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:
- national unity
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.)
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”.