It is hard to visit the real Berlin Wall. The Brandenburg Gate is too buffed to recall its sootier days, when the concrete curtain to its west confined it to the communist east. Checkpoint Charlie is a tacky tourist spot. The East Side Gallery, a stretch of the wall by the Spree river covered in street art, shows little trace of the years of division. Only the Berlin Wall Memorial, along the Bernauer Straße north of central Berlin, has real poignancy. Here one can hike up an observation tower and look down on a rebuilt stretch of the Wall: the inner barrier, the lights, the barbed wire, the high outer wall.
Restriction was the essence of the Berlin Wall. Defeated in 1945, formally split in 1949 and sundered in 1961, Germany ceased to exist. Over the following decades neither of its halves entirely came to terms with its identity, let alone Germany’s role in Europe or in the world. East Germany dismissed its inherited responsibility for the Nazi past, imposed an authoritarian socialist system on its citizens and was forced into the Soviet bloc. West Germany embraced a capitalist but conservative vision of society and the family. Its foreign policies were marked by both pacifism and allegiance to Nato; its export-driven economy dependent on a stable international order.
The Germany brought back together 30 years ago was a nation not just divided but stunted: its past not fully processed, its identity fragile, its European allies fearful of its size, and its old geopolitical certainties breaking down. None of these imperatives is quite settled today.
Since reunification in 1990, Germany has enjoyed enviable political stability. It has had only three chancellors in that time. Each one stands for a certain historical period. Helmut Kohl of the centre-right Christian Democrat Union (CDU), had become chancellor of West Germany in 1982. He made reunification happen and guided the country through the immediate transition. In 1998 he lost power to Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat (SPD) who governed with the Greens and did the heavy lifting required by Germany’s reunification. Schröder’s red-green government reformed the labour market, took Germany to war for the first time since 1945 (in the successful Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999) and modernised its society, casting off elements of the east’s authoritarianism and the west’s conservatism. Demonstrators opposed to Schröder’s reforms filled the streets, particularly in the unemployment-stricken former east. The liberal left and the isolationist right opposed the military deployments. But Schröder and his Green deputy Joschka Fischer faced down this opposition and helped to create the conditions for a modern Germany.
Angela Merkel (CDU) inherited their achievements in 2005 and has since bedded them in: modernising German family policy, diversifying German society by keeping the country’s borders open at the peak of the migrant crisis in 2015, and deploying German forces to Afghanistan, Mali and the Baltics. When I spent several days with the Bundeswehr in Lithuania in 2017, a colonel told me of his childhood near the “inner-German border”, then patrolled by American soldiers. He was now proud to be defending Nato’s eastern border and thus, as he saw it, paying back the debt.
A chancellor who spent her first three decades behind the Wall has since 2005 eased Germany into something like normalcy. That is no mean feat. But the result is a too-comfortable country where oddly little happens. Germany today is economically unreformed and underinvested, technologically sluggish and internationally underpowered. Its economic growth is slipping behind that of France, its military is often irrelevant, and its diplomacy seems to be guided primarily by the quest for exports (see Merkel’s short-sighted decision not to exclude the Chinese tech company Huawei from Germany’s 5G infrastructure).
Guarantees such as the US security umbrella and huge Asian economic demand are waning, as Donald Trump’s US turns away from Europe and Asian economies such as China move up the value chain. Perhaps Germany is responding slowly to these shifts because it is simply tired of change after decades of political and economic transformation. It is living well but it knows that this secure and happy status quo cannot last.
The CDU coalition is fracturing as right-wingers increase their attacks on Merkel, who has said she will stand down at the next election in 2021. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, once the favourite to become reunified Germany’s fourth chancellor, has besmirched her moderate copybook in a succession of ill-advised pitches to the right. Friedrich Merz, a right-wing anti-Merkelite, is gaining ground after three strong results for the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in state elections in the former east. Meanwhile the SPD is dying on its feet, the Greens are surging in big cities and university towns, and the hard-left Die Linke and liberal Free Democrats are struggling to find their places. At the current rate, the next general election could produce a right-wing executive or a left-right coalition combining the CDU and the Greens.
The Wall was a nightmare. It ruined lives. Its removal was a liberation and a glorious revolution. One can accept all of this while also acknowledging that what remains is complex: the west, though gradually modernising, still has its demons; the east has lagging living standards, though cities such as Jena and Leipzig are thriving. Support for the AfD in the east is up, but the overall German political spectrum is fragmented. The fourth post-Wall chancellor will have his or her work cut out. Today, the view from the top of the memorial at Bernauer Straße is of a city, and a country, still grappling with the forces unleashed when the Wall fell.
Jeremy Cliffe joins the New Statesman next week as international editor
This article appears in the 06 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong