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Reluctant Meister: How Germany's Past is Shaping Its European Future

Reluctant Meister: How Germany's Past is Shaping Its European Future

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Reluctant Meister: How Germany's Past is Shaping Its European Future

370 pagine
5 ore
Nov 15, 2014


The Euro crisis has served as a stark reminder of the fundamental importance of Germany to the larger European project. But the image of Germany as the dominant power in Europe is at odds with much of its recent history. Reluctant Meister is a wide-ranging study of Germany from the Holy Roman Empire through the Second and Third Reichs, and it asks not only how such a mature and developed culture could have descended into the barbarism of Nazism but how it then rebuilt itself within a generation to become an economic powerhouse. Perhaps most important, Stephen Green examines to what extent Germany will come to dominate its relationship with its neighbors in the European Union, and what that will mean.
Nov 15, 2014

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Reluctant Meister - Stephen Green



SINCE MY SCHOOL DAYS I have been fascinated by all things German. To start with, it was the German language – a language which seemed to me such a robust kindred spirit of English. All those Anglo-Saxon words that earth the English language – they had cousins you could recognise in German. And German also had all those wonderful multi-syllable mouthfuls built up from the basic words. You could construct things in German, as if it were a Lego language.

The classic example, which was guaranteed to produce hilarity in the classroom, was the legendary Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän – the Danube steamship company captain. And it was easy to make up words that were still longer. But even without going to such lengths, German compound words are often so expressive – or hard to translate – that English, that great borrower from all languages, has simply taken them on board as they are: Apfelstrudel, Bildungsroman, Blitzkrieg, Dachshund, Delikatessen, Doppelgänger, Edelweiss, Einsatzgruppe, Glühwein, Götterdämmerung, Kristallnacht, Lebensraum, Leitmotiv, Poltergeist, Realpolitik, Schadenfreude, Singspiel, Übermensch, Untermensch, Volkswagen, Wanderlust, Weltanschauung, Wirtschaftswunder, Zeitgeist. And many others. I was enthralled by the mixture of the good, the profound, the innocuous and the sinister in the language that English borrowed from Germany. I always felt it revealed much about the culture from which those words came.

Then there is the literature that the language unveils if you grapple with it. Above all Faust, which I studied (not nearly thoroughly enough) at university. And the philosophy (ditto). And the music – yes, the music. My first serious brush with classical music was at school. It was the autumnal tones of Brahms: first, the Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, played – I can remember it now – by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. Especially the seventh variation that soared into a heaven which was entirely new to me. Then the Third Symphony, on an LP with a cover photograph of woodland trees with their colours turning. So Brahms became my first real musical love. Now I listen to him on my iPad as I write this preface.

Over the years my love of classical music has broadened and deepened: later – in some cases, much later – I came to know something of the intricate geometry of Bach and the huge panoramas of Wagner, not to mention the agility of Mozart, the passion of Beethoven, the exquisite tunefulness of Schubert, the sumptuousness of Richard Strauss. And so on. Other musical traditions have transported me too: Italians and Russians in particular. But my first love remains the breadth, depth and intensity of German music, which has never been surpassed.

My first visit to Germany was to a family who lived in Bavaria. It was the school holidays: I was meant to improve my German. I don’t think I made much progress over the three weeks. But I was introduced to what the mother described firmly as ‘richtige Bergwanderungen’ – real mountain hikes. Another love that has remained with me ever since.

I have been to Germany many times over the years – as a student, then later on business and on holiday. In fact, I have probably seen more of the country than many Germans have. One experience out of many stands out: the day I crossed the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. We were two young management consultants visiting a client in West Berlin. We had some spare time in the late afternoon and decided to head east. It was just before Christmas, cold with a bright sun shining on the snow that had fallen the previous day. The snow had turned to a muddy slush on the streets: but on the death strip it was pure, untouched white. We found ourselves talking to the East German border guard – who was around our age – about some European football match that was about to take place. The ordinary amidst the extraordinary.

We don’t know nearly enough about this country, with its extraordinary culture and history. Go into a bookshop and look at the history section: you will be confronted with shelves of books on the Third Reich and the Holocaust, as well as a few items on the Second Reich and maybe Frederick the Great. And in recent years there has been a flood of books on the First World War. But all too rarely can you find anything on the deeper history of the German lands, or on the new Germany and its role in the new Europe of today. It is as if nothing much in Germany is interesting outside of the 12 years from 1933 to 1945.

Yet this will not do. There is no culture on the planet greater than that of Germany. No country has contributed more to the history of human ideas and creativity. No country has been deeper into the abyss. And no country has seen a more remarkable redemption and renewal. It is all this that makes the story of Germany so compelling and which gives it profound and universal human significance. It is why I have continued – long after those schooldays spent trying to master German compound words – to love the place, its ways, its literature, its music.

There is also a more practical point. No country is more central to Europe’s destiny today. The British may have a fractured relationship with Europe: but if there is any lesson we learn from the events of one hundred years ago, it is surely that we cannot turn our backs on Europe. We are inevitably involved, and at so many levels, whether we like it or not. So no country is more important to Britain today than Germany.

There is nothing like writing to develop and crystallise thought. Although the result – for better or worse – is all my responsibility (this is a very personal take on the German phenomenon), I have had the enormous benefit of very kind and indulgent input from others. In particular, I have been able to tap the wisdom of Helen Watanabe O’Kelly, Professor of German Literature at Oxford University and Emeritus Fellow of my alma mater, Exeter College; Georg Boomgarden, former German ambassador in London; Sir Michael Arthur, former British ambassador in Berlin; Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum; Martin Roth, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (and formerly Director General of the Dresden State Art Collections); Professor Werner Jeanrond, Master of St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford; Baroness Ruth Henig, formerly Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Lancaster University; Alan Sharp, Professor Emeritus (International History and Diplomacy) at the University of Ulster; and Hans Kundnani, Director of Research at the European Council on Foreign Relations. At Haus Publishing, Barbara Schwepcke, the Principal, and Isabel Wagner have both provided enthusiastic, knowledgeable guidance, both overall and in detail. All this help has ensured that writing this book has itself been enormously rewarding – and enjoyable – for me.

And finally, my heartfelt thanks to Jay, who continues to put up with me …


GERMANY IS THE GEOGRAPHICAL CENTRE of the new Europe, and its most powerful economy. For the last four decades, European leadership has been provided by the three largest countries of the European Union. This did not mean that the three agreed on everything: but it did mean that progress depended on arriving at a consensus amongst those three. One of them – Britain – has now decided to leave the Union, and the balance provided by this triangle of leadership has been destroyed. The triangle has been replaced by an axis – but one end of this axis is much weaker than the other. All European political roads now lead to Berlin, not to Paris. So there is in effect now one leader of the European project.

The European corner of the Eurasian landmass faces many challenges: the centre of the world’s economic gravity has shifted away from it; it is no longer the fault line of the Cold War and is therefore no longer the highest strategic priority of the United States; its neighbourhood is in turmoil and migration threatens to dilute its culture; its sclerotic economics have provided fertile ground for populist politics; and underlying all this is an identity crisis – or rather, a whole series of identity crises. In all this, Germany is centrally involved.

So the country that must – by the logic of geography and economics – lead the European response to those many inter-connected challenges is Germany. But Germany has a history which weighs heavily on its shoulders. That history condemns it to exercise that leadership reluctantly. For as far ahead as we can see, it will have a neuralgic aversion to any idea of a new Führerprinzip. Insofar as it takes on the burden of leadership, it will be as the master of a trade – the Handwerkmeister – or as the leader of the orchestra – the Kapellmeister. And it will take pride in its own excellence, as demonstrated by masterful performances in the Weltmeisterschaft of its – and the world’s – favourite game.

We need to know more about this reluctant Meister. The British may think they can withdraw from Europe. But they cannot. They are entangled by the facts of geography, commerce and history, as they will discover over the next decade. There is therefore no country more important to Britain today than Germany. We need to know it better. We need to learn from it. We need a much deeper relationship with it.

And to begin to know a country is to study its past, its culture, its self-awareness. Only thus can we begin to understand how it wrestles with the present and what its fears and hopes are for the future. That is the aim of this book.


Springtime in Berlin

BERLIN, EASTER. Rich impressions of life in an evolving world city.

The famously aggressive sparrows which will attack the piece of cake you are eating as you hold it in your hand at a table outside one of the countless street cafes.

The new green of the Tiergarten – that 200 hectare stretch of woodland in the heart of the city which was originally a hunting preserve of the royal family (hence its name: the garden of animals), which then became the place where the bourgeois went to stroll on a Sunday afternoon and to see and be seen in the seemingly confident years before the First World War; and where Berliners foraged for firewood in the cold winters after the Second World War. A place where you can now wander amid trees and along canals, where you can forget you are in the midst of Europe’s third largest city.

The sun glints on the graceful TV tower on the Alexanderplatz (one of the few attractive monuments of the old East Germany); the spherical silver grey structure which contains the observation deck just below the TV mast, high above the city, catches the light in the form of a glistening cross – a source of wry comment in the days of the old atheists who ran the German Democratic Republic a quarter of a century ago.

And on the other side of the meandering Spree from the Alexanderplatz, there is the site in the centre of the city of the former Berlin Schloss, the palace of the Hohenzollern dynasty, the rulers of Brandenburg-Prussia and the Emperors of the Second Reich from its unification in 1871 until its collapse in 1918. The old Schloss was imposing rather than beautiful. It dominates the old photographs of pre-war Berlin. Damaged by bombing in the War, it was blown up by the new East German government in 1950 in a symbolic gesture of ideology: the past had been destroyed. The future was the glass and concrete people’s palace of the East which replaced it – until it too was torn down after reunification. Shoddily built and riddled with asbestos – or was it also a hideous and embarrassing reminder of the 40 year period of division and pain, brutally enforced by a government which was the cat’s paw of the Soviet Union?

In any event, the site is now occupied again: the new version of the old Schloss has risen again, in the shape of the Humboldt Forum – a close replica which once again dominates the central Berlin landscape and helps reinforce the already striking impression of continuity between the old and the new at this end of Unter den Linden. If you stand on the nearby Bebelplatz (where they burned books in 1933), with the Catholic cathedral behind you, the opera house on one side and buildings of the Humboldt university on the other side and opposite you, nothing seems to have changed: everything you can see was there before the war.

Nearby is the solid brick neo-gothic Friedrichswerder church – now a museum (to Karl Friedrich Schinkel who built it and so much of the splendour nearby) but still with old memorial tablets on its walls to long-forgotten worthies of the 19th century. And with its old war memorial too, to those fallen in the 1914–18 fight ‘against a world of enemies’. Those words cry out. After the First World War – after the trauma of unexpected defeat, of the collapse of the Reich and of virtual civil war in the city – the sense that the world was against the country was as vivid as ever.

All in all, the new, the old and the incomplete jostling up against one another.

Because it is Easter, its sounds are everywhere: the huge church bell of the Protestant cathedral solemnly tolling (it has no peal of bells and so cannot avoid sounding ponderous even at Eastertime); and the music of Bach’s St Matthew Passion and of Brahms’s German Requiem. Crowds of tourists swarm up and down Unter den Linden. You can hear several European (and several Asian) languages.

New life mingles with ghosts. In a quiet corner of the city centre, not far from the cathedral, is the Sophienkirche. This is the only church in central Berlin to have survived the war undamaged by bombing. Near it is an old Jewish cemetery, which attracts a few visitors; it includes the gravestone of Moses Mendelssohn, grandfather of Felix Mendelssohn and one of the most brilliant intellectuals of the 18th-century German Enlightenment. Also nearby is the synagogue on Oranienburger Straße, which survived the anti-Jewish riots and burnings of Kristallnacht because a sympathetic and courageous local police chief gave it protection – only to succumb to Allied bombing later on. Now beautifully restored, it is the centrepiece of a street which has become a magnet for nightlife since reunification – nightlife which also draws prostitutes to their patches, dressed in what amounts to a distinctive uniform of shoulder-length black or fake blonde hair and white boots. The continuities with 1920s Berlin can seem all too obvious.

There are jagged discontinuities too in the midst of all the continuities and all the renewal which is everywhere to be seen. At the heart of Berlin, close to the Brandenburg Gate, are the irregular monoliths of the Holocaust memorial. It seems both empty and at the same time to go deeper and deeper downwards into the soul. It draws you into its darkness. In the warmth of a spring day, it is not so obviously sinister. Children happily play amongst the dark granite slabs; Asian tourists take photographs of each other posing on them. But at night, this is a forbidding place, as it should be.

There are other painful memories too. At the centre of what was West Berlin sits the Kaiser Wilhelm I Memorial Church – a striking combination of the broken tower from the bombed pre-war church together with a hexagonal new building, completed in 1962 (the same year as Coventry Cathedral and, like it, one of the most remarkable pieces of post-war architecture). To go into the church is to escape from the glitz of the Kurfürstendamm into an ethereal calm, quiet and lit by a deep translucent blue light from thousands of panes of stained glass.

There you can also see the Stalingrad Madonna: a piece of white cloth on which Kurt Reuber, a medical orderly in a field hospital in Stalingrad, drew a Madonna and Child as Christmas comfort for his wounded patients in December 1942. The child is at peace, the mother serene. Around the edge of the picture are the words ‘Licht, Leben, Liebe’ – light, life, love. As he wrote these words he must have known there was very little hope of a good outcome for any of them. When the German Sixth Army surrendered just a few weeks later, Reuber went into captivity. A year later, he drew another Madonna and Child (though this one is in the possession of his family and is not on public display). This time the expression on the mother’s face is very different. Her face is contorted in a way which is almost an echo of Edvard Munch’s Scream. But the words are the same: light, life, love. Reuber died shortly afterwards. Very few of his companions ever made it home.

Coming out of the church, you are surrounded by a street market, by glass towers, by traffic, by people from everywhere, sauntering, bustling. When the British journalist Richard Dimbleby came here in 1945, he didn’t think that it was possible for anyone to live in Berlin ever again, as the ruins and rubble stretched as far as he could see. That seems a long time ago now.

Just being in Berlin poses questions: everywhere there are signs of a great and living culture; signs of vibrant new life, of sharp-edged new art and architecture; signs, too, of a tragic past; places of beauty, as well as of emptiness, ugliness, desolation. So questions about history, culture and identity – questions that are relevant to all human beings at all times and in all places – are posed starkly here. Looking backwards: where did the national inferiority complex – which looked so much like a national superiority complex and which led to such untold destruction – come from? Looking forward, in a new century, what is the national identity in this increasingly busy crossroads of the world? The search for answers is relevant – not just to Germans, not just to Europeans, but to human beings universally. This is a journey which scales heights and plumbs depths, which are glimpsed by us all.


Tears for my Country

IN 1636 THE POET AND PLAYWRIGHT Andreas Gryphius wrote a sonnet which seems to sum up the appalling experience of the German lands in Europe’s worst war – its worst manmade disaster – until the 20th century. ‘Thränen des Vaterlandes’ (Tears of the Fatherland) he called it, a vivid and, to this day, moving lament on the Thirty Years War, which so traumatised Germany that the memory of its horrors has remained deeply rooted in the folk memory ever since:

Wir sind doch nunmehr ganz, ja mehr denn ganz verheeret!

