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Flashbacks: "The Road to Reunification" (October 3, 2002)
Articles spanning the past century chronicle Germany's long, tortuous path toward unity.

The Atlantic Monthly | May 1990
The Character Issue

Can the Germans get it right this time?
Robert D. Kaplan
he German people, according to one of their most provocative historians, Golo Mann, have always been a dynamic force locked up in a "big prison," wanting to break out. With the north and south blocked by water and mountains, "out" has meant west and east—particularly east, where Germans, owing to successive waves of migration, intermingled with the Slavs. Mann, the son of the novelist Thomas Mann, writes: "What has characterized the German nature for a hundred years is its lack of form, its unreliability." The same could be said for Germany's size and shape on the map, as it evolved through the three Reichs that have stamped the nation's history.

The First Reich could be said to have been founded by the Frankish ruler Charlemagne, in 800 A.D. In the latter part of the twelfth century, under the rule of Frederick I, Barbarossa, it evolved into the Holy Roman Empire, which—though this fact is not made clear enough in the history books—was basically a German empire. The First Reich was a great shifting blob of territory, continually altered by conquest, that at its zenith encompassed not only Germany but also Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, and parts of present-day France, Belgium, Poland, Italy, and Yugoslavia. For a while the Germans seemed destined to rule the bulk of Europe forever. But early in the sixteenth century, just as the French, the British, and other European peoples were solidifying into nations, a German monk, Martin Luther, brought on the Reformation and split Western Christianity. The Reformation ignited the Thirty Years' War, which was fought primarily on German soil.

The phrase "Thirty Years' War" evokes for many Germans a horror that to non-Germans seems both distant and obscure. For Germans at the time its impact was equivalent to the impact that the two world wars combined would have. Begun in 1618 as a local conflict in Bohemia over the rights of Protestants under a Catholic ruler, it was fanned by a complex system of alliances, Great War-style, into a conflict involving six nations. The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the war in 1648, confirmed France and (to a lesser extent) Sweden and Hapsburg Austria as the great Continental powers. The First Reich was devastated. A third of the population was dead. The empire was reduced by the creation of an independent Switzerland and Netherlands, and was permanently divided along religious lines. "Germany was preserved in a patchwork of more than three hundred states and principalities," explains The Financial Times's Bonn correspondent, David Marsh, in his new book, The Germans: Rich, Bothered, and Divided. "The only two German states large enough to play a decisive role in the history of Europe were rivals: Prussia and Austria."

The First Reich is significant to this day for two main reasons. Its rise planted the idea in German minds of the centrality of Germany in Europe, and of the right of the German people to a place in the sun. And its fall planted the seeds of bitterness and national frustration.

aving led Europe for close to a millennium in the push toward national integration, Germany after the Peace of Westphalia found itself utterly fragmented. Integration would come late, and then in a contrived manner. Denied the benefits of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment—another consequence, in part, of the Thirty Years' War—German society also developed less democratically than others did. It was entirely symptomatic that the first national parliament, organized by German liberals in Frankfurt in 1848, degenerated into chaos. Ultimately the various autonomous German states had to be whipped together by force. The result was a second, not very modern, Reich.

Like Prince Clemens von Metternich, the Austrian state chancellor who established Hapsburg rule over many of the German states in the first half of the nineteenth century, Prince Otto von Bismarck-Schonhausen, the father of the Second Reich, was an artificer; the genius of both men lay in their ability to hold off the future by constructing a fragile present out of pieces of the past. In 1862 Bismarck was appointed Minister-President of Prussia—the most powerful and well-organized of the German states, which, under Frederick the Great in the eighteenth century, had expanded across Poland into Baltic Russia. Making skillful use of Prussia's military strength, Bismarck repeatedly bested his adversaries—first Denmark, then Hapsburg Austria, then France—in situations where battle provided the only hope of a way out of a political impasse. Bismarck's defeat of Austria, at Koniggratz, near Prague, killed the Grossdeutschland vision of the German liberals who had gathered at Frankfurt in 1848—the vision, that is, of a "greater Germany" united with Austria in a peaceful, democratic commonwealth. The realities of war rather than the desire for a liberal democratic state forged modern German unity. "What for half a century had been the dream of the middle classes," Golo Mann writes, "was now achieved without, and at times in spite of, the middle classes. In the end the German Reich was proclaimed among princes and generals...."

Bismarck's Reich was born in 1871, as France went down to defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. With all the German states save Austria under its flag, its boundaries closely resembled those of Hitler's Reich in 1937. Internally it was characterized by a weak parliament, social immobility, and the overbearing weight of a reactionary military caste. Germany matured economically but not politically. As Gordon A. Craig notes in his classic study Germany: 1866-1945,
Bismarck seemed to assume that the relationship between the democratic-constitutional and the conservative forces would remain basically unchanged.... This was an impossibility, given the dynamic social development that was generated by the process of industrialism in Germany....
The Second Reich thus represented a tragic postponement of the democratic and social development that other Western European nations had been enjoying.

Catastrophe was averted only so long as Bismarck was there continually to adjust the system's levers, and to keep the country out of war in the East, where German influence and entanglements were growing. "The whole of the Balkans," Bismarck said sagely, "is not worth the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian musketeer." But Bismarck's successors were not so wise. Under Wilhelm II the state could be seen to wither even before the outbreak of the First World War—which, largely owing to the Kaiser's stupidity, Germany rashly precipitated.

When the war ended, Germany was on the brink of a communist revolution similar to what had taken place in St. Petersburg in 1917. Social revolutionaries—most notably the Spartacists—gained control of individual towns and newspapers, causing extremists of the far right to form their own roving bands, called Freikorps, from units of demobilized working-class soldiers. As things turned out, the revolution was deferred, and Germany got an ineffectual interregnum, the Weimar Republic, that lasted for fourteen years. Eventually, as we know, Germany did have its own proletarian revolution of sorts, though of a unique, right-wing variety.

The debate over how much responsibility German culture bears for Nazism is endless. Here we need record only the result: the Third Reich, a revolutionary consequence of the defeat and humiliation of the Second Reich. It ended as did the First Reich in 1648, with the destruction and division of Germany by its neighbors.

But Hitler's tyranny had one positive outcome. The Third Reich led Germany into a destruction so total that much of what was bad about the German national heritage was destroyed (along with much of what was good). Moreover, whereas the numerous German states under the Treaty of Westphalia had retained their identities and independence, the two German states that emerged from the Second World War had the internal organization of their societies completely rebuilt according to the political and moral values of their respective victors.

oday, half a century later, the result of this experiment is no longer in doubt. Germany's eastern portion, economically and politically moribund, is poised to accept the embrace of Germany's modern, vital (and larger) western portion. In the united Germany that is now emerging, the special character of the East German state is historically irrelevant. It is, indeed, being sloughed off like molted skin. The character of a future Germany will be derived in its entirety from the present character of the West German state. And the most important truth about West Germany today is that it is perhaps the most complacent, satisfied, petit bourgeois nation in Europe, if not on earth. It is the antithesis of the inflation-ravaged, socially torn society of the pre-Hitier period.

In a few breathtaking years the Americans transformed the Allied sector of Germany into a middle-class democracy. Their success owes much to Konrad Adenauer; already seventy-three when he assumed office, he played a role that will likely emerge as more decisive to German history than that of either Bismarck or Hitler. Adenauer, who spent the period of Nazi rule in prison and forced retirement, seemed psychologically bred for the task. It was almost as though the temporary loss of eastern Germany—to his mind nationalistic, Protestant, and overly influenced by Prussian militarism—was something that he, as a Catholic Rhinelander, had subconsciously hoped for all his life. As the mayor of Cologne (1917-1933), he had actually put forward a plan for establishing an independent Rhineland state, separate from Prussia.

Golo Mann remarks that although Adenauer was old enough to remember Bismarck and to have held office under the Kaiser, he was curiously unhistorical, never talking in speeches about the past, only about the present. That sensibility seems to have been left as a bequest to an entire society. To be sure, the Germans are not about to forget their nation's responsibility for much of this century's carnage; part of the German mind is exquisitely sensitized to the ugly realities of recent history. But Germans today also maintain a peculiar, almost surreal distance from that history.

