Time Out with Nick Cohen: Barbara Stocking

In what circumstances would Oxfam's head choose to speak plainly, even if telling the truth endanger

Oxfam was founded in 1942 to bring aid to the oppressed of Nazi Europe, a cause that didn't make it popular with the Churchill government. After the Germans occupied Greece, the Royal Navy blocked the shipping lanes. Food and medicines couldn't get through to civilians, and famine set in. Lifting the blockade might have helped the starving, but Whitehall wondered whether food meant for the hungry wouldn't end up in the bellies of German troops instead, and gazed with some disdain on the new lobbyists.

The founders of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief were stereotypical members of the great and the good: bishops, academics, retired teachers and Quaker philanthropists, all of whom have been at the forefront of liberal causes for generations, and the butt of satirists for just as long. In Bleak House, Dickens gave us Mrs Jellyby, who had "very good hair but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it", and was so obsessed with bringing edu cation and coffee cultivation to "the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger" that her neglected daughter declared: "I wish Africa was dead! I do! Don't talk to me, Miss Summerson. I hate it and detest it. It's a beast!"

Yet Churchill's coalition government found it no easier than its successors to dismiss the new charity. Mock if you like, implied Gilbert Murray, Regius professor of Greek at Oxford, founder of Oxfam and friend of half the worthy causes of the mid-20th century, but "be careful in dealing with a man who cares nothing for comfort or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes to be right". Murray was better at predicting the power of organised conscience than Dickens. The ad hoc response to the Greek famine turned into the most visible charity on the high street. It was infused with the amateur air English liberals adopt when they go out in the world to do good. The first head office was in a cramped room above the original Oxfam shop in Broad Street in the city centre; the second in a dingy parade of shops in Victorian north Oxford.

The tweeds and piles of dusty pamphlets are gone now. Under the leadership of Barbara Stocking, Oxfam has moved to a huge HQ at a new business park on the edge of town. Old hands find the identikit postmodern box with its dispiriting views of traffic jammed on the ring road soulless, and I saw why when I got there. This might be the head office of any corporation in any ribbon development anywhere in the industrialised world. Once inside, however, there's no denying the efficiency of the place. Charity workers sit in an open- plan office the size of a football pitch. Neat shelving units hold research papers, while a GM-free, organic, fair-trade canteen offers succour when they need a break from rescuing Africa.

The businesslike atmosphere reflects the personality of the director. Stocking is a former regional director of the NHS who, according to rumour, was in the running for the top job. Corporate cant litters her talk - "making a difference", "meeting the challenge" and all the rest of it - but it would be a mistake to see her as another empty suit. The charitable world is notoriously uncharitable, but I couldn't find a director of a rival charity with a bad word to say about her. Her own staff describe her as an honest and popular manager.

Annus mirabilis

Above all, she is a success. Under her leadership, turnover has hit £300m. Oxfam now has more than 750 shops in the UK, 6,000 staff all over the world and sister organisations in 13 countries. Oxfam officials have gone from the charity into government and helped make new Labour the most charitable administration ever. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were the "Lennon and McCartney" of poverty reduction, cried an approving Bono, and if you can forgive the cheesy comparison, you can see his point. I would be exaggerating if I said that aid was a major political issue in Britain, but it matters more to voters here than in any other European country.

The annus mirabilis for Oxfam was 2005, when Blair and Brown pushed for the G8 nations to agree to an extraordinary programme of debt relief and subsidies for Africa, Live 8 played Hyde Park, and the Asian tsunami provoked an outburst of altruism. "It was a time that people recognised that we are part of the global world," Stocking remembers with a warm smile. "For the first time, the new horizons of travel and the net came together and made people realise that if we're going to live happily in the global world we're going to have to make it better."

I wasn't as convinced then and am less so now. Even at the peak of Make Poverty History's campaign, you didn't have to be a Telegraph-reading Tory to think the aid movement was taking a wrong turn. It presented a picture of a world as much the white man's to direct as it was at the apogee of the European empires. No one told the audience at Live 8 that Africa had nepotistic dictators in power or kleptomaniac families in office. They stayed silent about genocidal movements and spy-ridden regimes. All that was needed to rescue Africa from poverty was for the developed world to agree more aid, fairer trade and debt relief and - poof! -the suffering would end.

Two years on, the neocolonialist view hasn't been shaken. A recent Oxfam study of global warming says, truthfully, that pollution from the rich world will hurt the poor world, but fails to ask how Africa can develop without increasing its output of greenhouse gases. A report on foreign policy says, again rightly, that the Iraq war has made humanitarian intervention harder to justify, but it makes no condemnation of Ba'athist and Islamist "insurgents", nor does it offer solidarity to their victims. A report in advance of this summer's G8 summit condemns rich governments for failing to honour promises made in 2005, but assumes the problems of the world are the fault of the west and, by converse, that the remedies lie in western hands.

The usual justification for lopsided vision is that pressure groups can best influence their own governments. A demonstration in London against the massacres in Darfur will have no influence on the regime in Khartoum, but a march to demand that the British government commit more money to, say, education in Africa might. If double standards and myopia follow, then so be it. What matters is what works. But the easy ride given to Oxfam, Christian Aid and the other aid charities overlooks a structural problem. The aid charities are hybrids with incompatible aims. On the one hand, they provide relief regardless of the political consequences - like the Red Cross - and, on the other, they lobby for political change - like Human Rights Watch. As Amartya Sen showed, dem ocracies don't have famines. The great hungers of the past hundred years were presided over by colonial administrators, communist tyrants and, today, African nationalists and gangsters. Dictatorships do not as a rule tolerate censure from anyone inside their borders. Therefore, if Oxfam were to speak out against the obscenity of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe being elected to head the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, there's a fair chance Mugabe would stop Oxfam workers from relieving the suffering inflicted by his economically unsustainable regime. Its hybrid status means Oxfam has to direct disapproval at governments that won't respond to criticism by closing down Oxfam operations, but, rather, will invite Stocking in for a chat and a cup of tea.

Stocking has the strength of character to face hard questions candidly. In Darfur, I said, Oxfam is feeding 600,000 refugees on the Chadian border. Is that why it refuses to call the Darfuri genocide "genocide"?

"It is a dilemma for us," she said. "We think we've got to save lives today while trying to get the international com munity to sort out the bigger problem. Now we will do our absolute utmost to go to the edge of that. We will try to give as much information out, but not in ways that are challenging to the Khartoum government."

I asked if she could imagine circumstances in which Oxfam would choose to speak plainly, even if telling the truth en dangered famine relief. There were two, she replied. First, if charitable aid was a "sticking plaster" that allowed the international community to feel that conditions in, say, Darfur were not so bad. Second, if aid was keeping an oppressive government in power, as may soon be the case in Zimbabwe.

Future dangers

I suggested that a better policy would be to help African progressives set their countries free by championing their causes and highlighting the crimes of their oppressors. If I'd confessed to stealing second-hand books from my local Oxfam, she couldn't have been more shocked. "No, no, that's not our mandate. We want to offer a way out of poverty that makes them feel they have economic opportunity and provides them with a right to be heard. It's not our job to help groupings that want to overthrow their governments."

She sounded reasonable as she marked out her limits, but I was left wondering how long the aid charities could stay in British politics while staying out of African politics. The strongest criticism she would make of governments in the poor world was that some of them were corrupt. But the trouble with Africa is not that its post-colonial elites are corrupt - there are corrupt governments all over the world - it is that they are unpatriotic. From Côte d'Ivoire to Zimbabwe, post-colonial rulers have shown that they would prefer to bring the roof down on their wretched peoples rather than let the opposition challenge their power.

A thought experiment shows future dangers for Oxfam. Suppose the G8 meets all its 2005 promises. Suppose the World Trade Organisation stops the rich world subsidising its farmers. Then suppose that nothing changes or, as Sen would predict, that change for the better comes only in those countries already on the path to accountable politics. Would Oxfam be able to rouse governments and publics for another Live 8? Or would governments and publics echo young Miss Jellyby and say that Africa was a beast?

At its birth, Oxfam had to decide whether destroying tyranny was more important than relieving immediate suffering, and 65 years on it seems no closer to an answer.

I asked Stocking if she expected to see Africa break away from the demeaning need for other people's charity by the time we both retired. Yes, she replied. Absolutely. Look at the strides made in combating poverty in India. The naysayers said change was impossible, but it happened, for all their sneers. I forgot about the question and moved on, but it evidently niggled away. As I left, she corrected herself: "Perhaps not by the time we retire, but maybe before we die."

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state

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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.

***

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)

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state