All turmoil on the western front

The election that gutted Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals swept in dozens of unlikely MPs. So how will t

In this busy year of news, one that has continued with such ferocity that it has made a mockery of the idea that nothing much worth reporting happens in summer, it would be easy to continue to think of Canada as the heaven where, as the Talking Heads frontman David Byrne would have it, "nothing ever happens". There has been no Canadian spring, the country's finances are shockingly sound, our journalists have played nice and our soldiers are no longer involved in combat operations in Afghanistan. Dignitaries staying at our hotels do not mistake the chambermaids for kinky visitors and our MPs, who do not fiddle their expenses much, keep what photographs they may have of their private parts to themselves. Damn it, when Vancouver rioted in June after the city's ice hockey team lost to Boston in the worst-played series final in memory, it was family and friends who turned the miscreants in - that is, when the good-natured rioters did not head down to the station to confess. In Canada, we can't manage much of a scandal of any kind, though this summer in a rural part of Quebec, historically home to odd cults, neighbours did have to call the police after they heard repeated screams from a farmhouse. Three women were found wrapped in mud, plastic and blankets and had to be taken to hospital, where one died from her unfortunate "earth-healing therapy". As Barack Obama wrestled with impending default, Canadian newspapers were calling for the regulation of spas.

It is easy to mock. And yet, quietly, these past five years, a very different Canada from the one in which I grew up has emerged. The New Canada is a "warrior nation" that favours combat over peace operations and big industry over the environment. Having put an end to the country's draft dodger legacy by sending a few sorry US war resisters home, the present government publishes, in American style, a list of most wanted "war criminals" and plans to deport 1,800 illegal immigrants speedily. It has designed an "Anti-Human Trafficking Act" that makes scapegoats of the miserable and has made whatever opportunity it could muster, in the past couple of years, out of ships arriving with beleaguered immigrant Tamils (aka terrorists) who "jump the queue". It has let Omar Khadr, convicted of killing a US marine in a firefight in Afghanistan when he was 15, languish in detention in Guantanamo despite a decision by the country's Supreme Court that his rights were being transgressed. It has made the presence of a member of the military at the swearing-in of new Canadian citizens mandatory. As the self-styled party of law and order, the Conservatives are planning mega-prisons. They also hope to do away with the hated national gun registry, the legacy of a Liberal bill introduced in 1995 in the murderous wake of Marc Lépine - a psychopath not dissimilar to Anders Behring Breivik - who killed 14 female students and injured 14 other people in a rampage at the University of Montreal during which he yelled: "Down with women!"

The Conservative hatreds are many - and in their persistent display lies an indication of what is, despite the party's majority at the May general election, after five years of trying, a lingering sense of insecurity in a country that is essentially liberal by nature. So, for the Conservatives, the project of the transformation of Canada is ongoing, which means constantly finding new ways to revile the Liberals and their myths and icons that our brilliantly controlling prime minister, Stephen Harper, and his right-hand man, the minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, have despised for so long. Out with peacekeeping. Out with benign multiculturalism. Out with the obnoxious relativism of the country's charter. In with the war. In with the police. In with the good old-fashioned qualities of Presbyterian hard work and merit that liberal Canadian talk about rights, rather than responsibilities, put in the shade for a decadent, not enlightened, half-century.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the great Liberal prime minister who led Canada between 1968 and 1984, but for an interregnum of nine months, is the figure repeatedly held up to the Conservative Party faithful as a reminder of the slack, tolerant, more empathetic country that, at any point, we might dangerously revert to being.

The target, always, is Trudeau and the liberal generation that, worse than being in a position of power for the better part of four decades, had huge fun as it did so. Canada's military lobby blames the Liberal Party for running down the armed forces by having them made "peacekeepers", and for striving instead towards an exuberant and inclusive idea of Canada, epitomised by Expo 67 in Montreal. The Liberals are hated by Conservatives for their multicultural policies and for making the country a haven for dual-passport-holding, quasi-Canadian freeloaders as well as (Kenney again) for their "bloated bureaucracies of the nanny state".

The great irony is that the Conservatives now employ more government workers than their predecessors ever did; and if indeed Canada has escaped the 2008 recession and the aftermath that has been ruining just about every other G20 country, it is entirely because of Keynesian spending and the healthy balance sheet and sound fiscal policies (in particular, tough regulations binding Canadian banks) that were inherited from the Liberals back in 2006. But no matter. Trudeau is a symbol of a Canada that the Conservatives have dispensed with, yet it just won't go away.

Arguably the country's greatest modern statesman (the other contenders, Lester B Pearson and Wilfrid Laurier, were Liberals, too), Trudeau is remembered elsewhere for a dandy pirouette at Buckingham Palace and a wife with a fondness for Rolling Stones, but he is remembered in Canada for defeating, or at least allaying, Québécois separatist ambition. However, in the fossil-fuel-rich west, seat of the country's Conservative Party, Trudeau made the egregious mistake in 1980 of imposing the National Energy Programme. This was a self-sufficiency plan that put a lid on oil and gas prices for the benefit of the rest of the country following the Opec fuel crises. Ever since, the federal Liberal Party in Alberta has been put on a par with, say, Pakistan's security forces.

The year 1980 may seem a long time ago, but in western Canada it is not. Young men and women from economically beleaguered "have not" provinces such as Nova Scotia and, with its failing manufacturing base, Ontario, commute thousands of miles to work amid the oil sands of the fantastically wealthy province. Ten minutes after arriving, they take on the region's atavistic hatred of the Liberals, in the name of a policy that was started and ended before they were born - one that Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal Party's last failed saviour, was hardly about to pursue. Trudeau's is a spectre that has done the Liberals no favours, either.

Solicited in 2006 from his post at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to run for the leadership of the Liberal Party, Ignatieff was supposed to have been Trudeau's latest, winning incarnation. Perhaps it was a harbinger of the plan not going quite right that when, one election late, he finally became the party leader, the New York Times featured Ignatieff in its Fashion and Style section, rather than the Magazine, to which he had contributed as a writer for years. Ignatieff inherited a party that had succumbed to a sort of flesh-eating disease. Hastened by the indignation, disbelief and shock of Liberals that they were not still the "natural governing party", the rot came on in 2003 after the resignation of Jean Chrétien, the last prime minister to have led the Liberals to a majority.

Seeing the end of their cushy ride, rife with the corruption that comes from too many years of entitlement, many Liberal luminaries quit rather than face having to toil from the opposition benches, adding to the veneer of arrogance the party had acquired. After four nearly uninterrupted decades of Liberals in office, and despite the fears they might have had about Harper's neo-Conservative "secret agenda", many Canadians believed that it was time for a change. Paul Martin - who, as Chrétien's minister of finance, was credited with having developed the cautious policies that have made Canadian banks exemplars of adroit fiscal policy - came and went. Quickly. So did Stéphane Dion, a well-meaning but bumbling and ineffectual leader who, against expectations, defeated Ignatieff's first attempt at the party leadership as a newly elected member in 2006.

In December 2008, after Harper prorogued parliament rather than face questions about the army's transfer of detainees to Afghan police, who did not play nice, Dion led a coalition of the Liberals, the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Bloc Québécois to make his case to the Canadian people, with what is possibly the worst promotional video ever shot by a politician anywhere in the world. Dion's amateur moment slammed the door shut on any possibility of a Liberal return to government that year, and in from the side stepped Ignatieff. Throughout that year's election campaign, he had supported Dion about as warmly as Tony Blair did his old chum Gordon Brown. At last, the fight card read Ignatieff v Harper.

The stage was set for what might well have become a fascinating contest between two Canadas. A cagey Harper represented a mostly rural Canadian constituency that, on the one hand, was historically ill-disposed towards anything foreign but, on the other, was also eager to prove itself a country in its own right, able to sit at the table with the big boys through means such as a fighting army, the right of citizens to carry a gun, and the quasi-Soviet societal engine of Albertan oil. In the other corner sat Ignatieff - educated, sophisticated and patrician. To the ordinary Canadian, he invoked every second-rate British schoolteacher or actor who, for a couple of centuries, had arrogantly passed himself off as Lord Muck in a country that he imagined knew no better. Yet Ignatieff nevertheless provided Canadians, as Trudeau with his inimitable style had done, with standards to aspire to. He was someone who, even with his fickle humanitarian views, notably on the role of Canadian soldiers and on the use of torture as a means to an end, embodied the thoughtful, internationalist society that Canada had prided itself on being since the days of Prime Minister Pearson, who won a Nobel Prize for his diplomatic role in the deployment of the first UN peacekeeping force during the 1956 Suez crisis.

