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The lost country

Two decades after the fall of the wall in 1989, life in the German capital’s hinterland continues re

The first interchange on the long autobahn that heads south towards Bavaria from the Berliner Ring, the city's orbital answer to the M25, is signposted for Beelitz Heilstätten. The slip road leads deep into the forest until, at last, you come to a huge hospital complex. Only a small portion of it is still in use, caring for patients with neurological illnesses. It is a retreat for fractured minds, a ghetto for the traumatised, often people for whom life lost all meaning when the country they had loyally served was discredited with German unification in October 1990.

When the sanatorium first opened more than a hundred years ago, pulmonary patients from Berlin were packed off to Beelitz on the assumption that the fresh forest air would alleviate the symptoms of tuberculosis. But Beelitz was not to become a northern rival to Mediterranean Menton; in winter the region was bitterly cold, in summer it was afflicted by midges and ticks, some of which carried a particularly nasty viral encephalitis. Asparagus has replaced bacilli and bad lungs as the mainstay of the local economy; the area east of the sanatorium has found a niche with its pale white variety. But between tuberculosis and today's vegetable crop, Beelitz was home to the largest Russian military hospital outside the Soviet Union.

The Russians were not the first to appropriate the sanatorium for military medicine. During the First World War, thousands of troops wounded in the Battle of the Somme were sent to Beelitz for treatment and recuperation - among them a young Austrian soldier called Adolf Hitler. From the late 1940s until the withdrawal of the last Russian forces in 1995, Beelitz Heilstätten was a no-go area for ordinary East Germans. The Russians have gone, but the iconography of another age still embellishes the abandoned parts of the site. Red stars, hammers and sickles, fraternal slogans about service and sacrifice are now slowly being covered by ivy. Damp wallpaper peels from the crumbling walls to reveal Moscow newspapers, used as lining paper. One piece of newsprint records the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982; another shows scenes from the Soviet leader's elaborate funeral.

In a cellar at the corner of one of the abandoned sanatorium buildings, an old man with broken fingernails and dirty hands has a few blankets and a cheap bottle of schnapps. "I don't live here the whole time," he explains. "But it's a good place to escape to." He boasts that his part-time home has had many illustrious residents: "Erich and Margot Honecker lived just up there." The ousted leader of East Germany and his wife, who served for 26 years as the country's minister for education, were admitted into the seclusion of the old military hospital in 1990, and spent many months there while plotting a route out of the country.

A property development company from West Germany bought the entire hospital complex in the great post-unification sell-off. Russians out, West German investors in - a pattern repeated across East Germany. There were grand plans to develop a huge medical park at Beelitz Heilstätten, with promises of more than a thousand jobs. Although the neurological clinic was completed, the greater part of the site remains a deserted wasteland in the forest. As so often since unification, West German investors looking for quick pickings in the east found they had bitten off more than they could chew. The company that bought the complex went bankrupt, the forest began to take over the old Russian military hospital, and the locals turned to asparagus. The latest vision for the site is that it might host a huge garden festival in summer 2013. No one is wagering much money on the plan coming to fruition.

Just before flying out of Germany in March 1991, the Honeckers spent their last hours in the country closeted in the small terminal building at the Sperenberg military airfield. Today, Sperenberg is as derelict as Beelitz. For a while, the old airfield looked set to become a ­gigantic theme park called Euroworld. Proponents of the plan claimed that Euroworld would generate 36,000 jobs in rural Brandenburg, the sparsely populated state that surrounds Berlin. In the end, it created none, the scheme collapsing amid recriminations of financial mismanagement.

Out of sight, out of mind

While Berlin is the focus of the world's media this month, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, the communities around the capital that played bit-part roles in the events of late 1989 and immediately after have slipped into obscurity, the ghosts of a country that abruptly disappeared. Along with Beelitz and Sperenberg, few now remember Lobetal, the small village north-east of Berlin where the Honeckers were found lodging with a Lutheran pastor for some weeks before fleeing to Beelitz.

In these places, the local people's views on unification are often negative. Unemployment and uncertainty about the future dog the lives of many of those who, until 1990, had steady and secure jobs. Twenty years ago, this was a region full of promise. New ideas from Russia, notably demokratizatsiya and perestroika, gave authority to the quiet revolution that was developing on the streets of East Germany, as people debated possible futures for their country. Then came West Germany's conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl and his promises of "blossoming landscapes".

