Sunday 7 December 2014

Germany, Then and Now - by Patrick Brigham

In my series 'Then and Now,' I explore the way that Europe has evolved since the heady days of early 90s political change, the 25th anniversary of the destruction of the now iconic Berlin wall and the aftermath. Before the emergence and integration of the Eastern and Central European countries into the EU, there was a high degree of cynicism as to the outcome, something to which I too was a doubting party. It was hard to see how countries like Bulgaria and Romania could even dream of 'stepping up to the plate,' of EU membership, and seemingly harder for them to arrange their affairs, in order to meet the very elastic requirements on offer from Brussels. In this published article, I write about a time, literally just after the joining of the two Germany's. I also try to rationalise what happened immediately afterwards and the feelings which people had at the time. It is also an opportunity to review how Germany has changed - for better or worse - and if it has reached the expectations of Europe and the Germans themselves. Written in 1999, it was a foretaste for fifteen years of press speculation and critisizim

It was 1991, and early spring, as I landed at Stuttgart airport. I have always loved southern Germany, and this time I had come with an old friend Garrick Coleman, to visit an antique ‘hypermarket’ situated on the outskirts of the town. Landing at Stuttgart airport had been a strange experience for us, because coinciding with a number of international arrivals or departures, it seemed that there were no German faces to be seen. We thought for a moment we had caught the wrong aircraft, judging by the sea of Turkish people in front of us, some greeting each other, others with glazed eyes, saying goodbye to loved-ones; but we were wrong, we were in Germany.

From there we went to a friendly comfortable hotel; then a few beers with some brockworst and sauerkraut at a local pub, and it was time for bed. In the morning after a leisurely breakfast we visited the hypermarket, to be met on arrival by the owner and his English speaking manageress, both waiting at the main entrance.

Garrick is Britain’s leading dealer in antique chess sets, but at the time we were also interested in Czech antique glass paperweights, and we thought we might rent a stall at the hypermarket, to sell small pieces of art virtu, chess sets and decorated items, to the then burgeoning European antique and art market. In the end we didn’t do it, but our host was a very friendly and cultured man, and he insisted on showing us his private collection of Meissen porcelain, before our return to London.

It was an enormous collection, which he kept securely on the top floor of the building, and it was a wonderful sight to behold. Spanning the ages, the porcelain pieces glistened with quality; each item with its own beauty, the intricate artisan work, the precision the detail, and finally the crossed sabres on the base confirming provenance. Then we got to the Nazi section! It was dull, black and white, a little bit gothic, and to all accounts not very valuable. I could quite understand why, and our host - who was Jewish - said it was part of the history of the Meissen factory, so it mattered. But that was all he said.

By chance, later in the day, I met an interesting man, who ran the social security office in the City of Dresden. In 1990 the first freely elected ‘Peoples Chamber’ in the GDR had decided to accede to the Federal Republic of Germany, so it was by then, fully united. He told me of his problems, about the former East German chaos, and I replied with tales from Bulgaria and other countries that were experiencing similar changes. He told me how his local staff would start to disappear at around two o’clock in the afternoon, only to claim the following day that they had to queue for food. He had said to them, ‘But the shops are groaning with food, we west Germans have made sure you have everything in abundance, you don’t need to queue for anything anymore.’ Later he had decided that they probably couldn’t work for more than five hours a day, and looking in his beer mug, he sighed, saying - “ That is communism for you!” And it was.

The story of Germany, is about a new beginning, it is about saying goodbye to a past for which most Germans today share no responsibility; simply, they are too young. But, judging by German TV, it is a country which feels the need to apologise almost daily for the past, but in truth one has to wonder why - quite so much - anymore?

The ‘New Germany’ of 1949 spawned many remarkable figures, including Ludwig Erhard, Konrad Adenauer and of course the ex Mayor of Berlin, Willy Brant, all of whom served - not only to change the face of Germany - but of Europe itself. When in 1951 Germany became a member of the Council of Europe, and later a party to the European Coal and Steel Community, the stage was set for the creation of the EU as we know it today. When in 1954 the Federal Republic gained sovereignty following the Treaty of Paris - and the German national soccer team won the World cup - it was time to see Germany in a different light. Unfortunately, while this was all happening, East Germany was being heavily suppressed by Russia, following a season of riots in East Berlin.

By 1946 Germany had already begun to receive aid from America under the GARIOA Programme, and by 1948, from the George Marshall Plan - to conquer ‘Hunger, poverty, despair and chaos’ - and which was to help create the ‘New Germany,’ and effect its necessary economic recovery. Between 1948 and 1952, Germany received $1.4 billion USD alone under the Marshall plan, given to a country which - with the inspiration of men like Ludwig Erhard - now found itself moving towards a ‘social market economy;’ which in effect is what the EU is all about today. Then in 1955 came the termination of the Occupation Statute, and the Federal Republic of Germany’s accession into NATO.

Although this whole process was about German sovereignty; two years later in 1957 we saw the formation of the European Economic Community (EEC) and the Treaty of Rome, with Germany as a signatory. Europe had finally grown up and had begun to change, with the clasp of friendship between Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle of France, a Europe no loger at war but fighting for peace. Post war idealism had now turned Germany from the ‘bad boy of Europe’ to a position of leadership, and the miracle of economic change began to happen. Then, the only war in Europe was the ‘cold war,’ symbolically underlined by the building of the ‘The wall’ by the Soviets, in 1961.

For some countries in the rest of Europe, Germany’s economic might, might well have seemed to derive from their own misfortune - as was also the case with Japan - but this is more a matter of ignorance than fact, and many foreign fortunes were made from the reconstruction of the scarred landscape of post war Germany. Now it is like everywhere else in the world, with international companies vying for a share of world markets, and using international money. But, the reality of the German economic miracle, was Germany itself, and the German people. A country renowned for its hard work, good organising ability, and engineering skills, it is now difficult to fault its claim to be the third most powerful industrialised nation in the world, something that it has every right to be proud of.

The slow process of change in Bulgaria, seems to be fraught with unconvincing excuses. The whole sordid business of expediting various faction’s special interests, seems to have taken over the political agenda, bogging down the more important issues of transition, and the fiction of privatisation. But the German story must be one, which should invigorate the flagging determination of much of eastern Europe, because it was one of political determination, of coalition, of social responsibility, and finally of nationhood.

In Germany, the end of National Socialism brought out the angels, and not the political adventurers that we have often seen in the Balkans. Symbolised by the famous Berlin speech of President John Kennedy in 1963, it seemed then, that the main German preoccupation was democracy. But, with the death of Konrad Adenauer in 1967, many waited with baited breath to see if there were any angels left, and there were.

One came in the form of Willy Brant. Famous for his fight against Hitler by his activities in the Norwegian underground, and with the continuing turbulence in the world of east-west; as the new German Chancellor, he embarked on the now famous ‘Ostpolitik’ process, culminating on the 12th August 1970 in Moscow, when a treaty was signed by Brant in which both sides stated that they had no territorial claims against anyone. In a letter presented to the Soviets at the time it was stated that the ‘treaty’ did not contradict its aim of working towards a peace in Europe ‘ in which the German people will regain their unity, in free self determination,’ and in this statement, the dreams of a nation were expressed.

Germany from the beginning of the ‘cold war’ seemed to be in the front line of possible aggression, playing host to NATO troops and missiles, and dealing with the pressures of the ‘two countries, one nation syndrome,’ while the so called super powers, played power politics around it. But meanwhile the economy expanded, which in itself was an irritant to the centrally planned economy of its immediate neighbour. Perhaps winning the hearts and minds of the ordinary people in East Germany was easy, it was the politics which was the problem; because by then it had become simple to see who was winning the economic battle. With the ongoing missile talks, and the negotiations, Germany experienced serious political casualties, particularly when it came to matters of security versus the economy. Helmut Schmit was forced to resign as Chancellor during the course of 1982, in favour of Helmut Kohl, becoming one of the most fortuitous events in modern German history .

For eighteen years Helmut Kohl stood out as the tough man of Europe, both by physical size and political stature, but rather like Winston Churchill - having successfully steered his country through to ultimate change - it seemed that he had to go! Without him, and his predecessors - those who understood the reality of European integration versus communism - very little would have changed. Because, rather like someone facing the end of a sad marriage, he was wise enough to find common ground with his estranged partner; Eric Honecker, and his marriage guidance councillor, Mikhail Gobachov. On the subject matter of ultimate change, his reign - like him or hate him - was remarkable. It is also remarkable, the amount the German people were prepared to take on. Despite all the apocryphal stories one hears about the then East Germany - the jewel in the crown of the Soviets - West Germany took on a disintegrating mess, much as one might see in Romania or Bulgaria today. The speed of change, and the relatively low level of actual unemployment in the east of Germany (16% at present) is a wonder, realising the current EU unemployment position. It was ultimately Germany, which paved the way to ‘the changes’ in Eastern Europe.

Germany has always had good relationships in Bulgaria, but mainly because of its engineering traditions; the fact is, most managers in manufacturing speak German. And, it is a major trading partner on a wide spectrum of activities, but trucks, motor cars, manufacturing machinery, fabrics, wine and food, have always come ‘top of the list.’ In the last four years - published figures 1994 to 1997 - the balance of payments has remained in Germanys favour, 1995 being the year of greatest negative difference for Bulgaria. But, last year saw an improvement - not only in total trade figures - but in the difference as well. During the course of 1997 Germany exported over Bulgaria, whilst in return, Germany received ....... in imports, thus reducing the Bulgarian balance of payments by some 28%. In an ideal world this would seem encouraging, but with Bulgarian obsession with German cars and consumer goods; although a good prospective market for Germany, with the likely changes in border tariffs, this might serve to tip the balance even further Germany’s way!

January 1999 has been a terrific time for Germany. Not only is it the residing President of the EU, but it has simultaneously had to oversee the introduction of the EURO, through the good offices of minister of finance Oskar Lafontaine. This, and a ‘Euro-Socialist’ coalition Government, has taken Germany to the forefront of conceptual politics. Having kept its post-war promise of a ‘social market economy;’ with all the integrated social and infrastructural spending in place, the new Government of Gehard Schroder, is branching off even further into the realms of profound Liberalism. With a policy which has very marked Green tendencies, time will only tell of the consequences of its present ‘free spending proposals,’ and the slightly nutty first evidence of a ‘U’ turn in its nuclear policy - both civil and military - and the uncontrolled utterances of Jurgen Trittin. Maybe, this is the price we all have to pay for peace?

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