Commentary Magazine


Will History Repeat Itself in Germany?
Must the Bonn Republic Go the Way of Weimar?

Among the specters that haunt our times, none evokes more fearsome speculation than that of a revived ultra-nationalist Germany that will discard parliamentary forms and bring back militarism and totalitarian terror. It happened before, and the economic progress and political stability of the West Germans under Adenauer, far from stilling the sense of menace, has heightened it in many quarters. Today, with German rearmament and sovereignty all but a fait accompli, the situation seems even more packed with contradictions and unknown factors. In our series of appraisals of present-day West Germany from various points of view, we last month published “The Fragmented People That Is Germany,” by Fritz Stern, who saw beneath her present stability a social and political fragmentation that seemed to bode ill for the future. Fritz Rene Allemann here discusses one of the most prevalent fears about Germany: that Bonn will go the way of the Weimar Republic, setting the stage, by its weakness, for another catastrophic overturn.

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Talking to visitors from abroad about their impressions of Germany and reading the reports of foreign correspondents, one is struck most of all by the mistrust revealed. I do not mean the mistrust felt by people who are convinced that the Germans are, and are doomed to be aggressive, nationalistic, militaristic; who feel that any strengthening of Germany is dangerous to the world, and that the amazing capacity for economic reconstruction the Germans have displayed since 1945 is more a reason for fear than admiration. I mean those other, and more numerous, observers who, ready as they are to give the Germans the benefit of the doubt, are still suspicious of the “German miracle”—not the economic one as much as the less obvious and there-for more peculiar-looking political “miracle.” I mean people like the American journalist who, on the night of the 1953 elections, said the returns were “too good to be true.”

The reason for this suspicion is doubt as to the strength of a state synthetically created in the test tubes of occupation powers, and doubt as to the stability of a structure resting on admittedly “provisional” foundations, and whose creators themselves spoke originally, not of a state, but of a “fragment of a state.” These doubts have one basic justification: as long as Germany remains divided, any German regime, no matter how secure internally, must rest on a precarious foundation. Pacts, treaties, and defense measures may give it external support, but they will not dispel the “German question.”

Without national unification the Bonn Republic remains unstable to the extent that the center of gravity of the German national consciousness does not coincide with its center of consciousness as a political unit. To grasp this fundamental fact is to grasp the German reality, which is not altered by the fact that at the moment many West Germans, perhaps the majority of them, seem in practice quite ready to accept, if not the division, as such, of their country, at least its consequences.

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But to point, as so many do, to the fate of the Weimar Republic as casting doubt on the solidity of the Bonn Republic, seems much less legitimate. The Weimar Republic was never popular; and so, people think, the Bonn Republic can never be either: for it is, like Weimar, the product of defeat. The state that in 1918 took over the heritage of the Kaiser’s empire was from the first permeated by reactionary elements and, with their connivance, was attacked and finally overthrown by radical and revolutionary forces that had never participated in it and had never accepted its legitimacy. So today people wait for a new Hugenberg and a new Hindenburg to cripple the “Second Republic” from within, and then betray it to a new von Papen and a new Hitler from outside. So compelling is this parallel that even the most sober and unprejudiced observer finds himself making unconscious associations and measuring Bonn by the standards and yardsticks of Weimar.

This tendency is increased by the fact that the constellation of political forces in Europe amid which the Weimar Republic lived from beginning to end is by no means a distant historical memory. In France, the Fourth Republic has in recent years lived under the threat of Communism and the latent danger of an alliance between the far left and the far right like that which, from 1930 to 1933, hamstrung and then destroyed parliamentary democracy in Germany. Nor is it certain yet that this danger has been eliminated. In Italy the last elections—plus the Montesi affair—signaled the beginning of a process that threatens to grind the “Center” between the millstones of Communism and Nenni socialism on one side and of monarchism and neo-Fascism on the other, just as the center in Germany in the early 30′s was ground to pieces between Communism and the Nazis.

Can West Germany, West Germany alone, escape a similar fate? In a country with hardly any democratic tradition of its own—or, one might say, with hardly any unbroken political tradition—will democracy be able to maintain itself while all around in Europe parliamentary government grows increasingly shaky, even in countries where it has a long tradition?

Such questions are quite legitimate and understandable. As understandable as the fact that the stability of the new German state should seem a little enigmatic to political analysts and commentators, and strike them, for just that reason, as a kind of sinister calm before the storm. No storm is in sight, but German as well as foreign observers continue to be on the look-out for one.

In the October 1954 issue of the Frankfurter Hefte, Eugen Kogon, its editor, views with despair the prospect of German rearmament controlled only by the democratic forces of the Bonn Republic instead of by the fixed framework of the EDC. He is terrified by “so much empty self-confidence.” “This Federal Republic—provisional through and through—is reckoned as stronger than the Germany of Weimar. Bonn is considered more powerful than Berlin was in its time!” The mere thought that Bonn can accomplish a work of national “integration” at which Weimar failed strikes a German “European” like Kogon as not only alarming but fantastic. Nor is Kogon the only one who feels this way. Many people, especially on the left, who are afraid of German rearmament have its internal rather than international risks in mind. Over and over one hears it said that Bonn is simply not strong enough to support a burden under which Weimar collapsed.

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To the extent that this fear encourages foresight and alertness it is good and healthy. But it is still no warrant for defeatism. The arguments of those who weigh Bonn against Weimar and find it wanting are based on the false assumption that the democracies of 1918 and 1945 arose out of very similar situations. They overlook the deep changes, psychological even more than political, that have taken place in the German people. These changes reach deep into political life and the relation of the individual to the state.

Five years ago, when I had just arrived in Germany, it was, significantly, neither a politician nor a journalistic colleague who first opened my eyes to the German reality. It was Werner Heisenberg, the atomic physicist and Nobel prize-winner. The Germans, he told me then, had had their fill of revolution. With a thoroughness peculiar to themselves, they had pursued the logic of revolution to its suicidal end. Now they no longer felt the need for things extraordinary, all they wanted now was quiet and the chance to work in peace, establish their households, raise their children, and enjoy a settled life. “Germany,” Heisenberg told me, “is a burnt-out volcano. We have lived so long amid constant changes, upheavals, and unrest that we have only one wish left: to let things, if not altogether unendurable, stay just as they are!”

That was at the end of 1949, a few months after the first elections to the Bundestag, which gave the three Western occupation zones of Germany a common political representation, and a more or less common political life. The second Bundestag elections, a year and a half ago, struck me as an emphatic confirmation of Dr. Heisenberg’s argument.

The results have been interpreted as a demonstration in favor of “Europe,” as a personal tribute to Konrad Adenauer, as approval of a cautious and dexterous foreign policy, as grateful acknowledgment of the “economic miracle,” and as a rejection of economic planning. All these interpretations are correct in part. But the whole truth lies deeper than the sum of these partial truths.

It is certainly undeniable that West Germans are convinced of the necessity for a European understanding, even if they still nurse much national and even nationalistic resentment. And in spite of many disappointments and false starts, they still believe that the only real guarantee for such an understanding lies in common European institutions. Furthermore, they see with a self-awareness not devoid of self-satisfaction how, nine years after the most catastrophic defeat a great state has suffered in modern times, their country is once again about to take her place in the front rank in Europe. For the first time, as their government assures them and as they can see with their own eyes, Germany, though defeated and still occupied, still without sovereignty and split into two parts, has won admission to a worldwide system of alliances, and thus broken out of an isolation that neither the Weimar Republic nor the incomparably stronger Imperial Germany had been able to crack. The West German rump state has in a few years succeeded in becoming the wooed and respected partner of the American colossus.

Those Germans who regard with satisfaction, or even arrogance, the new role the Bonn Republic has assumed in world affairs are not blind to the fact that it has been made possible by a special set of historical circumstances. However, they also consider it the political achievement of the old man who has guided the young state over the last five years; and in voting for Adenauer’s party on September 6 they signified their gratification with a foreign policy that has widened Bonn’s freedom of political movement while regaining the confidence, or at least respect, of Germany’s former enemies. But Adenauer’s electoral victory was also due to his government’s economic policy, which with the magic wand of economic freedom had brought prosperity more rapidly than anyone had expected. This has been no small factor in the present political situation in West Germany, where everybody remembers the cold and hunger before 1948.

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But these internal and external successes could not have awakened the response they did had they not coincided with the new German temper, its new “conservatism.” One can speak of “restoration,” but the term neither adds nor detracts from the fact.

The opposition—not only the official and parliamentary opposition, which is Social Democratic, but the unofficial and unparliamentary opposition that draws its strength from the resentment of the defeated as well as from the mephitic ordure Hitler’s Reich left behind in many hearts and minds—this opposition has complained loudly at the price that had to be paid for Bonn’s external successes. Adenauer was charged with having won them at the cost of “national interests,” and his government’s policies have been branded as those of an “American satellite regime.” And indeed Germany’s new prosperity has been bought by a sacrifice that many Germans found harder than that of “national interests”: by renouncing the social reforms of which so many Germans, even among the middle classes, had dreamed during the years of hardship right after 1945.

So far the German voter has judged the achievement worth the cost. He has done so because his reactions are still predominantly “conservative,” because in his present mood he prefers the bird in hand—especially when it is so fat—to the two in the bush. He thinks “realistically” and cares less about ideas than accomplishments. The relatively deaf ear he turns to nationalist slogans as well as to plans for social reorganization only reflects his distrust of programs and revolutionary ideas in general. It reveals his preference for sober calculation as the way to avoid new upheavals. We have here the psychology of a post-revolutionary epoch, of a “return to the self,” of the renunciation of myths.

The deepest meaning of the 1953 elections lay in that they revealed the mental and spiritual transformation of a people who no longer believed in visions and “greatness,” but only in the tangible and near at hand. The volcano was indeed burnt out.

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But the Weimar Republic, too, had its period of “stabilization,” of economic reconstruction, and for a time it made slow but steady progress in foreign relations. This was between the ending of inflation in 1924 and the onset of the depression in 1929. And people voted then, too. However, the Reichstag elections of 1928, after Stresemann’s successes at Locarno and Thoiry, after the era of the first German “economic miracle,” and after a heavy influx of foreign credits, did not bring a strengthening of the conservative forces. Instead, they provided the Social Democratic party with the greatest electoral victory it knew between 1919 and the end of the Weimar Republic.

The elections of 1928 were held under conditions similar, both internally and externally, to those of 1953. But then it was the moderate left, in 1953 it was the right center that profited. More important, however, is the fact that even at that time, when the Weimar Republic stood at its zenith, a significant part of the German people had consciously seceded from the legal state, seeking either new forms of economic, social, and political organization, or else a restoration of the old forms that had collapsed in 1918. The Weimar Republic had indeed “stabilized” itself—but the subsoil of unrest and dissatisfaction, of deep insecurity, on which it did so must have been evident to anyone who could make sense of election returns.

One symptom of the situation was the strength of the Communists. Nowhere in the whole world outside Russia did the Comintern have such a well-organized and popularly supported party machine as in the Germany of the 1920′s. Even after the crises of Weimar’s first five years had been overcome, a majority or at least a very large minority of the workers in the crucial economic centers, especially the heavy industrial ones, followed the Communist party—at least as long as that party called them to the polls instead of the barricades. The Ruhr and the central industrial areas around Halle and Merseburg, Berlin, Hamburg, and the Mannheim-Ludwigshafen district were all strongholds of Communism.

Not that the Communists ever offered any real threat to the Weimar Republic after the first postwar days. Their threat then was as small—or smaller—than it was in France during the late 40′s and early 50′s when Communists controlled strong trade-union and important administrative positions, which they never did under the Weimar Republic; in Weimar Germany, the attraction of their ideas was greater than their organizational strength. But at the very least they had behind them at that time millions of men—and these men, refusing to recognize the Weimar regime as their government, stood apart from the democratic parties, angrily hoping for a social upheaval.

The communist hold over the industrial proletariat under Weimar was matched by the bitter but in most cases latent hostility to the government of a considerable section of the German bourgeoisie. This was long before the Nazi tide began to rise. Whether these elements, which had once ardently backed the Empire, now thought of themselves as conservatives, pan-German nationalists, or “national liberals,” they were in large measure just barely willing to accept the Republic as a legal entity whose government they would permit their representatives to participate in, and they were not ready at all to accept it as a political one with moral authority.

Attacks on the Weimar Republic as “anti-national” were by no means a prerogative of the extreme right alone, but the stock in trade of parties like the old German National party, and a considerable section of the German People’s party, that were considered highly respectable. This “national opposition” often enough formed part of the government, and individuals in it continued to hold important positions in the executive apparatus of the government even when the parties to which they adhered were forced into parliamentary opposition. But the “national opposition” not only refused at bottom to accept the revolution of 1918; it refused also to admit that the defeat of 1918 had even happened, and offered a solid front against any policy which assumed its reality. The legend of the “stab in the back,” the murder of Walther Rathenau, the vilification of the first President, Ebert, the furious resistance to Stresemann, an administration of justice that, in the name of the Republic, consciously and systematically undermined it—all these were the ways in which both the “national” and the radical right sabotaged the state.

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This inner secession from the legal state of whole strata of the population with which the Weimar Republic had to contend from first to last has so far had no parallel in the Bonn Republic. Democracy and parliamentary government may be argued about, they may be exposed to dangers on many sides—but they are not fought over today in West Germany. This does not mean that the new state is firmly anchored in popular feeling. There are many Germans who are critical of everything the word “Bonn” stands for, who question it, and have no particular respect for it. But even where the Bonn Republic is not loved or respected, it is accepted: accepted indeed without warmth, coolly and calculatingly, perhaps even as a necessary evil—but accepted nevertheless. There is no longer a large and compact body of Germans who have isolated themselves from the government of their country and regard themselves as outside it.

In spite of powerful support from the Eastern zone, Communism has sunk to a mere sect—not least of all because the satellite regime on the other side of the Elbe offers the German people a daily demonstration of the reality of totalitarian bureaucracy. As for the radical right, nothing provided a better demonstration of its weakness than the helpless and hopeless collapse of the Socialist Reich party, the only neo-Nazi organization that could be taken halfway seriously, as soon as it was outlawed by the courts. Ideas may not be destroyed by court rulings, but the specters of ideas vanish at the first mere show of opposing power. And if “reaction” of the Hugenberg and Hindenburg type is not dead under Bonn, such reaction still acknowledges the Republic’s reality and strength by the democratic and “European” disguise it assumes. It may try to subvert the state, but it has to don the mask of federal republicanism in the effort.

This makes a great difference between Bonn and the pre-Hitler period, perhaps a crucial one. It means that no real counter-image to the idea of Germany as a parliamentary democracy is any longer available—not because democracy has been adopted by the whole German people as a positive goal, but because it has been accepted by them as the existing fact.

That no counter-image, or counter-images, to democracy are now at hand by no means constitutes the only difference between Weimar and Bonn. The radical shifting of emphasis that has taken place in West Germany’s domestic politics is more than a reflection of changes in the German mentality. It also reflects the fundamentally different international situation in which the Federal Republic finds itself.

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Weimar and Bonn were both products of national defeat, but their similarity in this respect ends right there. Weimar had to shoulder the blame for a lost war. Millions of Germans were convinced that the First World War had been lost in the rear, not at the front, and by a “betrayal”—by that “stab in the back of the fighting army” which became the mainstay of the propaganda of the anti-republican right. The fact that the Kaiser’s armies still held large areas outside Germany’s borders, and that revolution in the rear and surrender to the Allies came at the same moment, could only strengthen this false impression. It was as if the Weimar Republic was not so much the product as the cause of the defeat.

In this respect the Bonn Republic has an enormous advantage over Weimar. Responsibility for the German defeat rests squarely and unmistakably with the Nazi regime. Hitler’s desperate attempt to stave off the declaration of bankruptcy to the last moment, and to continue a war already lost until Germany was totally destroyed, amounted to a capital crime against the German people. This crime became, in the aftermath, a guarantee for German democracy insofar as it settled the question of responsibility for defeat once and for all.

The allied policy of “unconditional surrender” is said to have been a fatal error because it destroyed any chance of restoring a European balance of power. It is also claimed that this policy made it more difficult than ever for the German people to rise against National Socialism before the Allies intervened, and perhaps actually kept them from doing so. Whatever truth there may be in this, “unconditional surrender” did serve to make one thing clear beyond all doubt: that any post-Hitler government, though it might be burdened with the consequences of military defeat, would not have to bear the “guilt” for it: it was Hitler’s own minions who surrendered.

The Weimar Republic was felt by many of its citizens to be a fall from a preceding high point of German power. The Bonn Republic was born of a similar fall, but its development as a political entity has by now become identified with a new consolidation of the country, even if it is only that of a rump one. Weimar had always to carry the heavy inheritance of the Empire out of which it was born. Bonn began out of nothing, but for this very reason its achievement looms all the more conspicuous and real in the eyes of its subjects. The very depth of the fall into which totalitarianism plunged the Germans makes the steep curve of their climb back seem all the more spectacular. And this climb back, it cannot be over-stressed, is now inextricably connected in the German mind with democracy, parliamentary government, and constitutional legality. The totalitarian state became in 1945 the symbol of total catastrophe, and it has since then, moreover, become identified with foreign domination because of what has happened in the Eastern zone. Democracy, in contrast, stands out in the postwar experience of the Germans as the way to international as well as domestic liberation.

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Certainly, the significance of these comparisons between Bonn and Weimar should not be exaggerated. But it would be even wronger to overlook them. Today perhaps the majority of Germans are critical of the myth of the nation-state and extraordinarily receptive to the myth of Europe. Even those elements whose political habits of thought remain nationalist for the most part simply cannot avoid acknowledging that Germany’s recovery as a nation took place, and could only do so, within the framework of Bonn. Under the Weimar Republic it might have seemed at times that a “national” policy could—perhaps had to—be compatible with enmity to the democratic state. Today German national feeling is inextricably linked with the existence of German democracy. The nation-state—and the German one especially—may have been rendered obsolete and anachronistic in Europe by historical events, but the fact that the Bonn Republic has managed to strengthen the international position of the German rump state precisely by a policy that aimed beyond the nation-state toward a pan-European future means a lot.

The consolidation of national “sovereignty” at this point in Germany’s and Europe’s history may not be an altogether unmitigated good, but from the standpoint of the stability of constitutional democracy in Germany, which is what concerns us here, it is all to the good that the conflict between a “national” policy and one of European amity and unity is taking place within the German state itself, and that the dividing line between the two parties does not coincide with that other line which divides loyalty to the legitimate state from secession.

It may be regrettable that the West German Social Democratic party should dissociate itself from the supra-national point of view and, in complete contradiction to its own spiritual traditions, inscribe “national restoration” on its banners at the same time that it fights against “social restoration.” Yet this same Social Democratic party, in half-willing, half-unwilling opposition since 1949, offers by virtue of its own democratic traditions one of the surest supports of the federal-republican form of government. This fact is not altered by the Social Democrats’ insistence on the provisional, fragmentary character of the West German government, or by their resistance to every attempt to identify the West German rump state with the German nation itself. In their own way the Socialists are working thereby to create a nationalist rallying ground inside German democracy, and to prevent the word “national” from being identified with the word “anti-democratic” as it used to be in Germany. This is of decisive importance in a time when the conflict between national and “supra-national” tendencies is far from settled.

As long as nationalist reaction survives in Germany, and is not totally dissolved in the idea of a united Europe, the future of German democracy will depend on its being able to link the forces of nationalism with the democratic process. That is to say: a strong, unambiguously democratic political force must be present that is able to formulate and represent a “national” policy, and not allow patriotism to become, as before, the monopoly of anti-democratic forces. This is the only sure guarantee that, even if the political pendulum should swing back towards nationalism, it will not break out of the legal framework of the German Federal Republic.

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The Bonn Republic seems better protected than Weimar in more than one way against such swings of the pendulum. The sharp differences between a government coalition and an opposition that, like itself, upholds the federal-republican form of government and its constitutional basis, provides incomparably more room than the Weimar Republic ever could for sharp fluctuations of public opinion. This means the possibility of containing a political, economic, or social crisis within orderly forms of political struggle. And this possibility is strengthened further by the fact that practically no political force of any importance exists in West Germany today—certainly no organized political force—that stands outside the legal state in open hostility to it. Nor can one speak, as under Weimar, of the spiritual secession from the state of whole strata of the German population.

Under the Weimar Republic the existence of democracy was assured—and even then only half assured—when a quite special political situation obtained: namely, when a coalition of Social Democrats, Catholic Center, and bourgeois liberals had sufficient support from the electorate to control the Reichstag. As soon as the pendulum of votes swung to the right or left of the midpoint of this coalition—or swung, as it usually did, simultaneously to the right and left of it—a democratic majority capable of governing was no longer possible, and the government was forced to seek support from groups like the German Nationalists that made no secret of their enmity to the legal state. Hindenburg’s election as president of the Reich, and thus as defender of a constitution to which he was thoroughly indifferent if not hostile, was a symptom of this political instability, and of the narrowness of the foundation on which German democracy then rested. The Weimar Republic could be governed only when there was either no purely republican government or no partly republican opposition. This was true long before the crisis began that in the Reichstag elections of 1930 deprived the government of any parliamentary basis at all, and forced it on the path of rule by “emergency decrees”—that is, by authoritarian methods whose sole legal ground was provided by the president’s emergency powers—and so on to the self-liquidation of democracy.

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The late Kurt Schumacher’s action in 1949, when he deliberately decided to keep the Social Democratic party aloof from governmental responsibility—thereby forcing the Christian Democrats, in those days by no means a homogeneous group, into Adenauer’s policy of the “bourgeois bloc”—has often been criticized, and frequently by Socialists themselves. This step unquestionably increased the inner tensions within the West German Republic and helped solidify the different political blocs to a degree that looked both unnecessary and exaggerated. But Schumacher’s policy, whatever its risks, had and has one very great advantage. Behind the position occupied by a strong and predominantly democratic regime, it creates a reserve position occupied by an even more unquestionably democratic opposition. If the tide should turn against Adenauer and what he stands for, this democratic opposition would be in the position to attract the votes of the dissatisfied and hold them for democracy. In other words, the Socialists would be able to offer it a democratic alternative to present government policy.

The Weimar Republic was never able to offer this alternative in practice, and so when the great swing of 1930 came in the wake of the depression, it swept the whole structure of constitutional democracy away with it. There was simply nothing present on the political scene that might have channeled all the dissatisfaction and revolt aroused by economic catastrophe in the direction of a democratic change of government. Without a strong democratic opposition that could have made such a change of government possible, the very political foundations of the regime were destroyed in the end.

This is not to say that the Bonn Republic would be able to surmount unscathed a depression on the scale of that of 1929 simply because of its second line of democratic defense. Such optimism would require one to shut one’s eyes to the real dangers inherent in the economic and social structure of West Germany. These dangers, which have increased since the 1920′s, lie in the one-sidedness of a predominantly industrial economy largely dependent on exports, and in the social pressure exerted on this economy by a vastly swollen population. On the other hand, however, it should be borne in mind that makers of economic policy are today less helpless in the face of crisis than they were in 1929; and that the different political conditions offer Bonn a much better chance to avoid a disaster like that which overtook the Weimar Republic.

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All this does not mean in the least that the Bonn Republic has the right to view its future with unclouded confidence. The West German state is faced with tasks and problems that involve many dangers. No one aware of the realities of the German scene will be inclined to shrug off the domestic and political risks of German rearmament—to say nothing of the international and military ones. But the fact that the waters ahead are sown with reefs does not mean that the Bonn Republic must inevitably come to grief on the same ones that the Weimar Republic shattered on in its wholly different course. Nothing can cloud the vision of the political navigator more than looking for imaginary dangers, and some of the dangers that were real for Weimar are imaginary today.

There is such a thing as frivolous optimism, but there is also an equally frivolous pessimism. Not to see and take account of the real opportunities can be just as hazardous as denying the real dangers.

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