Except that the opponent Harper feared - the bright, haughty, unapologetic intellectual - never showed up. Ignatieff was on the defensive from the start. He was leading a divided party, as Dion had done before him, that was constantly calling for an election but always scared of losing and ducking the gun at the last moment, making noisy stands only to back down, again and again, exhausting voters who felt - new immigrants especially - taken for granted by the Liberal Party that had represented them for so many years. The Conservatives, so deft at rousing enmities, did whatever they could to augment Canadian suspicion of a man who'd lived abroad for decades. He had described himself, in a foreword to his Massey Lectures (the CBC equivalent of the BBC Reith Lectures), as feeling like an "alien" in his former homeland, and while resident in the United States had implied he was American. He had spoken of Canada, when he did, disparagingly.

Ignatieff countered by trying to pass himself off in a folksy, hoi polloi way. In 2009, with Obama installed in Washington, he bragged about chums at the White House who would take his calls, but was humiliated when Harper obliged him to accept a hurried chat with the president at Ottawa Airport as Obama left after his first official visit to the Canadian capital.

That same year, in contrast to the honesty of The Russian Album, Ignatieff's memoir of his tsarist ancestry on his father's side, he published True Patriot Love. It is a pandering, disingenuous book about the maternal, Canadian side of his family and a thinly veiled attempt to prove his nationalist bona fides (in a first for him, it was not published outside Canada).

There had been a moment, after Harper won the 2008 election with a second, tenuous minority, when Ignatieff behaved quite effectively like a scathing headmaster, demanding that the prime minister report to him every three months on the state of the country's finances in the face of the accelerating recession. But then, like Dion, on too many questions - the war in Afghanistan, Quebec's position in the confederation, the green economy or the conduct of Canadian mining companies operating abroad - Ignatieff conceded ground to Harper rather than prompt an election. It was impossible to see how the Liberal position was much different from Harper's.

To the charge of the Conservative television attack ads that "He didn't come back for you", Ignatieff could only respond earnestly, rather than ridicule Harper's demagoguery. And to the Tories' rants insisting that the country needed economic stability, raising the spectre of a coalition that would include separatists and socialists, Ignatieff replied that he would never lead one. He never questioned why talk of coalition politics should be irksome to a country that has always made a point of negotiation, nor pointed to the British example, not yet tarnished. Only in the final moments of the 2011 campaign did he throw off his accumulated constraints, but it was all too late.

In the first of two televised election debates - one in English and the other in French, the NDP leader - Jack Layton, was supposed to have been a player on the sidelines. His was the third party, bound to lose seats as Canadians prepared to choose between the two old contenders, the Conservatives and the Liberals, with the Bloc Québécois taking its usual majority of seats in the French-Canadian province. But Layton, an angular, handsome man with a bald pate and a trim silver moustache, pared expertly. The NDP leader was also recovering from a hip operation. He was a walking advertisement for a Canadian health-care system under Conservative attack, and inadvertently he was endearing himself to Quebeckers because he was using a cane, as the former provincial Parti Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard, a sentimental favourite in Quebec, had done. Tellingly, he was referred to in la belle province as "Jack", the first name of Québécois folk heroes from Kerouac to Villeneuve. Ignatieff pressed repeatedly, but did so with a hectoring air that Canadians do not like, and Harper was able to appear like a weary parent instructing the children. It was Layton, however, who delivered the killer punch after Ignatieff hollered at his indignant Conservative opponent: "This is a debate, Mr Harper. This is a democracy."

“I've got to ask you, then, why do you have the worst attendance record of any member of the house of parliament?" Layton said, pointing out that the Liberal leader had missed 70 per cent of the votes in the House in 2010. "If you want to be prime minister, you've got to learn how to be a member of the House of Commons first. You know, most Canadians, if they don't show up for work, they don't get a promotion."

There was no recovering. He'd been doing a lot of travelling around the country to meet Canadians, Ignatieff might have said, but didn't. Instead, the charge stuck.

Still, few were prepared for the extent and the nature of the Liberal defeat on 2 May. In a house of 308, the party was reduced from an
already low 77 seats to 34, the smallest caucus in its history. Ignatieff lost his own riding. Yet the big surprise was neither the Conservative rise nor the Liberal loss, but the wild surge of the NDP, riding a Quebec protest vote to a record 103 seats, becoming the official opposition for the first time in its history. Quebeckers had turned to the NDP en masse, awarding the party 59 of the province's 75 seats and reducing the Bloc Québécois, its teamsters in Ottawa, from 49 seats to non-party status. The majority had voted, in presidential rather than parliamentary style, for Jack, without even bothering to consider who the local candidate was. The Conservative Party won 166 seats, securing the first Harper majority in four attempts as the left-of-centre vote split between the Liberals and the NDP in many Ontario and British Columbia ridings. As with so many Canadian governments, however, the Conservatives encountered a big hole of support in Quebec, where even Gilles Duceppe, the Bloc Québécois leader and thorn in Canada's side, lost his seat as Ignatieff had done.

