No one here (I mean in Britain, not perhaps in the columns of The Spectator) likes to read anything nice about the Germans. So I shall warn you that there will be some praise for Germany in this review, mixed with the usual level of bashing. If the very thought of this shocks or appals you, I’ll do that rare thing for any journalist and suggest you turn the page and move on to something more comforting.
In the last few weeks there has been one principal story told in several new books, most of the press and broadcast coverage, and even the material on the Tweets that have marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is that after all the euphoria and the street parties of 9 November 1989, something has gone badly wrong with the re-marriage of the Germanys.
It is an unequal relationship, apparently. One partner, the fortunate West, had all the money, the goods and chattels. The other, supplicant East Germans, the Ossis, had all the needs, the neuroses, the pollution. It is the type of unhealthy relationship psychotherapists call co-dependency, so some observers claimed. Cleverer and longer pieces quote reams of statistics: that after 19 years of reunification, Ossis are 35 per cent more likely to be unemployed; East Germany contains a rustbelt of empty factories near cities like Leipzig that are crumbling away; that there is widespread Ostalgie, a newish German word coined around 15 years ago meaning, specifically, nostalgia for the East, the former GDR.
This is a true story — up to a point — and easy to find without looking very hard. But the far bigger story, missed often because it is so glaringly obvious, not the one we want to be told, and frankly rather boring, is that the new Germany has been, and is, an astonishing success. Germany’s greatest achievement in the terrible 20th century was its peaceful, democratic reunification. The way one of the strongest economies and currencies in the world, the D Mark, overnight absorbed 18 million people (and their debts) who lived in a bankrupt state, with so little dislocation is extraordinary. It is a powerful argument made by some German books produced in this anniversary year that have not (yet) been translated into English.
An interesting and accurate observation in all these books in English makes a similarly telling point in smaller detail. On 8 November 1989 Berlin consisted of two dull, ugly, provincial cities with a hideous scar that not only defaced one urban landscape, but symbolised a global conflict that had existed for nearly half a century. The next day a process began that has transformed Berlin into one vibrant, exciting, bustling, convivial place — one of Europe’s great cities. There is still a ‘wall in the head’, as Germans will admit. But brick by brick it is becoming lower.
Frederick Taylor’s The Berlin Wall is a superbly written history of the Wall from the weekend of 12/13 August 1961 when the East German government suddenly began building it to that wonderful, emotional night 20 years ago when the press of people forced bemused border guards to start dismantling it. Originally published three years ago, the book has been revised, with some fascinating new information added about the 192 people who died trying to escape under the Wall, through it or over it. There is no better place to go for a readable explanation of why and how it was built and the dramatic way it was finally breached.
He has also added a new preface, setting the Ossi/Wessi division in context. He witnessed a typical argument between the two. A man from Saxony complained that the privileged Rhinelander he was talking to was too mean to stump up enough money to make a real difference to employment in the East. The Wessi responded in the traditional way: we are paying extra taxes to subsidise lazy Easterners who don’t know the meaning of the word work. Is this proof that re-unification has exposed recent tensions that could easily explode? Not quite, argues Taylor. ‘You might feel the same if forced to share a room with an Englishman and a Scotsman [discussing] who was sponging off whom from government revenues.’
The most entertaining read is Peter Millar’s The Berlin Wall: My Part in its Downfall, a witty, wry, elegiac account of his time as a Reuters and Sunday Times correspondent in Berlin throughout most of the 1980s. It begins with the honest admission of how he nearly missed the story of the decade — the fall of the Wall — because he was 100 miles away. He made it back in the nick of time to cross Checkpoint Charlie with thousands of others.
Millar’s great strength as a reporter is that he mixed with a wide range of ordinary East Germans, drinking Pilsner with them in bars, going for country walks and visiting their homes. He understood they were not an alien species — and also a vital aspect of living under the system Erich Honecker used to describe, with no hint of irony, as ‘actually existing Socialism’. It was one of the things that made enduring communism possible: ‘Friendship mattered more than anywhere I had lived before or have lived since.’
Michael Meyer, by contrast, Newsweek’s bureau chief in Berlin, takes a top down approach in The Year that Changed the World. He also looks more broadly around other parts of central Europe, particularly Hungary, whose decision in March 1989 to open its border with Austria encouraged the exodus of refugees from East Germany, which weeks later resulted in the fall of the Wall. His book is no worse for being more traditional history. People power played a part in the 1989 revolutions, but ultimately leaders took the decisions which brought about the collapse of communism.
Christopher Hilton, in After the Berlin Wall, tells the story of reunification, but is too determined to find the new dissidents. The latest opinion polls in the Eastern Länder of Germany show that 10 per cent of the people think they might be better off under the old GDR, which does not seem a high figure, particularly after the economic recession. Unfortunately, about 90 per cent of his interviews are with people who feel deep Ostalgie, including one with a sad woman who blames the break up of her marriage on the collapse of the Wall, because it meant ‘porn shops in East Berlin’.
A ubiquitous presence in these books, as it was in the late GDR, is the secret police, the Stasi. It is the topic everyone wants to know about when thinking of East Germany. Millar had 29 microphones in his apartment. A beautiful housekeeper was planted there to entice him (unsuccessfully) into a honey trap. The staggering scale of the Stasi’s operation, was breathtaking — the 50 million tons of paperwork, the full-time staff of 97,000; more sinister, the 200,000 or so Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, IMs, informal collaborators who spied on their colleagues and neighbours because they wanted to or had to.
The Stasi has built a terrifying reputation: all-knowing, all-seeing; all-powerful. There’s a funny thing about the Stasi, self-styled sword and shield of the Communist Party. It was ultimately useless. A friend, like millions of other Germans, went one day to look at his Stasi file. As he told me, it contained about 90 pages of dull material, mostly about the music and food he liked. His comment reveals a profound truth: ‘The Stasi knew what most of us had for breakfast. But could it keep the Wall standing?’