Folk memories of ancient battles are still a crucial element of Serbian national identity. Photograph: Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum
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The Belgrade train

A journey to the troubled heart of the Balkans.

At Cortanovci in November, the Belgrade train enters the wet woodland of the Danube shore. Egrets stand at ease by poplars. Warblers scatter as the train passes. This Serbian district of hills and orchards is known as the Fruška Gora, or “fruitful hills”. It is also a national park, though there’s nothing at Cortanovci to announce the fact. I’ve glimpsed the crossing-keeper only once in all the years I’ve taken the train: a woman in a stripy headscarf, she sat on a plastic chair in the sunlight among chickens and buckets, knitting.

The express trains no longer stop here, but if you follow the woodland track downhill from the platform you come across traces of an old beauty spot. A stream flows over stones that have been patched together like home-made cobbles. Old man’s beard loops between the trees. Near the water, signs of human activity appear: here a pile of firewood, there a hut made from branches and parts of an old car. Moss has climbed the car-door windows like a stain. On the bank, overgrown concrete plinths suggest the cafés that used to line the shore. Only one remains. Inside its cabin, a portable TV blinks from a high bracket. You can sit on the remains of a terrace and drink a brown sludge of coffee, probably made with river water.

The proprietor smokes at a polite distance. For once, in this talkative country, there’s nothing to say. The river holds his attention and yours. Sleek tenant of some of the most contested land in Europe, the Danube is not Serbian, any more than it is Austrian or Slovak or Romanian. Here it is a working waterway, navigable by immense barges loaded with shipping containers. They glide past, engines chuntering. Deliveries from downriver and even the Black Sea head for the industrial quarter of Novi Sad, inconceivable among the trees of this riverbank but no more than 20 kilometres upstream.

The Macedonian novelist and essayist Aleksandar – Sasha – Prokopiev and I found ourselves drinking coffee in the quiet of Cortanovacka Obala one evening in September 2001. We had escaped from a conference being held by the new, post-nationalist new Serbian Writers’ Association in a former local government holiday villa on the scarp above us. Elsewhere the western world convulsed and panicked. Here the late air was muggy under the trees, bright over the water. Clouds of midges caught the light. After a while, two young guys appeared, carrying an assortment of rods and tools. They had a couple of big fish each: carp, probably, or the bottom-feeding fleshy fish the people in these parts call cpaπ. Before we saw them we heard them, calling their dogs: Ide Goran, ide Zoran. The moment they noticed us they started hustling: beautiful fish, you can eat them here. They were dressed in the odds and ends the poor wear everywhere. One had an old shirt and trousers coloured with oil, the other was in a T-shirt and Chelsea strip tracksuit bottoms. They stared at us cheerfully, even as we declined in a fluster of excuses. Finally, Zivot, good health, they shouted like a kind of shrug, parting, and Zivoti, Sasha answered, bouncing a little in his seat and raising his cup.

I found myself wondering what they had done in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s: they must have been in their twenties already by the time the conflict ended, and it’s the poor and uneducated everywhere who are first recruited to fight. Often, here, I’m grateful for the way people keep what they’ve seen unspoken; yet those secrets are frightening just because they exist. This is true even of the people I’m closest to. I couldn’t, for instance, mention my unease to Sasha. That evening his country (its official name, at Greek insistence, is now the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or “Fyrom”) was still at war. It was something he couldn’t bear to speak about. As in its north-westerly neighbour Kosovo, a fault line had been reopened between the mainly Orthodox Christian, ethnic Slav population and the indigenous Muslim communities, known as Albanians, largely concentrated then, as today, in the region close to Kosovo and Albania. Even as I thought about this, the evening news on the café TV switched to pictures of his home town: the capital, Skopje, in its river basin ringed by mountains, among them the highlands around Tetovo, scene of one of the last offensives of the war. Sasha smiled and shook his head and looked away.

The fishermen were archetypes, doing what countrymen have done everywhere through the centuries. They could have been taken from the foreground of some 18th-century engraving. The Fruška Gora is a habitable idyll, the kind of landscape that humans have imagined in their search for paradise since before the Torah became the Bible. Eden, after all, was an orchard. But this evening its beauty was a kind of con. The overgrown waterfront made it clear that no one was holidaying in paradise. The tapping and knocking sounds of building in the orchards behind us was a sign not of prosperity, but unemployment. Local people were out of work not only due to the loss of tourist income, but because of Nato’s bombing of local industrial plants and the disappearance of a pan-Yugoslav market for Novi Sad’s manufactured goods. Men were fixing up their houses because there was nothing else to do – and because there were refugees to be accommodated.

For Serbs, the war had ended only two years earlier; their dictator Slobodan Milosevic had been gone for less than a year. The beautiful river we sat by, the water table that feeds the Fruška Gora’s orchards, had been polluted by the depleted uranium Nato used in its bombs. The fishermen’s catch, the fruit, even the water in our coffee could have been conta minated. Who knows? Perhaps it was here and now, on this peaceful evening by the Danube, that Sasha ingested, and I did not, the trace of contamination that would lodge in his thyroid and flower as tumours around his face and neck in the decade to come.

“It has been estimated that one-millionth of a gram accumulation in a person’s body would be fatal. There are no known methods of treatment for such a casualty” – this according to a memo written on 30 October 1943 by physicists working on the US nuclear project. Since Nato’s bombing campaign, leukaemia rates among newborn babies in the former Yugoslavia are said to have risen from one per 1,000 to between ten and 15 per 1,000. Recently Sasha told me, once again evading my eyes, about an epidemic of men with prostate and thyroid cancers in Skopje. Even his friend Mickey the mafioso, with whom we danced and drank at Sveti Naum one August Sunday, has gone into the clinic Sasha knows too well, and never come out.

Now the railway line breaks out of the woods and on to the rolling plain of the Banat, the breadbasket of the Balkans. The last of the Fruška Gora is a bald arable ridge sinking into the great level that most characterises Vojvodina, this ethnically mixed northern region of Serbia. It makes a fine contour, subtle and sensuous like the landscapes painted between the world wars by Sava Šumanovic, a Serb artist from nearby Šid, murdered in 1942. I keep a postcard of Šumanovic’s Autumn Viewon my desk, and its cream and gold remind me of the time we visited the little Austro-Hungarian border town, really more of a village. It was in Šid’s Art Klub, over another coffee, that Nenad Velickovic – novelist, youth worker and an ethnic Serb who remained to endure the siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996 – lectured me on the presumption of the foreign NGOs that had flooded into his home town: the outsider never truly understands.

The first time I travelled across the Banat, just after the fall of Milosevic in October 2000, the whiteness stretching on all sides dazzled me. This was my first encounter with the openness of the south-east European plain. It’s Pannonia, the site of a huge lost inland sea, Raša, a translator for the UN peacekeeping forces, told me, lifting a hand from the steering wheel to gesture. Pannonia, he explained, stretches from Vienna to Belgrade and from Zagreb to the north-western corner of Romania, and though centred on the Hungarian steppes it encompasses Vojvodina, central Croatia, western Transylvania and corners of several other countries where they fall between the mountain ranges of the Alps, the Carpathians, the Adriatic Dinarides and the Balkan Mountains in the east.

Raša’s wool collar was stylishly turned up; an expensive scarf covered his chin. Yet despite his smart white four-wheel drive with its UNHCR number plates he was a typical Yugoslav mixture, with a Serb surname, a Muslim first name and, as I was discovering, a very Balkan fatalism. We were speeding north from Skopje to Novi Sad along the most inappropriate motorway I have ever travelled. Single-track in each direction, it had a single, shared central overtaking lane: the worst kind of temptation for drivers of a nation renowned for machismo, and which had recently lost a war. Everyone played chicken. Cars raced towards us, and we towards them, until disaster seemed inevitable – averted only by some sudden swerve.

Apparently unconcerned, Raša continued to explain the identity of this central Balkan region. If Vojvodina is a breadbasket, its handles are gripped by Hungary in the north, Romania in the east, the Serbian capital to the south – and Croatia to the west. That northwestern border between Serbia and Croatia around Vukovar suffered the worst of the conflict between those countries in 1991; yet Vojvodina, and the fertile plain of the Banat in particular, is historically anti-nationalist, a region proud of its ethnic diversity.

In 2002, there were still a quarter of a million Hungarians here and at least three million people from other minority groups: Slovaks, Croats, Montenegrins, Romanians and Roma, but also Bunjevci, Germans, Slovenes and Muslims. The regional capital, the liberal university town of Novi Sad, was known for its desire to distance itself from Milosevic; but later in the war the bombing of its bridges and factories hardened local anti-western feeling.

At the southern tip of the Banat, beyond Nova Pazova, the proximity of the capital announces itself with a strip development of new villas, built in red clay breeze blocks. But who would settle here, in one of these tall new houses, their small grassed yards unfit for the village fruit, flowers and chickens? Without shops, without the comfort of longterm neighbours, this is no village, but an echo of city life in the middle of nowhere.

In its own way it represents a more radical social reconfiguration than the tower blocks of the communist era; and it has become home to those who live nowhere. The builders and owners of these houses are the uprooted, the transplanted: the diasporans who come back each summer and dream of returning for good. A man leans his belly on a balcony rail to watch us pass. Between him and the railway line is dusty common land, full of weeds and criss-crossed with tracks. A goat pulls on a long tether. A ditch is clogged with rusting cars, fridges and bin bags of detritus.

The every-man-for-himself straggle of Nova Pazova is nothing like the planned, communist-era new town of Novi Beograd, where the train soon pulls up at a concrete platform of unmistakably 1970s design. New Belgrade’s bug-eyed concrete tower blocks are the symbols of this dormitory district, built across the river from the old capital. It’s densely populated, and a stop here takes time and is full of noise and emotion. The dreamlike sensation of a long journey is over. Families are reunited. The unfeasible baggage of returnees – huge suitcases, crates and sacks – is unloaded, a cue for shouts and laughter. Meanwhile a couple of youths with gelled hair and sharp jackets, up for a night in town, slip into the seats behind you. No one’s going to check their tickets now.

Finally the train begins to move. The platform slides away. You look down on to the Roma settlement that occupies the wasteland beneath the viaduct. This isn’t a couple of caravans and a van parked up in the English style. Instead, streets of shacks have been put together from the materials that shackbuilders everywhere have to hand: plywood, corrugated iron, cardboard, branches, tarpaulin and rags. To the western eye it looks like apartheid. Shouldn’t Roma people live clean, comfortable lives as they keep their culture and freedom of movement? But no state is going to look after them as well as it does its taxpaying voters. The shanty town signals impasse: the failure of utilitarian solutions to address minority needs.

There have been Roma in Serbia since at least the 14th century. They were here before the Turks, who named and rebuilt the great fortress that dominates the Belgrade city scarp. Kalemegdan stands above the confluence of the Danube and the Sava, the river the train must cross to arrive in the capital. Wide brick walls, fortified with turrets, loop around the edge of a rock and face most impressively east and north, towards us. Like the fortress at Petrovaradin, upstream in Novi Sad, Kalemegdan secured the river routes that helped the administration and prosperity of the Habsburg empire. Now its castle walls enclose lawns, trees and kiosks where you can buy cola and pumpkin seeds and sometimes, for your girl or a child, a keyring with a fluffy toy attached. Old men play chess on park benches, ringed by bystanders. And lovers, of whom Belgrade always has plenty, occupy the seats in the shadiest corners, or sit together on the broken walls. When the wind carries, you can hear the zoo animals yowling at the eastern end of the park.

