was soon Minister for the Environment in a Red-Green coalition in Hessen, winning the admiration of the press for hard-headed ambition and political realism, though the portfolio itself bored him. As a Deputy in the Bundestag, he specialised in the tart put-down, cutting through official bombast. His new job as chief of German diplomacy has a certain piquancy: the diplomatic hypocrisies of ‘the international community’ are not his natural idiom. But he is a learner. Under Fischer’s guidance, the Greens, impervious to criticism from the left of the SPD, have welcomed the expansion of Nato to Russia’s borders.

Fischer’s career can be seen as in many ways emblematic. He is the first chemically pure product of 1968 to become a frontrank politician in Western Europe. The revolt of that year left deeper and more durable traces in German society than anywhere else. The mass movements were more spectacular in France and Italy, but they did not have the same cultural staying-power. Three features set the German upheaval apart. Morally, the awakening of ’68 was also a first attempt to settle accounts with the national past, as a generation started to discover and confront the record of its parents in the Nazi years. Intellectually, the revolt drew on a much richer complex of indigenous ideas than its counterparts elsewhere. The students who triggered the movement not only read Marx with the ease and lack of distance that we associate with reading Smith or Mill (studying any classic in one’s own language is a very different experience from scrutinising celebrated texts from another); they were also formed by the legacy of Benjamin, the presence of Horkheimer and Adorno, messages from Marcuse, the debut of Habermas. Where in other countries there was a rediscovery of long forgotten texts and traditions, here there was a living continuity. The Frankfurt School occupied a unique position within the generally conservative culture of the Federal Republic; paradoxically, there was no collective body of social and philosophical work remotely rivalling it in power or influence. Naturally, its conceptual after-images persisted far beyond the street battles.

Finally, there was a peculiar strain in the national culture at large that sustained and relayed the moment of the late Sixties and early Seventies into the Green movement a decade later. This was, of course, the long and chatoyant tradition of German Romanticism, interpreted broadly, from Werther to Wenders, the most enduring single strand in the sensibility of the country’s intelligentsia. The combination of sheer imaginative energy and theoretical ambition that stamped the Frühromantik – the ambience of the Schlegels, Novalis, Jean Paul, Tieck, Fichte, Schleiermacher, with Hölderlin and Kleist off-stage – made it an explosive force far beyond the sentimental reach of the Lake Poets or the vaticinations of Hugo: a starburst that could never be repeated or forgotten, as its consequences worked their way through successive agitated generations. In a great variety of different registers, two motifs remained constant: an acute sense of the mystery of the natural world, and of the high calling of youth. Inevitably, the political issue of this tradition was dimorphous. Its contribution to movements of the Right – figures like Novalis or Adam Müller were, after all, ultras in their day – is well-known. But its influence on the Left was critical too. Benjamin, whose One-Way Street emits the first flashes of ecological warning in the Marxist tradition, came out of the turn-of-the-century Jugendbewegung. When Adorno later engaged in his famous dispute with him, it is no accident that he should have appealed inter alia to an exquisite passage of Jean Paul.

The Greens are the populist heirs to this tradition. The revolutionary ferment of ’68, however utopian, was on such a scale that when it ebbed, it left behind a rich fenland of countercultural enclaves in West Germany – a sympathetic, if no longer especially strenuous, milieu whose bookshops and cafés can be found in even the most unlikely settings. Here the environmental concerns of the Eighties found a natural habitat. But the Greens also appealed to a broader band of intellectual opinion, not necessarily enamoured of their positive programmes, but accepting them as at least negatively preferable to Social-Democratic stuffiness. There is no way of knowing in advance how power will affect this movement, but this much is clear: Germany is the one country where the question of what has ultimately become of the experience of ’68 will be put to a direct test.

The immediate agenda of the Red-Green Government, although it has provoked outcries from business lobbies and establishment journalists, is inoffensive enough. The package is more radical than New Labour’s, but not decisively so. Fiscal policy will be somewhat more redistributive; a reduction in social wage costs will be financed by a novel energy tax; more corporatist arrangements are envisaged for job-creation, in the shape of an Alliance for Work supposedly uniting business, labour and government. Changing Germany’s laws of citizenship, notoriously based on the principle of jus sanguinis, to facilitate naturalisation of the country’s four million immigrants, is a much more significant reform. This is an unambiguous act of emancipation, of direct human consequence. Labour’s tortuous constitutional manoeuvres are scarcely an equivalent. But if Schröder’s programme seems less conservative than Blair’s, this is also a function of its context. Kohl was no Thatcher: the centre of political gravity never shifted so far to the right in Germany.

The reinstating of Berlin as the capital next year will be a much more dramatic change than any act of the coalition. No feature of the postwar Federal Republic defined it more sharply than the location of the government in Bonn. Over time the population became strongly attached to this arrangement. But there were always two sides to it. On the one hand, the absence of a major political capital prevented any territorial concentration of economic or political power, allowing the Federal Republic to revert to what had been the natural order of Germany for centuries – the coexistence of a large number of regional centres of roughly comparable size, the pattern of the Enlightenment. The happy results of this dispersion of vitality and influence between Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Cologne and other cities are evident to any visitor from over-centralised societies like England or France, and keenly felt by the citizens themselves.

On the other hand, there had to be a capital somewhere, and here the choice of Bonn was peculiarly deadening. Adenauer was determined to prevent Frankfurt – the obvious choice, for reasons of both geography and history – from becoming the provisional capital after the war, because he feared it would tend to have a Socialist majority, and anyway riff-raff might take to the streets. Bonn was picked as an urban zero, a small Catholic university town where no plebeian mob would ever gather, a stone’s throw from Adenauer’s base in Cologne. The intention was to place politics in a bureaucratic capsule shielded from the influence of any popular life. It succeeded all too well. The real virtues of the Federal Republic became identified with its artificial capital. This was always a confusion. Regional variety and autonomy did not require the sterilisation of public argument. Federalism was not dependent on this parliamentary parking-lot: it was diminished by it.

At the beginning, not even Adenauer dared suggest that Bonn was anything but an interim location. The Constitution of 1949 laid down that as soon as Germany was reunified, Berlin would become the nation’s capital once again. But since unity appeared a long way off, more and more vested interests gradually became encrusted in the status quo. When the Wall finally came down, a massive campaign was mounted in the West to keep Bonn as the capital of the unified country. As the assembled Parliamentarians prepared to vote on the issue, the town became for the first time a caricature of what it was set up to avoid: a cauldron of self-interested passions as shopkeepers, waiters, cab-drivers, not to speak of burly local MPs, boycotted, abused or threatened any Deputy who had declared in favour of Berlin. When the vote came, it spoke volumes for the egoism of the Western political class. Kohl and Schäuble, the architects of the absorption of the East, spoke for Berlin. Brandt, in the most courageous speech of his career, rightly compared the prospect of remaining in Bonn to the notion of a French government clinging to Vichy in 1945. But the majority on both benches was shamelessly ready to break the promise of the Constitution. The SPD actually voted to stay in Bonn by the wider margin (126 to 110; CDU/CSU 164 to 154). The hostility of the Catholic South to a transfer of the capital to the Protestant North was predictable enough. But more rapacious even than Bavaria in its resistance to a move was the overweight province of North-Rhine Westphalia, clinging to Bonn as a honey-pot of local prebends. Honour was saved only by the Liberals and PDS, whose decisive majority in favour (70 to 27) created the final narrow margin (338 to 320) for Berlin.

This was a moment of truth, casting a sharp retrospective light on the Bonn Republic. Left to their own devices, the Western Deputies would never have moved back to Berlin: they voted by a thumping majority (291 to 214) to stay in Bonn. The implied prospect for the East would have been a modern equivalent of Victorian rule of Ireland from London. But if a kind of colonial administration from afar was averted, what will take its place in the new capital remains to be seen. No European city has accreted so many misleading legends as Berlin. To resist them is easier, however, than to capture the elusive realities now taking shape behind them. Most people – not just foreigners, but Germans too – associate Berlin with Prussian military tradition, Bismarck’s autocracy, Nazi violence and megalomania. In fact, Frederick II preferred his complex in Potsdam. Bismarck disliked Berlin so much that, after unification, he wanted to make Kassel, a Protestant version of Bonn, the capital of the country. Not a single Nazi leader of any prominence came from Berlin. Hitler loved Munich and relaxed at the other end of the country in Berchtesgarten. Berlin was not a natural setting for reaction. In 1848 it saw the hardest fighting at the barricades of any city in Germany. By the turn of the century, it was the most industrialised capital in Europe, with a working-class population to match. In 1918 it led the November Revolution and was the scene of the Spartakist Rising. In the Weimar period, it was an SPD-KPD stronghold.

The Third Reich and the Cold War cut off these traditions. After the fall of Hitler, the occupation and division of Berlin masked the question of what, if any, underlying continuities might have survived. The 1998 elections offer a startling answer. The Left won every single district. The map of the city is just one colour, in two shades: bright Social-Democratic red in the West and South-East, deep post-Communist red in the Centre and North-East. Compare Paris, a permanent fief of the Right; Rome, where Fini’s ex-Fascists are the largest party; or even London, where Ken Livingstone will never sweep Westminster or Kensington. Bismarck’s nightmare has come true. Berlin is going to be the most left-wing capital in Europe.

The electoral profile of Berlin is, of course, only one index of the kind of metropolis it is likely to become. A true Hauptstadt is a synthesis of three functions: the focus of a country’s political life, as the seat of government; a nexus of wider economic activities; and a magnet of emergent cultural forms. The fundamental question is whether these will, in fact, intersect in Berlin. It is the largest city in Germany, with a population more than twice the size of its nearest rival: 3.4 million inhabitants dispersed across some 345 square miles, a quarter of which consists of woods and lakes. During the Cold War, both parts received preferential treatment as showcases of their respective regimes. Subsidies were far higher in the West, where everything from factories to art shows was lavishly funded in the battle against Communism, but the eastern part of the city got more investment than the rest of the DDR too.

In the Nineties, the prospect of Berlin becoming once again the capital of a united Germany was widely expected to set off a boom, as building contracts for ministries and corporate headquarters multiplied, real-estate prices rose, employment grew and immigrants poured in. Ironically, however, Berlin has suffered a sharp economic decline since unification. Even after the formal decision to move from Bonn, resistance to the idea has delayed the transfer of government by nearly a decade. Meanwhile, after Berlin became a ‘normal’ Land with the end of the Cold War, taxpayers in the West saw no reason to continue its privileges, and once subsidies were cut, industries left, while in the East, unification triggered a general industrial collapse, from which Berlin was not excepted.

The results are stark. Since 1989 the population has fallen, following an exodus to the surrounding countryside; 200,000 industrial jobs have been destroyed; growth is currently negative; bankruptcies are twice the national average; and unemployment is running at nearly 20 per cent. A few international companies have set up their local HQs in Berlin, but almost no major German corporations have made the move. Incredibly, with less than a year to go before the whole paraphernalia of government arrives in the city, house prices have been dropping. Beside Munich, Hamburg or Frankfurt, all of them sleek and affluent, the future capital is going to remain a poor relation.

As federal political power, like some cumbersome dirigible, makes its slow descent into the city, no question has attracted more polemic than the design of the new Regierungsviertel, the complex of government buildings that are bound to become insignia of the capital in the collective imagination. Every month public debates on different aspects of the city’s reconstruction are held in the Council of State building where Honecker once presided over the DDR. To participate in one is a memorable experience: experts and pundits at loggerheads, audiences dividing passionately, and – unmatched for choleric lack of inhibition – the master builder of the city, the urban planner Hans Stimman, white-maned and brick-red in complexion, yelling at the top of his voice in a style few would associate with any municipal authority, let alone a German one. But the stakes are high. For here not only the shape of the future but the place of the past, not only relations between the public and the private, but also tensions between East and West, are at issue.

The original plans for a unified Berlin envisaged a completely new government district in the centre, with a contemporary architecture worthy of Schinkel’s élan, integrating the torn halves of the city. This vision was soon abandoned, ostensibly on grounds of cost. In reality, it was ditched out of a mixture of continuing resentment in the Western Länder at the prospect of a move from Bonn, indifference to the fate of the eastern part of the city in West Berlin itself (which, with twice the population, calls the shots in local government), and rejection of any risk of magnificence in a German capital. The new government ‘axis’ – its line truncated where it would have extended to the East – is now restricted to the West. Here the florid Wilhelmine shell of the Reichstag has been fitted out with an oversize transparent dome and high-tech interior by Norman Foster, inverting the gesture of the narrow baroque façade prised off the Hohenzollern palace knocked down by the DDR, and plastered onto the Khrushchevian girth of the Staatsratgebäude across the border.

Official pieties would have it that the Reichstag has been restored in honour of its valiant defence of democratic values in the past. In fact, it was here that German democracy tamely voted Hitler into power, electing him Chancellor of its own Parliamentary will. The real reason for the building’s resuscitation is that the ruin was a symbolic property of the West, rather than the East, in the Cold War. It would have been better to start afresh. Axel Schultes’s new executive office where Schröder will take up residence next year – a light, elegant structure – shows what might have been done. Between the two will lie low-slung Parliamentary facilities, pleasing enough, but now purged of the open concourse where it was once envisaged citizens could mingle and contend within the arcades of power. To the north, just across the Spree, the graceful curve of the Lehrte railway station – which may prove the most beautiful of the new public buildings – will dominate. To the south, the commercial centre run up by Daimler-Benz and Sony on the site of the old Potsdamerplatz, frittering away the combined talents of Piano, Isozaki, Rogers, Jahn and Moneo, will no doubt end up as a blowsy shopping-mall, sealed off from its surroundings as if planted in a suburb, like every such mall a tomb of conviviality.

In the East, on the other hand, there are no major new Federal projects. The worst relics of the DDR, tinted fun-palace and bulbous TV tower, have been left in place at the end of a still inarticulate Unter den Linden. The private sector has developed the area around the Friedrichstrasse, with offices, shops and restaurants – Nouvel, Johnson, Rossi – that offer somewhat more life, though it is still quite thin. The principal contribution of the state is going to be the conspicuous refurbishment of two Nazi landmarks, Schacht’s Reichsbank and Goering’s Air Ministry, as the Foreign Office and Finance Ministry of the Berlin Republic. Any idea of new creations – well within the purse of the authorities – banished, Fischer and Lafontaine will now dispatch affairs where Hitler once inspected. Setting aside excuses of cost, which may have had some validity under the DDR, the official rationale for reoccupying these hideous structures is that it is a sort of atonement to do so, since they may serve as a daily reminder of the enormities of the past. A widespread rhetoric – the same argument is used for preserving the direst eyesores left by the Second Reich or the DDR – insists that they are ‘historical documents’ on which the German people must learn to meditate.

This antiquarian masochism, a clinging to what is aesthetically ugly, often because it was also morally and politically ugly, in the name of truth to history, betrays a deep intellectual confusion. A historical document is a text that can be studied, in an archive or library, when the need arises: it does not inflict itself on anyone. A public building, by contrast, is an unavoidable daily sight imposed on all who pass by or use it. You cannot put it away in a file. Such urban monuments must be judged in the first place on aesthetic grounds. The political or ideological functions they may, or may not, have served can change over time, but are never decisive for political reality, which has its own arena and dynamic, built not out of bricks but social relations. Italian Fascism was capable in its day of pleasing or striking buildings, which have continued to be used, indeed enjoyed: no one has ever thought of blowing up the railway station in Florence. Nazi edifices like the Reichsbank or Luftwaffe HQ should have been demolished, not in the first place because of their associations, but because they remain brutal and forbidding as architecture.

The idea that Germans need such buildings as perpetual hairshirts, to earn the trust of their neighbours, is not just a misconception. For Europeans do not on the whole fear the ghosts of Bismarck, Hitler or Honecker: neither Nazism nor Stalinism, let alone Wilhelmine Imperialism, is a serious threat today. A constant preoccupation with them can easily become a screen for more pressing issues. Europe has some reason for misgivings about a reunited Germany. But its rational fears relate to contemporary institutions: not to the legacies of Ludendorff or Speer, but to the overweening role of the Bundesbank, as the most powerful institution in the country, and to its power over the lives and jobs of millions of Europeans – a hegemony now entrenched in the design and personnel of the European Central Bank. It is the fanatical cult of sound money, the insistence on arbitrary and antisocial criteria for convergence in the Treaty of Maastricht, the relentless pressure for a ‘stability pact’ after it, which a self-critical German public should have been concerned about. But with few exceptions – Helmut Schmidt the most eloquent – national complacency on this matter has been virtually boundless. Hans Tietmeyer and Ottmar Issing have exercised their enormous, continent-wide power from the most inconspicuous and modest of buildings in Frankfurt. What better symbol of German good conscience?

A better relationship between aesthetics and politics would reverse these morbid terms. There should have been no inhibition in Berlin about erecting the finest – the most delicate or the most magnificent – buildings that any contemporary architect can design: the more, and the more integrated, the better. That would have been a contribution not only to a real annealing of the city, but to European unity as well. When we go to Paris, or to Rome, or to Barcelona, cities built with a generous sense of splendour, we do not think of them as exclusively French, or Italian, or Catalan possessions. They are sources of common delight to all of us. It is in this confident spirit – for which sensuous beauty, not sheer utility, and still less self-flagellating memory, is the highest urban value – that the rest of Europe must hope Berlin can still in some measure be rebuilt.

As for ‘historical documents’, there is a perfect solution for those who want them. Lying underground, like an archive, where only the interested need go, are Hitler’s bunker and the far larger subterranean lair built for his government, just south of Unter den Linden, which the Russians lacked the technology to destroy. Officially, the authorities have not yet admitted the existence of these potent remnants of the Third Reich. Why not restore them for reflective viewing? The question embarrasses the loyal functionaries of the Office for the Protection of Ancient Monuments, the Denkmalschutz, who off the record reply: it would be wrong to erase them and wrong to restore them – best to leave them hidden, abandoned to the natural processes of time. Overground, meanwhile, pedestrians can suffer the Air Ministry. Amid such confusions the one true resolution of the problems of historical memory, in the gravest sense, stands out: Daniel Liebeskind’s – all but literally – fulgurating Museum of Jewish History, a zincclad masterpiece in which the past is represented with awesome power in its rightful place.

How the change from Kohl to Schröder, and the final settling of government along the Spree, will affect the design of Berlin remains to be seen. Michael Naumann, picked by Schröder from the publishing world to handle cultural affairs in the Chancellery, has shown commendable independence of mind on ‘documentary’ issues. The post is new and its impact will extend beyond these. For if the economic prospects of Berlin remain precarious and its political function guarantees only that MPs and civil servants will reside there, what of its cultural role? In many ways, this is the decisive question for the future of the city. Not only does political life quicken if there is a real cultural tissue around it, but the level of economic activity is likely to depend critically on the presence of the communications industry in the capital. Everyone remembers the extraordinary cultural vitality of Berlin in Weimar days. Could something of that return?

During the Cold War, both parts of the city maintained heavily-subsidised musical and theatrical complexes of great distinction. DDR writers tended to be concentrated in East Berlin, with fewer counterparts across the Wall. An extensive bohemia – the ‘alternative scene’: the term Szene is used much more freely and indiscriminately in German than in English – flourished in the West, where there was exemption from National Service, and by the end there was even a modest pendant to it in the East. The end of the Cold War hit all this hard, and the Nineties have been a strange period of limbo for Berlin, no longer the spoiled child of inter-bloc rivalry and not yet the capital of a reunited country. The virtual collapse of the Berliner Ensemble suggests the general trend. Music survived much better than drama, and Berlin still perhaps offers the best repertoire of any big European city. The real question is whether the arrival of government will eventually attract those elements of a metropolitan culture the city lacked even at its heyday as the front line of the Cold War.

In the Bonn Republic, Cologne and Dusseldorf became the centre of the art world; Munich got the film industry; television was based in Mainz and Cologne; the most influential newspaper and publishing houses were in Frankfurt; the leading weeklies came out of Hamburg; the two major media empires, Holtzbrink and Bertelsmann, have their headquarters in Stuttgart and the minuscule company town of Gütersloh. In the Weimar period, by contrast, most such activities were concentrated in Berlin with the UEFA film studios in Babelsberg, the Ullstein and Mosse publishing empires, the Cassirer art galleries. Today, there are signs that younger artists are starting to come back to the city, but the Rhenish grip on the art market remains unshaken. Major technical modernisation of the traditional complex in Babelsberg – technically in Potsdam – where DEFA made its name under the DDR, probably ensures that the cinema will become an important industry again. Nor is it difficult to imagine Berlin becoming once more the literary capital of the nation: already the German novelist most admired abroad, the detective-story writer Bernard Schlink, teaches constitutional law at the Free University; the most gifted literary critic of the younger generation, Michael Maar, has just moved to the city; the leading intellectual journal in the country, Merkur, has relocated to Berlin, even if its animating iconoclast and aesthetician, Karl-Heinz Bohrer, edits it – a nice European touch – long-distance from Paris.

But the pièces de résistance of today’s culture industry are missing: television, press, publishing. Not a single TV station of moment operates in Berlin. The headquarters of the big West German publishing houses, many of them originally from Berlin, have not budged from Frankfurt, Hamburg or Munich. The Berliner Verlag has just closed down. Bertelsmann and Holtz-brink have bought up the two leading dailies, Tagespiegel and Berliner Zeitung, with respective readerships in the West and East, and are battling it out with heavy investment in a circulation war. But neither paper has any national weight, or approaches the Frankfurter Allgemeine or the Süddeutsche Zeitung in resources or quality. If matters continue as they are, the paradoxical prospect is of a major capital city without any newspaper of authority. Perhaps fortunately, in the circumstances, the tabloid monopoly of Springer’s Bildzeitung remains in Hamburg. It is hard to imagine this constellation persisting once the federal government and diplomatic corps are truly back in the centre of Berlin. But for the moment the signs are not encouraging.

This is the view from above, where money shapes a culture. There remain the impulses from below. In the 20th century, the creativity of a metropolis has nearly always been linked with its capacity to attract immigrants, and in this respect Berlin enjoys a privileged position. It is often thought, not least by Germans, that the city already harbours the highest concentration of foreigners in the Federal Republic. This is an illusion. The proportion is lower than in any major city in the West: 12 per cent, as against 21 in Munich, 24 in Stuttgart, 28 in Frankfurt – a clear reflection of relative employment opportunities. The largest immigrant community in Germany are, of course, the Turks, whose lack of political or cultural integration into German society, by comparison with immigrant groups in Britain or France, is usually – and not without substantial reason – attributed to the Federal Republic’s iniquitous citizenship laws. But it is also true that Germany’s lack of a colonial past has contributed to the difficulties: there was no empire to equip new entrants with the elements of a common language. If anything, imperial memories lay on the other side – Ottoman domains far exceeding Hohenzollern. In France, moreover, Turks have proved the most closed of all immigrant groups, with lower rates of exogamy, the surest mechanism of assimilation, than any other. Predictably, their contribution to the diversification of German culture at any level, from letters to sport, has so far been very limited. The change of laws and official climate promised by the new government may start to change this.

Beyond its Turkish enclaves, what Berlin in particular can expect are major waves of immigrants from Poland, Russia and the Baltic region – its traditional hinterlands. The building-trades are already largely Polish. The Russian community – artists, gangsters, students, merchants – is rising daily: an impressive spectacle of social mixture at any Orthodox service. It is now common to hear Russian spoken all over Germany, but this startling change is due to the exodus of Volksdeutsche from Kazakhstan. The catchment in Berlin comes more largely from once familiar streams. Out of all this, a metropolis that is multicultural in a stronger sense than anything Germany has known hitherto is likely to emerge.

Logically, the counter-cultural Left has sought to make the most of the newcomers, as a glance at the pages of the Tageszeitung, Berlin’s counterpart to Libération in Paris or Il Manifesto in Rome (naturally no equivalent in England) makes clear. The ‘Taz’ has the least national audience of this trio of dailies that are the offspring of ’68, but thanks to the value of the building it owns, may be financially more secure. Theoretically, it should benefit from a large student population – the city has three major universities – that showed its mettle last winter in prolonged demonstrations against deteriorating conditions of study, blocking the Brandenburger Tor at all hours. In practice, the German university system is now so institutionally waterlogged that it seems to offer little wider cultural stimulus. It is here that the legacy of ’68 has been at its most equivocal, failing to abolish the archaisms that persist in German academic life, while adding dubiously populist trimmings of its own. The result has been an intellectual stalemate, identified with a generation of placeholders.

By the Eighties, talent had passed to the Right – typically out of the campus and into the world of belles-lettres and critical journalism. Bohrer pioneered this turn when he was editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Feuilleton. In it younger spirits could make stylish sorties against received social-liberal wisdom, and test unconventional ideas without too much inhibition. Today the liveliest arguments are still to be found in this (by German standards) somewhat rake-hell atmosphere rather than in the stodgier pages of Die Zeit. So it is with the newer generations at large. The enormous international prestige of Habermas is quite misleading. Thirty-year-olds, even of impeccably progressive outlook, can often be heard expressing more admiration for the brio of Ernst Jünger or Carl Schmitt. Social Democracy has come to power without much depth of support in intellectual opinion. The trend – first with the radicalisation to the left of the Sixties, then with the opposite swing of recent years – has gone against it. By the end, the Kohl regime had few sympathisers, but Schröder cannot count on any prior groundswell in his favour.

Perhaps Berlin will never become a coherent capital city of the kind we know or remember elsewhere, but will offer instead only the spectacle of a Post-Modern dyslexia. Many Germans hope so. For the larger meaning of the move to Berlin was always to bring Eastern Germany back into the centre of national life, as an equal part of the country. Potentially, the transfer of supreme political power into the midst of the former DDR should have far-reaching compensatory effects, psychological and practical, for its population. But the inordinate delay over the move, and the Western bias in its implementation, have weakened expectations. In many ways, despite massive Federal investment, the gulf between the two parts of Germany remains as wide as ever. Western largesse and disdain have gone together. In 1990 no attempt was made to write a Constitution in common for a united Germany, as the Allied-inspired Grundgesetz had prescribed. The DDR was simply annexed, and Western codes were imposed, down to the smallest regulations. Felicity and prosperity for all were promised in exchange. Ten years later, unemployment is officially running at 18 per cent, but more tough-minded economists reckon the real rate is closer to 40. Two-thirds of the Eastern population tell pollsters they do not feel full citizens in their own country.

Ideally, what the ‘new Bundesländer’ needed after unification was an indigenous political movement capable of expressing the shared experience of a humiliated people and forging a powerful regional identity out of it – something like an Eastern equivalent of the CSU, the hugely successful party that has ruled Bavaria without interruption since the Fifties, while remaining an important player in Federal politics. In East Germany, of course, the sociological lie of the land would have situated such a regional party on the left end of the spectrum. But such a movement was never on the cards, because of the divisions within Eastern society itself. Some of these were inter-provincial: Saxons, Thuringians, Brandeny burgers, Pomeranians each had their own pre-Communist histories, and none any liking for East Berlin, whose privileges under the DDR were as much resented as those enjoyed by West Berlin in the Federal Republic. But the Eastern population was more deeply split by the Communist experience itself, into those who suffered and those who subsisted. By the standards of Yezhov or Ceausescu, or even Gottwald, the DDR was – apart from its lethal border – a mild regime: the execution count was low, and the labour camp absent. But it was also a staggeringly invasive one, whose systems of surveillance and delation honeycombed society to a degree never reached, if only for reasons of technology, even in Russia during the Thirties. Levels of repression and fear were quite sufficient to create a large, permanently embittered section of the population and leave unhappy memories in many more. At the same time, the regime assured a secure and orderly existence for those who did not step out of line; decent unpolitical lives could be led; there was little material misery, even some scope for a residual idealism. Post-Communist attitudes are thus polarised sharply between a vengeful minority on one side, a majority in the middle with more mixed feelings about its experience of the two systems, and a minority on the other side attached to much of what it recalls of the old order and hostile to what it has encountered in the new.

Only the last group has found stable political expression. The PDS, as the successor organisation to the Socialist Unity Party (SED) that ran East Germany, was often dismissed in the early years after unification as simply the party of ‘Ostalgia’ – a crypto-Stalinist throwback to the DDR, dependent on the ageing functionaries and accomplices of a police state. In fact, more than any other post-Communist party in Eastern Europe, the PDS has evolved into a lively radical movement of the left. Much of the credit for this transformation is due to its leader Georg Gysi, the only Jewish politician of note – not by accident from the East – in today’s Germany, whose quick wits, imaginative flair and irreverent sense of fun make most Western Parliamentarians look like heavy apparatchiks. Together with a handful of colleagues, of whom the Chairman Lothar Bisky, a former scientist, is the most important, Gysi has rejuvenated the ranks of the Party and widened its support. At first confined mainly to the north of the old DDR, and very reliant on SED veterans, this year it scored over 20 per cent evenly throughout East Germany, with its strongest vote coming from younger, well-educated women. The appeal of the PDS reaches to an even newer generation: teenage campaigners thronged its headquarters on election night. With over ninety thousand members, this is much the largest party in East Germany. The bureaucratic weight of the past is still visible in the Party’s internal structures, especially as it tries to gain a foothold in the unfamiliar ground of the West German Left, but it is diminishing.

By comparison, the SPD, with no more than 27,000 members in the whole zone, remains a shadow of the PDS. In the first years after the war, the SPD under Kurt Schumacher, with far more feeling for national unity than the CDU, stood firmly against the division of Germany. But during the long decades of the Cold War it over-adapted to the Bonn Republic, and in 1989-90 the party leadership, with Lafontaine as its candidate for Chancellor, completely misjudged the dynamic of unification, proving incapable of either welcoming it or canalising it into a better institutional form. The perception that it was basically reluctant to accept national unity assured electoral victory for Kohl. Few voices were raised against the folly of this course, whose deeper origins have been trenchantly criticised in Die SPD und die Nation by party freethinker Tilman Fichter.

The SPD now has a chance to start again. Lafontaine lost no time after the election in breaking Cold War taboos and authorising the formation of the first SPD-PDS governing coalition, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – a Red/Deep-Red alliance that represents a potential majority across most of the East. Both Parties stand to gain from co-operation – the PDS becoming a normal political partner, the SPD connecting with local realities from which it has been isolated. Social Democracy will need to be in much closer touch with ways of life and feeling in the East, if potentially explosive popular disappointments are to be avoided. The oral historian Lutz Niethammer, who now teaches in Jena, believes that beneath the surface calm of the first post-Communist generation of students, there is a deep suppressed rage at the way the official version of the past dismisses as completely worthless the world of their childhood. Widespread youth unemployment and urban dislocation are so much social kindling in the streets outside.

Germany now has more than four million registered out of work. This is not a society like Britain, where long rule by the radical Right has inured public opinion to the permanence of large-scale unemployment. Massive joblessness is still perceived on all sides as a scandal. The SPD’s promise to tackle it will make or break the incoming regime. Schröder’s solution is the nebulous ‘Alliance for Work’ – a neo-corporatist entente between government, business and unions to improve supply-side conditions for investment, combining lower payroll taxes with wage restraint and a more flexible labour market. The German Employers’ Federation, under the hawkish leadership of Hans-Olaf Henkel, has already expressed its hostility to the higher energy taxes that are the pricetag on this scheme. Lafontaine, on the other hand, has gone for demand-side measures: lowering of personal taxation, and reduction of interest rates. The contrast with Britain could not be more pointed. Where Brown’s first act as Chancellor was to transfer control over monetary policy to the Bank of England, Lafontaine’s opening move was to attack the Bundesbank for persisting with a deflationary course in defiance of government objectives. There has been a predictable outcry at this break with German convention.

Success or failure in bringing down unemployment will not be decided within Germany alone, however. The arrival of the single European currency will shift all parameters. This last, and most momentous, of all the changes now underway in Germany tacitly divides the Government, too. Before his nomination as SPD candidate for Chancellor, Schröder did little to hide his scepticism about any sacrifice of the Deutschmark to the Euro. Once adopted by his party, his tone altered; his outlook perhaps somewhat less. In the spring Willy Brandt Haus, the svelte new headquarters of the SPD in Berlin, hosted a debate between Schröder and Habermas. It was an impressive occasion – difficult to imagine Blair with Giddens as a local equivalent – but also a disconcerting one. Habermas spoke eloquently of the need for common social and economic policies in the European Union, as the inadequacy of any national framework becomes ever more apparent, ending with a direct challenge to the SPD: ‘Have you any offensive strategy for Europe at all?’ In reply, Schröder spoke fluently of the Bundnis für Arbeit, the compatibility between competitive performance and social justice, the importance of a modern culture, but said scarcely a word about Europe. A few months earlier, asked for his view about the introduction of a 35-hour week in France and Italy as a strategy for job-creation, he replied simply: ‘Good news. Our German firms will beat theirs all the more easily.’

Lafontaine has always struck a different note, telling audiences long before the election that effective responses to unemployment and inequality would inevitably require co-ordinated European action, beyond the limits of Maastricht. In government, it is his way of thinking that has so far prevailed. Chancellor and Finance Minister now speak more or less as one, but it is clear who has the initiative. Within days of taking office, Lafontaine had not only challenged the Bundesbank, but criticised the European Central Bank for its attachment to high interest rates, proposed a target zone of the Euro against the dollar, and called for a political counterweight to the ECB in the macroeconomic affairs of the Union.