“Don't talk to me about blossoming landscapes," says Brigitte, whose mobile hairdressing business relies on a cohort of ageing customers living in small villages. "These are places where the factories, shops and train station were all closed soon after West Germany took over. Yes, the government has built new roads and invested in fast new rail routes. They carry sleek expresses non-stop from Berlin to western Germany. That does nothing for us in rural Brandenburg." Brigitte adds: "Our country just disappeared far too quickly. There was not even time to mourn its passing."

Lauchhammer, Trebbin, Beeskow, Luckau - one by one, they have all been bypassed by the new main roads on which BMWs and Mercedes cruise past. Driving through the countryside south of Berlin today, you see plenty of new industrial estates, with their platoons of low-slung sheds pushing out over green fields. The decaying town centres are out of sight, out of mind. Their fading façades and businesses on the brink of closure are nowhere to be seen in the glossy brochures put out by the marketing men whose job it is to sell Berlin's hinterland to potential investors.

The state planners are based in Brandenburg's capital city, Potsdam, 20 miles south-west of Berlin. They talk of logistics, biotechnology, R&D and industrial parks, and wield their red pens on maps to designate areas of forest and heathland that are to become new freight villages - a euphemism for giant container parks. But off the smooth tarmac, down rutted cobbled streets, is another kind of Germany: abandoned housing estates, boarded-up shops, and even the occasional Trabbi - the car that became an East German icon - still spluttering through the landscape of memory. East Germany was full of small communities that clustered around factories which, for four decades, gave a decent living to local inhabitants. Most of those factories were closed soon after unification in the name of efficiency.

Almost 20 years on, many communities in eastern Germany are still awaiting Kohl's nirvana. True, new names now populate the economic wilderness left by the state-owned companies of the German Democratic Republic. But the incomers - multinationals such as Oracle, eBay, DHL, Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce Aerospace, Pratt & Whitney, Bombardier and Daimler AG - are attracted by greenfield opportunities. They like concrete and glass offices rimmed by virgin forest. Or aluminium sheds in green meadows. In the move to Brandenburg's business corridor, many companies have pocketed fiscal incentives from a government that claims not to have the resources to attend to the dereliction of the region's towns.

Covering over the cracks

Lichterfeld is another small Brandenburg village that lies off the main road. In the days of the GDR, it had an opencast mine where lignite was quarried. Locals worked at the mine, in a nearby power station or at the glassworks. Over the past 20 years, unemployment has soared and the younger generation have forsaken their roots, moving west in search of jobs. Men who mined now gather mushrooms in the forest. The local mayor hopes that a relic of local mining history, a huge excavator abandoned at the edge of the village, might become a tourist attraction.

In a similar spirit, a few miles away at Plessa, Hans-Joachim Schubert is restoring an old power station abandoned in 1992. "We have a history of which we should be proud. It is not something to be ashamed of," he says. It is a view echoed by Carola Werner in nearby Lauchhammer. For her, the towers of the town's old coking plant are part of the roots of those who lived and worked here in the coal industry. "If you pull out your roots, life stops," she says. "These towers simply must be kept for future generations."

Berlin, too, is covering over the cracks of 1989. Some even suggest rebuilding short stretches of the wall, the German capital's principal visitor attraction, to appease the tourists who come in search of cold-war history. Visitors also flock to the DDR Museum, to catch a glimpse of what life was once like in eastern Germany. They queue at the museum to sit in a Trabbi, or watch films about everyday life in small communities in the Berlin hinterland. There are shots of the slow train pausing at a country station, returning dozens of workers home after a day shift at the factory.
The museum was the brainchild of investors from western Germany who thought there might be money to be made out of the experiences of Ossies, the Germans who had lived in the east. What the visitors don't realise, as they queue at the museum, is that, just a few miles away in rural Brandenburg, life continues relatively unchanged from 1989. The only difference is that the slow train no longer stops. It was axed a few months after East and West Germany merged.

Nicky Gardner lives in Berlin. She is editor of hidden europe

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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