Archive for category Germany

Germany Takes the Lead in Ukraine Crisis

If a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine crisis is to be found, German and French Foreign Ministers Walter Frank Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius will receive much of the credit

If a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine crisis is to be found, German and French Foreign Ministers Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius will receive much of the credit

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Kiev this coming weekend, her first visit to Ukraine since the crisis began.  The Germans have been in an active dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for weeks,  Last weekend German foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hosted a meeting with his French, Russian and Ukrainian counterparts to discuss how to end the crisis.

At this point, the Germans have successfully dissuaded Russia from expanding the conflict, even as the Ukrainian army clears pro-Russian separatists from the towns of Donetsk and Luhansk.  Kiev’s forces are rapidly defeating the separatists though fear of a Russian invasion is real.   This is the first real test of German’s ability to take a leadership role in using soft power to try to diffuse a potentially devastating crisis.

Ukrainian troops are making steady progress against Russian separatists

Ukrainian troops are making steady progress against Russian separatists

Some might wonder why the US is acquiescing to European leadership here.  Shouldn’t we be pressuring the Russians and asserting America’s role as leader of the western world?   In a word, no.  In fact, the title ‘leader of the western world’ is passe.  While there is a European based civilization generally known as the “West,” it is a cultural construct.  The West as a unified international force ceased to exist with the end of the Cold War.   The world is no longer divided into neat blocs.  Perhaps the point where this became crystal clear was in 2002-03 when France and Germany worked with Russia to stymie US efforts to get UN approval for the Iraq war.  

More to the point, the US has little at stake in Ukraine.  While politicians may wax poetically about stopping Putin, this isn’t the Cold War.  Ukraine was part of the old USSR after all, we’re not about to risk all out nuclear war because of separatists in east Ukraine, or even a Russian invasion.  In 2008 when Russia took South Ossetia, President Bush resisted calls to come to the aid of Georgia (South Ossetia was a Russian part of Georgia wanted to join Russian North Ossetia), even though Georgia actively supported the US in Iraq.   We have no vested interest in the Russian near abroad; for Russia, it’s their primary focus.

Much of the natural gas Europe relies on for heat in winter comes from Russia via Ukraine

Much of the natural gas Europe relies on for heat in winter comes from Russia via Ukraine

Germany, on the other hand, has real interests.  It gets natural gas from Russia, it’s promoting democracy and European stability, and it wants to make sure there isn’t another move to a Europe divided into blocs, even if this time it’s the Russian bloc and the EU bloc.  While the US has little with which to pressure Russia, Germany is a main trade and investment partner of Russia, and the ambiguous relationship between the two countries goes way back.  If Russia’s economy is to grow and modernize, it needs a close relationship with Germany.

The Germans understand that pressuring Putin with tough talk and threats is counter productive.  The American penchant to pull no rhetorical punches in condemning Russian support for the separatists serves no useful purpose other than to create an emotional backlash in Russia – a backlash Putin wants to take advantage of.   The Europeans prefer quiet pressure: the promise of closer economic ties as a carrot alongside the potential stick of increased sanctions.

Will it work?  The odds are better than one might think.   While Russia has the power to invade Ukraine and annex eastern portions, it’s not really in their interest.  Those are poor parts of Ukraine which would be costly to administer, and the already vulnerable Russian economy would be hit by sharper western sanctions.   If they hold back, Putin will have his nationalist bone fides questioned – something which could harm his popularity.  But he’d likely expand economic ties with Europe, which Russia needs.

Russia is tempted to annex eastern portions with a majority of ethnic Russians - yet it's still very possible to prevent a Russian-Ukrainian war

Russia is tempted to annex eastern portions with a majority of ethnic Russians – yet it’s still very possible to prevent a Russian-Ukrainian war

 

In all of this, it appears likely the EU is ready to accept that the Crimea is again part of Russia.   That allows Putin to claim a victory even as he backs down, and historically the Crimea is more Russian than Ukrainian anyway.  The longer this drags out without a Russian invasion, the better the odds that the crisis will end quietly rather than escalate to an all out Russian-Ukrainian war.

It’s really up to Putin – and no one is sure on what he’s basing his calculus.  In any event, the leading role of Europe in negotiating and dealing with the crisis, with the US in the background, is an example of how the new multi-polar global polity operates.  Europe thought they could deal with Yugoslavia’s breakup in the 1990s and failed.  Now the challenge is clear – find a way out of the Ukrainian crisis without it devolving to war.

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Dancing in Germany and Austria

Thanks to Taylor for putting together this awesome video.  Our travel course in a nutshell!

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What Next in Ukraine

crash

The downing of Malaysia Flight 17 by Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine put the Ukraine crisis back into the world’s attention, and marked a dramatic escalation in the seriousness of the crisis.  295 people were killed, a civilian airliner shot down, and Russia appears to be at least indirectly responsible through its arming of the separatists.   So where do we go from here?

Here’s the situation: Vlad the improviser stumbled into his Ukraine policy with a series of reactions to the downfall of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych.  Suddenly Ukraine shifted from a tilt toward Russia to a strong lean towards Europe, and Putin’s reaction was to grab Crimea, and then foment unrest in the ethnic Russian regions of eastern Ukraine.   Personally, I get the Crimea gambit.  Crimea was traditionally Russian and give to Ukraine by a misguided Khrushchev in 1954.   But the rest?

Plane parts are spread out over a wide area, consistent with it having been shot down.    Here people in Grabovka, Ukraine wander among crash remnants.

Plane parts are spread out over a wide area, consistent with it having been shot down. Here people in Grabovka, Ukraine wander among crash remnants.

For Putin, who was losing his luster at home, it was an unexpected political opportunity.   He could play the Russian nationalist anti-American card and watch his popularity grow.   Though the West feared an effort to grab all of eastern Ukraine, Putin instead tried to maintain a balancing act.

Knowing that the Russian economy in the era of globalization needs to keep reasonably healthy ties with the EU, he avoided the massive land grab that could have forced the EU into more draconian anti-Russia sanctions.   However, he also sent units from Russian intelligence there to start/support an indigenous uprising, knowing it might flounder, but counting on it destabilizing the hated Ukrainian government and helping keep his nationalist bona fides in place.

For awhile, it seemed to work.   The West seemed to be losing interest in the conflict, especially as it was clear the Russian separatists were not faring well against the Ukrainian military.  At home his stoking of Russian nationalism kept his popularity high. The balancing act seemed to be a bit of political genius.

However, supporting a rebellion is tricky.   While Putin might have been OK with the crisis dragging out indefinitely, the rebels were fighting for a cause.  Angry that Russia seemed to be “deserting them” (read: just giving them weapons and support, but not actively participating in the effort to build New Russia), they exercised more autonomy and, as we know, brought down Malaysian Flight 17.

Obama on the phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the crash

Obama on the phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the crash

So what now?  First, the US has to recognize that there are limited options and all require serious cooperation and even leadership from the EU.  While some in the US huff that Obama hasn’t done enough, blaming the American President for what goes on in the rest of the world, the reality is that US power is limited.

The key is that Russian President Putin knows that the Soviet Union fell primarily because its economy was isolated.   Globalization began in earnest in the 80s, and the rapid connections in the West combined with the economic failures of Communism in the Soviet bloc made economic disintegration inevitable.    If Putin severed ties and focused on building his own internal empire, the result would be disaster.

Moreover, Russia’s future is very much connected to the EU, and Germany in particular.   Earlier this month Germans, already incensed by the monitoring of Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls for years, kicked out a CIA agent who was spying on Germany from the US embassy.   German Chancellor Merkel is clearly not an American proxy; the Germans have become more independent in crafting a foreign policy to serve European interests.  The Cold War is long dead.

Putin and Merkel consult in Brazil during the World Cup finals.

Putin and Merkel consult in Brazil during the World Cup finals.

It is Germany and the EU that can put the most pressure on Putin, and Merkel’s leverage with the Russian President has been increased by this tragedy.   Not only are the Europeans feeling more pressure than ever to turn up the heat on Russia, but Putin has to recognize that his balancing act is a very dangerous one.

President Obama needs to keep rhetorical pressure on Russia and be in close consultation with Merkel, crafting a plan to both pressure the Russian leader but also give him a face saving way to withdraw support from the rebels.   What we do not need is rah rah Cold War style chest thumping, nor do we need to up the ante by dramatically increasing military aid for Ukraine.   That would force Putin into holding firm – he will not allow himself to be seen as giving in to the US.  At best, it would only deepen and lengthen the duration of the crisis.  At first, things could spin out of control.

That’s in no one’s interest, saving the hyper-nationalists on either side.   A gradual reduction in tension, with action more behind the scenes than in the public eye, is the best way out.   So far, the Obama Administration has behaved admirably, keeping up pressure but not being belligerent.   More importantly, the US has learned that we do not need to lead, especially not when our direct interests are not at stake.

Ultimately it is up to Putin – he is a very vain politician, and the West needs to construct a path to de-escalate the crisis so that he saves face.   Recognizing that the Crimea is part of Russia is perhaps part of the calculus.   Putin giving up on any further annexation of eastern Ukraine must be another.

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Who Says 1-0 Games Aren’t Riveting?

goetzegoal

For a little over two and a half hours Sunday we were treated to a spectacular finish to an amazing World Cup Tournament, one that even saw Americans showing soccer enthusiasm as the US team made the final sixteen.   My wife and I were on the edge of our seats at a local pub as we’re too cheap to have cable.   We were pulling for Germany and experiencing moments of panic, such as when Toni Kroos messed up a head shot and gave Argentina a clean shot at a goal.  Later it appeared Argentina had scored only to be ruled (correctly) offsides.

What a way to end a career - Miroslav Klose sets the all time World Cup goal record and his German team wins the tournament!

What a way to end a career – Miroslav Klose sets the all time World Cup goal record and his German team wins the tournament!

There were also numerous moments of hope.  Germany handled the ball well, a shot went off the post and passes just missed – Miroslav Klose, the all time World Cup goal leader was just off on handling a pass.   The tension was palpable.  Because games are often won 1-0 at this level, every possible goal is exciting.

It looked, alas, like it was going to be a 0-0 decided by a penalty shoot out.   Then in the second overtime, at minute 113 the incredible happened.

Let me back up.  At minute 87 Miroslav Klose left the game to thunderous applause.  The 36 year old is retiring and this was his last World Cup appearance.   The camera focused in on his replacement, diminutive midfielder Mario Goetze.   At 5’9 and just 145 pounds, the 22 year old from Memmingen Germany who plays for FC Bayern Muenchen looked almost like a child heading into the most important game in four years.   I thought to myself, “wow, they’re removing the all time World Cup goal leader?  But that kid might end up a hero tonight, you never know.”    I was prescient.

Klose leaves the game, greeting Mario Goetze, his sub and soon to be national hero

Klose leaves the game, greeting Mario Goetze, his sub and soon to be national hero.  Despite Klose’s immense skill, fresh legs and young talent proved a winning combination

Goetze’s talents have been known to the German soccer world for some time – he’s one of the brightest up and coming stars.  That night it was only fitting that as Klose’s replacement he’d score the winning goal.  It came at minute 113.   Andre Schuerrle sent a cross pass to Goetze as he closed into the goal.  He skillfully controlled it with his chest and kicked a perfect shot past Sergio Romero, who had been spectacular for Argentina the entire tournament.   Suddenly Germany had a 1-0 lead with only seven minutes to go!

Argentina did get another shot when Lionel Messi, who won the Golden Ball as the World Cup Tournament’s best player, had a chance with a penalty shot.  It sailed over the net, and Germany held on to win.

Christoph Kramer remarkably kept playing after a series head collision - something bothersome to FIFA officials

Christoph Kramer remarkably kept playing after a serious head collision – something bothersome to FIFA officials.  He left the game as it was clear he was disoriented.

Wow!   Schuerrle, who made the pass, had come in earlier in the game to replace Christoph Kramer, who left with a head injury.

Of course, for Germany this victory came on the heels of an unbelievable 7-1 shellacking of the favored Brazilian home team.   At this level games with scores like 7-1 are unheard of.  It was a shock.  The German press didn’t know how to respond the next day.   Americans used to blowouts now and then (Superbowls that end 52-14, or a World Series game that is 10-1) might have thought it was just a bad day for Brazil.  But soccer is a game of such skill and control that at the level of the World Cup semi-finals this just doesn’t happen.  It would be like a 96-6 Super Bowl!

The agony on this woman's face captures the feelings of Brazilians as their team collapsed in the semi-finals

The agony on this woman’s face captures the feelings of Brazilians as their team collapsed in the semi-finals

Brazil lacked two of its regular players, but clearly what happened was more psychological than physical, and involved a kind of collapse that a very disciplined and opportunistic German team could take advantage of.    The trouble started when Miroslav Klose scored to set the World Cup all time goal record, overtaking retired Brazilian hero Ronaldo.  That put Germany up 2-0, which is a huge lead in World Cup level soccer.   It’s hard to score twice, especially if the other team focuses on defense.

For whatever reason, perhaps a momentary lapse due to the fear of letting down the home crowd, Brazil collapsed.   Within the next six minutes Germany scored three more goals (this was all early in the game – Klose’s goal was at minute 23).   Toni Kroos scored twice in a row so fast many thought they were watching a replay of his first goal.  It was a complete breakdown.   Germany scored two more timesin the second half and Brazil finally got a goal near the end, but soccer fans were left realizing there might not be a game like this at the last stages of the World Cup in 50 years.  Or ever.  It also speaks to the level of skill and control soccer players need to demonstrate – and almost always do!

So Germany wins its fourth World Cup, the first officially as unified Germany.  The others were in 1954, 1974 and 1990.   Germany would unify in October 1990, and that World Cup victory was in the midst of an amazing transformation – it was just after the wall came down and before unification.  Germany lost to Brazil in 2002 the last time it got close.    Of course, Mario Goetze wasn’t even born when Germany unified or Germany won its last World Cup.

The US was competitive this time, making the top 16 before losing 2-1 to Belgium

The US was competitive this time, making the top 16 before losing 2-1 to Belgium

To be sure, most Americans didn’t really follow the World Cup, especially after the US was eliminated.   Conservative pundit (or jester) Ann Coulter mocked soccer, saying that American Football was a real man’s sport.   Yet if one gives soccer a chance, it’s clear that there is a good reason why this is the world’s most beloved sport.   Perhaps only Quidditch is superior.   And even Coulter would have to admit, soccer players have much more impressive physiques!   And it was nice to watch a sporting event that didn’t take time out for TV commercials.

So the World Cup is over, and tonight I was out practicing soccer with my eight year old son who is on a soccer travel team this fall. He’s already better than me (and knows it), and it’s good to see young Americans finally embracing soccer – or to be accurate, football.

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An Ugly Legacy

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Memorial at the site of the old Jewish synagogue in Vienna, destroyed in 1420-21

A travel course on German political history inevitably confronts the holocaust.   Of the 11 million humans killed, six million were Jews and the rest were Slavic, gay, gypsi (Roma and Sinti), pacifist, socialist or otherwise “ungerman.”  Yet its very easy to fall for caricatures.   To believe that the Germans were somehow seduced into a kind of unique evil, undertaking an unbelievably heinous crime while delivering Europe into the most destructive war in human history.   Or that Hitler was an inhuman pathological monster with super human seductive skills, and Germans were driven by racial bigotry and anger at the Versailles treaty!

Alas, history is not so simple.  Germany wasn’t that much different than other states in Europe, and anti-semitism has a long history full of pogroms and extermination efforts.   Hitler wasn’t that much different than other people; indeed, it’s dangerous to think such people must have been obvious monsters, that would prevent us from recognizing them in our midst today!  The technology of the past wasn’t sufficient to create the kind of holocaust experienced in the 20th Century (not to mention Stalin’s purges and various other mass killings/genocides of the last century), but in a real way WWII and the holocaust was a culmination of hundreds of years of European history.

We visited the Freud museum, located where he lived in Vienna until finally leaving in 1938.  We discussed his experiences as well as the impact of his theories on psychology and politics.

We visited the Freud museum, located where Sigmund Freud, who was Jewish, lived in Vienna until finally leaving in 1938. We discussed his experiences as well as the impact of his theories on psychology and politics.

That’s why we visited the museum and memorial at Judenplatz in the old Jewish section of Vienna, ordered destroyed in the so called Vienna Geserah of 1420-21.   Up until the first crusade in 1096 Jews had lived relatively normal lives in Europe despite real anti-semitism.  They performed services that Christians could not, and thus were protected by nobility.   As the Catholic church gained power and reach after the embrace of Aristotle in the 13th Century, Jews soon became a convenient scapegoat.

Hapsburg Duke Albrecht V, accusing Jews of colluding with the enemy in a war, ordered the elimination of the Jewish population in Vienna.  While many Jews escaped down the Danube, others were tortured, killed and their property confiscated.  Albrecht decreed that no Jews should ever live in Vienna again.   They did come back, but that event was for all intents and purposes a holocaust.  The technology and reach was not as far, but the goal and brutality was much like that of the Nazi SS 520 years later.

Sans Souci - the summer palace of Prussia's atheist, gay, military genius enlightenment King, who expanded the rights of Jews

Sans Souci – the summer palace of Prussia’s atheist, gay, military genius enlightenment King Friedrich the Great (1712-86), who expanded the rights of Jews

The history of Jews in Europe is complex.   Which country seems more anti-Semitic:  France during the Dreyfuss affair from 1894 to 1906, when Alfred Dreyfuss was falsely accused of treason, in part because of he was Jewish, or Germany in 1898 when the Kaiser paid a state visit to Jews living in Palestine?   Indeed, one reason that Hitler could arouse passion is that Germany let Jews achieve higher positions than in many other parts of Europe – though contrary to claims by Nazi propaganda on average they did no better than the rest of the German population.

Even after the Nazis came to power they got support from people like American flying ace Charles Lindbergh, who praised the unity of purpose of the German people, and dismissed the virulent anti-semitism as a mere annoyance.   The British sent ships filled with Jewish refugees back to Germany when they attempted to go to Palestine.    The US rejected Jewish refugees as well – antisemitism is part of the western cultural tradition.

At one point these grounds at Dachau, the first concentration camp, had rows and rows of barracks for the prisoners.

At one point these grounds at Dachau, the first concentration camp, had rows and rows of barracks for the prisoners.

Walking around Dachau near Munich it’s easy to forget that the first victims of Nazism weren’t Jews, but rather political opponents of Hitler’s who were round up and sent to concentration camps which were created because of the mass increase in people incarcerated.  Hitler’s first opponents were the socialists, democrats, internationalists and pacifists.   Later, outside of Germany actual extermination camps were created to do on a broader scale what Albrecht V did in Vienna in 1420-21.

One wants to believe that this centuries long on again off again persecution of Jews is over, that the holocaust was a wake up call to the world.   Indeed, right wing radicals in Europe tend to rail against Africans, Arabs and more prevalent minorities, though anti-semitism remains a part of their perverse nationalism.

If history teaches us anything, it’s that cultural baggage persists.   Despite the racist ideologies popular throughout Europe and the US in the early 20th Century, something like National Socialism would only be embraced when people were really desperate.  In 1928 the Nazis got only 3% of the vote and Hitler was a joke.   Then came the great depression, massive poverty, unemployment at near 40%, and a country riddled with internal conflicts and a dysfunctional government.

On the day before our Dachau visit, the European Union had EU Parliamentary elections.  These elections are viewed as rather meaningless by Europeans who often use EP elections to register protest votes.  Marine Le Pen’s racist National Front got nearly 25% of the vote, the first time it came in first in a French election.  Right wing radicals made gains in Denmark and Austria – but got only 1% of the vote in Germany.

Though she tries to sound less shrill, Marine Le Pen's National Front is built on the same kind of thinking that created National Socialism.

Though she tries to sound less shrill, Marine Le Pen’s National Front is built on the same kind of thinking that created National Socialism.

Now, throughout the West, we have to stay alert to racism and bigotry, be it against Latinos, gays, blacks, Jews, or any group signaled out because of their identity.  It may seem to be a harmless fringe, but given the right circumstance a harmless fringe can become a virulent cancer, destroying a society from within.  Unfortunately racism, anti-semitism, and bigotry remain part of the culture heritage of the West.   We should not tolerate it.

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Generations

ampelmaennchen

I recall the interview in the summer of 1995.  I was in Dresden, and had an interview with an elderly member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to discuss the difficulties of German unification.

In Berlin there was a controversy brewing about the above shown “Ampelmaennchen.”   The icons of East German traffic lights showed a little man with a hate, green and walking to indicate “walk,” and read with hands spread apart to indicate “don’t walk.”   In Berlin the goal of unification meant standardizing traffic lights, which meant doing away with the Ampelmaennchen in favor of the more modern West Berlin figures.

In 1995 this emerged as a full blown controversy, with groups protesting in favor of the Ampelmaennchen and pressuring the Berlin government to back down.   At first it refused, and the Ampelmaennchen became a symbol of a growing East German resentment for what they felt was a take over by the West.   Not that they wanted communism back – only a few aging stalwarts wanted that – but they wanted a new Germany that could be shaped by them alongside the “Wessis,” rather than simply having the West shove a new system down their throat.

As I chatted with the man whose name I forget (I’ve got it written down somewhere if I dug through my records), I told him about how it seems like the “wall in the head” was dividing Germans with as much power as the original wall had divided them physical.  It was Ossi vs. Wessi.   You could tell an “Ossi” (easterner) by their clothes and dental work; it was clear almost all the time which Germany one was from.

 

1961 "No one has the intention to build a wall."  Forty years later: "Many have no intention of removing the wall in the head" (Ossi vs. Wessi)

1961 “No one has the intention to build a wall.” Forty years later: “Many have no intention of removing the wall in the head” (Ossi vs. Wessi)

Moreover, the former Communist party (SED, now renamed PDS – Party of Democratic Socialism) was rebounding quickly in the East.  Most thought it would vanish as Communism was discredited; instead, as East Germans felt alienated in the new system, it quickly became the most powerful political force in many parts of the East.   Was unification failing?

The gentleman had been part of the Ost-CDU, one of the “block parties” which offered symbolic opposition yet had to promise to support the SED (Socialist Unity Party – the Communists) in East German politics.  Many Ost-CDU politicians were distrusted because they had collaborated; others saw it as a way to raise different voices.   Angela Merkel, the most famous Christian Democrat from the East, was not a member of the Ost-CDU, she joined Democratic Awakening (DA) after the wall fell.  The DA later merged with the CDU.

“It’s just a matter of generational change,” he told me.  ” This generation will never accept it completely, their world has changed too much.  As much as they hate communism, they don’t know anything else, and resent demands from the West.  They aren’t used to having to work hard because in communism there wasn’t enough work – ten people did the job one person could do.  That was to avoid unemployment.   Come back in 25 years, you’ll see.”

It is now 25 years since the wall came down. Perhaps most obvious of the change is the Berlin public transportation system.   The idiosyncrasies and annoying detours caused by the wall are gone.   When we went to Potsdam I tried to go the old route via Wannsee.   We got there, but then I found out that  the S-Bahn cuts through the city now, the system is efficient and unified.

The subway system in 1988, the red line dividing the two Berlins

The subway system in 1988, the red line dividing the two Berlins

Now the city is whole, and the wall only a memory

Now the city is whole, and the wall only a memory

I thought of  that conversation in Dresden as I walked through Berlin two weeks ago, noting that it was now virtually impossible to distinguish Wessi from Ossi, or to see where the wall had been.   A top the television tower in old East Berlin it was clearer – the ugly architecture of “real existing socialism” distinguished itself from the more vibrant West.   The S-Bahn stations also showed the difference; in 25 years the infrastructure rebuilding remains an on going project.  Berlin is still a “city of cranes,” as construction vehicles dot the city, rebuilding train stations, neighborhoods and homes.

The architecture of Communist East Berlin can be described as a cross between bland and ugly.

The architecture of Communist East Berlin can be described as a cross between bland and ugly.

 

With “Ossi” Angela Merkel now in her ninth year as Chancellor, her reputation and success has led to a point that she no longer is distinguished by the fact she’s the first woman and first ex-East German Chancellor.   Rather she is Angie, perhaps the most powerful woman on the planet.   She’s compared with Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer.   When Kohl plucked her from the young DA party to become Family Minister on his cabinet, most thought it was purely symbolic – he just needed an Eastern woman.   She’s shown herself to be much more.

In 1990 Merkel would start as deputy premier of the last East German government, then join Kohl's first united Germany government as a minor cabinet member

In 1990 Merkel would start as deputy premier of the last East German government, then join Kohl’s first united Germany government as a minor cabinet member

The notion of generational change is powerful.   The differences have blurred.   The West clearly dominated the change, but not completely.  The old PDS ultimately linked up with disenchanted Social Democrats in the West, who thought their party had drifted too much to the center.   That allowed the creation of the leftist “Linke” party, altering the German political landscape.

Perhaps most symbolic is the survival of the Ampelmaennchen.  Not only did the Berlin city government give up on its effort to standardize all traffic lights to the modern sleek figures of West Berlin, but they decided that as they replace or add new signals in the West, the old Ampelmaennchen figure will be preferred.  Thus the Ampelmaennchen are no longer East Berlin phenomena, they are all over in the West, helping blur the distinctions between east and west.

For the last quarter century cranes have been ubiquitous on the Berlin skyscape

For the last quarter century cranes have been ubiquitous on the Berlin skyscape

Generational change yields new politics; one sees that in the US as well.  A generation ago gay marriage and a black President named Barack Hussein Obama would have been unthinkable.    In Berlin, however, it is profound and communism is very quickly becoming an historical oddity, a short lived failure.

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Travel and History

The Dachau concentration camp was not an extermination camp, but the way the National Socialists rounded up anyone who did not publicly  adhere to their ideology is  a warning against believing those who use fear and false promises

The Dachau concentration camp was not an extermination camp, but the way the National Socialists rounded up anyone who did not publicly adhere to their ideology is a warning against believing those who use fear and false promises

Aging has its downfalls. On this travel course, while I still out do some of the students (I love to walk), my back is in pain after a few days on uneven pavement, and I keep a slower pace when climbing, such as the walk to the castle in Salzburg.

But there is a real joy and beauty to having a perspective that spans decades. I was first in Munich in 1982. As I looked at the train station and imagined it then and now, it struck me that the changes reflect cultural shifts. More consumption, more fast food, everything more colorful and electronic. There is now an electronic billboard where the old train arrival/departure board stood. It flipped numbers and letters to change, now a big screen simply lists the trains.

I was in Berlin for the first time in 1989 – late July and early August. In retrospect, I was there literally in the last days of Cold War “normalcy.” I was fascinated by the ride through East Germany, observing villages with TV antennas atop the homes, cars covered so deep with soot from the huge factories near Bitterfeld and Wittenberg that one would need to brush it away like snow in the winter.

The Reichstag building now has a glass dome at the top to symbolize the new, open, democratic republic of a united Germany

The Reichstag building now has a glass dome at the top to symbolize the new, open, democratic republic of a united Germany

Going to East Berlin I was shocked by the economic conditions – the central store on Alexanderplatz had nothing worth buying, and that was their showpiece department store! I ate lunch, walked and observed. I can’t describe the emotion I felt when I walked down Unter den Linden to the east side of the wall. I could see observers on a platform in the west looking over. The division of the city was absurd. Little did I know, it was also going to last only three more months. In early August, no one knew what was about to happen.

Going back to Berlin, I find myself at times with a few tears in my eyes. It’s strange, but the power of the transformation moves me. The communist system in the east was so oppressive, dysfunctional and immoral that I still feel a sense of real joy when I’m on Alexanderplatz, or viewing the city from the dome of the Reichstag building. I was contemplating all of this with a few students and said, “we notice all the disasters of history, but the last 25 years it’s gone right for Berlin.”

To think, the Cold War, the Wall, Communism…those are abstractions for anyone under 30 in Berlin. It’s history, stories from their parents. Their reality is smart phones, social media, the Euro (it’s been 12 years since they used the Deutschmark) and globalization. I see that in my students too. Most had never heard for the 1972 terror attack at the Munich Olympics (we discussed that while visiting the Olympic grounds and tower), their questions about the division of Germany and the Cold War show most don’t really understand what it was all about. Their reality is much different than the reality of my generation.

 

The wall, once the real symbol of the Cold War - the Communists had to build a wall to keep citizens from fleeing their "farmer and worker paradise" - is now an odd historical curiosity for the younger generation.

The wall, once the real symbol of the Cold War – the Communists had to build a wall to keep citizens from fleeing their “farmer and worker paradise” – is now an odd historical curiosity for the younger generation.  This is the “East Side Gallery,” a replica of the wall, with new and classic graffiti. 

Though part of me envies the fact they are young, have their lives in front of them, and are in a world where globalization offers profound possibilities and unpredictable change, I embrace the fact that I can experience these cities now with the perspective of time. I can see what’s changed and what has not. I understand how dramatically the world has changed since the early eighties, when most Germans only got three television stations and credit cards were an American phenomenon. In the 80s they were still catching up to the US, in many ways they have now passed us.

In Salzburg we saw an exhibition on World War I – “Trauma, Art and War,” showing how people enthusiastically welcomed a war they would all come to hate, and which would only make things worse in Europe. In Dachau we visited the concentration camp. The power of that place was such that I had to leave the students for awhile to be on my own, again, the emotion welled up in me and I was brushing away tears. It wasn’t just about the victims, but thinking of Germany itself, how they give in to the horror of a radical fascist right wing dictatorship.

I told the students that one lesson of history is that ideology is dangerous. The far right and far left were seductive in their simplistic explanation of what would make the world better. They also each tried to paint the other as not really being their ideology – the right says that fascism was leftist, the left calls communism ‘red painted fascism.’ Now Germans embrace pragmatism over ideology, and that has put them in very good condition.

A perfect meal - Muenchner Sauerbraten, Semmelknoedel,and a Schneider Hefe-Weizen (best beer on the planet)

A perfect meal – Muenchner Sauerbraten, Semmelknoedel,and a Schneider Hefe-Weizen (best beer on the planet)

I am writing this on the train between Munich and Vienna. Trains rarely have compartments any more, now it’s wide open seating. The windows can’t be opened as the trains are air conditioned. Yet there is a consistency to train travel that brings the years together for me. Gliding on the rails (even if it’s a tad quieter), the announcements, one of the conductors blowing a whistle when the doors are about to close and the train goes on, that holds the experience together across time.

Looking at the Austrian countryside, the villages look the same, though the solar panels on a surprisingly large number of roofs also show the 21st Century. On to Wien!  (Posted from Wien – some trains have wifi, but the one I was traveling upon did not!)

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