Feb 2010 Journal

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Reflections on German reunification

Now that the flurry of media activity provoked by the twentieth anniversary of the reunification of Germany in November 1989 has subsided, one can try to situate that event within a wider European context. Of course, there are readers of the AJR Journal who, for very understandable reasons, can never be reconciled to Germany and the Germans and who regard Germany as the land of the eternal enemy. Others will regard any enlargement of Germany with fear and suspicion, in view of its record of aggressive and ultimately criminal expansionism during the period 1871-1945.

Nevertheless, the reunited Germany is now a settled factor at the heart of the reunited continent of Europe and, as such, a major factor in the diplomatic, political, economic and cultural relationships of the states of Europe and beyond. Nobody looking at Europe today can shut their eyes to Germany. It is also only fair to point out the enormous changes that the social and political culture of Germany has undergone since the days of the Kaiser, the Weimar Republic and Hitler. German society is now as peaceful, anti-militaristic and internationalist in its views as any in Europe.

The British are fond of poking fun at Germany as the land of military uniforms, jackboots and dreams of conquest. Yet it was not Germany that invaded Iraq, or sent a task force several thousand miles down the Atlantic to reconquer the Falkland Islands. The office of the President of Germany is very much a civilian post, quite unlike that of the Queen, his constitutional equivalent as British head of state, whose public function is inextricably intertwined with a multitude of military duties and ceremonies. Public opinion in Germany would hardly accept the grooming of Princes William and Harry for their future roles by service in the armed forces as unquestioningly as is the case in Britain.

Internally, the reunification of Germany has been accomplished largely successfully, to the extent that few people can now imagine Dresden and Magdeburg being cut off by barbed wire and watchtowers from Munich and Hanover. Fewer still will regret the passing of the former East Germany, a totalitarian surveillance state that had to wall its citizens in to preserve itself from death by depopulation. Though substantial differences in wealth and employment rates persist between the former East and West Germany – largely due to Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s politically inspired decision to allow the East German mark to be converted into West German marks at the rate of one to one – by and large the two former German states have merged smoothly into one.

It was in the sphere of external relations that the reunification of Germany aroused the greatest fears. Whereas West Germany, some 60 million people strong, was broadly on a par with France, Britain and Italy in terms of population and economic weight, the reunited Germany, with a population of some 80 million, is a power potentially of a different order. Yet the reunification of Germany has not been accompanied by German efforts to expand or extend its sphere of influence at the expense of other European states, other than in the acceptable forms of free competition by German companies in European markets and Germany’s attempts to further its national interests within the institutions of the European Union. Germany’s borders with its Eastern neighbours, agreed in the 1970s through the Ostpolitik of the Brandt and Schmidt governments, have not been challenged by any renaissance of German military might.

The reason for this lies partly in the fact that the reunification of Germany took place within the broader framework of the reunification of Europe as a whole. When the Berlin Wall came down, it brought the entire Iron Curtain down with it, allowing all the countries of the Warsaw Pact - Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria - to join the EU and NATO, along with the Baltic states, which regained their independence from the collapsed USSR. The potentially destabilising impact of a more powerful Germany was thus counterbalanced by the entry of ten Eastern European states (including the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia) and some 100 million Eastern Europeans into the European comity of nations. Europe became too large for Germany to dominate; the EU supplied a degree of cohesion lacking in the 1930s, when Germany had been able to pick off the small Eastern states one by one.

The admission of the countries of Eastern Europe into the EU and NATO has guaranteed peace and stability in the area of Europe formerly controlled by the Soviet Union. The separation of Slovakia from the Czech Republic passed off without bloodshed. The various ethnic tensions that in the 1930s had been resolved by force have not led to violence since 1989: the potential for conflict between Hungarians and Romanians in Transylvania, between Poles and Czechs over Cieszyn (Teschen), Romanians and Bulgarians in the Dobrudja, or Slovaks and Hungarians in southern Slovakia, has been held in check. These states understand full well that allowing militant nationalism to explode into discrimination against minority ethnic groups or violence against neighbouring states would only deprive them of the benefits of EU membership.

The case of Yugoslavia, which did collapse into an orgy of violence, proves the point. For Yugoslavia had never been part of the Soviet-controlled area of Europe, since Tito, its leader, had broken with Stalin in the 1940s. It was therefore less directly affected by the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Whereas all the other Eastern European countries underwent a change of regime when the Iron Curtain fell, Yugoslavia did not; its Serbian-dominated leadership, under Slobodan Milosevic, passed swiftly from Titoist Communism to radical Serb nationalism.

That transition then ignited the flames of nationalism in Yugoslavia’s other constituent republics, leading to their secession from Belgrade and to the Yugoslav wars. Only Slovenia, which played no part in the fighting, was admitted to the EU, following the path of the rest of peaceful Eastern Europe. The other Yugoslav republics either would not or could not abide by the European rules of democratic government, ethnic tolerance and international peace, were excluded from the European settlement and descended into carnage. But outside the western Balkans, the pattern of the fall of the Communist regimes and their replacement by elected governments, followed by admission to NATO and the EU, has brought a measure of stability, prosperity and democracy to the peoples of Eastern Europe.

That said, the creation of a single German state changed the balance of power within Europe and presented other nations with a challenge that, in view of Germany’s past record, could have proved difficult to meet. The most obvious loser in 1989 was Russia, which emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union with territorial losses even greater than those it suffered in 1918; shorn of the Baltic states, Ukraine and Belarus, Russia was in no position to oppose the reunification of Germany, however sensitive it was to the historical threat of invasion by Germany. The United States, by contrast, had little to fear from German reunification and much to gain from the collapse of the Soviet Union, its Cold War rival, and the extension of NATO across Eastern Europe. President Bush (senior) supported German reunification.

Britain and France were in a more difficult position: neither was prepared for the emergence of a united Germany and both felt threatened by it. As we know from documents released by the foreign ministries of both nations, President Mitterand and Prime Minister Thatcher were united in their misgivings about German reunification. The French played a clever hand, concealing those misgivings and planning to accommodate the enlarged Germany into a greater and more integrated Europe by means of European economic and monetary union (EMU), culminating in the creation of a single European currency. The French succeeded, in effect, in subsuming a united Germany within the broader dynamic of European integration and thereby neutralising the threat of German preponderance.

This was not possible for Margaret Thatcher, whose deep-seated aversion to Germany (made public by the revelation of her notoriously negative comments on the German national character) was matched by her hostility to European integration in general and the single currency in particular. Under her leadership, Britain found itself isolated in its opposition to German reunification. For what could Britain do to stop it? Send a gunboat up the Elbe? Organise a flypast of Spitfires over the Kurfürstendamm? Order the evacuation of the British Army of the Rhine across the North Sea on a flotilla of small boats?

In this lost cause, Mrs Thatcher even attempted to enlist the aid of President Gorbachev in delaying the disappearance of (Communist) East Germany and its absorption by (democratic) West Germany. This bid to prolong the East German regime by keeping Soviet forces on German territory was a sorry end to the Iron Lady’s previously impeccable record of support for freedom and democracy for the peoples of Eastern Europe. It did little to enhance Britain’s standing in Europe.


Anthony Grenville

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