More on foreign affairs from The Atlantic's archive.

More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.


From the archives:

"Hidden Colors" (May 1997)
The rubble on one of the few remaining gray blocks near the old Checkpoint Charlie reveals much about what Berlin is losing, and losing fast. By David Lawday

"Germania Irredenta" (July 1996)
Renouncing a provision of the 1945 Potsdam Declaration, Germans are looking more than wistfully at lands they lost in the war—and suing to get them back. Do some things never change? By Hans Koning

"The Old Made New" (April 1996)
East Germany's treasures are once again a delight to see. By R. W. Apple Jr.

"Is There a New Germany?" (February 1964)
In the course of the past year Martha Gellhorn, the author and noted foreign correspondent, paid an extended visit to the Federal Republic of Germany and sought to determine whether the younger generation could in time be responsible for a "New Germany." By Martha Gellhorn

"Germany and Modern Civilization" (June 1925)
"In Germany the various economic and political groups contend for their rights and support their prejudices with a vigor and venom which make ordered government well-nigh impossible, but which offer the interested observer a very clear picture of the vital factors and forces in a modern industrial state." By Reinhold Niebuhr




Flashbacks
 
The Road to Reunification

October 3, 2002
 
oday Germany is celebrating the anniversary of its 1990 reunification, and it seems a fitting occasion to look back at a selection of articles from The Atlantic's archive that chronicle the country's long, tortuous road toward unity. When the first issue of The Atlantic was printed in 1857, the region called Germany bore little resemblance to the nation of today. Bismarck had not yet led Prussia to battle. The World Wars had yet to be fought. Even Karl Marx, who had published the Communist Manifesto nine years before, could scarcely have imagined a Communist East Germany that would exist behind a massive concrete wall.

Until the early 1800s, German monarchs ruled an immense territory that stretched from Holland to the Balkans. This region—known as "the Holy Roman Empire," though it had no connection to ancient Rome—was governed by German Kaisers who saw themselves as Caesars for a new era. Napoleon invaded in 1806, and by the time he was driven out, the Holy Roman Empire was fragmented into many small kingdoms.

Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of Prussia, was the first German leader to reunify some of the fragments. By the time he took office in 1862, German liberals had spent decades trying to create a Germanic Confederation with a constitution and elected leaders. Bismarck used a different tactic, bringing the German states together through military force. In "Some Traits of Bismarck" (February 1882) Herbert Tuttle captured the ruler's larger-than-life persona:
The greatest statesman of the age, he was also recognized as the most characteristic of Germans—the type as well as hero of the nation.... a brawny, swaggering giant, fond of eating, drinking, and fighting, gifted with a coarse, telling humor, ready with the Latin of a "corps" student, yet with a serious purpose beneath the noise of spurs and beer glasses, beneath billingsgate doggerel and insolence, and a will which admirably served his purpose.
Bismarck's Germany was a massive but fragile entity, governed through constant vigilance and military strategy. Tuttle described Bismarck as though he were personally holding Germany together—exerting an almost palpable unifying force over the diverse elements of his country. So powerful was his personal influence that at one point when he made a casual remark against the Catholic Church (which he viewed as a competing influence over his people), the Germans became so roused by his words that Tuttle could almost envision them charging over the Alps to attack the Pope himself:
The aged patriot heard the words, and revived with a sense of new life. The young man looked abroad over the reunited fatherland, throbbing with ingenuous pride at the energy of its own organs, and in his fancy thousands and thousands of German soldiers were seen hurrying toward the south, scaling the Alps as they had scaled the Vosges, bridging the Po and the Tiber as they had bridged the Seine and the Loire, until that priestly insolence which for centuries had harassed the fortunes of the country was hunted, like the monster in the Faerie Queene, to its loathsome den, and at last forever silenced.
Inevitably, Bismarck's unifying influence came to an end; he resigned from his post in 1890 after differences with Kaiser Wilhelm II. Whereas Bismarck had avoided conflict in the Balkans, Wilhelm rushed into war there, setting off the chaotic stream of events that became World War I.

Germany's defeat led to a weak Weimar Republic and enormous debts from reparation. In 1923, after a visit to Germany, Langdon Mitchell wrote an article depicting the country's "pallor, slowness, quietude and almost apathy." Children dropped down in the streets from starvation. All the well-off, happy people he saw on the streets of Munich were tourists, taking advantage of the country's hyperinflation:
The rate of exchange staggered belief. Breakfast cost eleven cents, luncheon twenty-three, and for half a dollar you had an excellent dinner of several courses, with a bottle of light wine.... When it came to buying, your best hat cost a quarter, and a heavy woolen overcoat three dollars. If you tried hard, you could spend two dollars during the twelve hours of a day; but to get rid of a third dollar, cost effort.
Most foreboding for Mitchell was the decline of Germany's intellectual life. Scientists were pawning their laboratory equipment to get money for food; professors were putting on overalls and becoming workmen. The fall of the middle classes, paired with Weimar's unsuccessful democracy, opened the way for a "Red Sunrise rushing up the political horizon." Workers in German beer halls spoke of proletarian revolution, and highly skilled professionals resigned themselves to alliances with Communist Russia. Mitchell lamented what he saw as the end of Germany's luminous intellectual and artistic tradition:
The discoverers of the spectroscope...; the creators of the Ninth Symphony and the inventors of the higher criticism; a race that produced Kant and Goethe in modern times... must necessarily perish as a creative force. That is, their civilization will cease to exist.... All is over; the thing ends; you have a dark age.
The "dark age" Mitchell foresaw swept into Germany from a different political direction, not from the left but the right. Adolf Hitler, with his National Socialist Party, touched a German nerve that had been near the surface since the fall of the Holy Roman Empire. Through methods more ruthless and manipulative than Bismarck's, Hitler promised to return his country and "race" to a position of mastery. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, The Atlantic cast a wary eye on the rise of National Socialism, publishing firsthand accounts of concentration camps and Nazi totalitarianism.

One such piece, written in 1939 by Herbert G. Sonthoff, was simply titled "Last Hours in Germany." In two brief pages, it presented a snapshot of Berlin under Nazism. The author rode in a taxi down the historic Unter den Linden, a street whose Brandenburg Gate had been built during the lifetimes of Beethoven and Schiller. The taxi driver spent the ride discussing Hitler's pact with Moscow, praising the Fuhrer for restoring Germany's glory. To Sonthoff, the driver was the "man in the street":
He exemplified completely the effect of the Nazi propaganda machine. The way of thinking of the German people, based on their readiness to believe and trust their authorities, has been shrewdly used by their present rulers.... Whatever Hitler and his men did, whether they rationed food, controlled the universities, or persecuted the Jews, was declared to have been done in the interest of Germany, therefore was right and was so accepted.
Arriving for lunch with a former classmate named Bruno, now the leader of a Hitler Youth unit, Sonthoff was greeted instead by Bruno's father. His old friend, "the little Fuhrer," had been summoned for military duty. "Don't think I have turned Nazi," the old man told Sonthoff, holding his hand for a moment, "but what can we do?... The young don't know anything else, and the old can find no political idea strong enough to replace this system." This, Sonthoff wrote, was the other side of the story, an attitude of hopeless acceptance "tinged with suspicion and weary indifference."

Another friend, a government official named Werner, took a last walk with Sonthoff through Berlin's central Tiergarten park:
"You are going," he said, "and you ought to go. Tell them over there that Germany will become again what it once was –not a first-class military power, but stronger in science, philosophy and poetry than ever. National Socialism is just an interlude, dark and terrific, but there will be a new dawn. They think I'm a Nazi and therefore I can and must stay –there must be people ready for the change when it comes."
One generation later, Germany had changed so dramatically as to become two different nations. The country Bismarck had fused together was split down the middle, each side aligned with the power that had occupied and reformed it after World War II. In 1961, a few months after the Wall rose in Berlin, The Atlantic ran a feature called "Why We Crossed Over," a collection of testimonials in which five East Germans explained their reasons for crossing into West Germany.

Each of the speakers had left after quietly rejecting communism and becoming an "enemy of the state." "Dieter," a twenty-one-year-old hospital orderly, found himself on the government blacklist after being seen in West Berlin:
[The police] said that they knew that I had been going frequently into West Berlin to see my aunt. They knew also that I had many friends in West Berlin and that I had been seen riding on a motor scooter with a decadent girl from West Berlin who had long hair, like Brigitte Bardot's. All of this was true enough.... That night I crossed the frontier into West Berlin and knocked on my aunt's door.
Another speaker, a cabinetmaker called "Hans R.," had brought his family into danger by doing carpentry work for private individuals instead of the state. He came home from work one day to find his wife missing; later he discovered that she was in prison. After a co-worker filed an incriminating report about him, he fled the country, leaving his son at the boy's grandparents and his wife in prison. "It is not easy to do such a thing," he said. "I can only hope that the situation will not last forever."

Twenty-eight years later, when the guardposts at the Berlin Wall were suddenly abandoned, it marked a huge transition not only for Germany but for the whole world. Germany was once again becoming the focal point for European unity. The democratic countries of the West celebrated the dismantling of the Wall—the Cold War's chilliest symbol—and the countries of Eastern Europe, fresh from or in the midst of revolution, observed East Germany's transition into the Western world with more than a passing interest.

In May 1990, five months before the official declaration of German unity, Atlantic writer Robert D. Kaplan looked back on Germany's past in "The Character Issue." The article's underline asked, "Can the Germans get it right this time?" Starting with the "First Reich"—the Holy Roman Empire—Kaplan reviewed Germany’s various incarnations. Up through Hitler's era, Kaplan argued, German history had been threaded together by a common theme of force and conquest. "The Third Reich led Germany into a destruction so total," he wrote, "that much of what was bad about the German national heritage was destroyed (along with much of what was good)."

According to Kaplan, the Germany of 1990 was the middle-class democracy that pre-Bismarck liberals had tried to achieve:
West Germany seems like a never-ending succession of pedestrian shopping malls. Luxury cars with smoked-glass windows line the streets. People walk around with obviously expensive optics, blazers, handbags, electronics. The train stations are clean. Many suburbs have special lanes for bicycles. Even the cities exude a comfortable equality—a far cry from the situation in France and Britain.
Modern Germany, Kaplan argued, is "the antithesis of the inflation-ravaged, socially torn society of the pre-Hitler period." Although the country's two halves would not officially unify until October 3 of that year, Kaplan declared East Germany's character already "historically irrelevant..., sloughed off like a molted skin." The dreariness of the German Democratic Republic would evaporate, and German abundance would be available in Leipzig and Dresden as well as Frankfurt and Hamburg.

This economic comfort was, for Kaplan, the answer to the article's opening question—Germany would get it right this time:
The very strength and homogeneity of their middle class culture would, I thought, serve to moderate both the old guilt and the new national feeling. Here perhaps was the cure for all the dangerous nationalisms of Eastern Europe. Ethnic antagonism can never be completely wiped out, but it can be subdued by year after year of economic prosperity.
Germany's stability, coupled with the German mind having been "exquisitely sensitized to the ugly realities of recent history," inspired Kaplan to envision a new German Reich that, rather than promoting violence, would stand strongly on the side of peace. The new Germany could even serve as a role model for Eastern European nations:
The idea of Germany's exerting a positive moral influence is less strange to Eastern Europeans than it is to Americans. For years Eastern Europeans have watched West German politicians lead the fight against human-rights abuses by Germany's neighboring Communist regimes.... The conditions and turns of mind that bedeviled Germany's first three Reichs are not much in evidence at the dawn of the fourth.
The past twelve years have gone much as Kaplan predicted. Recently, tensions between Germany and the United States have sprung not from Germany's militarism, but from its criticism of Bush's aggressive military policy toward Iraq. But today, on this Day of German Unity, German Federal President Johannes Rau sent out a message of friendship to America and the world. "We Germans, by ourselves, are not enough," he declared in a Berlin address. "We bring in our viewpoint, we make our contribution." Today's Germany may not be the Holy Roman Empire, but it is an impressive testament to reconstruction and unity.

—Jennie Rothenberg


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Jennie Rothenberg is a new media intern for The Atlantic. This past spring she earned a Master's in Journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.