At Belgrade, the Danube is enormous, easily incorporating the thickly wooded Great War Island that floats just below the citadel. But it is chiefly the Sava that Belgraders proper live on and with. Wider here at its final point than the Thames is at Westminster Bridge, or the Danube under the Chain Bridge in Budapest, the Sava is a Yugoslav river. Named for Saint Sava, the princely archbishop who founded the Serbian Orthodox Church and drafted the first Serbian constitution in 1219, it starts as a racing, turquoise stream in the Julian Alps of Slovenia. After passing through Ljubljana and then Zagreb, it serves as the border between Croatia and Bosnia for 200 kilometres until it reaches Sremska Mitrovica, the town whose prison was appropriated by the Serbian army during the wars of the 1990s.

In her third-floor apartment on a corner block near the Belgrade mouth of the Sava, Marianne, a literary translator who had married into the life of the city, once gave me a glimpse of the kind of bourgeois good life envisioned by the 1930s architect of her block. Her flat was all oak and glass, a circlet of rooms that opened into each other and, repeatedly, on to views of the street and river. Although the original fittings and the bigblocked parquet floors were looking a little tired, the flat continued to model the good life, its interlocking rooms suggesting the interlocking dialogue of family life.

Further west, though, the riverbank ceases to be residential and becomes utilitarian. Here, a train arriving from the south must shunt through a series of sidings below the city rock. Warehouses turn anonymous gable-ends to the tracks where workers amble. Sleepingcars are parked up seemingly at random; curtains flap at their open windows. Beyond lie the trade fair grounds, then suburbs that quickly turn away from the river, leaving its banks to birds and fishermen.

The Sava is also where the pleasure-barges anchor. Nightclubs, restaurants, brothels – in the years after communism they were powered by mafia money and turbo-folk. The aesthetic is bling and glitz; girls with straining corsets, huge eyelashes, fake tans, and enormous voices. Turbo-folk has great tunes (it is derived from folk material, after all), great emotion and a limited palette of topics: lament, passion, nationalist longing. It makes the folk-rock giants of the British 1970s look like mincing antiquarians. Turbofolk isn’t exactly dumbed down – the emotion it works up can be almost complex, at times genuinely sweet-and-sour – but it is amped up. It’s music for drunken parties, music to make the room sway and young women pump their right arm in the air, first finger extended, as they mark the sweet spots where, deliberately breaking her voice, the singer maxes out the emotion.

Turbo-folk is playing at every wedding party you stumble upon. It’s what binds the room together when everyone is already sodden with sentiment and slivovitz. It is grandiose and unsubtle, and a quarter-century ago you could have enjoyed or ironised the vulgar sentiment and thought no more about it. But in the wars of the 1990s the music became nationalist ammunition. The new aristocracy of the time were the mafia warlords and their turbo-folk molls.

Early 1995 brought the marriage of the most famous couple from that world, the mafia warlord Arkan (real name: Željko Ražnatovic) and the turbo-folk star Ceca. Arkan, who had graduated from organised crime and football hooliganism – he was the leader of Red Star Belgrade’s notorious followers, the Delije – wore a faux-military costume. Five years later he was dead, murdered in the lobby of Belgrade’s InterContinental Hotel. Two years after that, when I stayed in the less glittering Hotel Taš, there was still a “No Firearms” sign over the door of the breakfast room, which served nightly as a casino; but the morning eggs were irreproachable. The wars, and their turbo-folk soundtrack, had a tremendous kitsch momentum, although it’s disgusting to use this term in relation to the horrors inflicted on the civilian populations of former Yugoslavia. Still, both violence and music showed detached, postmodern Europe the potency of the lowest common denominator: what happens when thousands surrender their individual judgement to vulgarised emotion.

Balkan folk songs have form as a repository of warlike memory. Perhaps the bestknown of all is “The Field of Blackbirds”, which turns a story of defeat by the Ottoman imperial forces at Kosovo Polje in 1389 into a call to arms for Serbian nationalism. An oral peasant culture, such as still survives in the Balkan countryside, is a fertile context for the transmission of history and ideas through ballad and song. This is not so different from “When Adam Delved and Eve Span”, which we’ve inherited from our 14th-century Peasants’ Revolt, or the protest ballads sung by the wives of striking miners in the 1980s.

