Three Germanies: West Germany, East Germany and the Berlin Republic

Beyond atonement.

Three Germanies: West Germany, East Germany and the Berlin Republic
Michael Gehler
Reaktion Books, 336pp, £16.95

During the past decade, leading German historians have seen the postwar Federal Republic above all as a success story. They have described how it emerged from the catastrophe of 1945 to become a successful democracy, how it atoned for the Nazi past and developed a liberal political culture, and how it became part of an integrated Europe, thus coming to the end of Germany's "long road west", in Heinrich August Winkler's phrase. The story culminated in, and was confirmed by, reunification in 1990 - which followed the first peaceful and successful revolution in German history.

However, this somewhat triumphalist narrative seems increasingly problematic. Since the "Red-Green" government of Gerhard Schröder, which lasted from 1998 to 2005, Germany has begun to assert its national interest as distinct from that of the European Union. In particular, against the background of the euro crisis over the past year and a half, it has become more willing to impose its economic preferences on other states in Europe.

More recently, Berlin broke with its Nato partners over the question of military intervention in Libya, prompting some to question whether it is still committed to the western alliance. Some observers see these developments as expressive of a new "normality". Equally, the changes make it a propitious moment to reassess postwar German history.

The strength of Michael Gehler's Three Germanies is that it tells the stories of East and West Germany in parallel. Often, historians of postwar Germany tend to treat the German Democratic Republic either as an afterthought or separately. Gehler, on the other hand, simultaneously traces the step-by-step emergence of the Bonn Republic from the American, British and French zones of occupation and of what he calls the Pankow Republic (after the district in Berlin where the GDR's leaders lived) from the Soviet zone.

This allows him to compare how the two German states dealt with each other, their respective superpower patrons, and important matters such as German nationalism and the Nazi past. His description of how the two republics contributed to the division of Germany during the fluid early phase of the cold war that ended with the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 is especially perceptive.

Beyond this, however, there is little that is new in Gehler's book. Its scope, structure and style make it somewhat disjointed and it often feels as if he is rehearsing a series of familiar events, rather than telling a compelling or original story about them, or explaining cause and effect. At the same time, the book offers insufficient explanation of ideas, institutions and people to a non-German audience, which will make the book hard to follow for those not already familiar with the subject. These problems are exacerbated by the translation, which is often not fluent and in places confusing or plain incorrect.

Although the focus is on the relationship between the two German states up to 1990, Gehler deals in only a cursory way with the legacy of the GDR in the Berlin Republic - his third Germany - and with the persistent difficulties of attaining "inner unity". For example, he does not explain in full what is probably the most important development in German politics of the past decade: the emergence of Die Linke, or the Left Party, which was created through a merger of the successor to the old East German Communist Party and a West German far-left group led by the former Social Democrat fin­ance minister Oskar Lafontaine.

Die Linke was galvanised above all by oppo­sition to the difficult structural reforms that Schröder made in the early 2000s, which are partly responsible for the current strength of Germany's export-driven economy, but which have also kept wages stagnant and increased inequality. The reforms had a severe effect on the "new states" (that is, the former GDR). The electoral success of Die Linke - culminating in the 2009 election, at which it gained 12 per cent of the vote - has made it harder for any two parties to form a coalition, and very difficult for the Social Democrats to win power without its support. Reunification has led to fragmentation of the political system in the Federal Republic.

Gehler also ignores important intellectual currents of the past decade. He says little about the shift in German national identity based on changing attitudes to the Nazi past, and does not even mention the writer Martin Walser, the figure most associated with this change. The Holocaust - which had played a central role in public life in the Federal Republic since the 1980s - now competes with other collective memories, such as that of the Allied bombing of German cities during the Second World War, in what sometimes seems to be a zero-sum game. Germans have begun to think of themselves as victims as well as perpetrators - a perception that informs their response to the euro crisis and their attitude to foreign-policy challenges such as military intervention.

Hans Kundnani's "Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany's 1968 Generation and the Holocaust" is published by C Hurst & Co (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter