Andrew Gimson

Germany falling

Berlin lives in the past, says Andrew Gimson. Welfare is generous, and the nation is going bankrupt

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You are leaving the civilised sector. These words were pinned, in German and English, to the outside of the fence which protects the American embassy in Berlin. In order to get through that fence, you would have to persuade the gallant, bone-headed men of the Bundesgrenzschutz – Germany's frontier police, who also guard government buildings – that you are not intent on blowing up the Americans. Meanwhile you can take the chance to study the messages left by German peace protesters, of which the general drift is that George Bush is a mass murderer.

It would be easy, on the basis not only of these messages but also of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's foreign policy, to dwell at some length on the anti-Americanism that has become so visible in Germany. But to give an accurate and exhaustive account of that phenomenon would require, as Beerbohm might have said, a far less brilliant pen than mine. A more difficult task is to describe the civilisation which the Germans are so intent on preserving against any kind of external disturbance.

This civilisation has the defects of its virtues. It is peaceful but passive; stable but stagnant; morally concerned but preposterously self-righteous. To return to Berlin for my first extended visit for three years is to find a city that has gone to sleep. My mobile phone does not ring much, but mine is the only phone that has rung on the excellent trams and trains or in the peaceful beer gardens of Berlin. Nobody moves on the escalators, or even stands so that others can move. The hectic commercial life of London or New York seems a million miles away.

This is not just my impression. In a penetrating essay in the latest issue of the magazine Merkur, the critic Gustav Seibt argues that no great, all-encompassing novel can ever be written about Berlin, because Berlin society has always been divided into separate and generally introverted segments. Since the war, the industries that made Berlin rich have collapsed. It is now a poor city, full of the ruins of half-a-dozen previous regimes, among which you can live very cheaply and comfortably and even stylishly as a perpetual student. For a negligible sum you can rent a flat with high ceilings in one of the many thousands of lumbering old apartment blocks, and stay indefinitely in whichever part of the city you have colonised, never short of heat or beer or the company of like-minded friends with whom to while away the decades.

Seibt describes how 'artists, failures, creative types, political extremists, homosexuals, idlers and neurotics' were attracted to West Berlin during the Cold War, not only because by living there one was excused military service, but above all because in that city 'one did not have to grow up'. Instead one could find any amount of room in which to pursue projects of 'self-realisation' with like-minded people. From the early Sixties onwards, each new generation of arrivals found space in which to create its own scene, and then to preserve it untouched by the outside world. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this introverted character was carried forward in the club scene: a good club, as Seibt observes, 'must start clandestinely, if possible illegally, and then gain its hard-won reputation by word of mouth among initiates'.

Berlin is not Germany, but it is a fitting capital for a nation that beneath its internationalist veneer has a strong collective urge to cuddle up under the bedclothes and ignore unwelcome developments. Many of us imagined that in 1999, when the politicians at long last plucked up the courage to move the government from Bonn to Berlin, German politics would enter a more self-confident phase. We were wrong. In our militaristic way, we had allowed ourselves to be too influenced by the relatively short period in which Berlin was the capital of the greatest, most dynamic and most aggressive power in Europe. We ignored the evidence of our own eyes, which should have told us that since the war another German tradition had taken root on the Spree: the romantic tradition of dreaming rather than doing, even when the price of such dreams is economic backwardness and political impotence.

I do not mean to suggest that all the Germans have become lazy. At a rough guess only half of them have, while the other half have the decency to hold to our treasured image of them as extraordinarily hard-working and reliable. The immediate postwar generation buried itself in work: in pubs outside the gates of the great chemical factories on the Rhine they will tell you how their fathers died young after toiling in poisonous conditions to build things up again during the Fifties. But the post-postwar generation turned its back on that kind of toil, and on the dowdy, lower-middle-class respectability which seemed to be its only reward.

These rebels – an absurd word to use, I admit, of such a conformist group – found their moment in the student revolt of 1968, and got stuck there. But they found their livelihood thanks to Bismarck. He it was who saw that welfare payments could be used to suppress conflict and keep millions of people in quiescent dependency on the state. It is a lesson in social control that Bismarck's heirs have fully absorbed. The will to work has been eroded, in many individual cases beyond hope of recovery, by a welfare state which by British standards is still amazingly munificent.

So Germany has more than four million people unemployed and is going bankrupt. Everyone knows this; everyone has known for the past 20 years that something will have to be done, and still nobody is prepared to do it. The latest welfare cuts proposed by Mr Schröder have been condemned by economists as far too modest, and by his own party as intolerably savage; there is talk of throwing him out unless he waters down his already watery package. Bild – Germany's answer to the Sun – recently printed a picture of Mr Schröder looking somewhat the worse for wear after a holiday lunch with his interior minister, Otto Schily, in Tuscany. German escapism takes many forms, but a decent red wine in Tuscany remains the preferred option for the political class.

Andrew Gimson is foreign editor of The Spectator.