Commentary Magazine


Germany, by Amity Shlaes; War By Other Means, by Jeffrey Herf

Germany Lost & Found

Germany: The Empire Within.
by Amity Shlaes.
Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 264 pp. $19.95.

War by Other Means: Soviet Power, West German Resistance, and the Battle of the Euromissiles.
by Jeffrey Herf.
The free Press. 369 pp. $27.95.

“The German soul has corridors and interconnecting corridors,” Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil. Some of those corridors are explored by Amity Shlaes in Germany: The Empire Within. A Wall Street Journal correspondent who describes herself as an “unreligious” American Jew with a love of the German language, Shlaes has collected impressionistic sketches of groups of modern Germany which are “relics” of the Communist, Hohenzollern, Hapsburg, and even the Romanov empires. Although in some respects the book is already dated (there are frequent references to the ominous rise of the radical-rightist Republikaner, now a spent force), these essays are well worth reading for the glimpses they provide of aspects of contemporary German life otherwise inaccessible to readers in the English-speaking world.

“What happens when, in midelegy, the beloved returns?” Shlaes asks of the unexpected westward migration of East Germans that accompanied the opening of the Wall in the fall of 1989. One answer is “Barbara”—the name at once of a refugee-help column in the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit, of its founder, Barbara Oster, and of the organization, Refugee Start Help, which has informally taken her name. Since Barbara Oster began helping refugees from the East in the early 50’s, Barbara has become a collective personality, “a classic charity,” with “a mission to help where the state cannot.” Barbara is decidedly feminine and distinctly high-toned. With a sense of civic duty perhaps best described as maternalistic, Barbara does what “she” can. The challenges are immense, but “of course Barbara will handle it, and so will Germany.”

Shlaes’s upbeat chapter on the integration of West Germany’s newest additions from the East contrasts with the chiaroscuro of her essay on Jews in today’s Germany. “The truth is this: there may be Jews who live in Germany, but there are no more German Jews.” With this judgment Shlaes concludes her chapter on the Jewish community in Berlin, 175,000 strong before the war, today numbering some 5,000 in West Berlin and many fewer in East Berlin. In West Berlin’s Jewish school, something of a hothouse plant subsidized by the German government and divided among old and new (Eastern) Jews, Shlaes finds a synecdoche for the German Jewish community, a “gerontocracy” presided over by a figure like Heinz Galinski, an “iron survivor of the Holocaust.” Older German Jews (and other Germans) have difficulty dealing with the newly arrived Soviet Jews: “To a large degree these Jews are in Germany because West Germany has offered them a world-class financial packet of social-welfare services—in a sense, the local and federal governments have ‘bought’ themselves a Jewish future.” Shlaes also detects an element of condescension in efforts by contemporary Germans to atone for the Nazi Holocaust; to many well-meaning Germans, Jews may represent only one more occasion for a self-absorbed inquiry into the meaning of “Germanness.”

None of the other groups Shlaes portrays has suffered anything like the desolation of the Jews. Still, the postwar losses of German exiles or “expellees” from the East were significant:

The Allies wanted to clear Central Europe, once and for all, of ethnic Germans who might cause the kind of trouble that had led to World War II. “A clean sweep will be made,” Churchill told Parliament. The sweep was made; more than twelve million Germans were driven and fled westward as a result of this transposition. Some two million died—mostly of the cold, or disease, or malnutrition—on the trek.

In the nostalgia, self-pity, and tendentious historiography of the displaced Sudeten Germans Shlaes finds an easy target—perhaps too easy. “For outsiders,” she writes, “this focus on ‘wrong done to Germans’ is hard to take. Some 40 to 50 million people were forced onto the road as refugees when the war ended in Europe. Only a quarter of them were exiled Germans.” But the cultural interests of ethnic German minorities in Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic states, and the Soviet Union are no less legitimate than those of Russians in the Baltic republics or Turks in the Balkans—groups deposited by repugnant empires who should not be made the scapegoats for imperial crimes.

In an ironic juxtaposition, Shlaes follows her discussion of displaced ethnic Germans with chapters on the modern representatives of families such as the Prussian von Claers and the Austrian Schwarzenbergs. It was, after all, the selfish particularism of German dynasties, great and small, which (along with foreign great-power intervention) aborted the development of Germany into a nation-state like France or Britain in early modern times, a development that might have averted the horrors of Germany’s belated national revolution. For centuries the emperors and the princes were enemies of German unity, of German democracy, of the German commercial classes, and of German culture.

In her portrait of Prince Karl von Schwarzenberg, an adviser to President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, Shlaes points to an apparent contradiction: “The very cultures his ancestors frequently made it their goal to subordinate, he himself is trying to help.” The contradiction is more apparent than real, however; in the past, too, German aristocrats sometimes sided with non-German nationalisms to check German democratic nationalism, the greatest threat to their privileges. In this generally balanced book, one at times senses a greater sympathy for displaced German nobles than for displaced German nobodies.

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The transformation of German political culture from the days when it was dominated by the Schwarzenbergs, the von Claers, and their like is one of the themes of War by Other Means, Jeffrey Herf’s study of the triumph of West Germany’s “militant democracy” in the Euromissile struggle of the 70’s and 80’s. Where Amity Shlaes peers at German life through a microscope, Herf views it through the fisheye lens of high politics.

In particular, Herf documents the attempt of the Soviet Union a decade ago to intimidate the West German government into appeasement. By the mid-70’s, thanks to a relentless military buildup which took place while America was distracted and traumatized by Vietnam, the Soviet Union had achieved strategic parity with the United States. As it proceeded to construct its arsenal of medium-range missiles, the prospect was raised that the Soviet Union could, with impunity, strike the heart of Western Europe while neutralizing the American threat to its homeland. The importance of these developments was as much psychological and political as military.

Fearing the decoupling of Germany and Europe from America and their subsequent “Finlandization,” German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt called for a Western response. Schmidt, in his own words “fed up with Brzezinski and Carter, who had told me that the Russian [intermediate-range] SS-20s did not matter at all,” raised the issue in a famous speech in October 1977 at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. As Herf writes, “That speech marked the beginning of a historic reversal of the momentum of the global balance of forces, as well as the opening shot of the political battle over the Euromissiles.”

Herf interweaves the logic of geopolitics with the passion of German politics. Thanks to what Herf describes as a “change in the meaning of the democratic Left from militant democracy to a popular front,” Schmidt’s anti-Soviet policy was repudiated by his own Social-Democratic party (SPD), dominated as it was by members of the adversary culture. With the fall of the Schmidt government, the task of defending “militant democracy”—by implementing NATO’s 1979 “two-track” decision which called for deployment of American Pershing II’s coupled with negotiation with the Soviets—fell to the Christian Democrat-Free Democrat coalition of Helmut Kohl and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, along with their allies in the West German neoconservative movement.

Ultimately the Bundestag voted on November 22, 1983 in favor of deployment: pro-Western “militant democracy” had won. But it is important to remember that throughout the controversy, supporters of Euromissile deployment had faced not only vilification and threats from the Soviet Union but the vociferous lunacy of the German New Left. Figures like Egon Bahr and Oskar Lafontaine of the Social Democrats had sought to manipulate German neutralist and nationalist sentiments in order to distance the Federal Republic from America and the West.

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The efforts of many of these same figures on the Left to whitewash the Honecker regime in East Germany, and then in the late 80’s to delay German unification, will probably keep the SPD out of power for some time to come. Nevertheless, the constituency they represent, with its strength in the German media and academy, appeals to the deep-seated desire of a large part of the German population to opt out of world conflict altogether. This is a problem for Germany’s allies, to the extent that the Soviet Union remains a threat and is willing to seek political concessions by brandishing the nuclear arsenal, now one of its only remaining assets as a world power. Germany’s half-hearted support of the American-led coalition in the Gulf War, together with its shocking laxity in controlling German exports to Saddam Hussein, suggests that dictatorships other than the Soviet Union may be able to exploit the German dread of international tension, terrorism, and war.

Democracy in united Germany is secure, but the postwar tradition of “militant democracy” which Jeffrey Herf chronicles has much work to do, all the more so if the German people are to integrate successfully the relics of empire brought to light by Amity Shlaes.

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