Reflections on My Country before and after 1989

Oct 03, 2003

German Unification Symposium / Hertie Lecture at the GHI | Speaker: Jens Reich


Full Text

"Today is the 3rd of October. For thirteen years now, this date has been the national holiday of all citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany. I was pleased to be invited to speak to friends and observers of my country on this day here in Washington. A rather nostalgic pleasure because my very first trip to the West after the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, was to here, to Washington. Before then, I was not among those allowed to become part of the "Reisekader," the traveling cadres," as they were called in the jargon of the East Germany. In early 1990, while the country still existed in international law, I received an invitation from the German Marshall Fund and the Woodrow Wilson Center to speak in several places, including Washington. Gerald Livingston was my host here. I remember my first speech vividly. I was suddenly standing before an audience of perhaps 500 people. It was the first time ever I was giving a speech in English. My first foreign language as a scientist had been Russian. English was like Latin for me - a language that was for reading and writing. Before then, I had at most listened to lectures or stammered in English during academic seminars with colleagues.

So I was standing there in front of that audience unknown to me, released for the first time into the freedom of globalization. The situation overwhelmed me, and I called out spontaneously, without looking at my manuscript for the names of everyone I was supposed to thank, I called out "Hail to you, inhabitants of a distant star!"

That was my biggest success as an orator to date. The members of the audience, filled with enthusiasm for the peaceful revolution in the Eastern bloc, for Vaclav Havel, Andrei Sakharov, and Lech Walesa, broke into long applause before I could give a word of explanation. Clearly, their feelings were the mirror image of my own - namely, that the events of autumn 1989 had brought about a visit from aliens from another star, from people they had never seen before but who nonetheless had the same ideals as they themselves. Free self-determination for individuals and a democratic social order; the ideals of the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution - ideals that those in power in the Eastern bloc had declared obsolete, propagandistic lies of the bourgeoisie that socialism would relegate to the dust bin of history.

Those of us in the East German civil liberties movement were suddenly the heroes of the hour. The Americans' enthusiasm went so far that "Time" magazine ran a wonderful photo of me and "Newsweek" named me "man of the year" - an undeserved honor that I received mainly because I was one of the few East German activists who could speak a bit of English. The true heroes of those days were anonymous. It was not those in the capitals of the Eastern bloc who were protected to an extent by joining together in dissident groups and by their contacts to Western journalists. It was those who took to the streets in thousands of places throughout the whole of the Eastern bloc, who dared to demand the democratic liberties of the age of the Enlightenment for their countries and for their cities, who dared to act openly, fully recognizable, without any sort of protection. The 1989 uprising in Central Europe was not the work of communist elites who had changed their colors but rather of the nameless members of the public who actually didn't want anything to do with politics. They decided to act when it became clear that those in power were leading them into social, economic, and environmental collapse. Without them, those in power could have easily co-opted or corrupted the civil liberties movement. In some countries, that possibility has indeed become reality.

That was the enthusiasm of 1990, which I look back upon so nostalgically today. The enthusiasm of the Germans. And the enthusiasm of the Americans about these Poles, Czech, Hungarians, and even about the East Germans as well. What has come of it? What remained after the heightened emotions cooled and gave way to the drudgery of everyday life? I think that the occasion of a speech in a historical institute in Washington is less an occasion for me to mark the holiday - which I will also do - than to give my thoughts on Germany and our relations with the United States. I speak as a citizen and need not worry about political or diplomatic considerations.

The year 1990 did not create but the German nation; it re-established the nation. For me, too, at the age of 50, a life-long anomaly came to an end. I was born in the "old" Germany, in Göttingen, in the "west." My early childhood, which gave me my language, was spent in Warnsdorf, a German-speaking area in the usurped Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Hitler created the protectorate the year I was born and thereby turned my Czech family members into "Reichsdeutsche." Early memories of Germany are of expulsion from Warnsdorf in 1945, of Allied bombing attacks. Terrified, we fled into open fields to escape the air raids, only to be attacked by dive-bombers. My memories of Germany include the Hungerjahre from 1945 to 1948, the years of hunger and deprivation. Later, I learned events were connected: Germany had started the world war and was responsible for the deaths of millions, what followed was the punishment for earlier atrocities. The Germany that I then slowly came to understand as a ten year-old was no longer my first Germany - it was the German Democratic Republic, East Germany, a country that was under Soviet control and where communism was supposed to be introduced. Unlike many others who saw a departure from Hitler's imperialistic Germany, I felt no emotional tie to this state, no sense of gratitude, no sense of belonging. At least no tie that surpassed my love for my family and for the home, the Heimat, where I had been raised. This double Germany was the result of the Cold War, of the petrified transitional arrangements of 1945, when the Allies were still able to agree on a temporary division of Germany.

I grew up in communist East Germany during the 1950s. This socialization explains many of the particular traits I share with the members of my generation. "Let the hand wither that ever again lifts a weapon" - that was subject, after the war and Auschwitz, we were supposed to write about in our school essays. We became a generation of pacifists. Nothing good can come of war - that was a firm belief. We passed this belief along as we raised our children in the 1970s and 1980s. And there were a few other additional reasons besides Germany's crimes for rejecting all things military. In the mid-1980s, my son came home for a short vacation from the military (we had compulsory military service in East Germany, so he had to serve even if he did not want to). He was deeply dismayed. Before the National People's Army of East Germany began its annual summer maneuvers, it was made clear to the troops that their first order in the event of war would be to mobilize quickly for a massive attack in the direction of West Germany. Occupy Hildesheim? Shoot at relatives on the other side? For a state that one privately repudiated? Unthinkable! There were good reasons to assume that a war between the superpowers would begin in Germany and have unforeseeable consequences.

I am describing these scruples in the hope that American listeners will thus understand why opposition to participating in the military operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq was so widespread in eastern Germany and somewhat stronger than in western Germany. I am aware of the ambivalence in this behavior then: in 1985, we were entirely in the right. Today, everything has become more difficult. In Africa, for example, a genocide took place, and the so-called civilized world did not intervene.

The division of Germany was brought to completion by the erection of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961. It was reinforced by concrete barriers, barbed wire, and trip-wired machine guns. The population was encaged in its own section of the country. It was a shock to an entire generation of East Germans. I do not hesitate to generalize even though many East Germans may have perhaps come to terms somehow with the situation. 1989 showed that everything was just an arrangement, that not even the new ruling class, the elite, identified with the state and was willing - thank heavens! - to send its historic project into liquidation without a fight. My own arrangement was to retreat into "innere Emigration," into "inner emigration." I lived in that country; we were a family; I worked as a medical researcher and computer expert. But beneath the surface I was depressed over what I saw as my stolen life. The annus mirabilis, the year 1989, brought my release from the cage. It meant a return to the Germany of our common language, culture, and history. To the Europe that my mother had talked about so enthusiastically. She had visited England, Italy, and Austria when she was young, and she had studied and worked in Switzerland. Her Europe was a distant utopia to us, a part of that "distant star" I was first allowed to visit in 1990.

Autumn 1989 was our personal liberation. For the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, too. They liberated themselves, returned to Europe, and began to address, to overcome, the legacy of fifty years of foreign rule. This liberation led to freedom of expression, free parliamentary elections, freedom of political association, and free economic activity within a market framework. This liberation laid the social and cultural foundations for building a better future. These developments can be seen most clearly and most impressively in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They had experienced the longest and most complete loss of national independence. Thanks to the Hitler-Stalin pact, they became "republics" in the Soviet empire in 1940. Things were not as bad for other nations: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria -they remained formally independent even though they were firmly woven into socialist social and economic system. The same held true for East Germany.

After generations spent in a failing system, the process of renewal did not always go smoothly in these countries. Entire economic sectors collapsed. Capital and property accumulated in the hands of those who hardly deserved such preferential treatment. Everywhere, there was mass unemployment - worse in some places than others - and social tensions. In all these countries, the displaced elites reassembled and founded post-communist parties with social democratic or nationalist leanings. Because of the public's initial disappointment with the brutal effects of the overnight introduction of capitalism, the post-communists were able to win votes and even ended up governing again. Everywhere, ordinary citizens voiced their frustration: they had been hurt by the transition to capitalism while the old nomenklatura had made a seamless transition from socialist rulers to wealthy property-owners. In some countries, this frustration has a component of animosity towards one's neighbors. In Latvia, for example, I heard many complaints about how the majority of apartments in Riga had been given to ethnic Russians. As a result, Latvians now have to pay expensive rents in their own capital while the Russians have apartments and are able to invest and run businesses. Where national frustration is absent, there is social frustration. In Poland, the poor rural population looks enviously at the opportunities in the urban manufacturing and trading sectors. These countries have a European tradition; they are fully developed nations that freed themselves when the Soviet Union's military and political grasp loosened under Gorbachev; these countries have belonged to the West culturally for a thousand years. The difficulties of the reform process in these countries should make us realize what a difficult process "nation-building" is. It should make us realize that "nation-building" in regions with traditions completely different from our own, where there was no hint of self-liberation is an extraordinarily complicated task - a task that cannot be accomplished in a rush or arranged from the outside.

But despite all these problems, which experts have examined and discussed in detail, there is no getting around the conclusion that the historic turning point of 1989-90 opened up new prospects for the future to all the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe and and that it will be as members of the European Union that they tackle the challenges of the future. I am convinced of this. It is the certainty of this open future that makes the atmosphere in these countries so active, so lively, so entrepreneurial, as I have experienced, for example, in the Baltic countries and Poland.

This energetic new start stands in odd contrast to the situation in Germany. We have a decade of bad temper and recrimination between east and west behind us. The complaints can be roughly summed up in two opposing accusations. The eastern Germans say, "We have been incapacitated by unity and the process of transformation; it is all foreign to us." The western Germans say, "No other country in the East bloc received such generous support as you did - billions of deutschmarks - and you still complain instead of organizing a self-sustaining economic recovery."

I do not want to bore you with a detailed description of all the inner German quarrels of the past decade, particularly since I have the impression that the conflict is now dying down. Eastern Germany has turned into a group of regions that will probably lag behind demographically and economically for a long time. There are, however, also scattered regions there that have developed tremendously: Dresden, for instance, Leipzig, and Erfurt. And Berlin, too, which is a vibrant, culturally innovative metropolis like no other in Germany even though it is financially bankrupt. In our heads, unification is still incomplete. Some consider this a lasting difference in eastern and western mentalities. It dates back into historical times, much further than than the division by the Cold War. What this demonstrates - and I could give you a long lecture on this topic - is the difficulty of German nationhood, a difficulty, to be sure, that is no so serious these days as it once was.

Helmuth Plessner has described Germany as a "verspätete Nation," a "delayed nation." The term has become very popular. I am not sure if "delayed" is the right adjective. Most of the other nations of Eastern Europe also date from the late nineteenth century. It seems to me that Germany could not have followed either of the two historic courses that the other European nations did. There is the middle-class nation that has its origins in the early modern period and is founded upon ideological and technological emancipation: France, England, and the Netherlands are the examples of this course. Then there is the nation of peasants and intellectuals, such as Poland, the Czech lands, and the Baltic nations; their nation-building took place very late as a form of emancipation from declining absolutism. Both these courses were denied to Germany for reasons that cannot described comprehensively here. I want only to mention as an aside that the German Sonderweg, the "special path," was not so special. The Italians and Spaniards were also only partially successful in nation-building on account of adverse circumstances.

After 1990, we again had a Sonderweg - in the form of the uniting of east and west after fifty years of artificial division. This time, however, things are going to turn out well. I am firmly convinced of this. The uniting of the two German states at the end of what Eric Hobsbawm has call the "short century" of European civil war from 1914 to 1989 has opened the way for favorable long-term prospects for Europe as a whole. I am far from thinking that the new Germany is Europe's salvation. No, I am certain that there will always be minor disputes in the Europe of the future and that big, fat Germany will always step on toes when it tries to do something. But that is of no consequence. Our task is to be a strong, democratic country, but not to use that strength for hegemony. This also means that a well-functioning European Union is in our interest, that we direct our attention toward the problems in the areas near us - in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, that we promote a fair balance of interests between the large and small states of western and northern Europe. Please listen closely now: I am going to explain my position, which differs from the German political mainstream, and how this position influences my view of relations with the United States. I think Germany is a medium-sized power whose political reach should be kept to a modest range even in the era of globalization. And that, I think, can certainly be combined with a successful relationship with the international superpower.

I should perhaps explain my opinion in more a bit more detail.

Limiting the range of Germany's political and military activity is necessary not only because of its limited resources, but also because of the urgency of the tasks in our immediate vicinity. The limitations of our resources, in their present state, became evident as the German troops and their equipment were sent to Afghanistan. Heavy cargo planes were not available, so rickety Antonovs dating from the Soviet era had to be rented from Ukraine. The navy units participating in the watch against terrorists in the Indian Ocean were told that the Americans would bail them out if things got serious. The same promise for the Afghanistan division. We simply do not have the means to exert effective leverage so far from home. I mean this as a judgment about the long-term and do not mean to question the mission to secure peace in Afghanistan. We have committed ourselves to that mission: if only we had the means to carry it out energetically! When the division of soldiers there is hardly in a position to defend the mayor of Kabul and has to hole up in the barracks because of the constant threat of attack, we have to ask if we stretching our capabilities too far. Especially since guaranteeing peace in Europe has priority - in the Balkans, where Europe shamefully failed to take action for a long period in the 1990s, and in Eastern Europe, where establishing political stability is the most important task at hand. These are the tasks that we should address and for which our resources can be used most successfully.

This is my response to Donald Rumsfeld's reproach that we belong to "Old Europe" whereas "New Europe" consists of those countries willing to join the "coalition of the willing." The adjective "old" here is of course Rumsfeld's diplomatic euphemism for "cowardly" and "feeble." Or also "ungrateful" and "unreliable" when it becomes serious. In my opinion, these angry descriptions are not valid. And rational discussion of their substance has been hindered by an almost unsurpassable diplomatic clumsiness on both sides. The questions at hand obviously cannot be settled by public yelling-matches. Analysts years ago described what is in fact the strategic motive behind the Iraq war: I have been reading about it on the Internet since 1992. Namely, the United States understands that its status as the sole superpower will not last. Traditional lines of division and conflict will emerge again in coming decades. Nobody canpredict which country will emerge during the 21st century as new competitor – China perhaps? India? Or Russia again? Indonesia? Some coalition of them? Before this happens, the argument runs, the conflict in the Middle East has to be resolved, otherwise it will become an extremely dangerous area of vulnerability. This objective makes the war against Iraq necessary, it is argued. Overthrowing Hussein's dictatorship might also have the side-effect of curbing terrorism - an urgent task after September 11 that is not, however, directly linked to strategic motives. Non-state terrorism cannot seriously endanger the Superpower and cannot be dealt with by traditional warfare between states.

It is thus not a question of America extending its hegemony, but rather of preparing for a time when its hegemony is fading, when the world becomes multipolar in strategic terms once again. And the demonstrated vulnerability of the high-tech cultures to terrorism is also an argument for this long-term concern.

Our differences with the United States, common long-term interests notwithstanding, can be stated clearly. For us Germans, the question is whether our legitimate long-term priorities are identical with the Americans' in all details. If this is the case, it should be spelled out. Nobody would then have reason to call us "cowardly" - and we would have none to talk of American "lust for world domination"- if our interests as a medium-sized power are not identical with Americas'. That is far from meaning, however, that these differing interests are antagonistic, that we Germans and Americans have to oppose one another. There should be room for division of effort and differing priorities.

Ladies and gentlemen, that was, so to speak, the machiavellian discourse I would give if I were to participate in a discussion at a strategy think-tank. I would also like, however, to speak to you about my emotional ties to the United States, which would indirectly be part of a discussion of politics and strategy.

You know that East Germany's liberation came about through a peaceful revolution. No maxim is more foreign to me than Bismarck's remark that "It is not with speeches and majorities that the great issues of the era will be decided, but by iron and blood!" Gandhi's strategy of non-violent protest was a necessary prerequisite for our success. It has often been asserted that the Soviet empire and, with it, its East German vassal had reached their end and dissolution was only a question of skilled management. But this argument fails to note that the Soviet Union was very much in the position militarily to support a Tien-an-Men Square-style solution, and no power, not even a superpower, would have risked a nuclear war if hardliners had carried out a military coup against Gorbachev, if the hardliners had sent tanks to the Berlin Wall and to Karl-Marx-Platz in Leipzig. Success absolutely required non-violence. Just as important was the historic moment. Gorbachev was still in power and was holding to his already failing attempt to reform the Soviet system.

In addition, there was a third necessary condition, without which freedom and unity would not have been possible: namely, the support of the United States. This country and its government unhesitatingly backed German unification and the dissolution of the Potsdam arrangements of 1945. For those of us in the civil liberties movement Neues Forum, 1989 was the year that a communist government was still in power even if it was shaky, that Gorbachev was still loudly proclaiming that the post-war order was not to be dissolved, that nobody dared to speak aloud about German unity. And it was also the time that prominent American politicians, Senators and Congressmen, made clear when they visited Berlin, "We are glad that you are fighting for your freedom; the US will not interfere - we will stand behind you if you decide in favor of national unity." It should be remembered that France and Great Britain reacted much more hesitantly and showed clear reservations. Everyone who agrees with me that, despite whatever qualifications, ending Germany's division was the only rational course of action, everyone who agrees will also have to acknowledge that the United States stood beside us at a critical historic moment for the German nation. Of course, it was acting in its own interests - what government doesn't? But it was not so clear and straightforward where American interests might lie. Undoubtedly, there were other viable alternatives for the U.S. that would not have resulted in such quick unification or would not have led to unification at all. The U.S. very clearly chose the course of rapid unification, and not only for reasons of political self-interest. There was an unmistakable emotional element in this firm support. That was evident to me at that time in the spontaneous joy of many Americans who enthusiastically experienced Europe's liberation. And I will not accuse them of thinking only in terms of political interests.

I have already asked: what became of the enthusiasm of those weeks and months? Was it simply a case of exuberance dying down, or did a genuine alienation set in? You will understand how ambivalent I am about trying to analyze the much-discussed, reportedly lasting alienation between your country and our country. I think, however, that it was not first in this year that the situation began to change. It is entirely logical and has been evident since the early 1990s that the European stage has become of less interest to the United States since the end of the confrontation between the superpowers and Russia's withdrawal. There in Europe where the Berlin Wall, where the dividing line of the global conflict had been, all is quiet now. Elsewhere there is trouble. Those of us who visit the U.S. with our eyes open cannot help but notice that the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Far East, with their emerging nuclear states and superpowers, are necessarily of more importance than Europe to the superpower. The dangers that might arise in those regions make them important. September 11 stands as evidence that Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" has not arrived. In the defense our freedom against totalitarian and terrorist threats, I stand on the side of the U.S. I would be betraying the ideals and goals of the eastern German citizens' uprising of 1989 if I did not stand there. What form that defense should take, I am very uncertain. And precisely because I am of the opinion that our area of responsibility lies in Europe - Ukraine, the Baltic, Poland, Hungary, the Balkans - and that our capabilities, military and non-military, are already overextended - precisely for this reason it is not for me to give advice. The United States must find the way to bring peace to the world without turning into an aging Roman Empire. My own political experience tells me, however, that freedom and democracy are only achieved when a people are ready for them and have started a peaceful insurrection. Wenceslas Square in Prague with Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek on the balcony - that is perhaps the right symbol. Democracy cannot be implanted from the outside. We should not inadequately generalize from the example of West-Germany and Japan after 1945.

Let me close my speech on our country's national holiday, this occasion for reflection, on a personal note. My adult son grew up in communist East Germany, and with the freedom of movement that German unification brought, together with his wife he chose to live in this country. They have been received as friends here. They will stay here, perhaps they will. They have found better opportunities here than they had at home. So it came that my wife and I have now two young grandchildren who were born here and are U.S. citizens. Not only logical analysis, but also deepest personal desire leads me to hope that all goes well for this country, this country where modern European democracy was born. I hope that we remain friends. We must do so. We must defend this friendship. It is a pleasure and an honor for me to be able to say this here today.