“This 9 November is an historic day. The GDR has announced, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The gates in the wall stand wide open”.
Joachim Friedrichs, ARD Tagesthemen, 2300 hours, November 9, 1989
Berlin, Germany. November 7. Tears rolled down my cheeks. The sight of people power pulling apart parapets of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago this week was history in (e)motion. The true end of World War Two was happening before my eyes at a speed no-one had believed possible. With each epoch-ending strike of each pick-axe Ossis and Wessis sent a hot, sharp knife through the crime that was the 1945 Yalta Agreement under which peoples and lands had been handed over from Nazi to Soviet. My tears were tears of hope.
Here in Berlin thirty years later that grandest of grand moments has seemingly been replaced with something all the more stodgy: the Stollen cake parochialism of a Germany that is so much less than the parts of a hoped for greatness. Mired in endless petty politicking Berlin stumbles from one infighting crisis to another. The one-time ‘imperial’ capital of a once-future German Europe? Not even close. The real question is more whether a German Berlin or a Berliner’s Germany?
Europe’s 911 was not just a moment of hope. The prospect of a united Germany filled some with dread – France’s Francois Mitterrand and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher to the fore. Not for the first time it was the leadership of a US President, George H. W. Bush, who reassured Germany’s allies by re-committing the US to the balance of Europe in a balanced Europe. Helped, in no small measure, by Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s commitment to a single European currency – the then soon-to-be Euro – to ease French fears that Europe would be ‘crushed’ under the weight of the mighty Deutschemark. What few realised at the time was that the cost of Ossis to Wessis made any such threat a chimera of fear over reality.
Strange then that German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas this week went out of his clumsy way to thank everyone else for Germany’s peaceful reunification but the Americans who had guaranteed it, or the British who in 1954 committed its forces at great cost to the permanent defence of the Federal Republic, and in so doing opened the way for one-time foe to join NATO, and fostered Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s dream of a ‘normal’ Germany. Critically, a France that overcame its historic fears to turn enmity into a partnership that with the 1962 Elysee Treaty became the bedrock upon which ‘Europe’ built its own edifice of freedom. Herr Maas also slapped down an idea from his colleague, Defence Minister Anna Kramp-Karrenbauer, for a European Security Force in Syria to which Germany would contribute. German strategic responsibility? Don’t hold your breath.
My reason for being in Berlin was a meeting of The Alphen Group (TAG), the network of high-level, senior analysts and practitioners that I have the honour to chair. Our speaker for the day was one of the most senior insider-observer Germans. A man who knows and understands the very highest levels of this most late Roman of new Berlins. His message was stark: Germany is in a “period of funk”, drifting from stability to stagnation to stasis. The coming domestic crisis will emasculate German foreign policy, much of it caused by the endless Berlin political crisis of grand coalitions going towards a grand nowhere, other than sustaining their grand denizens in grand office. Indeed, the 'groko' is a bit like the massive Forth Railway Bridge in Scotland, ninety percent of which is simply there to hold the edifice up, whilst only ten percent is devoted to undertaking purpose.
A consequent ‘reformstau’ which blocks all efforts to modernise an economy and society steadily losing the global competitive race of the twenty-first century. A Germany which simply occupies a map with no particular foreign policy and no particular view of towards Russia, China, the US and/or Brexit, and which lacks the sense of solidarity to have a vision for Europe. Worse, if Americans try to force Berlin to choose between Washington and Beijing the leader of the West might be surprised by Germany’s answer. It is an answer already implicit in the even more implicit Realpolitik of Heiko Maas’s “Union of Multilateralism”. Whither NATO?
What pains this Oxford historian, long a friendly, constructive but critical believer in this Germany, is the failure of vision of a Berlin that talks endlessly of little else. When all that really defines German foreign engagement is ‘wherever the money is, at whatever the strategic and political cost’ mercantilism, allied to a peculiarly German form of vacuous ‘do as we say, but not what we dare do’ internationalism. The fall of the ‘Wall’ was not simply about a glorious dawn in that dark, dank November Berlin night. It was about a Germany that finally been offered the chance to take its rightful, peaceful place at the heart of Europe’s eternally fractious story that it had for so long craved. A place that others guaranteed would not be threatened.
The importance of that moment cannot be over-stated. On three separate violent occasions Germans had tried to impose their place in Europe on Europeans. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the Great European War of 1914-1918, and the real World War of 1939-1945. The ghosts of those wars can never by laid completely to rest, and the millions of ghosts of murdered Nazi victims can never rest, something of which, legions of decent Germans are acutely aware. That night in 1989 also led to something that would have been impossible even thirty years prior - a gift of trust in a future Germany Americans and other Europeans. A real gift of trust from those who had really won Germany’s right to be whole once again; Poles, Czechs and those millions of Europeans whose families had been scorch-earthed by past German power and its ambitions.
In return, Germany was asked to pay only the most reasonable of costs. A truly western Germany would enshrine freedom at its core. And, any return of German power from provincial Bonn to once-imperial Berlin be paid for by German political and actual investment in the two institutions in which the gift was embodied – the EU and NATO. Thirty years on that gift, the promise it contained, and the institutions it served are being broken on the rock of Berlin’s visionless political parochialism and the strategic vacuum that too many German leaders confuse with strategic patience.
My tears now, as with so much today, are virtual tears. Odes to joy? No. Rather a sense of a grand European chance missed by a wannabe great country, led by a once (and future) grand city the parochialism of which is failing the test of power, too often of principle, and most certainly of leadership. In so doing, THIS Germany has failed the hope of that wonderful Berlin night thirty years ago. A Germany that is also failing its own sternest of tests – Germany’s own history, and Europe’s possible future.
Why does Berlin matter? Neither Germany nor Europe can be secure until and unless Berlin’s political dragons of today finally get a grip of the demons of Germany’s past and set fair a course for a fair Europe with a fair Germany at its heart. In other words, if Europe and the transatlantic relationship really are as important to Berlin as it claims Germans need to start matching deeds to words.
Berlin Wall 30 and the fall of Germany.