Will The Real Germany Please Stand Up?


By Timothy Garton Ash

Random House x 680pp x $27.50

The author warns against excessive optimism that a unified Germany will be a model citizen

The trouble with the Germans, Napoleon once remarked, is that they are always becoming, never being. Two centuries later, as Germany grapples with the huge political, economic, and social consequences of reunification, the insight is as pertinent as ever.

Today, some fear that united Germany--big, rich, and powerful--may yet again run amok in Europe. Others think the nation is becoming so enmeshed in domestic problems that it will remain an economic giant but a political dwarf. Such uncertainty at the core is begetting a continent of neurotic nations caught in an identity crisis. One result: Europe's painful inability to grapple with the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia.

In his new book, In Europe's Name: Germany and the Divided Continent, Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash attempts to distill lessons from recent history and use them to peek into the future. He calls his epilogue "European Answers?" and the question mark is significant. He warns against excessive optimism that Germany will be a model European citizen, as its leaders claim.

The heart of the book is a scholarly examination of Ostpolitik, the policy by which West Germany sought to restore its full sovereignty and to reunify on its own terms. (Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, for example, declined Josef Stalin's 1952 offer to reunite Germany provided it became neutral.) Nonspecialists should not be deterred. Garton Ash, who had unrivaled access to many of the principals as well as to such documentary gold mines as the East German Stasi secret police files, tells a remarkable story of a coherent policy applied consistently over several decades, regardless of the stripe of the government of the day.

Irrevocably linked with Ostpolitik is Chancellor Willy Brandt, who was governing mayor of Berlin when the Wall went up in 1961. Within a few years, he and such Berlin statehouse chums as Egon Bahr quietly set out to bring it down. By 1967, Brandt was in Bonn as Foreign Minister with Bahr as a top aide, and Ostpolitik was in place.

The essentials: Build the trust of the Soviets and develop relations with the German Democratic Republic and Eastern Europe. Diplomacy, in the form of treaties and theater--Brandt's kneeling in the rain at a Polish war memorial comes to mind--was deployed with skill and persistence. And courage: Some steps raised firestorms of protest at home among Germans expelled from the East, who at one point were 20% of the electorate. The attractions of the peaceful, democratic, and prosperous Federal Republic were also subtly projected to those under Soviet rule.

But the touch of genius was promoting the whole enterprise as one undertaken in Europe's name. Garton Ash recalls Henry Kissinger's remark that Bahr was a delight to deal with because he always had a hidden agenda. Indeed, despite its Euro-clothing, Ostpolitik was all along the dedicated pursuit of German national interests. Not that Germany's commitment to a united Europe was insincere. Rather, as a later Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, put it: the more European, the more national.

Although generally seen as a geopolitical pygmy, Germany was in fact a quiet big-league player. It used its economic clout effectively, finally paying the Red Army to leave. Most important, the country's leaders invented a sort of diplomatic judo--using feints and pretended weakness to throw off far larger adversaries. Reuniting meant overturning Yalta, the pact among World War II's victors that enshrined Europe's east-west divide. That required marshalling the active help of the U.S. During the endgame, events moved so quickly that the British, French, and even the Soviets--all of whom tried to slow reunification--didn't realize they were floored till they heard the thud.

At times, though, German policymakers were too clever by half. The cachet of moving in the corridors of global power blinded them to the "people power" with which courageous East Europeans applied their own jujitsu to Soviet might. And when the Wall did finally fall, all the propaganda about the attractions of the West reaped a huge and uninvited harvest of economic refugees.

The ultimate paradox of Ostpolitik lies in its very success. Precisely because it so changed the world, it left no reliable guideposts for dealing with the situation it created. When German Foreign Minister Genscher persuaded the rest of Europe to recognize Croatia, for example, he undoubtly contributed to Yugoslavia's tragic dynamic. His error was drawing a facile parallel between Germany's right to self-determination and Croatia's.

Garton Ash's analysis suggests that politicians may be prone to more such mistakes. The author argues convincingly that the events of 1989 demolished not just Yalta but also the Europe of Versailles--the peace settlement following World War I.

In short, the clock was turned back further than most people imagine. That helps explain the risk of Europe reverting to neotribalism in the Balkans and elsewhere, the rise of Russian nationalism based on age-old fears of encirclement, and the inability of Europe's leaders to quickly formulate a viable new political order. Unfortunately, they may have to wait until today's Germany tells us who and what it is.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.