Into Quebec came a flotsam of rookies that neither the party administration nor even the candidates had expected to win. Among them were former separatists, a successful candidate who had spent the campaign in Las Vegas and several who had never visited their ridings.

The NDP "Orange Crush" nevertheless transformed parliament into the most representative elected legislature anywhere. More than half of the NDP members are women. The party includes an aboriginal Canadian, Cana­da's first Tamil MP (an important change, given the way the Conservatives vilify Tamil immigrants), a couple of former punk rockers, a 27-year-old bar manager who had her son when she was 17, the McGill Four (a quatrain of students from the popular Montreal university who won seats in Quebec) and a 19-year-old, Canada's youngest ever MP. Pat Martin, a carpenter and veteran Dipper who became NDP spokesman on agriculture in May, said: "There are not enough grumpy old white guys. I feel quite isolated, marginalised by all these young, energetic, attractive, intelligent people . . . We'll have to make sure we don't insult anyone by assuming they are staff or parliamentary pages."

But Canada's electorate is volatile, and not just in Quebec, and it would be a mistake for either the Dippers or the Conservatives to believe that Ottawa's new panorama is permanent, or that the Liberals have squandered irrever­sibly the middle ground from which Canada has historically been governed. A cautionary tale, to which few Tories are paying heed, is that of 1993, in which the Progressive Conservative majority of Kim Campbell, Canada's first and only female prime minister, was reduced from 151 seats to two. The Liberals have been punished for their arrogance, but after three consecutive defeats they may be seen to have paid their dues. The critical Quebec vote has always been volatile but is also adept at serving the needs of the province, electing Liberals to Ottawa and separatists at the provincial level and watching the returns accrue from deals made between the two sides.

Quebec's representation in Ottawa has had many incarnations. There is no question that Quebeckers were fed up with the Bloc, the most recent embodiment of Québécois separatism (or "sovereigntism", as it has come to be known). The anglophone Canadian media's pronouncements in the days after the election however that the Quebec independence movement was dead and that the province "wanted in" to federalism were, however, premature.

And, for the first time in decades, there is the possibility in Ottawa of an effective opposition, though the NDP, with four years to prove that it belongs, is so far off to a wounded start. At the NDP convention immediately following the election, the confident party rejected all talk of a leftist merger with the humbled Liberals but was unable to drop the socialism from its constitutional lexicon, or to amend its troublesome resolution that, in any Quebec referendum on sovereignty, a mere 50 per cent plus one would constitute victory.

Then, in July, the NDP's hero, Jack Layton, needed to step aside for treatment of a second, grave cancer, and it turned out that the acting leader he had hand-picked, the former union boss Nycole Turmel, was a member of the Bloc Québécois until just months before the election. The gaffe contributed to a general sense that the NDP surge was so great that the party's leadership has no clear idea of who is in its camp.
Meanwhile, Bob Rae, the Toronto MP and former Ontario premier who is now acting as "interim" Liberal leader - he lost to Ignatieff in the third round of the 2006 leadership race and was passed over when Ignatieff was appointed in the truncated 2009 contest - is the most articulate speaker in the House and is proving that his party is not quite dead. To his side is another Trudeau, Pierre's appealing 39-year-old son Justin, who augmented his own reputation on the hustings in May.

But as always, power makes its own exertions. At least for the time being, the Conservatives appear to be behaving more like Liberals on various fronts. They have pledged support for health care and, sensing Canadians' weariness of war, speak more mutedly about Afghanistan. Toronto, usually a Liberal bulwark snidely ignored by Tory Ottawa, has finally elected Conservative members (the party won 29 out of 44 seats in the Greater Toronto area), bridging the urban/rural fault line that is Canada's unspoken class divide. A lot of the old Tory rhetoric about "cultural elites", and the party's grass-roots suspicion of cities as ghettoes of lawlessness, activism, pot-smoking and gay marriage, cannot hold. Many of the new immigrants to Canada, who have by and large settled in commuter suburbs, are already in the Conservative fold, and now the urban centres and their crucial ridings are within reach.

It's hard these days not to see the long future of a Conservative Party digging in its heels, though it may well turn out to be a party more liberal in nature. The news, in Canada, is that we can't help but revert to being ourselves - and that may be tedious to some.

Noah Richler's "What We Talk About When We Talk About War" will be published in September by Goose Lane Editions

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?

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)

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?