1989 in the grand sweep of German history

Here in Berlin everybody is revving up for the third big anniversary of the year. The first two marked tragedies: the 100th of the outbreak of World War I and the 75th of World War II. This third one marks a happy event: the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989 and the crumbling of the entire Iron Curtain.

I will soon write something about this in The Economist, of course. But here on my personal blog I want to attempt something more daring: to place the fall of the Wall in the very grand sweep of German history:

Stand back and squint at “Western” history as a whole since the early modern era and the Enlightenment. Bring your attention in particular to two ideas:

  1. national unity
  2. liberty

What do you see? You see that most Western nations first achieved unity in the form of highly centralized kingdoms, as in England and France, or republics, as in the Netherlands and America after their splits from Spain and England.

Popular energies in these nations, inspired by Enlightenment ideals, thus refocussed on the other goal, liberty. This led to successive liberal revolutions with different flavors of conservatism/radicalism: 1688, 1776, 1789.

And Germany? As far as unity goes, it was the odd man out. Until Napoleon, there was the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. But, as the famous phrase had it, it was neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire. In reality, some 300 quasi-sovereign principalities co-existed next to one another, often tensely (see: Austria and Prussia). After Napoleon, other federations or customs unions took the Empire’s place but did not resolve “the German question” of how or even whether the country would unify.

As Germans emerged from the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic Wars, therefore, they had to pursue two goals simultaneously, unity and liberty. That was asking a lot. But they tried, and their twin ideals found a symbol in the colors black-red-gold, which about 30,000 men and women optimistically carried up to the castle of the small Rhenish town of Hambach in 1832. (Apparently, Germans today have the colors upside down, as this picture suggests.)Hambacher Fest

In 1848, at last, the inevitable revolution(s) broke out. If they had succeeded, Germany would have become a liberal republic or a constitutional monarchy¹ with its capital in Frankfurt. But the revolutions failed in the gunfire of Austrian, Prussian and other princes.

And so began what historians used to call Germany’s Sonderweg, or special path, separate from the West. In the decades after 1848, many Germans concluded that pursuing liberty and unity simultaneously was too much, that unity had to come first. The Italians seemed to confirm this view with their (also belated) unification.

The rest is well known: unification with only a sheen of liberty under the aegis and sword of Prussia (after wars against Austria, Denmark and France); a chauvinistic nationalism to cover for the liberal deficit; war and humiliation; another failed attempt at liberty and unity called Weimar; another war, holocaust and destruction; then division.

Dividing Germany into West and East appeared to scrap half of the grand project forever. Germans would never be united, it seemed. But at least those in the West finally got liberty, even if they had it imposed upon them by the Western victors.

And now the full import of 1989 should be coming into focus. The East Germans who decided to stop being afraid and took to the streets in Leipzig and elsewhere, starting in October of that year, at first shouted “We are the people.” This was directed at their communist oppressors and represented their primal scream for liberty. But that same autumn their cry turned into “We are one people.” This was their bold leap for unity as well.

1989 thus follows 1688, 1776, and 1789. But it also one-upped all of them. It was not only the first successful liberal German revolution but also the first of the grand liberal revolutions in Western Europe that was entirely peaceful.

The Sonderweg was over at at last. Germany was finally united and free–and part of the West.

But, 25 years on, is that how Germans see it? This is another question. I hope to come back to it in due course.


¹A year after the revolutions broke out, in March 1849, the floundering Frankfurt parliament indeed offered the imperial crown to the Prussian king, Frederick William IV. He refused this offer “from the gutter”.

24 thoughts on “1989 in the grand sweep of German history

  1. I want to be first to say, luv the eye candy.
    Secondly, there is this idea of order in Germany. I don’t have anything too clever to say about that, yet. I just had say something about the picture (being a visual thinker). Order before unity. Order before control. That’s all I got.

    • The traffic police in Germany is called “Ordnungsamt”, order agency, as you and I know, but not everybody here. Yes, order. But they say that back in the day that obsession with order came from the supreme disorder of the Thirty Years War, which in so many ways condemned all subsequent Germans to a sort of PTSD.

  2. A very thought-provoking post.
    Having spoken to a few Germans about this very issue, my take is that, no, that’s not how they see it. It seems like a victory and a freedom for those of us in North America, because its association with the fall of the Iron Curtain. But that’s a simplistic view, I believe.

  3. Strictly speaking, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England was not a revolution at all, but an invasion, and an invasion by invitation at that, with almost no bloodshed. Moreover, subsequent constitutional changes were legislated for by Parliament and according to Law.

    True, the groundwork had been laid by the execution of Charles I in 1642, but again that was according to Law.

    Revolution, then, is the overthrow of a lawful government by unlawful means.

