The European Question

In light of German politicians’ inability to form a government, the German Question has been turned on its head. Post-Cold War, the German Question asked how the unification of East and West Germany might be achieved without creating an economic and political juggernaut, with all the baggage that prospect carried.

Suddenly now, wonders Handelsblatt Global, is Germany “becoming incapable of assuming enough leadership to guide and champion Europe in a globalized world?” In the same week, Matthew Engel’s Travels in Belgium, the dysfunctional, fractured state at the heart of the EU reminds us that that country “went 589 days in 2010-11 without a fully-formed government.”

Meanwhile, Brexit still means Brexit and we can all see how that’s working out. Just ask, (among just about anybody else) anyone living along the once and future Republican/Northern Irish border.

Can European governments govern? That is the new European Question.

Quotes: The German East/West Divide

Every single one of the country’s 500 richest families is from West Germany. The 30 biggest publicly traded companies are managed by a total of 190 board members, and all but three of them are West Germans. Even in the hundred largest East German companies (not that they are very large), two thirds of the top management jobs are held by West Germans.

And so it continues: Out of 200 generals or admirals in the German army, two are East Germans. Out of 22 university directors in East Germany, three are East Germans. East Germany has 13 regional newspapers, yet West Germans manage all but two of them.

Remarkable numbers from Bettina Vestring in the Berlin Policy Journal.

Be Careful What You Vote For

france

Today the center-right French Republicans have chosen the harder right of the two candidates to offer up to contest Marine Le Pen, if you assume as I do that the chances of the left to make it to a runoff next April are vanishingly small. François Fillon is an earthquake, I think, for socialisty France, in that their center right has chosen its most supply-side, trickle down candidate as their country’s best hope against the Le Pen scourge.

I’d say, with Brexit, Trump and Fillon, we see a trend. Three longish articles for you, first on next weekend’s Italian referendum, in which polls indicate a lurch toward populism.

After that, in March it’s the Netherlands’ turn.

And finally, it may not be too bold a prediction that by next autumn, Angela Merkel’s time may be past. You heard it here first.

The face of the western democracies this time next year is taking shape and I’m not sure how well we’ll get through it.

Oral History, Berlin, part 5

berlin5

To end this week’s series, a post originally published here on D-Day, 6 June, 2014, about Inge’s husband Erich:

“I don’t like Polish people,” he says, and raises one eyebrow that suggests “And how could anybody, really?” 

Among other things, he explains, their language is incomprehensible. 

At 84 he has earned his opinions. 

He’s graying and a little severe, and turned out today in a light spring jacket, tan sweater and shirt with matching scarf. He takes small steps, pitched forward just a little. He’s tall, thin and upright, and he walks us up and down the streets of Wittenberg all day long.

•••••

His father was born in Poland, but mind you, Poland’s borders wave like a battle flag. When his father was born Posen was German. Today it is Poznan, in Poland.

His father fought the Great War riding great horses for the Kaiser, a dragooneer fighting hand to hand with lances. Imagine. His father owed oaths to three sovereigns in his lifetime: Kaiser Wilhelm, the Weimar government and the Third Reich. Imagine that, too.

•••••

Erich was born in 1930. 

His mother had little reason to think he’d go to war. At the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria in 1938, and during the occupation of the Sudetenland later that year the prospects of her eight year old marching off to war seemed distant. When Germany invaded Poland to start the war in earnest, she thanked heaven her boy wasn’t even ten. 

But in time her boy was fifteen and the Reich was depleted of fighting stock. He got six weeks training – rifles, hand grenades, knives, and marched off to dig anti-tank trenches near Bratislava. In the end his unit marched two days trying to surrender to the Americans. 

Early in the morning of 2 May, the Russians captured the Reich Chancellery. Fighting continued here and there, but a week later the Red Army had collected German remnants, sorry unfledged youth and press-ganged elders in a stadium in Prague. They ran them through a gauntlet of sticks and pipes. They held them for a week, rain or shine, no shelter, no change of clothes, gave them only bread, then marched the lot to Dresden.

He feels the Russians were fair enough, but along the way ordinary Czech people beat them with sticks and bats the Russians did nothing to stop them. The soldier’s tongues were so dry they filled their mouths. They came to a camp in Dresden, a German POW camp for Russians that once held 3000, but the Russians used it for 18,000 Germans. 

He was there a month. Sleeping, when one man turned over, the next three or four had to, too.

When he was freed he returned to Berlin, a boy of sixteen and a war veteran. He had no idea if his parents were alive. His father had been a fireman. Because of the bombing, during the war he worked day and night. It was a dangerous job. 

Tremulously, Erich walked up to his old house, knocked, and his mother answered. She peered into his eyes and dismissed him: “I already gave food to soldiers” before at last she recognised him.

He mimicks her, putting his palms to his cheeks and exclaiming, “My boy!” 

He was so gaunt she didn’t recognize her own son.

His family was reunited but their city lay in ruins. He and his father bicycled 100 kilometers, deep into the Spreewald to trade with farmers, for there was no food in Berlin. 100 kilometers on a bike, for food. 

One time it was a Sunday. He was due in school the next day, learning Latin and mathematics but when they got home he leaned his bicycle against the wall and slept all the way through until noon on Tuesday. 

They would trade nails, tools, and especially soap for food. His father could get soap. Firemen had a police connection; they were the Fire Police. Maybe that had something to do with it, but he was never clear, he was just sixteen. 

What food could you get from farmers after the war? It depended on how many nails you brought, how much soap, but the staple was corn.

•••••

Erich loved a woman, and when they wed in 1951 they had nothing. Basic weddings are free in Germany because of the church tax, but the pastor will suggest every extra you might imagine, a tree and flowers and cards and silly things, but they had nothing and told the man they wanted it simple.

Together they finished school as lawyers. Inge became a family court judge. Erich became a criminal attorney. Once the wall went up they stayed in West Berlin, for nearly three decades, denied the opportunity to get very far out into the countryside around town. Later they showed us the Gleineke bridge, the famous spy bridge where Gary Francis Powers and others were swapped between the East and West Blocs, and they showed us enticing woodlands on the other side that you could see but not visit.

They had a wooden boat for fifty years. They would pack enough food for the weekend and live on the boat from Friday night until Monday morning to get out of town. It gave them a measure of freedom. Except they had to be careful. There were buoys beyond which if they drifted in error, they were liable to be shot. Others were.

•••••

Inge and her mother lived in Berlin right through the allies’ assault, until the block of flats where they lived was bombed and burned. They found shelter in the neighborhood, sharing bedrooms with others and moved around from time to time before the German surrender, when they hid from the Russians. 

They so wanted the Americans to arrive first because of the stories they’d heard of Russian soldiers and rape. There was a public shelter across the street from the last place they lived, nearby enough that Inge, a teenager in 1945, and her mother watched in terror as Russian soldiers went in and women came out, ‘blouses ripped’ and hysterical. Even parts of the rump German leadership fled west to surrender to the advancing Americans rather than the Russians.

Finally one day a single Russian soldier, very young, she said, pounded on their door and opened it to find her and her mother inside. “This is it,” her mother said, the moment of horror they’d built up in their minds in all those nights underground, burrowing like rodents against the bombs and the fires.

But the soldier just looked, then closed the door. 

Later a Russian soldier stole her bicycle but left them alone. 

•••••

She thought that because of some translation problem, when the Russians asked the Germans what kind of seed they wanted to plant they misunderstood that the Germans wanted corn instead of wheat, so now there are corn fields where there weren’t before. Which her future husband bicycled into the Spreewald to get instead of starving.

People ate most of the kernels the Russians brought instead of planting them. Which is part of the reason she loved the Americans. They brought actual bread instead of seeds. She said she would never forget when she and her mother got a whole loaf of bread from the Americans. 

When President Kennedy came to give his ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech, of course she went, but to Inge, more than Kennedy the star of the show was General Lucien Clay, the head of the American occupation sector, who came out of retirement to accompany Kennedy. She said Berliners felt it was he who had fed and saved them.

•••••

They traveled widely once they could, after the wall came down. They visited all the European capitals. They survived a vicious hurricane in St. Maarten. They liked the warmth of the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf in winter and spent lots of beach time in Cyprus and Doha and Dubai. We met some twenty years ago on the beach in French Polynesia.

As American World War II veterans celebrate their great victory in Normandy today, their numbers are dropping by some 550 a day. They are dying, too, in Berlin. 

America’s remaining veterans have led remarkable lives. So too have the remaining veterans in Berlin, some just boys at the time, who fought, were vanquished and left with a city in ruins, then found it rent asunder for 28 years more, divided east from west and friend from friend by the Berlin Wall. 

In April Inge, wife of the young soldier Erich, died in Berlin. We went to see Erich last week to celebrate two extraordinary lives. 

Photo: The Bundestag, Berlin.

Oral History, Berlin, part 4

Berlin4

This week, a series. I have the enduring good fortune to have met two lifelong Berliners, who, like all Berliners of their time, both led remarkable lives, enduring the fall of the Third Reich, the subsequent occupation of their city and its division and reunification in the Cold War.

This is the transcript of a conversation we had with Inge in the summer of 2013 at the Seehotel Muhlenhaus outside Berlin. Inge died, well into her eighties, in 2014. Her husband remains our dear friend today.

We hadn’t had that for twelve years and we didn’t know how to do it. And we now watch in the eastern part of Germany, they don’t know how to do it now. They think they can do everything and they can have everything and they can say “I want everything and I’ve got to have it.”

