Thursday, July 18, 2013

Germany - Book 3

1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe

 (For a short introduction and to view the other books I have read about Germany, please click here.)
I was born after the fall of the Soviet Union – but that does not mean that the Soviet Union was completely erased during my childhood. As a kid, I used to love looking at my grandfather’s big wall map to look for the countries I recognized. (I will admit that I am now the proud owner of this map.) I do not remember when I noticed that the map’s Russia was much larger than the on my globe at home and that it said USSR instead of Russia – but I do remember immediately asking my grandfather about it. His answers confused me even more.  I eventually just decided to come to the conclusion that: Russia did exist, it disappeared for a while and people started calling it the Soviet Union, and then it came back. Needless to say, I knew better than to ask him about what happened to Belarus and why it wasn’t on the map.

The Soviet Union did not only exist in maps when I was a child, but also in people’s minds – not necessarily in those of the younger generation, but certainly in our parents’ and grandparents’ minds. For instance, one of my grandparents still talks about the Cold War as if it is still in progress and that the United States is in constant threat from the Soviet Union. I can only imagine that these divides in generational mentality are even greater in Germany – but yet, I have yet to experience them for myself or talk about them with Germans who have experienced it firsthand. All of my knowledge about the mentalities regarding East/West divide and reunification does not come from people, conversations, or even personal experience – but from books, museums, and studies. I like gaining knowledge from both of these sources, people and experience, and so, this has been somewhat disconcerting for me. 

To be honest, I expected that the East/West divide to be much greater and much more evident than it is in Berlin – this is what almost everyone had led me to believe when I mentioned that I would be moving to the city. Of course, there is a great architectural difference – but the difference seems to stop there. At least, I was unable to learn more, from people that is – given my status as a young expat without a native ability in the German language. Thus, I decided that I would read another book about the subject. I decided upon a Financial Times Book of the Year, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe by Mary Elise Sarotte. The purpose of this book is to discuss the German reunification, the possibilities that it could have resulted in conflict, and what actually occurred so that it resulted in a peaceful solution.

This book begins with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although I have been unable to experience the mentality differences that persist from the division of Germany, the wall is an ever present factor in Berlin today. Although the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, its memory is all around the city and is preserved in a somewhat eerie way. I cannot tell you how many times I have looked down while walking to discover that I am stepping over a line of bricks with a plaque on the ground – noting the former location of the wall. Just last week, my friend and I went hiking on the Mauerweg – or the trail that follows where the Berlin Wall used to be. We took the S-Bahn to outside of the city to a large woods. As we spent hours walking along the trail back into the city, I think that we were both shocked about what a presence this wall used to have. Of course, many artists have used the wall for political reasons – the East Side Gallery and the wall portions near Checkpoint Charlie are two examples.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was quick and unexpected and, according to the author, could have led to a great number of results – both peaceful and disruptive. The book discusses how West Germany came to encompass East Germany without ideological compromise following the fall of the Berlin Wall. To sum up the book in one sentence: “In short, working together with Washington, the chancellor [Helmut Kohl] was able to market his vision successfully to all audiences: East and West Germany, EC and NATO allies, and Gorbachev, if not his opponents in the Soviet leadership. Of course, the marketing process cost West Germany a great deal: an extremely generous exchange rate when the currencies merged, a long series of credits, payments, and subsidies to Moscow, and the ongoing costs of propping up the economy in former East German regions after unity, to name a few expenses.” (page 201) 

This quote brings up two issues, which I believe are very important to mention: 1.) what a unified Germany meant to the European community at reunification and the role of Germany in Europe today; and 2.) the discrepancies between East and West Germany which persist even today. 

  1.  I have attended several economic lectures during my stay in Berlin and have been fascinated by what I have learned. I attended an American Academy event at Allianz Forum on Pariser Platz, in which Liaquat Ahamed asserted that Germany needed to take a leadership role in the European Union or else the euro would fail, to the great anger of many of the audience (who included important business people and government officials. While helping CNN at the European Marketplace Debate at the European School of Management and Technology, there were similar sentiments among the German debate panelists. These people were upset because they did not want Germany to take the lead in the European Union and rather have a community built on compromise and mutual assistance. (This sentiment of Germany as the “reluctant hegemon” was the subject of a recent The Economist issue.) According to this book, this sentiment was key in allowing Germany to unify at all. “Saying that a united Germany would be neither the ‘Fourth Reich nor the elephant in the china shop, he [Kohl] assured his European partners that he was committed to moving European integration forward in a way that would not be costly to the EC.” (page 146)   
  2. Although I have travelled little outside of Berlin, there is doubtlessly a great divide between East and West which has manifested itself in economic opportunity. For many years, there was a convergence between the wages of East and West Germany, but this convergence has stagnated in recent years. As late as 2010, the overall wage differential between East and West Germany was 25%. While this statistic is important, it is also important to realize how this has affected the current German political environment. Die Linke – a left-leaning party with origins in the former East German SED and with many socialist objectives – has become a key player in the German political scene. Similarly, many people have credited the rise of Neo-Nazi activity with the continued economic discrepancies and lack of opportunities for young people between East and West.

To be honest, I loved everything about this book – I loved its content, I loved its images and maps, and I loved how organized it was. The author presents a very clear argument and points to support this argument. Of particular interest to me were the sections about NATO to Eastern Germany. I could not help but compare and contrast the successful extension of NATO to the East as evidence in this book about Germany and the unsuccessful extension of NATO to the East, as evidenced in the book that I read about Georgia, A Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West by Ronald D. Asmus. 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  

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