    I should thus like to hear from you as to the nature of a “peaceful” revolution and how a revolution can be “entirely” peaceful.

    As to the union of the crowns of Great Britain and Scotland in 1603, this was not led by England but was by operation of Law and amounted to a takeover by the Scottish House of Stuart. The Act of Union in 1707, which abolished the Scottish Parliament and transferred power to Westminster, was with the consent, if controversial, of Scotland’s political leaders. Thus union was in two parts, one before the Glorious “Revolution”, the other after it.

    Liberty is an ideal, high in expectation and short in practice, and can therefore be measured only in relative terms. If anything, the first principles of liberty in England were established by Magna Carta in1215, although they can be traced back further to Saxon rule both before and after the unification of England.

    How, then, does your chronology of union – revolution – liberty stand up?

    True liberty is acquired over a long period of sacrifice and vigilance rather than by overthrow of the State. Violent Revolution involves, more often than not, a loss of liberty.

    In the absence of enlightened rulers, resistance, not revolution, is the foundation and sustenance of liberty. Was not the collapse of the Berlin wall the consequence of resistance, with the State imploding and not overthrown, rather than revolution?

    • Re the glorious revolution:

      The other day, on the occasion of the 300th centenary of the Hanoverians taking over the British throne, I was in Hanover and heard the LSE historian David Starkey say something witty: Usually, in those days, rulers chose the religion of their subjects. The great innovation of 1688 is that the English subjects chose, and would henceforth choose, the religion of their rulers. Funny, is all.

      I used “1688” as a shorthand here — as a writerly finesse because I didn’t want to get bogged down in a long treatise about England, France and America etc — to stand for one key step in a very long succession of steps that led toward English liberty, however defined. You can see that in the preceding phrase: “with different flavours of conservatism/radicalism.” The French one was radical, obviously. But the English and American ones have often been called “conservative” revolutions, because they didn’t aim to upend an entire social order, just to effect certain specific goals.

      And I used “England”, not Britain, in the post because I wanted to emphasize national unity, not empire. I think we would all agree that England and France became centralized realms in the middle ages leading up to the modern era, whereas “Germany” (which once, after the break-up of Charlemagne’s empire and the Ottonians emperors, seemed the most likely of the three to become centralized) remained fragmented. That’s the only point here.

    • David Starkey speaks of power exercised through religion rather than religion itself. It is funny because it is a tautology. He is also astute, as always. Religious power was, of course, central to civil strife in England in the seventeenth century.

      What was behind Constantine’s adoption of Christianity? Was it religious or political? If political, what was it in response to?

      Constitutional development in Britain owes much to Hanoverian understanding of the limits imposed by a constitutional monarchy, which is really what the Glorious Revolution established.

      I still question the use of the term “revolution” as applied to England, the US and the GDR. What in the US is called the “Revolutionary War” is, more accurately, called in Britain “the American War of Independence”, particularly since the US Constitution adopts the Common Law, to which the British Monarch had been held subject. In this connection it is interesting to note that slavery, that benchmark of liberty, had been held by Lord Mansfield (a Scot) in 1772 as unsupported by the Common Law, yet continued to thrive in the US. Admittedly, Lord Mansfield was subsequently equivocal about his ruling and it did not apply to the colonies.

      You were right to argue on the basis of unification rather than Empire, though I do not accept your hypothesis. Where do you place the EU in your scheme, if at all?

  4. It’s a huge irony that the Germany of Angela Merkel has through peaceful means done what the Germanys of Kaiser Bill and of Adolf couldn’t through war, which is to become the acknowledged leader of Europe. Finally, finally, Germany has its Platz an der Sonne!!

    It’s unfortunately another huge irony that the Europe which Germany now finally leads appears to be in terminal decline, being enmeshed in, and in thrall to, the dogma of economic neo-liberalism, which, representing the current western model, is, according to this *rather long but perceptive piece*, broken.

    What is to be done?!!

    • Actually, the first irony may be even more biting: It was Francois Mitterand who made Germany so powerful. he agreed to reunification only after getting Kohl to agree to swap the D-Mark for the euro. That’s because Mitterand thought the D-mark was Germany’s “atom bomb” (he actually said that), ie source of power. And here we are today…

    • The article makes sense only, Christopher, upon the premise that all wrongs in the world and no good come from western capitalism, and its inductive process is therefore flawed.

      Likewise, Andreas, it is a false premise that the EU is a sinister plot by Germany to achieve previously thwarted territorial ambition. It is a distraction from the necessary task of surrendering national economic sovereignty in order to make the euro work. No irony is involved, mere hard-headed realism if preservation of the euro is to remain on the agenda, where it should be, ideally, in a eurozone that is outward-looking and tolerant enough to participate in free trade with the whole of the EU, an EU which recognises and accomodates the anxieties of its constituent states. That is what counts. The euro issue is given too much prominence.

      There is a nice distinction emerging out of this post between economic liberty and personal liberty.

  5. I’m just going to be a bloody sentimentalist here. When you grew up in the America of the 1960s on the narrative of partitioned Germany, the airlift, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (and how many nations have had a President who’s a pancake?), 1989 will always be shorthand in your mind for “the year that things came out right after all.”

    I have no illusions about the stresses the reunification placed on German society (a longitme client was a native of Braunschweig and a professor of the language), but still, at that moment in time, something happened that rarely does happen, and created a possibility for popular reinventions of states with minimal bloodshed. I hoped for it in Ukraine, but oh wells. Close.

    In my more cynical moments, of course, I wonder if it’s the kind of thing that happens when [WWi/WWII/DDR] people are just *tired*. Those seeking power as well as those longing to get out from under the boot.

    Maybe the secret of democracy is fatigue.

  6. Fatigue as the basis of (perhaps not democracy but) progress or radical breakthroughs? Hmmm. That’s an intriguing thesis. Must ponder it.
    But yes, as you say the fall of the Wall is that very rare event when some Gordian knot gets untied all of a sudden.

    JFK, btw (still a hero here) did not really say that he was a pancake or sausage, as I keep hearing from Americans. In German, Berliner really does mean primarily ‘person from Berlin’. Let’s just be relieved, for the sake of America’s self-image, that the Wall didn’t run though Hamburg!

    • Fatigue and the will to retain a grip on power do not appear to me to be related.

      The reunification of Germany occurred because the Soviet Union was no longer strong enough to sustain the myth that to divide Germany was to prevent another European war. The belief that the EU prevents war is also a myth.

  7. What about Austria? Do you feel the border between Germany and Austria is a natural one that organically reflects genuine cultural differences between the two nations such that separation is warranted? And do you think the plan of annexing us has been shelved for good or merely placed on hold until a new opportunity arises?

    • Austria need not fear. The principal ambition, besides enriching itself, in Germany is now to build credibility. In that it has a long way to go, if Angela Merkel’s conduct of affairs is anything to go by. I have in mind in particular the quasi-religious commitment to the founding principles of the EU, a clear symptom of OCD – easily mistaken as concealing a territorial purpose because the it is the EU, not Germany, that submerges national identity.

    • Obviously, a natural border would draw the line around the Tyrol, Salzburg and Upper Bavaria, and call the whole thing Lederhosenland.
      But seriously. This is a fascinating one. For half a millennium, Austria was the largest and most powerful of the “German” states, and its emperors were (with one brief exception) also the Holy Roman Emperors. Fred the Great clipped Austria’s wings a bit in the 18th century, but until 1866, many, if not most, Germans assumed that the country would unify with Austria and indeed under Austria. Then they went their separate ways, with one disastrous retour under a certain Austrian-born individual. But separate they now are. As we thought East and West Germany were.
      Personally, I’ve always loved Germany so much that I thought the more Germanies the better. (Who said that again? Thatcher, I think.) I was happy when there were three. Now there are two. Better than one.

  8. While some among today’s Austrians may well fear another German attempt at an Anschluss, some among today’s Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Serbs, Croatians, and Slovenes, may well fear another Austrian attempt at recreating it’s pre-1918 empire.

    A German and Austrian attempt to re-constitute the European order to how it once was, would be a welcome diversion from ISIS and Ebola…….

    • Personally, I don’t “fear” another Anschluss, provided it were to take place under different circumstances than the previous one. Saying so aloud, of course, could get me arrested for ideological Wiederbetätigung. (Our freedom of speech here comes with a little asterisk.)

      Unlike Austria’s borders to, say, Hungary or Italy, which separate Austria from what definitely feels like different countries, the border between Austria and Germany seems entirely arbitrary. Bavaria, Germany’s southernmost state, feels much more Austrian than German. So, if anything, I’d move the Austrian border to somewhere north of Bavaria. (The transfer of a cop from Hamburg or Berlin to Bavaria is a popular motif in German TV crime shows set in Bavaria, adding an entertaining touch of culture clash.)

      But then again, I sort of fancy modern Austria’s very distinct shape on a map. Makes it easy to spot. Germany and Poland, on the other hand, while much bigger, are shapeless blobs that are difficult to tell apart.

    • Reading again the last paragraph of my comment, I can now see that any zealous Austrian prosecutor might well construe it as Wiederbetätigung.

      Hence, should I visit Europe again I’ll have to take care to avoid Austria, so not to become one of David Irving’s cell-mates!!

    • Let’s just hope Andreas’s web server is located in the U.S., in which case all comments posted in this forum should be covered by the First Amendment, irrespective of the commenters’ physical location or future travel plans.

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