The German question
Twenty-one years ago today, on February 13 1990, agreement was reached between the Federal Republic of German (more commonly known then, at least in English, as ‘West Germany’) and the German Democratic Republic (‘East Germany’) to merge the two states to form a new German republic. This followed the fall of the Berlin Wall the previous year and the collapse of the Communist system, a development now commonly referred to in Germany as ‘die Wende’ (the change, or the turning point). For a little while some international politicians, including Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and France’s François Mitterrand, considered ways of stopping German unification, but the process was completed on October 3 that same year, when today’s Federal Republic of Germany was inaugurated – largely an extension of West Germany’s political structures to cover the East. In this way Germany provided the major European news item towards the end of the 20th century, a century which its politics had dominated.
Over centuries Germany had struggled to find a cultural and social identity, and although the German people have a long history, Germany itself doesn’t. It did not really come into being politically until 1871, when Bismarck managed to push through a united German ‘Reich’ in the aftermath of the Prussian military victory over France. In 1945, in the ruins that Hitler’s aggression and brutality had left behind, the idea of Germany as a political entity seemed to have been lost. Of course, the model of Germany in 1990 was not the same as that of the 1930s or indeed that of Bismarck’s new Reich in 1871, but it did restore German sovereignty and brought to an end the situation where Europe was driven by a Franco-German partnership in which France called the tune and West Germany paid for the music.
But what now? In 1990 there were many who believed that Germany was again emerging as a superpower of sorts, particularly through its growing influence in central and Eastern Europe. Nobody thinks of it in these terms now, not least because Europe as a whole has seemed to be in decline. Indeed Germany itself found the post-1990 scenario difficult. Unification turned out to be prohibitively expensive, and the Germany economy began to under-perform, and its elaborate framework of social protection began to look too expensive to be affordable. And yet, over the past year or so the German economy has been pulling out of recession and is again being seen as the engine of Europe. Right now, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is showing signs of wanting to push into place a new economic, social and political settlement for Europe.
No matter how difficult it is turning out to be to keep Europe, its economy and its Euro currency stable, it is clear that Germany has a pivotal role to play. It is however also still reasonable to think of Europe as a valuable context in which German’s political ambitions are constrained, at least to an extent, while the memories of the horrors of Nazism still remain. As German unification comes of age this year, the country is continuing to grow in influence, and its partners may feel more and more confident that this influence will not be abused.