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7 October 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 4:59am

John Kampfner’s Diary: The GDR’s legacy, Trump’s threat to Germany, and getting over Brexit

With Trump in the White House and Britain cutting itself off from the mainstream, will Germany put itself forward as the beacon of liberal values? 

By John Kampfner

Only in Berlin. “The police have asked us to wear masks,” the woman on the podium told the crowd. “They’ve also informed us that at 4pm they’ll be sending a helicopter over the site to film all of us. Therefore, it’ll be a doubly good idea for us to cover up.” On 4 October, on the weekend of the German Unity holiday, the sit-in at the Liebigstrasse 34 squat was in convivial mood. The sun was shining; several hundred people were sitting on the road listening to a live band. The area was sealed off by police vans, but officers seemed more engrossed by the sports results in their newspapers.

The trouble usually takes place at night; riot police move in and take some people away. Then they withdraw again. Any day now the full eviction will come. Liebig34 describes itself as an anarchist-queer- feminist housing project. The huge posters on the wall of the building read “Smash the patriarchy” and “Fight gentrification”. The landlord served notice two years ago and is keen to get them out. The adjacent streets in the district of Friedrichshain, made famous by Berghain and the other mega-clubs, are now studded with smart flats and hipster vegan restaurants. Across the city the trajectory is moving inexorably in one direction.

A city rent apart

Yet it’s more complicated than that. A mile or so away in Kreuzberg I’m interviewing two activists for a BBC radio series, where I travel around half a dozen cities looking at the quirks of German life. Tom (American) and Susanne (German) are telling me about the latest attempts to hold a referendum on expropriating properties from large commercial developers. The protesters’ first attempt a couple of years ago has forced the Senate (Berlin’s city government) to introduce stringent rent caps. They’re confident they’ll get the vote approved this time. Rents have gone up sharply, but I remind them they’re nothing compared to London or New York. That’s the point, they say. They don’t want Berlin to be like anywhere else.

The reunification miracle

TV chat shows and newspaper columns have been full of earnest features on “30 years since reunification” and wailing about what went wrong. I find it just a tad frustrating. Yes, there were mistakes – rapid privatisation, the failure to copy East Germany’s more emancipated gender politics, or to promote enough “Ossis” to top positions. Yet I challenge those who bemoan the past to identify any equivalent country that could have absorbed with so little strife 16 million people living in a dictatorship with a moribund economy and filthy environment.

Just recently, in an East German town, I came across a man who found out shortly after the Berlin Wall came down that his wife had for years been informing on him to the Stasi. She fled town and he brought up their two daughters. He is still in pain. But he’s not alone. That’s why my blood boils whenever I hear artists or intellectuals (who lived a privileged life in the GDR) suggesting that the level of oppression was overstated.

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Sympathy for the president

Talking of demagogues, German politicians have been watching Donald Trump’s Covid travails with more anxiety than most. Through forked tongues they wish him well. In private, they are petrified that he could be re elected with the help of a sympathy vote. A second Trump term is more dangerous for Germany than for pretty much anywhere else. From the outset, Trump loathed Angela Merkel. She represents everything he is not, and disdains his visceral vulgarity. He is jealous of the respect she garners around the world.

German officials ponder whether a revived Trump administration could destroy not just the EU, but Nato too. The identity of postwar Germany isn’t based on the trappings of the nation state, but on adherence to the rule of law, multilateral institutions and the survival of democracy.

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These officials find the thesis of my book, Why the Germans Do It Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country, which has been summarised and shared around Merkel’s chancellery and the German president’s office, reassuring but also challenging. With an out-of-control US president and Britain cutting itself off from the mainstream, is Germany willing and prepared to put itself forward as the beacon of liberal values? Or has it grown too comfortable relying on others to do its work for it?

Love’s labour’s lost

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream, Brief as the lightning in the collied night, That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say, Behold!
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.

A German minister quotes Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to open the annual Königswinter conference, which brings together politicians and thinkers from the UK and Germany. He does so in English, fluently. Monolingualism is one of the enduring motifs of British mediocrity. The passage laments the fleeting nature of love: aka Britain’s departure from the EU.

Germans are no longer shocked or even disappointed by Britain. They’ve moved on from us and our Brexit turmoil. They’re no longer intrigued by the buffoonery of Boris Johnson. Studied indifference is their modus operandi. The diplomats representing Clown Country, as I call it, or the Island, as Germans call it, are having a torrid time. They try to be chipper and to brush off the dismissive tone of many interactions. It’s hard not to feel sympathy when one German journalist asks a (very smart and decent) UK diplomat over a drink: “Could you please reassure me that Britain is still a Western country?” He smiles a wan smile and changes the subject. 

John Kampfner is the author of “Why the Germans Do It Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country” (Atlantic). 

This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid