Getting it wrong

Misha Glenny

  • In Europe’s Name by Timothy Garton Ash
    Cape, 680 pp, £25.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 224 02054 4

Last November, I returned to Berlin for the first time since the Wall came down. I had first lived there for six months in 1979. Within days of my arrival I’d been lucky to be accepted into a Wohngemeinschaft, an institution which hovers between flat-sharing and communal life. The apartment was in SO 36, the heart of Kreuzberg, which at that time was notorious for its punk and squatter culture. My bedroom window looked out over the River Spree and beyond onto the quiet uniformity of die Zone; der russische Sektor; Berlin (Ost); or Berlin, die Hauptstadt der DDR, depending on your ideological perspective.

On many evenings I would sit on the embankment eating a Turkish takeaway. The grey motorised dinghies belonging to the River Section of the East German Border Police would occasionally dart out of their moorings to inspect their half of the Spree for any goldfish trying to make a break for it. The view of East Berlin past these zealous sailors was unremarkable but ruthlessly compelling. I would stare dumbly trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. In many respects the people of each half of the city shut out the presence of the other. The youth of West Berlin, busy in the vanguard of West Germany’s squatter movement, evinced a thorough, almost cultivated ignorance of their peers over the fence. Conversely, East Berliners were forced to suppress their curiosity and longing to acquaint themselves with the BKA (Das böse kapitalistische Ausland – ‘The evil capitalist abroad’) in order to concentrate on the everyday struggle of life in the GDR. And the two grew apart.

‘To say that Germany had become normal since unification was common sense,’ Timothy Garton Ash writes towards the end of In Europe’s Name. ‘Anyone who thought that it was normal to live with a wall through Berlin was not quite normal. It was more normal to take a bus from the Alexanderplatz’ – East Berlin – ‘to Bahnhof Zoo’ – West Berlin. People, however, have an uncommon ability to reach an accommodation with the abnormal and the absurd. When I first crossed the divide unhindered by the Wall, I was gripped, like millions of others since 1989, by a disturbingly weird sensation. To be able to drift in and out of East Berlin from the West felt wrong. I walked into Centrum, once East Berlin’s showcase department store and now called something like Kaufhaus-Xtra Billig, Preiswert und Günstig, and was shocked to see all manner of Western consumer items (few, if any, manufactured in the new Länder of East Germany). What had happened to the endless rows of alarm clocks embossed with the same silly clown’s face? And what had they done with the three designs of unspeakably ugly furniture from Romania which used to take up an entire floor? The only things remaining of the old East Berlin, beyond the dreary architecture, were the wonderful red and green men on pedestrian crossings: the former, his arm rigidly at 90 degrees to his body, looking like a scarecrow in a prison camp; the latter, frozen in a pose of forward motion, exuding a Leninist determination to get to the other side of the road. All else is going or gone. And yet East Berlin remains East Berlin.

Garton Ash assumes, rightly, that since 1945 all mainstream West German politicians had to make a central place in their thinking for the ultimate goal of reunification. This added a dimension to the politics of post-war West Germany which is hard, if not impossible, for other West Europeans to grasp. Another obstacle to understanding the two Germanies has been the virtual monopoly which German academics, politicians and journalists enjoyed over the subject – and, my God, they could be boring. In addition, public political debate in Germany is frequently synonymous, sometimes unintentionally, with obfuscation:

The Federal Constitutional Court, in a judgment calculated to confound all but the most hardened jurist, averred that the German Reich continued to exist in the frontiers of December 1937 – the original Allied definition of ‘Germany as a whole’. The Federal Republic, said its highest court, was a state identical with that German Reich but ‘so far as its territorial extent is concerned “part-identical”, so that to this extent the identity does not aspire to exclusivity’.

Why unification remained such a sacred tenet is more mysterious than it may first appear. As Garton Ash points out, the influence of those organisations with a vested interest in reunification – the expellees from Silesia and the Sudentenland – waned steadily from the Fifties onwards. In West Germany popular pressure for unification was virtually non-existent, while in the GDR the idea soon became the most heinous of thought-crimes and was therefore absent from public discourse.

It is this public indifference, perhaps, which explains the shift from the uncompromising ‘Hallstein doctrine’, which denied Federal German recognition to states which had already recognised the GDR, to Brandt’s Ostpolitik. As Garton Ash writes,

It was not just in 1988 but already in 1969 that Brandt said: ‘I must confess that I have stopped speaking about reunification.’ In the short term, this could be seen as responsible, humane pragmatism, in the interests of the individual people in Germany (die Mensehen). In the long run, it had more than a touch of Machiavellianism, in the national interest. German unity could only be achieved if one ceased to demand it!

Garton Ash is one of the few scholars or journalists (he is both) to treat Germany with the seriousness it deserves. There is nobody more able or better qualified to lead us through the baffling maze of Ostpolitik, Russlandpolitik and intra-German relations. Garton Ash seems to have interviewed everyone (apart from Mikhail Gorbachev) who played a main role in the byzantine diplomatic triangle between Bonn, Moscow and Berlin. In the English-speaking world, this book will be the starting point for any discussion of German foreign policy in the post-war period. It has already been acknowledged by a broad political spectrum in Germany itself as a key work of modern history. Not only is Garton Ash’s German richer than that of many Germans, he is able to pick out the essential, illuminating thread from any political rhetoric, exposing the disingenuity or teasing out the nuances of the original in the process.

Yet Garton Ash is himself disingenuous. He is at pains to present himself in this work as ‘a historian’, freed from political imperatives. At the same time, and despite his meticulous approach, he cannot disguise his conviction, even his horror, that 1989 was unification by default. He concedes that the Ostpolitik of the SPD contributed to the collapse of the GDR but demonstrates convincingly that this took the SPD, as much as anyone else, by surprise. As Brandt admitted, Ostpolitik relegated unification to the position of a vague, possibly desirable goal some time in the future.

In the mid-Eighties, most German politicians had unification scheduled for anything between twenty and fifty years thence. The SPD from the period of Brandt’s ascendancy onwards argued that, given the impossibility of unification in the immediate future, Bonn must cultivate relations with Berlin in the hope of improving daily life for ordinary East Germans by the policy of ‘small steps’. Garton Ash wags his finger at the architects of the SPD policy, lest they should attempt to take credit for an outcome they did not attend. And at times he is unable to disguise his outrage that the SPD in government was prepared to confer legitimacy on the other Germany.

The book develops into a sustained polemic which takes the SPD’s Ostpolitik (not just DDRpolitik, but Russland and Osteuropapolitik) to task. Occasionally it reads like a thrilling joust between Garton-Ash and Egon Bahr, the left half of Willy Brandt’s brain. Bahr was the first to develop the ideas of Wandel durch Annäherung (‘Change through Rapprochment’) and later Liberalisierung durch Stabilisierung. The latter policy assumed that life could only get better for ordinary Volk in East Germany if a statesmanlike relationship were established between Bonn and East Berlin. There could be no support for groups aiming to undermine the GDR, the theory continued, as this would merely lead to a hardening of the East German party leadership’s attitudes to its own population. Given its earlier history, the paramount responsibility of Germany (East and West) was to contribute to the creation of a stable European security order (europäische Friedensordnung). Ostpolitik thus conferred a legitimacy on the GDR leadership that was not founded in the support of ordinary East Germans. This legitimacy eventually spawned complacency, as Honecker and the Socialist Unity Party (SED) drifted ever further from the social reality and expectations of the population. This led, Garton Ash says, to the final paradox: they (the SPD and Ostpolitik) got it right because they got it wrong. This Möbius strip of an argument is the most fascinating thing about Garton Ash’s book; he spends the bulk of In Europe’s Name attacking the SPD for pursuing policies which turned out to be successful.

In a revealing discussion between Bahr and Garton Ash published earlier this year in Die Wochenpost (a German weekly which attempts to blend the work of journalists from East and West), Bahr adds another twist to the Möbius strip: ‘In historical terms, we have all made a mistake. Because we have unity but no European Security Order. And we can see just how serious our mistakes have been if we look at Yugoslavia and the Caucasus.’ Or as Garton Ash might put it, we got it wrong because we got it right because we got it wrong.

The great omission in this book reflects a great omission in German politics. Throughout the debate about how best to achieve unification, not a single word was uttered regarding its possible consequences. For all the billions of marks which went into DDR Forschung (Research), not to mention the West German Ministry for Intra-German Relations, it never occurred to the West Germans to consider whether contingency plans should be drawn up in the event of the unthinkable ever happening, as it did in 1989. Not that the Germans should be singled out. Despite investing trillions of dollars in the struggle to win the Cold War, the Western alliance has proved itself to be mind-bogglingly unprepared for post-Communist Europe. The end of the Cold War has again challenged the peoples of Europe to find convincing answers not just to the terrible Yugoslav and Caucasian questions but beyond these to the two most threatening European problems: those of Germany and Russia.

Compared to Russia, of course, Germany is a rock of stability. It is regarded both as the primus inter pares of the European Union and, along with Japan and the US, as one of the three great centres of world economic power. However, just because its great neighbour to the east is slipping steadily down a black hole, this does not free Germany from the immense domestic and foreign political problems in its way; developments in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe will have a substantial impact on German foreign policy. Above all though, the development of Germany will depend on its ability to wield the political power commensurate with its economic weight. Privately, individuals within the Aussenamt in Bonn (the German Foreign Office) are now distancing themselves from the initiative of late 1991, which recognised Croatia before an overall solution to the Yugoslav crisis had been found. They do not argue that the act of recognition was necessarily wrong but that they had underestimated the hostility to such a move on the part of their allies and, in particular, of Russia. They describe it as German foreign policy trying to run before it can walk.

Not surprisingly, Germany remains much more confident about its economic policy – the permanent wailing of lesser European powers such as Britain and France about the strength of the D-Mark and the high level of German interest rates is dismissed both by the Bundesbank and the German Government. The need to integrate the new Länder and prevent the destabilisation of the former GDR far outweighs the interests of other EC member states. This has led to some shifts in Germany’s European strategy. Resistance to the introduction of a European currency is growing faster now in Germany – hitherto the great advocate of monetary integration – than anywhere else. Germany’s political authority is dependent, it is argued, on the power of the Deutschmark. And even if Germany eventually does give up its currency, it will never compromise on the location of the European bank.

Germany has also responded quicker than other West European countries to the new economic conditions in Eastern Europe. (The only exception here is Austria, although the Austrian and German economies, already linked by their two currencies, are likely to integrate still further once Austria is accepted into the EU.) As Timothy Garton Ash warns, it is too early to identify any clear pattern of Western investment policy in Eastern Europe. One could claim that overall levels of investment are not nearly high enough to sustain the transformation from state-planned to market economy. But beyond that it is difficult to see which Western countries are most committed to investing in Eastern Europe, because the figures have fluctuated wildly from year to year since 1990. One can see, however, a concentration of German capital in two regions – western Poland and the Czech Republic (aka Upper Silesia and the Sudetenland). In both of these countries there is trepidation at the prospect of large-scale German investment and tremendous fear of there not being large-scale German investment.

The greatest attraction of Poland and the Czech Republic for (West) German industry is its highly skilled, cheap labour. This has led to fears among Germany’s trade-union movement (especially in extractive and manufacturing industry) that the process of transferring Germany’s industrial capacity to other countries is beginning to accelerate. If Mercedes is shifting its truck division into the Czech Republic – and increasingly Mercedes products are no longer stamped ‘Made in Germany’ but ‘Made by Daimler’ – how long will it be before it starts buying all its steel from Ostrava instead of Duisburg?

The economic temptations, or indeed imperatives, posed by the opening of Eastern Europe in turn apply further pressure on Germany’s greatest problem – its internal division between East and West. If German industry is in recession and adapting to the massive changes in world markets, it is the new Länder which suffer the most as a consequence. Garton Ash would probably disagree, but the speed with which the two Germanies merged, and the fact that unification policy was dictated by Bonn, have seriously hampered a smooth transition. The mutual resentment between Ossis and Wessis runs deep. But beyond that psychological problem, a serious political rift is emerging. The recent local elections in Brandenburg, in which the PDS, the Reform Communists, made a strong showing, indicate that the East German response to transition may have more in common with the patterns emerging in Poland or Lithuania than it does with Western political traditions.

In Germany’s case, the great danger lies in the resuscitation, not of Communist traditions, but of Fascist ones. (The ideology of the PDS is unambiguously pro-market.) It is too early to start panicking about neo-Nazism in Germany, although my recent conversations with functionaries of the PDS and SPD in Berlin and provincial areas of the new Länder indicate that a degree of fear has already taken hold of the two parties. Germany is due to hold general elections by the autumn of this year. These will be of considerable importance in suggesting to what extent the revival of right-wing traditions there is confined to disaffected social groups and to what extent it is eating into more stable parts of German society. (It is worth pointing out that despite the trauma of transition, the revival of right-wing organisations is just as noticeable in the old Länder as it is in the new Länder.)

Until Germany’s formal unity is accompanied by a real unity of purpose on both sides of the old curtain, it will he unable to identify its new, and unquestionably leading, role in Europe. And until Germany finds the requisite balance between economic and political power, Europe will not be able to relax. As the centre of world economic power moves inexorably from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Europe needs to find its political stability as soon as possible; and the nascent political tensions in Central and Eastern Europe will be heightened if this continent continues to drift economically.

Returning to London recently after a long trip through Central and Eastern Europe, I was amazed by how little interest has been generated in this country by the earthquake of 1989. The United Kingdom must begin to pay more attention to Germany and concentrate less on the special relationship with the United States (which looks more a tired anachronism every day). The reason is obvious: if a European Security Order (or Peace Order, as the SPD would have it) cannot be built, then any destabilisation of the continent will not only undermine continental Europe: it will have a decisive and destructive impact here as well.