As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.
Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics
.. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.
.. A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.
.. This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans.
.. Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia.
.. Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany
.. If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back
.. West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany.
.. But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius.
.. later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true.
.. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters.
.. In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church.
.. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east.
.. This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood –
- social structures,
– a different country from the
- Swabia or
It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe
.. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941.
.. So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different.
.. East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right.
.. the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority.
.. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany.
.. Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany
.. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan.
.. Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party
.. Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.
.. anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans
.. Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”
.. there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory.
.. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins.
.. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.
.. Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU.
.. it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.
.. With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future.
.. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis.