The Green land with good marks

The New Germans
August 11, 1995

The reunification of Germany has excited a wide variety of responses. For Margaret Thatcher and her nationalistic advisers, Germans will always be Germans. The Nazi period was not a temporary aberration permanently extinguished in 1945, but a reflection of deep character faults whose origins lie in Germany's cultural and philosophical tradition. For Giles Radice, in The New Germans, the Germans have taken a new path and have at last established a stable democratic regime.

In his conclusion, the balance of evidence Radice marshals points in his direction. The achievements of post-war Germany are impressive. For the third time in a century, Germany has moved from the minor league to be one of the world's foremost industrial nations. After Bismarck's unification, Germany outstripped Britain by the first world war. It was then ruined, but resurrected itself to contemplate seriously conquering the world. After the second world war, it has again regenerated itself. Its currency is the de facto currency of Europe. It has surpassed the United States' share of world trade, and it dominates the eastern European new democracies.

Reunification with the East, as Radice describes in his anecdotal style, has confronted Germany not only with economic challenges, but also with political ones. At the time, the challenge posed to its democracy was seen as considerable. Indeed, President Mitterrand thought Maastricht essential to bind Germany into western Europe before the preoccupations with its old eastern empire detached Germany from the European project, and Gunter Grass thought the whole reunification project too dangerous given Germany's history.

Radice's title, The New Germans, invites the contrast not only with the Old Germans, but also with the New Britons. This is the sub-theme of the book, and is reflected in the quote from Helmut Schmidt in describing Britain as "an underdeveloped country". Radice rightly indicates that the federal system in Germany is a critical feature in the maturity of the new democracy, and is at pains to demonstrate how consensus politics works through the Lander or regional government system. In a very real sense, Germany always has a grand coalition: no major party is excluded from decision-making.

The contrast with Britain's political system could not be sharper. One-party governments are praised in contrast to the "weakness" and "indecisiveness" of coalitions, and the centralisation of power away from local government in the 1980s has been immense. The contrast in performance is also a sharp one. Germany has absorbed a bankrupt economy, persuaded West Germans to pay significantly higher taxes for its rebuilding, and contained the inflationary consequences. This has all been achieved despite a world recession and a revaluation of the Deutschmark.

In bringing out some of the achievements of Germany at a time when many Britons are revelling in war-time nostalgia, and in doing so in a personal and highly accessible style, Radice has performed a considerable public service. It is all the more necessary as the British begin to face up to the inter-governmental negotiations on further European integration in 1996, and the prospect of a seat on the UN Security Council for Germany. Perhaps even more importantly, as Radice rightly observes, the instability in the east can be contained only if Germany provides a democratic bulwark, both to attract the newly emerging nations and to provide for Europe's defence.

These positive features make the book well worth reading. In one sense, however, Thatcher's unease deserves a more careful consideration. Though it is true that the Nazi period is well behind them, the idea that Germans are now "new" is too seductive. No people ever escapes its history. The British barbarities in the name of the empire, the terrible persecution of the Scots and the Irish, and the sweatshops of the industrial revolution stain our self-satisfied interpretation of history. Germans too have to come to terms with their history. Indeed, it is precisely because the Germans repeatedly confront their past that Radice's hypothesis - that "today's Germans are very different from the Germans of the late 19th and early 20th century or the Germans of the 1930s and early 1940s. They are proven democrats, committed over many years to consensus and peace" - is in fact a safe one to adopt. When the neo-Nazis burnt down the hostels for asylum seekers, the Germans knew what a threat that represented. They marched in their thousands in peaceful protest. They faced it down. Neither inflation nor racism stands much chance of success. Love of the Deutschmark and hatred of racism are part of the post-war cultural consensus. It is the Greens, not the former Communists or the right-wing Republicans who provide the challenge to the two main political parties. Greens are not known for violence, militarism or racism.

Dieter Helm is a fellow in economics, New College, Oxford.

The New Germans

Author - Giles Radice
ISBN - 0 7181 3780 9
Publisher - Michael Joseph
Price - £16.50
Pages - 235

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