The difference, however, lies in the degree of surrender of better judgement, of individual responsibility, that turbo-folk evokes. “History is now and England,” T S Eliot wrote, though we don’t believe him. Turbofolk singers urge us to believe that history is now and Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo. They position the listener inside the song, telling him that he is part of the story it narrates. They do this through both the words and the music, which doesn’t settle for being tuneful, or even good to dance to. Perhaps it’s easiest to think of it as something akin to soul music: a mix of the evocative national pull of folk music, the “belonging” repertory of regimental or Northern Irish marching bands and the meaningful tug of gospel. It’s music to make a lump rise in your throat against your better judgement.

Yet Belgrade also has a vibrant countertradition. Radio B92, still broadcasting today, confirmed its anti-nationalist stance during the war years not only through its news and commentary but by broadcasting western pop and rock music. In a way that got lost in the west in the 1970s, such music remains politicised here as the sound of idealism and rebellion. There is also a history of indigenous rock as critique. In the 1980s, Idoli, a Belgrade new-wave band with members from across Yugoslavia, issued songs of sardonic social commentary. In 1980 their “Retko te viðam sa devojkama” (“I rarely see you with girls”) was a pioneering gay statement in mainstream culture.

During the war years, B92 playlists moved from Prince and REM to Tricky and Super Furry Animals. Later, the radio station felt a responsibility to sanitise folk music because of the role turbo-folk had played in the war. It did so in part by issuing Srbija: Sounds Global compilations, featuring indisputably ethnographic artists.

The Belgrade train grinds across the steel railway bridge above pleasureboats still moored on either side of the Sava. Squint to the right along the northern bank and you can see a bare patch of ground, something like a building site, where the headquarters of Mirjana Markovic’s JUL party, the old communist left, was destroyed by a Nato bomb in 1999. At the time Markovic, who is still involved in Serbian politics today, was married to Slobodan Milosevic. Nato also bombed RTS, the city’s equivalent of Broadcasting House, as well as a large, army-run building out on the Pancevo road, which turned out to be not a military headquarters, but a hospital. For more than a dozen years, the ruins have been left exposed to the weather as a huge, open-air protest.

As the train arrives on the east bank of the Sava, the White City is grey with dust and petrol fumes, and dusk is settling over the scarp. Soon, it will be too dark to see the remarkable Jugendstil buildings downtown, the Austro-Hungarian villas of the embassy district, or of Knez Mihailova. On that wide pedestrian boulevard the Roma kids will be packing away their fiddles and money caps; suited men will be filling the tables of Snežana: Srpski restoran; and where the American Cultural Centre used to be before it was torched, girls in skintight jeans with tousled hair will scream with laughter down the cement arcade.

At the southern end of Knez Mihailova, where it meets the roaring traffic of the arterial Terazije, stands Hotel Moskva, the best in the city, its newly renovated green tiled roof and gilded art nouveau wall panels gleaming. The Moscow’s marble tearoom becomes a piano bar in the evenings, but the menu never changes. If you don’t want to drink you can still have a thimbleful of thick coffee and a not-quite-fully-thawed cream cake.

Below the hotel the city tips downwards, back to the Sava. Facing it is the Hotel Balkan, where in 1996 the Hungarian writer Péter Zilahy, then a young rebel taking part in the failed anti-Milosevic uprising, photographed government troops waiting under the hotel sign, symbol of the collapse of regional hospitality. Below the Balkan and the Moskva, Balkanska – Balkan Street – winds down to the railway station. You can probably see me there, toiling uphill.

Here’s the stop for the night bus to Skopje. Here’s the small leather-goods shop where I bought a most useful belt. The baklava shop. “Zlater” on the jewellers’ fascia board. The internet café. And ahead of me, huddled on its eccentric corner site, is the Hotel Prag, our usual place.  

Fiona Sampson is a poet. Her latest collection is “Coleshill” (Chatto & Windus, £10)

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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.

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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 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once