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29 September 2020

From the NS archive: The final curtain

5 October 1990: After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, how might the country's future best be managed?  

By Fred Halliday

Thirty years ago, a little under a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the two separated parts of Germany reunited. Fred Halliday looked at how the future might be managed. “What happened in Germany was the most horrendous disaster of European history,” he said, “and there can never be absolute certainty that something like it will not happen again”, even with a reunified country. The end of the German Democratic Republic meant the end of the dream of a socialist model in the East, and those who wished to preserve a distinct society “have been strangled by the python of the West”. The new nation would unequivocally be a Western nation, but the ramifications of the merger would need to be watched carefully and managed adroitly if it were not to unravel.


The unification of Germany this week marks the end of a nightmare and of a dream. The nightmare began on 30 January 1933, when Hitler became chancellor – the last freely elected prime minister of a single Germany before Kohl – and plunged his country and the rest of Europe into 12 years of turmoil and murder, in which tens of millions died. The dream was that of creating a separate socialist state on German soil, in the German Democratic Republic. The GDR, established in 1949 in the zone occupied by Soviet forces, was never accepted as legitimate by the mass of its own population and was never a rival for the much larger and more successful capitalist state in the west.

Unification, and the site of its enactment, are not simply the property of the right. When Marx and Engels drew up the programme of the Communist Party in Germany in 1848, the very first demand was: “The whole of Germany shall be declared a single and divisible republic.” A similar ambivalence applies to Berlin, for this is the city that encapsulates so much of the German tragedy, the pain and the reversals that marked both the nightmare and the dream. The capital both of the Prussia that united Germany for the first time in 1871, after defeating France, and of Hitler’s Reich, it was also the site of many of the greatest attempts to challenge the established regimes: the Spartacist uprising of 1919, in which Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht lost their lives, the socialist and artistic movements of the 1920s, the workers’ uprising against Soviet domination in the east in 1953, the mass student protests of 1968 in the west, against the war in Vietnam. Berlin was the symbol both of imperial and Nazi vainglory and of the Cold War; divided, blockaded, scarred by destroyed buildings and shootings on the wall. The opening of the wall on 9 November last year hastened the process of unification and drew the line on almost 60 years of violence and division. But it will be a long time before the people of Germany, or those outside, can resolve what either of these two elements in their recent history involves.

The search for explanations in national stereotype, of the kind proffered to Mrs Thatcher by a group of tame Anglo-American intellectual courtiers some months ago, is childish. So, too, is any explanation based on historical inevitability or repetition, as if there is something in the German society or strategic situation within Europe that is bound to lead to a repeat of earlier wars. What happened in Germany was the most horrendous disaster of European history, and there can never be absolute certainty that something like it will not happen again: the sober fact is, however, that if it does recur, it may not be in Germany but in some other supposedly civilised and developed country.

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As Arno Mayer has shown so well in his study of the extermination of the Jews, Why did the Heavens Darken?, these events were not providential, ordained by fate or God, nor were they predetermined from the start. Hitler, for all his individual lunacy and mystical nationalism, arose out of a social and international situation that made it possible for him to come to power, democratically, and to impose his dictatorship: national humiliation, economic crisis, racist intolerance of diversity, disputed frontiers, irrationalism in political and intellectual life. None of these is peculiar to the Germans.

Whether the Germans themselves have come to terms with that past is one of the central elements in current international concern, as well as in the country itself. In a way, the answer is evident. Some, including the great majority of the younger generation, have. The emergence of neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic currents among some young people, especially in the east, is sickening; it is not a national trend. Far stronger are the anti-nuclear, ecological, feminist forces. More doubtful is the situation among older Germans, and, not least, some current leaders.

Helmut Kohl himself has exhibited an odious and disconcerting ambiguity on this issue: welcoming Reagan at a cemetery containing SS tombs, visiting a church in Poland notorious for German chauvinist rallies in the 1920s, equivocating until very recently on the eastern frontier.

The emergence, after the Second World War, of a divided Germany was one answer to the question of ensuring that Germany never posed a threat to the world again. Yet it rested upon a premise that could not, in the long run, hold. This was that the occupying powers, and particularly the US and the USSR, would continue in effect to control their German partners for ever. The US managed the Federal Republic much more loosely than the Russians ran the GDR, but, in one key respect, the US role was vital: by locking Bonn into Nato, it precluded the Germans from getting nuclear weapons. Indeed, given the illusory character of the Soviet “threat” throughout the Cold-War period, it may be that, in historical retrospect, this was the main achievement of Nato.

The Federal Republic did not, however, rely on US military strength to remain in existence, whereas the GDR, for all its economic strength, did continue to depend on Soviet tanks. At first, it did not appear to be necessarily so. Many who had opposed Nazism, such as Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym, looked to the GDR as an alternative Germany, an attempt to realise, on at least part of German soil, the dream that the German socialist movement, once the most powerful in Europe, had fought for. The imposition of authoritarian political control and the suppression of the 1953 uprising killed off much of that hope. Even with the building of the wall in 1961, a glimmer remained: that finally, with the haemorrhage of people to the west blocked off, it would become possible to build up a socialist model in the east. By the late 1960s, these hopes too had been dashed: the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 destroyed belief in a democratic transition within eastern bloc states, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s the Federal Republic outstripped the GDR in economic as much as in political terms. Once it became clear, in the summer and autumn of 1989, that the USSR had removed its military guarantee to the GDR regime, the edifice came tumbling down in short order.

The overwhelming majority of the population of the GDR are clearly in favour of uniting with the Federal Republic, but the pace and manner of their unification have been dictated not by them but by the priorities of Hehmut Kohl and the Bundesbank. Kohl’s ten-point plan for unification, laid out on 28 November of last year, was a call for capitulation: not just the merger of the state, but the destruction of any vestige of distinctness in the east.

Much is made of the inefficiency and non-competitiveness of the GDR’s economy: but this is something hastened by western pressure – rumour and innuendo from the government, the driving out from the market of GDR goods by western firms. The GDR is being treated now not as a lost relative, but as conquered territory, up to and including the dismissal from their jobs of those disliked on political grounds – this by a Bonn government that has long harboured many a veteran of the Hitler regime. Inexorably, not just the ruling party in the east, but those who spearheaded the opposition last October and who wished to preserve a distinctive model of society, have been strangled by the python of the west.

As for German unification being on condition that the new state be neutral and demilitarised, this too was swept aside, as much by the international balance of forces and the current weakness of the USSR, as by the political balance within the country. Germany’s economic preponderance and strategic centrality in any future Europe are inexorable. Prior to the recent agreements, there was a dangerous ambivalence in the official German position, and nowhere more so than in the equivocations of Kohl on the border issue. It was not for nothing that one of the main official holidays of the Federal Republic was 17 June, the commemoration of the 1953 uprising in the GDR, but turned into one for the Vertriebene, those millions of Germans expelled from eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War. Thus, the issue of denying the legitimacy of the GDR and the reclaiming of the “lost lands” of Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia were linked. What the current settlement makes possible, but not inevitable, is that these two are now separate: the “lost lands” are lost for ever, the GDR disappears.

Whether the new united Germany poses a long-term threat in political and military terms depends above all on two things: whether the integration of the GDR can be achieved relatively quickly and successfully, thus avoiding major social upheavals in which a new militant right could emerge, and whether the international situation acts to encourage a more peaceful, integrated, Germany. The actions of others have long played more than a marginal role in determining what Germany does: had Britain and France signed a military pact with the USSR in 1938 there would have been no Second World War; if people in Britain or France are worried about Germany’s future military potential, they should start by setting a good example and getting rid of their own nuclear weapons. Germany’s future international role depends, as it has long depended, on more than the Germans.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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