They haven’t learned about it but we learned it by the American people. They told us how to do it. How to make, to build up a nice democracy, and we watched it, and we did it, and it was good, wasn’t it? After the war then, after twenty years later some people in Europe also said, “Oh, look at the Germans, they are doing quite well, because everyone wants to get somewhere, you know, to rise again.

But we knew if we had been only in the Russian sector, Berlin, we would take all the time of the cold war being … them, you know, and they had no rights, and they had no freedom and nothing, and they knew it.

Only sometimes, you know what they did? They crawled into family and friends and so, and so they tried to forget all about the political pressure and had their being together with their friends and said well, we go on our own way. We don’t want the political stuff, we do our own way and make it.

But on this side there were some very bad things that people, one wants the other man spied (on). And even in, within the men and women. We had a woman, she was very nice, and then she came out from the, we had a certain bureau that was looking after the, what happened with the Stasi and so on, people spying on people, and she came out crying and said, “My own husband. Whatever we said at home, he was bringing to the Stasi.”

That must be a very bad experience, mustn’t it? I have seen them coming out of this (building).

Me: You would have to decide if you really want to know that.

Inge: She would have never believed it, you know? She said, “I haven’t… it was a file of this,” he had a certain name for it, but she had been talking only with him, you know, and it was on that file, word for word.

But still we made it.

More tomorrow.

Photo: Standing on the Berlin Wall, New Year’s Eve, 1989.

Oral History, Berlin, part 3

Berlin3

This week, a series. I have the enduring good fortune to have met two lifelong Berliners, who, like all Berliners of their time, both led remarkable lives, enduring the fall of the Third Reich, the subsequent occupation of their city and its division and reunification in the Cold War.

This is the transcript of a conversation we had with Inge in the summer of 2013 at the Seehotel Muhlenhaus outside Berlin. Inge died, well into her eighties, in 2014. Her husband remains our dear friend today.

We were afraid and someone said you mustn’t stay at your house you must go more where the bigger houses are, they don’t try, they don’t dare to get in but it was very difficult because in the dark you wouldn’t like to go out because the Russian soldiers they were strolling around and trying to get anyone who went there.

My mother and myself, we were lying in bed in the noon time because at night you couldn’t have a sleep and some time, and we all said be careful, the Russians come around the houses today. And the door sprang open of our bedroom and there was the Russian standing there with his gun, looking at us, you know, and we were looking at him. And my mother said it’s over, he is coming now.

He looked at us and he said, “It’s okay” and my mother began to cry, you know, because she said (???) … a nice guy, maybe at home he has a wife and children also, you know and we were safe and then from then on we went to the bigger houses to a friend where we spent all the nights.

And they took not only the women but also bicycles. It was richness if you had a bicycle in your cellar you know and I had one and then came a Russian into the cellar of course who took out two of our bikes and I began to cry and he was so … he was so sad so nice he said “You have your bike back,” you know.

So I said to my mother, “They are not all very bad.” But you know, they were more … human … those Russian soldiers as the French soldiers. They came, you know, looking like this (she put on a haughty look) you know and they came along the street and say “Germans off the roads,” you know, and “Just go somewhere. WE are here now.”

And that was very bad. So the Russians were very dangerous of course, and that’s why we were glad when the Americans came and the British of course because they were human, you know! And they brought us some food. And they brought us new administration and things like this and the Americans, they began to bring us democracy.

More tomorrow.

Photo: The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin.

Oral History, Berlin, part 2

Berlin2

This week, a series. I have the enduring good fortune to have met two lifelong Berliners, who, like all Berliners of their time, both led remarkable lives, enduring the fall of the Third Reich, the subsequent occupation of their city and its division and reunification in the Cold War.

This is the transcript of a conversation we had with Inge in the summer of 2013 at the Seehotel Muhlenhaus outside Berlin. Inge died, well into her eighties, in 2014. Her husband remains our dear friend today.

They said to me, it was very nice in those bad days everyone was awfully good to everyone else. They said to me “We have two pillows left. You and your mother get one pillow and I and my husband have the other one. That was it, you know.

And some came, when we were hurrying around the streets to get … to know where to sleep at the end they came up and said we have two beds in the cellar and you can sleep there. They were very nice all the time. And then when the Russians came, they come nearer all the time, and first of all, also in the north of Berlin came the Russians and everyone was afraid.

We had a bad, I don’t know what it’s called (says the German word), a very big building with very thick walls and they, everyone felt in there very safe. And we did not, we went to a friend across, they had a good cellar and we went in there every night.

And then the Russians came and first they say, lady, come, you know?

And nobody knows when they would come to us. I was then fifteen and my mother also was thirty five or something and then we were always afraid they would come now. And then one morning, I’ll never forget, they came out of the bunker, about twenty … twenty women all with torn blouses and things like this you know and they said yes, the Russians came into this place.

Oh!

More tomorrow.

Photo: The conference table at Potsdam, near Berlin.