The dominance of the German present over the German past was driven home for me during a visit not long ago to Nuremberg, a city that more than any other in Germany symbolizes the Third Reich. The stadium complex at Nuremberg, where Hitler held some of his largest rallies, was until recently the site of a brutally graphic exhibition relating to German anti-Semitism, titled "Fascination and Force: Nuremberg, A City Misused." Photographs of deportation lists and mounds of bodies at crematoria were juxtaposed with more mundane sorts of pictures, like one of a well-dressed, smiling young man beside a sports car, holding up a sign that reads "JEWS ARE OUR BAD LUCK." There was a steady trickle of visitors through the dark brick passageways, lined with rusted pipes and peeling plaster, which half a century ago had provided access to the stadium for Hitler and senior Nazi officials.

Outside the stadium complex, however, there were many more people than there were inside. The exterior walls of the stadium, extending for hundreds of yards around three sides, were being used for squash courts by masses of German teenagers and young professionals, who appeared oblivious of the signs advertising the Holocaust exhibition. Here were, symbolically, the Germans, Adenauer's children—prosperous, maybe superficial, certainly ahistorical. 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.

"We are the most developed mass democracy in the world," says Wolfgang Gibowski, a political pollster. "Compared with America, we have no poor people and no elites either. Almost everyone in Germany is nouveau riche." Peter Koslowski, a political philosopher, says, "Because so many Germans started from zero after the war, we are aggressively modernist. Modernism and middle-class culture have been raised to the status of ideologies here. "

The fact of prosperity cannot be emphasized enough when considering Germany's new nationalism and comparing it with the previous kind, which appeared at a time when inflation was running at several thousand percent annually and half the labor force was unemployed. According to a German study reported last year by the International Herald Tribune, the average hourly wage (including benefits) in West Germany, $ 18.30, is the world's second highest (after Switzeriand's, which is only five cents higher). 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, where growth, development, and snob appeal all focus on Paris and London. In West Germany, owing to the tradition of small, independent states which arose out of the Thirty Years' War, there is no one great, congested, crime-ridden pressure cooker of a capital but, rather, a collection of smaller capitals. Hamburg is the media capital, Munich the fashion capital, Frankfurt the banking capital, Bonn the political capital. It is almost as though West Germany were a single sprawling version of Shaker Heights or Chevy Chase, but adorned with expensively renovated medieval architecture and postmodern cafe chairs. And it is precisely this decentralization that is responsible for the nation's sturdy socio-economic foundation.

The Germans, who came late to modern nationhood and had three empires destroyed, seem finally on the verge of their century. Nazism and communism, it turns out, were historical detours for Germany, just as they were for the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. The dream of the 1848 Frankfurt liberals is finally about to come to pass: Germany, as the masses of its new immigrants from East Germany, the Soviet Union, and Poland make clear, will expand and exert influence because of the attraction of its economic genius and middle-class prosperity. America, and the West in general, will be interpreted to the peoples of a declining Soviet empire through Germany.

In 1897 the American historian Henry Adams wrote:
In my opinion, the center of readjustment, if readjustment is to be, lies in Germany, not in Russia or with us.... Russia is in many respects weak and rotten. Germany is immensely strong and concentrated. The struggle is going on with constant German advantage....
The German Reich that Henry Adams saw would soon help ignite a world war. But this time, in 1990, it's easy to imagine that a new German Reich will threaten neither America nor anyone else. By providing Eastern Europe with a model for overcoming a hateful, bloody past, it could even turn out to be a force for good. 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. Though the danger of an unrepentant nationalism—as exemplified by the small, far-right Republican Party—always exists, this phenomenon is likely to remain only marginal to German politics. The conditions and turns of mind that bedeviled Germany's first three Reichs are not much in evidence at the dawn of the fourth, and the power of prosperity and democracy works strongly against their return.

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Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1990; Vol. 264, No. 5, p. 24