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The Berlin Republic

An attempt by a member of the old German Federal Republic to come to terms with the country he lives in. By Arno Widmann

When the SPD-Green coalition won the election in 1998, it was the first time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany that the word democracy had a real meaning. The sovereign, the electorate, had voted out one head of government and put another in his place. This was the arrival of the Federal Republic in democratic reality. The change of government brought with it a wave of optimism. In those days people talked enthusiastically about cutting red tape and fighting for "innovation and justice". It wasn't that the Republic should be renewed from ground up, but as the slogan said: "not everything will be different but a lot will be better".

But when it came down to it, neither the public, nor - it soon emerged - the government, knew what changes to carry out. The new coalition was unable to cut through the Kohl government's tangled red tape and in fact, it probably made things worse. The hopes that an upturn in the economy would solve the problems of unemployment, state debt and the collapse of the social system were short lived. The brief flash of economic boom in 1999/2000 prompted Chancellor Schröder to predict he would soon bring unemployment below the three million mark. Then Schröder's second government got to work on the red tape.

The upshot was that the Federal Republic changed more radically than ever before. The entry of the former GDR was an entry into the old Federal Republic. And initially it changed nothing. When, at the beginning of the nineties, Johannes Gross coined the term "Berlin Republic", no such thing existed. The term remained a purely feuilletonist expression, used in an ironic or utopian sense according to whim.

Today we know that Bonn was not Weimar, and that Berlin is not Bonn. There is a creeping nostalgia among members of the old Federal Republic for the ever more distant world whose slogan was "Let's move with the economy!" which meant that not only was money being made in Germany but work places were being created. "Wealth for everyone" was the slogan of Ludwig Erhard, the CDU Chancellor of the Federal Republic from 1963 to 1966. But this was more than a hollow publicity stunt; it was a lived reality. The Federal Republic was a success story. Decade after decade the majority of the population grew richer every year.

This had a profound influence on the Germans and German virtues. The Social Democrats of the fifties and sixties went on holiday in Yugoslavia to mull over the possibilities of workers' self management in the warm waters of the Adriatic. A few years later saw the birth of the Tuscany fraction. These were people who consciously stopped supporting German culture in favour of a flirt with the dolcefarniente. And naturally it all had to take place on a high level. An old farmhouse as a holiday home, but certainly not as a workplace. One earned – not that one would dare to describe it at such these days – one's money with ever increasing ease as the wages steadily climbed in Germany, and then frittered it away in a land of milk and honey of one's choosing.

It is essential to remember these times. The world in which Schröder and Fischer and the inhabitants of the Federal Republic aged between 45 and 70 grew up was one of progress. There was no question of accepting anything else. Of course there was the odd recession, but the economy bounced back all the more energetically as a result. That each time fewer people had jobs to return to was registered, but the resulting costs were hesitatingly but regularly paid. The economic institutes – those of the unions among them – have been saying for decades that the ever increasing unemployment has nothing to do with the strength of the economy. It is a process which accompanies a fundamental change in our society. The process of industrialisation is itself changing. The new industries rely on significantly less human resources than coal and steel did for so long.

If the Federal Republic had focussed on future industries, it might have benefited the country economically, but we would have had a higher unemployment rate than today. We may never again employ so many workers as the industrial society did. Technological development means that production and manufacturing can make do with fewer and fewer people. The service sector is a good creator of jobs, but not in the numbers or the places where they were cut by industry. None of this is new. Weighty books recorded the debates in the fifties and sixties. But it is now that they are really relevant. The state and the social security systems are no longer in the position to compensate for everything the industries no longer produce. When last year "Humankapital" was nominated as the "worst new word of the year", it became clear what a clueless bunch our language critics are.

I Incorporated

Two years beforehand the critics had nominated "Ich-AG" (I incorporated) as the "Non-Word of the Year". This was, they said, a condemnation of the "linguistic reduction of the individual to the level of the stock market", whatever that is supposed to mean. The term Ich-AG however does say a lot about the radically new face of the Federal Republic.

That a Social Democratic government can come up with the "Ich-AG" and imagine it a vital component in the fight against unemployment, marks a historic break in the history of the Federal Republic. The state and the social net can no longer catch the unemployed, and instead they leave their fate to the market. This radical shift of perspective was not forced upon the Germans by experienced businessmen, but by a Chancellor with no business experience, and a top-paid manager who also never had to prove himself as an entrepreneur on the market (Peter Hartz – whose reform concept eventually led to the SPD/Green defeat).


However radically the invention of the "Ich-AG" breaks with people and society's image of the social market economy, however far it distances itself from the idea that managers are a rare species, it has never had so little practical meaning. Far more, it is an ideological lubricant for the de-social democratisation of society. Another such violent break with the Bonn Republic, with the Federal Republic that the citizens of the GDR were so keen to join, is apparent in a remark by Peter Struck, the minister for defence, who commented that Germany's security was being defended in Afghanistan. National defence is no longer relevant. The military powers of the Federal Republic of Germany have other concerns. This is a total break with their tradition. Back in the old days, national defence was primarily the job of the USA. The German army had the pleasure of supporting them. Occasionally plans of our defenders leaked out, and it became clear that in the event of an attack from the East, the Americans were planning to leave half of the territory of the Federal Republic to the attackers and then blast them there later, for example with tactical atomic weapons. Nothing spurred on the peace movement of the eighties as much as these considerations of our American defenders.

Today the Federal Republic obviously no longer needs defending. All parties agree that we are surrounded only by friends. If this is true it is reason to celebrate, but of course there is no reason to assume that things will stay that way. The federal government is pushing for the army to restructure completely to prepare for new dangers. These are terrorism and the states in collapse. You might well ask whether armies, tanks and bombers are the best weapons in the fight against terrorism. In fact the German army will be stationed mainly in conflict areas. In other words, in locations where countries are involved in civil-war type fighting or in the territory of individual warlords. In other words, all over the world.

The Federal Republic sees itself as a global gendarme, the organ of a world public that, let's face it, is not yet in existence. Regardless of whether or not you agree with this estimation of the role of the Federal Republic, this new image is nevertheless a product of recent years. Politicians love to throw in terrorism for justification, but it is obvious that there was no lack of attempts to push the Federal Republic into this role well before September 11, 2001. Terrorism has had almost a calming influence in this case.

Unlike in the past 40 years, the Federal Republic has a fighting army again. In other words, men and women whose chief skills are killing other people as efficiently as possible. They are not trained to defend their country and fellow citizens, but to shoot and bomb whoever they are ordered to shoot and bomb in other countries they have no interest in. In some cases, such as Kosovo, Darfur or even Afghanistan, there may be good or even very good reasons for these interventions – but our security is certainly not one of them.

We need not just new types of weapons for such missions; we also need a new type of soldier. The "citizen in uniform" – the principle idea behind the soldiers of the Bonn Republic – was one who defended his land and fellow citizens. The soldier who patrols a valley in Afghanistan today, a pipeline near Baku tomorrow and a street in Mogadishu the day after, cannot be a citizen in uniform. If he wants to do his thing well, although it's obviously not really his thing, he will become a mercenary. This is nothing dishonourable. The mercenary is the oldest figure in the art of war. The Berlin Republic has yet to create such a being. But we are witnessing his long drawn-out birth. He will leave his mark on this republic. It will become de-civilised. This is not as astonishing as it sounds. After all, Germany had never been as civilised as it was – albeit not through its own resolve – after the Second World War.

State Security

The state is retreating. Not only from the infrastructure and unemployment insurance, but also from the railways and phone companies. More and more sectors are being privatised. Since 1991, for example, the number of private hospitals in Germany has doubled. The organisation regrouping the seven municipal clinics in Hamburg has a turnover of 800 million euros per year. At the beginning of 2005 it was sold to Asklepios, a private firm.

In recent years everyone has been talking freedom when there's something to be earned. But exactly where freedom traditionally has its place – in the relationship of citizens to their state – it is often sacrificed to an outright authoritarian state security concept. A future history of civil rights in the Federal Republic will view recent years – increasingly in the wake of September 11, 2001 – as the time of continual curtailment of civil rights. And terrorism is the rationale. That threat is certainly not to be taken lightly. But its significance in Europe today is nonetheless considerably smaller than in the "leaden years" of the 1970s, when small armed groups not only planned, but also carried out weekly attacks in almost all countries of Western Europe.

Following the attacks of 9/11, almost everyone reckoned with follow-up attacks on a similar scale. The security packages passed in those weeks and months of horror and hysteria are still in effect. It is taken for granted that governments have the right to keep an eye on practically everything citizens do – as potential terrorists – while for citizens it is increasingly difficult to keep an eye on their governments. It is on record that Bavarian interior minister Günther Beckstein (CSU) was given to fits of desperation because federal interior minister Otto Schily (SPD) – who had, if I may say, a radical-democratic past – overtook him on the right. The Berlin Republic mistrusts its citizens. Probably no government doesn't. But when it does so with such demonstrative zeal as ours, it hurts.

The Holocaust Memorial

"Never again war" was a central policy guideline of the Federal Republic. It owed less to a sudden bout of humanism than to the catastrophic defeat and Allied control. The slogan "never again Holocaust" was not part of the Federal Republic from day one. It was fought out in protracted public and very private battles at the dinner tables of the nation, against a generation that once attempted to deny the Holocaust. "Never again war" is a thing of the past. The mandate of the Bundeswehr is to conduct war, and it is trained and equipped to do just that.

It will be interesting to see what significance the stone labyrinth we today still call the "Holocaust Memorial" will take on in times to come. With it, the Berlin Republic has a memorial that doesn't commemorate, a monument that should remind us of something but is unsure what. On sunny days it will be a meeting place for young people from all over the world, who will gaily meet and play hide and seek. While playing, they won't give a thought to the six million murdered European Jews, not to speak of who killed them. They will play tag, cops and robbers, or whatever name that sort of game will have in ten years' time. The Holocaust Memorial is a monument to the historicisation of the Holocaust. If there is such a thing as a Holocaust religion, then the Holocaust Memorial is its duplicitous side. Under the pretence of building the Holocaust right into the fabric of the city, it in fact hushes the whole thing up. It is nothing more than another tourist attraction that "you have to see". Some people may find that alright. But it has to be said, the Holocaust was never a matter of such indifference in the Bonn Republic. It was a subject of discord. For generations. That now seems to be over. That's also one of the lines demarcating the Bonn and the Berlin Republics.

The real test

With the September elections, the Berlin Republic will say goodbye to its childhood years. The "luxury revolutionaries" of 1968 will no longer be the ones pulling the belt tighter. At the helm of the government will be a woman – a revolution in itself – who as a citizen of communist East Germany learned to move in economic stagnation like a fish in water. Curbing civil rights would not go against her own life story. For decades, the national identity represented a progressive utopia in her eyes. Many of us West Germans longed for a unified Europe beyond the frontiers of the Federal Republic. European expansion has pushed that into the distance. For ideological reasons, but even more for economic reasons, Europe will become less important, even if the European constitution is adopted. Angela Merkel's childhood political dreams will not be destroyed. She can observe developments with that alert, disinterested attentiveness she so often displays. That will not necessarily play to her disadvantage.

The cornerstones of the Berlin Republic – the departure from the social market economy, the rediscovery of war, the mistrust of the state for its citizens, the historicisation of the Holocaust – were – so cunning is history – laid by the West German 68ers. At considerable cost. They had just begun to discover the Federal Republic that they combated for years, decades even. When they rebelled in 1968, Habermas and Dahrendorf, Hildegard Hamm-Brücher and Rudolf Augstein attempted to make clear to them that while the Federal Republic might not be the best of all possible worlds, it was the best German republic there had ever been.

It took until the 80s for this insight to lead the 68ers to start rethinking the Federal Republic and their role in it. The reunification caught them off guard. No sooner had they made their peace with the republic than it lay down – this was only clear to a few back then – and died. As the coalition of SDP and Greens formed a government, it was once more the wrong moment. It was – the protagonists didn't see this – not the time for the Brioni Chancellor and Tuscany for all. The state was broke, the social insurance systems collapsed. The country was fit for receivership. The Bonn Republic was finally over. With the Berlin Republic, our country has reached normality: the rich get richer and the poor poorer. That's the real test for our democracy.


A slightly longer version of this article originally appeared in German in the Berliner Zeitung on May 28, 2005.

Arno Widmann was born in 1948 and studied philosophy in Frankfurt with Theodor W. Adorno. A founder and editor-in-chief of the tageszeitung, he has also worked as senior editor of the German Vogue and arts editor of Die Zeit. Today he runs the opinion pages of the Berliner Zeitung. He has translated Umberto Eco, Curzio Malaparte and Victor Serge into German. His literary debut came with his 2002 novel "Sprenger".

Translation: lp, jab. - let's talk european