Commentary Magazine


Germany Today, by Walter Laqueur

Beyond Fear

Germany Today: A Personal Report.
by Walter Laqueur.
Little, Brown. 240 pp. $16.95.

In 1979-80, with the explosion of the “peace” movement, the question of the political health and future role of the Federal Republic of Germany in the Atlantic alliance returned to the Western agenda with a vengeance. After spates of articles in periodicals, we are now seeing the first full-length assessments of what is going on in West Germany. Walter Laqueur’s contribution to this debate is both timely and eminently sensible. Given the alarmism occasionally expressed in other quarters, the fact that Laqueur errs slightly on the side of optimism is perhaps on balance not a bad thing.

Two basic themes run through Laqueur’s report, which includes chapters on the younger generation, on political intellectuals, on the economy. The first is that the last decade has indeed seen serious unrest, unease, and tension in the West German body politic, culminating in challenges to the established principles of foreign and security policy and in illusions regarding the relationship with East Germany. Fear is greatly in fashion: the Lutheran Church, once righteously militant under Luther’s own slogan “Fear Not!,” now summons tens of thousands of otherwise very unreligious young people to protest U.S. policy and NATO strategies of Western defense under the slogan “Have Fear!” Lutheran pastors also hold senior positions in the Social Democractic party, where they form the hard core of the anti-American majority that forced Helmut Schmidt from office and the party from government. One of the aspiring leaders of the Social Democrats, Oskar Lafontaine, writes a book entitled Fear of Our Friends (meaning the Americans), in which he argues that the U.S. is a bigger danger to peace than the Soviets, who only want to defend themselves, and that West Germany should consider leaving NATO and relying for its security on a lightly armed, territorial militia. “Once heroism was in fashion,” Laqueur writes, “now it is Angst.”

The very dimensions of the Great German Fear of 1981-83, however, are evidence for Laqueur’s second, dominant theme. Germans are peculiarly given to exaggerating momentary uncertainties, and West German media, political intellectuals, political organizations, and publishers are especially quick to emphasize and exploit moods and fashions. But in fact, Laqueur argues, there is “more level-headedness, more common sense in German politics now than ever before.” The fear and the corresponding pessimism and despair alleged by publicists—and blamed by them primarily on a U.S.-caused escalation of East-West tensions—are largely illusory, not merely in the sense that Europe is not about to become a nuclear battlefield, but in the sense that most people do not feel afraid themselves but think others are afraid. Laqueur cites some telling poll data to this effect: 79 percent of West Germans describe themselves as content, but over 50 percent think that others are not content. Similar figures apply to those under thirty, whose alleged fear of the future, of nuclear war, of unemployment, and of the oppressive nature of liberal capitalism is often invoked as evidence of the profound malaise of West German society.

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The best part of the book is perhaps the second chapter, a comparison of old (pre-Hitler) Germany with the present. Even the smells of nature are different, says Laqueur, in an account of the virtual loss of solitude in a country over twice as densely populated as southern Connecticut. Sixty million souls now inhabit 40 percent of a land formerly containing 80 million (17 million more live in East Germany). Berlin, once the center of Europe, is now a remote outpost in hostile territory, divided by a wall that symbolizes both totalitarian terror and the failure of Western will. Gone is the old balance between the business and industrial culture of the West and the open spaces and forests of the East; the psychological impact on the survivors is incalculable.

In subsequent chapters Laqueur deals with the protest movements of the 1960’s and the so-called “new social movements” of the 1970’s and 1980’s, including the Greens and the peaceniks, along with their sympathizers and supporters among the intellectuals. Of the Green movement he writes that “in its high-mindedness and confusion it is a perfect illustration of the state of mind of wide sections of the young generation as a whole,” but that its long-term endurance is doubtful. The ideological generation of those who became the Marxist dogmatists of the 1970’s is being succeeded by a generation whose identity is still unclear, but which shows signs already of the turn to self-satisfaction and narrow aims familiar from American Yuppies. Laqueur wisely refrains from judging the relative merits of these two equally disagreeable types of generational character.

West German intellectuals are much more conformist than their French, British, or American counterparts. Laqueur characterizes them exactly: “The intellectual . . . will sign public appeals—against the threatened deportation of a left-wing Turkish émigré, against American intervention in Central America and elsewhere . . . he is very much against arms races . . . he used to be mildly philo-Semitic but has no use for Israeli policy now,” and generally he is “less interested in events and trends abroad than in the past.”

This self-imposed isolation allows leading figures like Guenter Grass to present outrageous distortions of NATO strategy as fact, to denounce alleged U.S. plans for a first nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, and to argue that the new anti-Communism in French political attitudes derives mainly from the domestic need of French intellectuals to react against the influence of Sartre and not to any realization of the true character of the Soviet Union.

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Less satisfying is Laqueur’s treatment of the national issue. In this regard, indeed, the book’s title is misleading, since it is not a report on Germany but on West Germany. That almost everyone, including people who certainly know better, today refers to the Federal Republic as “Germany” only makes the error worse. It is like speaking of the states to the west of a line drawn from the Dakotas south past Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, and Louisiana as though they were “the United States,” and this forty years after a war in which the entire population of the East and South had been driven out or killed, and the population of the Middle West and Central states subjected to a totalitarian tyranny from which a fifth had subsequently fled.

To recall that West Germany is not Germany is also to recall that responsibility for this discrepancy rests largely with Hitler, somewhat less with Stalin, but to a considerable extent also with Roosevelt. Stalin’s main purpose in foreign policy was always to destroy Germany, which was his leading rival for power on the European continent. So fixed was this purpose that he even engineered the destruction of all those in the German Communist party whose loyalty to Communism in a German form was greater than their slavish submission to Stalin, even though these machinations materially helped bring Hitler to power.

The destruction of Germany as a major European power was completed with the help of the U.S. and Britain, and to ensure the permanence of the result, the ruined country was divided and remains so to this day. Largely by the efforts of Germans themselves, West Germany rose again almost miraculously to become the continent’s chief economic power. This half-country, however, has remained unwilling to put itself forward as a political force, for reasons both of guilt for the Nazi past and also, increasingly, fear of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s arrangement thus continues to justify itself in the eyes of Soviet leaders.

The complicated emotions and frustrations engendered by this intolerable situation have been mastered by the West Germans far better than was commonly expected in the 1940’s. To have demonstrated this is perhaps the chief merit of Laqueur’s book. Still, one should not underestimate the long-term influence of a set of attitudes that originated in the 1960’s in the Social Democratic party with people like Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr.

On the level of high policy, these attitudes were fairly tried in 1969-75 in the Ostpolitik of reconciliation, accommodation, and acceptance of the Soviet-imposed status quo in Europe. After it became clear that accommodation was not going to accomplish the originally stated aims of Ostpolitik, namely liberalization in Eastern Europe and rapprochement leading to unification with East Germany, the policy was not abandoned, but transformed into an ideology of appeasement as the only possible way forward. Other options were excluded from debate ab initio.

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Just as the political intellectuals in West Germany have remained immune to the neoconservative, neorealist revival elsewhere in Europe and in the U.S., so the politicians and political media have fostered a public temper in which, as Laqueur puts it, “an ostrich-like policy makes it considerably easier to assume that there is not that much to choose between West and East, that there is constant—if slow—change for the better in the Soviet Union, and that, in any case, Russia has a very strong army and should not be given offense.” The German historian Hans-Peter Schwarz has put it even more pithily. The rise of appeasement, he says, is “to a large extent an attempt, in view of the decline of American power, to come to terms with the new lord and master.”

Laqueur understands these facts very well, although he returns at the end to his general message of guarded optimism. Outside of Bonn and the editorial offices of the major newspapers and television stations, he notes, there is the real West Germany, in which the old industries of the northwest (Germany’s “rust belt”) are being overtaken by the electronic and service industries and middle-sized businesses of the south, and in which centrist, consensus politics are the order of the day. “There is now not only more freedom in Germany than ever before”—one wonders if the East Germans would agree here—“but also more common sense and moderation. There is a great deal of hypochondria about, but also an essential toughness, an unwillingness to surrender without a major struggle to the threats facing the country at home and abroad. Germany may need these resources in the years to come.”

Walter Laqueur has managed to pack a wide array of facts, overviews, and interpretations into a fairly narrow compass. Whatever qualifications one may wish to enter, his “personal report” is a highly valuable, extremely well-written contribution to the category of essential literature for anyone concerned not only with Germany but with European problems in general and with the state and prospects of U.S.-European relations.

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