The Myth of Deutschland Über Alles

When the Berlin Wall came down, the world cheered -- and the West Germans sipped lattes. Part of an FP series, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Given the record of German nationalism — actually aggressive chauvinism — in the first part of the 20th century, you might have thought that the Germans would have obsessed about reunification ever since 1949, when West Germany and East Germany were established as separate states. That is, that they would behave like the French after the Germans grabbed Alsace and Lorraine in 1871: N’en parler jamais, y penser toujours — never talk about getting it back, but think about it always. But nationalism isn’t what it used to be — at least not in Western Europe.

By the time the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989, both Germanys had pretty much accommodated to permanent partition. In West Germany, the chattering class no longer talked about "Deutschland über alles," but about "détente über alles." Advocating reunification was seen as a kind of reactionary no-no, as Cold War mentality smacking of "rollback." The more popular idea was to support rapprochement, not reunification — in other words, to create a setting that made life in two separate states tolerable, and so reunification unnecessary, while lessening West Germany’s excruciating military dependence on its western allies. If the two Germanys found a way to get along, the thinking went, they might be able to dispense with the hundreds of thousands of foreign troops on their soil and, of course, their nuclear weapons.

That was the long-term vision. There was hardly anyone in West Germany’s chattering class (encompassing a large part of the political establishment) who did not assume the permanence of both the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet empire. This state of affairs was the inversion of the old dictum about Alsace and Lorraine: "Talk about reunification always, but don’t actually think about it." This is why the West Germans were so surprised when the wall came down — and their brethren spilled across in droves.

Unforgettable is the poster the East Germans held up in those heady days: "If the deutsche mark doesn’t come to us, we will come to the deutsche mark."

But to keep the East Germans out, we — the West Germans — went in. With our deutsche marks and with annual subsidies totaling about 4 percent of German GDP ever since, we aimed to improve economic conditions enough to entice the former East Germans to stay home. If such assistance to our less fortunate brethren was a form of nationalism, it was defensive — in the way all rich Western countries prefer to keep out large numbers of poor immigrants.

On the other side of the wall, I am not even sure the "Easties" wanted reunification as such. They just wanted basic human rights: the right to travel, to move around freely, and to get rid of, as it were, wall-to-wall surveillance by the Stasi state.

There is a tragically funny joke going around these days to make the point:

A Pole, a West German, and an East German are sitting in a West Berlin cafe, when a good fairy comes in, giving each of them one wish.

The Pole says, "I want every Pole to have a brand-new BMW so they won’t steal them in Germany anymore."  

The fairy: Done.

A few minutes later the Pole receives a cell-phone call from a friend in Warsaw: "You won’t believe this. An enormous traffic jam. Thousands of Beemers are clogging the roads."

"And you?" the fairy asks the East German. He answers, "I want the wall back." A couple of seconds later, fearsome thunder resonates across the city, like an earthquake. The wall is back.

"And now you," the fairy says to the Wessie. "Oh," he sighs, contentedly, "I just want a decaf latte."

So much for German nationalism, circa 2009. It will probably take the fabled 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert before the denizens of the two Germanys become truly one nation.

Nationalism was a spent force then, in 1989, and it is a spent force now — welling up only in soccer stadiums when one national team fights a highly ritualized pseudo-war against another. No need to shed any tears about this surprising turn of events. Europe — and Germany in particular — saw enough nationalism in the 20th century to almost destroy the entire continent. Today it is Beemers and lattes that carry the day. And a "prost!" to that, which is German for "cheers!"

Josef Joffe serves on the editorial board of "Die Zeit," the German weekly. A fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, he teaches international politics at the university. His most recent book is "The Myth of America’s Decline." Follow him on Twitter: @joejoffe.

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