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How James O'Brien became the conscience of liberal Britain

Talk radio has long been dominated by right-wing blowhards. But LBC's James O'Brien can make tolerance go viral. How?

Every weekday at 8am, James O’Brien arrives at the LBC studios in Leicester Square, sits down at his desk with a pile of newspapers and a pair of scissors and talks to his production team. He whittles down the options until he has three one-hour phone-in topics for what has become the most talked-about radio show in Britain. At least that’s the idea. He doesn’t know for sure what he’s going to say until the 10 o’clock news finishes, the light comes on and he opens his mouth.

One Monday in January, the final segment of O’Brien’s show is about paternity leave. In the control room, which is spacious, hi-tech and as uncannily tidy as a movie set, his producers Caroline and Rosie assiduously vet the calls in the service of quality over quantity. O’Brien is an excellent listener, sensitively prodding callers into revealing more, wooing them with his own self-deprecating stories. He slips in a quick dig at Donald Trump but the segment ends without a voice being raised. Afterwards, drinking peppermint tea in a downstairs meeting room, O’Brien says that he likes topics which don’t force callers to take sides. “You get stories rather than opinions. And everyone’s had Trump and Brexit up to the back teeth. I didn’t want to do an hour of either of them today.”

If you’re a regular listener to O’Brien’s show, then you’ll know that many of his segments are like this. But if, like millions of people who lack the time or inclination to listen to daytime talk radio, you’ve only recently become aware of him via video clips shared by your friends on social media, you’ll know a different O’Brien: a talker rather than a listener, a deliverer of opinions rather than stories, a tireless foe of both Trump and Brexit.

It has all happened very quickly. Last April, O’Brien’s fiery monologue about Kelvin MacKenzie and the Hillsborough inquiry was his first video to exceed one million views on Facebook. Two months later, his response to the murder of Jo Cox hit 3.4 million on that platform alone. That was when I first saw O’Brien on my social media timelines. Since then, he’s been a permanent fixture. We are accustomed to seeing clips of John Oliver, Samantha Bee or, before he stepped down from The Daily Show, Jon Stewart - but this is the first time a British broadcaster on the left has become a consistent viral phenomenon. In less than a year, James O’Brien has become the conscience of liberal Britain.

There are obvious practical reasons for the 45-year-old’s dramatic spike in popularity after 14 years at LBC. In 2014, the station began broadcasting nationally. The following year, station owners Global revamped their studios and installed multiple cameras with an eye to producing broadcast-quality clips that they could promote online. If you watch O’Brien’s famously tough 2014 interview with Nigel Farage, it looks DIY by comparison. “I thought they were bonkers,” O’Brien says. “But my God they knew.”

O’Brien is as fluent off-air as on but if anything can render him relatively inarticulate, it’s a question about why his show in particular has spawned so many hits. “It’s pure serendipity,” he says. “Absolute luck. We were in the right place at the right time with the right people working on the internet side of it.” He doesn’t understand why some clips take off and others don’t. “I haven’t got a clue. I might think something’s a stone-cold viral hit and then it doesn’t do anything. I think if you started trying to put a penny in the slot and going off on one in a predefined direction you’d probably come a cropper.”

Some of his greatest hits are ingenious setpieces, like the time he mischievously introduced a passage from Mein Kampf as a quote from a speech by Home Secretary Amber Rudd to illustrate the grim similarities. Others are lightning in a bottle, like his compassionate conversation with a tearful German woman who talked about the xenophobic abuse she’d received immediately after the EU referendum. And some are old news to him. Last October, he asked a Leave voter called Ashley to name one EU law that he disliked and all Ashley could muster was a joke about the shape of bananas. The exchange proved so popular that it became a news story. “I’ve done ‘name one law’ a dozen times over the last 10 years,” O’Brien says. “It’s not new.”

Brexit was the turning point for O’Brien, who prefers the label “liberal” to “left-wing”. It made him necessary. For liberals, it was a colossal psychological trauma that was later compounded by Donald Trump’s election victory, so there was an opening in 2016 for someone who could express this angst without being paralysed by despair or tongue-tied by rage. O’Brien’s long, eloquent monologues strike a perfect balance between humour, knowledge, emotion, exacting logic, moral indignation, and exasperated incredulity. Nobody else can articulate the values and anxieties of this shellshocked sector of the population with such power and consistency. I have to say this because he certainly won’t.

“I feel self-conscious even discussing it,” he says, frowning. “The same thing happened with the interview with Farage. I’m still baffled by why other people didn’t do what I did because it was so easy. You just found a thread and pulled it and the man fell apart like a cheap suit. Apparently there aren’t many people making points about exploitation in the workplace or the defunding of the NHS. Which, of course, you would expect the leader of the Opposition to be doing, which is clearly where you’re leading me.” He hoots with laughter.

Why James O’Brien? That’s easy. Why only James O’Brien? That’s the tricky question.

 

***

Just as the satirical TV talk show has become the exclusive domain of the liberal left, the radio phone-in has always favoured voices from the right. Long before Breitbart, or even Fox News, conservatism’s media shock troops were bellicose bloviators such as Rush Limbaugh. The format lends itself to stoking grievances and generating more heat than light. When O’Brien took over LBC’s mid-morning show a decade and a half ago, he wanted to see if another approach was possible. Could a phone-in host use those tools to encourage people to think rather than rage?

When O’Brien first joined LBC, in the Sunday evening graveyard slot, the radio consultant Valerie Geller advised him to act like he was talking to one person rather than a room full of them. He thinks that all of his favourite broadcasters, from Jonathan Ross and Chris Evans to Kirsty Young and Mishal Husain, have this direct relationship with the listener. “They connect on an individual level, rather than seducing a crowd like a demagogue can.”

O’Brien tries to ignore the cameras. “I’m a scruffy sod anyway so I’m not going to start treating it like telly.” Once or twice he’s found himself talking straight into the lens and he stops himself because it makes his delivery “almost thespian”. A large part of the appeal of his videos is that you can see him actually thinking, rather than performing rehearsed lines. He doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. “The morning after the [referendum] result, the first thing I said was that there’s one thing we can all agree on: nobody knows what will happen next. I think that’s probably what resonated. Somebody who wasn’t pretending to know.”

This is one of the reasons why Brexit’s leap in the dark bothers him. O’Brien doesn’t like not knowing things. As the son of a veteran newspaperman, Jim O’Brien, he was raised to venerate facts. As far back as he can remember, there would be newspapers on the breakfast table and Brian Redhead’s Today on the school run. “I think it’s just osmosis,” he says. “It’s what I find interesting.” He has a sharp memory for useful facts and will google additional statistics or anecdotes while he’s on a call but he forces himself to resist l’esprit d’escalier. To have the last word after a caller has gone is cheating. The art, he says, is to expose someone’s ignorance or hypocrisy in the moment. “It’s magic radio when you can hear the penny drop.”

O’Brien therefore regards the denigration of facts and expertise in the current political discourse as an existential affront. “The marginalisation of truth over the past 18 months has been genuinely staggering.” On his show he insists that opinions are backed up with evidence. If a caller like Ashley complains about the EU, then he’s expected to name a regulation that adversely affects him. If someone criticises a strike, then she has to explain how else workers should fight for their rights. “If you track back over the last 12 years to see at what point something clicked, it was when I asked people to tell me how immigration was ruining their lives,” he says. “And they had nothing, ever. If you’ve got no evidence I’m not going to call you a racist but I am going to call you a bit silly.”

When O’Brien’s clips are posted by LBC or reported elsewhere, they often use the clickbait hyperbole of “destroying” arguments or “dismantling” callers. The overstatement makes him wince; it’s not that easy to change minds. “I think there’s an incremental process,” he says. “I know there is. The nicest messages I get say, ‘You’ve changed the way I look at the world.’ But it didn’t happen because of one phone call; it happened because I get three hours with them every day. You can change an open mind.”

O’Brien regards his platform as a unicorn-rare privilege. Unlike Samantha Bee or John Oliver, he isn’t addressing a self-selecting echo chamber. Many of his 810,000 listeners also stay tuned to LBC for the likes of Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage. (“It is what it is,” he sighs when I mention his colleagues. “It’s not company I’d particularly seek or enjoy. It’s just a little bit inconvenient that they work in the same building.”) The show gives him a freedom and reach that he can’t imagine anywhere else. No politician or newspaper columnist engages with that many people for that long every day.

He mentions his recent support for union rights. “If I didn’t have a radio show I wouldn’t know where to go to get that message out there. I think Labour have a problem getting it out there. Maybe they’re all capable but they just don’t have the platform and all I’ve got is the platform: that curious congregation of the technology, the political culture, my crystallising beliefs and articles of faith, all slotting into place at the same time, and then it pops up on your screen.”

Does he consider himself influential?

He scrunches his brow. “Maybe that’s going to be the next stage in this weird saga. Maybe I’m going to start thinking I can actually influence politics. But at the moment I don’t. It’s a question of trying to work out why people do what they do.”

O’Brien is often disappointed by what he finds, which may be his most relatable quality. While many commentators appear to spend every waking hour looking for new things to be cross about, he is more like a retired gunfighter in a western, forced to take up arms again when bandits come to town. He would rather be talking about things like paternity leave but callers kept making unfounded complaints about political correctness and immigration, and then Trump and Brexit happened, so here he is. “People seem to thrive on anger and hate,” he says. “I guess in a country that’s governed in many ways by the editor of the Daily Mail, the tyranny of anger and hate shouldn’t be a big surprise.”

Naturally, he has made enemies. Kelvin MacKenzie has called for him to be sacked and Rod Liddle dismissed him after the Farage interview as “so swaddled in his purblind political correctness that he actually… knew nothing at all, apart from his own utterly misguided certainties” — an almost comically inaccurate criticism. On Twitter, where O’Brien has 131,000 followers, he has attracted an army of right-wing trolls. “I block and mute a lot. There was a feller today who had 300 tweets, about 250 of which were about me. The people who pay the most attention to you are the ones who hate you. If people who liked me were that devoted to the programme I’d find it quite unnerving.”

***

One of the nice side effects of O’Brien’s higher profile is that old schoolfriends get in touch on Facebook to say that they always knew he’d end up doing something like this. At Ampleforth College, a Catholic boarding school in North Yorkshire, he was fiercely argumentative and rebellious to a fault. “I was awful,” he says. “I got into trouble all through my childhood. Police-level trouble a couple of times. I look back now and think how patient my parents were.”

During the phone-in about paternity leave, O’Brien says that his father was often away for work — for weeks on end during the miners’ strike — but he tells the story without a flicker of resentment. He speaks glowingly of Jim, “a quiet Yorkshire Catholic”, and his mother, “a magnificent Yorkshirewoman who wouldn’t brook any crap”. “Almost without me noticing, they imbued me with a moral compass,” he says. “Which is why I think I can sometimes be a little bit sententious, but I’d rather be sententious than dishonest.” (The choice of word is telling: Rod Liddle has described O’Brien as “hugely sententious”.) O’Brien drifted away from religion after school but he began attending church again after his father’s death in 2012.

O’Brien has always had a show-off gene. While studying at LSE, he seriously considered applying to drama school. In his first journalism job, as gossip columnist for the Daily Express under Rosie Boycott, he would put on a winning performance in morning conference to mask his dearth of scoops. His TV debut, as a presenter on Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff in 2000, went so well that Anglia Television gave him his own chat show, A Knight With O’Brien. “All the big names were on there: Darius, Caprice, Ted Bovis out of Hi-De-Hi…” He raises an eyebrow. “Big show.” He also co-hosted a Channel 5 politics show with his wife Lucy during the 2001 general election campaign, leading Clive James to call him “a pink-shirted walking encyclopedia of political savvy”. (The couple married in 2000 and have two daughters at primary school. O’Brien credits Lucy with making him less quarrelsome off air. “It’s arguable that the woman who you’re madly in love with isn’t going to want to go home with you if you’ve made a dick of yourself at a dinner party.”)

After two years, management changes left O’Brien abruptly unemployed and he gave himself a year before returning to newspapers. Taking any TV work going reduced him, he says dismissively, to “a gob on a stick”. He only started turning work down after his dad asked him the excellent question: “Why are you flying to Belfast to have an argument with Peter Hitchens about cannabis legislation? What is going to come from that?”

The experience left him very choosy about television. He enjoys guest hosting Newsnight (“People are obviously going to see bias where they want to see it but I’m I’m comfortable with being an equal opportunities critic”) but thinks that his 2015 ITV debate show O’Brien didn’t play to his strengths and isn’t desperate for another showcase. “People find this hard to believe but quite a lot of radio people don’t sit here dreaming of being on the telly. There’s no gaping hole for more TV, not at all.”

O’Brien is glad that there weren’t cameras in the studio when he started at LBC. He thinks he too often settled for low-hanging fruit: small-bore topics that were guaranteed to get callers. “I was lazier. I used to do less thinking. The first lesson you have to learn is that making the phones ring is not the same as good radio.” He used to be more combative, too, picking fights for the sake of it. His priority now is to raise the standard of debate rather than stoke the flames.

When he talks about his early days in journalism, he remembers being dismayed that so few of his colleagues left the office. “I thought the point of being a journalist was all about talking to people. And you’re never going to talk to more people than doing what I do now.”

***

O’Brien is now so outspoken that it’s easy to forget that he didn’t take sides during the EU referendum campaign. “I was more anti-anti,” he says. “Some of the rabid pro-Leave people seemed to be such unsavoury characters that I was worried where they might lead us but that didn’t necessarily mean it was the wrong destination.”

O’Brien is no stranger to unsavoury characters. In 2015, he published a book called Loathe Thy Neighbour, about hostility towards immigration. He has spent over a decade fielding calls from some of the most furiously right-wing people in Britain: the climate-change deniers, the conspiracy theorists, the scourges of political correctness, the Islamophobes, the misogynists, the flat-out racists. No cosy liberal bubble for him. You would think that if anyone was prepared for the resurgence of populist nationalism, then it would be O’Brien, but no.

“I wasn’t surprised by how strange and ill-informed they are; I was surprised by how many of them there are,” he says. “I just assumed that I was dealing with most of them. I had no idea that 30, 40, 50 per cent of the population was subscribing to similar schools of thought. And if I couldn’t see it, talking to them every day, what chance did the politicians have?”

O’Brien thinks the media needs to raise its game to confront this tide of irrationality. “I think it’s going to have to start with words. Everything starts with words. People have to start insisting on what you mean by ‘ordinary white working class’. What do you mean by ‘elite’? ‘Take back control’? These are the things that journalism has let through. The fact that demagogues are able to say these things without being pulled to shreds, let alone scrutinised, is why we are where we are.”

Another bugbear is the false equivalence that broadcasters sometimes succumb to in the name of balance. “Climate science is by far the best example. I worry that the next thing we’re going to look at through the lens of false equivalence might be Holocaust denial. If that moves front and centre, then I think we’re all fucked.”

O’Brien is unsure where his ballooning profile will lead him. Success brings new opportunities but none are as appealing as the role that made him successful in the first place. He’s meant to be writing a book proposal, if he can find the time. “It’s similar to why you’re here today. The question about opposition: why are these arguments about different issues not breaking through on a political scale when they’re breaking through on a media scale for me?”

Perhaps the most impressive thing about O’Brien is his tenacity. He has spent over half his adult life going head-to-head with the paranoid, bigoted and ill-informed without losing faith in people’s capacity to listen, reason and change their minds. Where does this optimism come from?

“I’ll tell you what it is,” O’Brien says, leaning forward. “It’s the epic amount of effort that goes into getting people to act against their own interests, so I can’t be too downcast when they do. If they weren’t putting any effort into it, if we weren’t putting the liars on prime time, and they were still going down this road, then I’d be a lot more worried. I guess it’s why I go to church. I still think the truth will out and good will win.”

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

33RevolutionsPerMinute.wordpress.com

Photo: STEFAN BONESS/PANOS
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What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.

***

West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.

***

West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.

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Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)