The shock to the status quo of such ideas can scarcely be overstated. After all, they represent a complete reversal of Germany’s historic role in the European Union. It was at German insistence that the ECB was given absolute power – without a trace of popular accountability – to determine the money supply, and therewith rates of growth and employment in Europe; that draconian ‘convergence criteria’ were made the condition of entry into the single currency; that a deflationary ‘stability pact’ was imposed on national budgets even after entry. Finally, to make utterly sure that the European Central Bank would do its duty, the Bundesbank imposed a loutish Dutch cipher on whom it could rely as its first president. This is the framing order Europe was accustomed to, and had come to accept.

Now the tables are turned. Germany, looming larger than ever as the economic powerhouse of Europe, is starting to press for an accountable central bank, reflationary job-creation, managed exchange rates: everything Maastricht was designed to avert. Since eight of the other ten states entering monetary union have social-democratic premiers or ministers as well, the German lead, if carried through, should in principle be irresistible. The Hayekian scheme of a completely independent monetary authority without any democratic political sovereignty at European level was historically so outré that it was always liable – perhaps, by Jacques Delors, even intended – to swivel into its opposite, a genuine federal unity, as the peoples of Europe, or perhaps even just the politicians, discovered how they would otherwise be caged.

Just such a fork in the road has now materialised – and in dramatic circumstances: on the one hand, an unprecedented concert of centre-left governments, with no serious impediment or excuse for inaction from the Right and, on the other, the worst global economic crisis since the Thirties. The new Social-Democratic Europe headed by Germany has an enormous opportunity. But without a real answer to the crisis, disaster could lie in wait. Mere Keynesian solutions – all that have been aired so far – might meet the Hayekian problem. But they are unlikely to cut the Marxian knot: the underlying over-competition in the productive economy from which orthodox opinion, in search of purely financial explanations of the crisis, still looks away.

Meanwhile, Germany will continue to raise, and to pose, its own problems within Europe. Schröder has made it clear that he intends to secure a reduction in the country’s net contribution to the EU budget, now far above those of its neighbours. The issue is likely to become entangled with that of enlargement of the Union to the East, an all but insoluble legacy of German demagogy under Kohl. There is no prospect of a larger Union budget to extend the acquis communitaire; adherence to a single currency, onerous enough for the rich states of Western Europe, is quite intractable for the post-Communist economies, where wage-levels would anyway reduce an Alliance for Jobs to cinders; no serious thought has been given to how a 25-state community would operate as an institutional pantechnicon. A glance at the record of the EU – and not least the role of Germany – in the much greater emergencies of Yugoslavia is enough to show how little the bombast of enlargement reflects a real concern for the peoples of Eastern Europe. But diplomatic inertia ensures its place on the agenda. The firmness of De Gaulle, faced with the far lesser hazard of Britain, belongs to another universe. Green Schwärmerei in the Foreign Ministry can be counted on to press ahead.

Germany’s entry into monetary union is thus unlikely to be smooth, either for itself or Europe. The new government is already under attack from the media, put out by Schröder’s disappointment of business expectations. The size of its electoral victory is no guarantee of a secure life. In France and Britain, the Right is currently divided and demoralised, with little hope of regaining power in the near-future. This is not the case in Germany. Kohl’s obstinacy in clinging to office weakened the CDU, which would have done better without him last September. But Christian Democracy still controls the two richest of the Southern Länder, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, and can present at least two potentially formidable challengers to Schröder in four years’ time. Munich’s Edmund Stoiber remains the most powerful regional leader in the country, at the head of the most dynamic economy. In Bonn, Kohl’s successor Wolfgang Schäuble, crippled by an assassination attempt, has regularly outpolled Schröder as the most popular politician in the country: compassion for his condition (German is the language where Opfer means both ‘victim’ and ‘sacrifice’) combines with admiration for his iron will. Figures like these are far stronger candidates than Hague or Madelin for a comeback.

The most stable of all political orders in postwar Europe has entered a period of unpredictable turbulence, like some vast, placid river gradually starting to churn towards the rapids. We can be sure of only one thing: Germany will not be a dull place. ‘That great and ambiguous country’, as Eric Hobsbawm once called it, is going to occupy our attention over the next years. What kind of future it will come to represent remains hidden, not least to the Germans themselves. The phrase that lingers in the mind is a form of the interrogative peculiar to this culture. All European languages have a colloquial expression appending a negative query at the end of an affirmative statement – ‘isn’t it?’; ‘n’est-ce pas?’; ‘¿no es?’ German alone, although it has an equivalent, ‘nicht wahr?’, goes further. Here, teenagers round off their sentences with a single, more radically indeterminate word, seductive and unsettling. ‘Oder?’

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