Der frechen Völker Schar, die rasende Posaun,

Das vom Blut fette Schwert, die donnernde Karthaun

Hat aller Schweiß und Fleiß und Vorrat aufgezehret.

Die Türme stehn in Glut, die Kirch ist umgekehret,

Das Rathaus liegt im Graus, die Starken sind zerhaun,

Die Jungfraun sind geschänd’t, und wo wir hin nur schaun,

Ist Feuer, Pest und Tod, der Herz und Geist durchfähret


(Now our devastation is complete – indeed, more than complete! The brazen hordes of foreigners, the blaring bugles of war, the blood-slaked sword, the thundering siege gun – they have consumed everything we worked so hard for. The towers are burning, the church is ransacked, the town hall lies in ruins, the strong men have been hacked down, our girls have been raped; and everywhere we look there is fire, pestilence and death, enough to pierce heart and spirit…)

Yet the war, however terrible, was only one chapter in a story covering many centuries which nurtured what became by the 19th century a strong sense of victimhood – which is in turn part of the cause of the catastrophe in the 20th century.

The victim lashes out; the abused turns abuser. In individual human beings, we see this pattern time and time again. We know enough about the development of children to be able to detect a ‘normal’ path of moral and social development – from a first stage of learning to see good and bad in terms of direct rewards and punishments, through a second stage where we come to see them in terms of the expectations of family, and finally to making adult judgements about the common good and setting values in that context. We also know how many individuals never make it beyond the second stage (with the family often being widened to – or replaced by – some larger community of belonging). Some never even make it past the first stage. All too often early abuse leads to distorted or even arrested development. To acknowledge this is not to subscribe to a determinism which explains everything and removes culpability. Yet we do know how often these patterns repeat themselves.

At the level of peoples, we can see the patterns of distortion too. It would be wrong to see the development of societies in any simplistic way as parallel to that of human beings individually. But there are parallels nonetheless. Again, this is not to subscribe to a determinism which explains away guilt. Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner? No: we will never fully understand the mystery of human behaviour. And we do not forgive easily; in any case it is not ours to forgive, unless we ourselves are the victims. To seek to understand is, rather, to recognise the common humanity that unites us all, on the basis of which we know – in ourselves – what we as human beings are capable of. So to understand is to be open to a common humility (there but for the grace of God go we…), and to shared learning.

Germany is the starkest example of all this. But by no means the only one. Which is why it is a tragedy of universal significance. And as always with human tragedies, the background – the history – matters.

Peoples who lived in the German lands first make their presence felt on the European stage when Arminius (or Hermann, to give him his German name) and his tribesmen slaughtered three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9, thereby effectively limiting the Roman Empire’s expansion northwards and eastwards. Archaeologists and historians have debated exactly where the terrible battle took place, but in the 19th century a huge statue – the highest in Europe at the time – was built on one supposed site, to commemorate this figure who came to have something of the same mystique for the Germans of the 19th century as did Vercingetorix for the French and Boadicea (or Boudicca) for the English – although with a crucial and revealing difference, as we shall see later.

In the event, Arminius could not build on his success (any more than Vercingetorix or Boudicca could). The battle was a disaster for the Roman army – as bad as those it had suffered at the hands of Hannibal. But there was no chance of following it up. As they did so often, the Romans regrouped and twice in the next ten years Arminius was defeated by new Roman armies. He was soon afterwards murdered by fellow tribesmen for whom he was growing too powerful. But his main achievement stood: most of what became the German lands, with their impenetrable forests, did remain outside Roman control – unlike Gaul and unlike Britain.

Later on, as the Roman empire weakened under the impact of tribal movements and invasions from Central Europe and Asia, peoples from the German lands spread over much of Western Europe (including England). At the same time Germanic tribesmen became the backbone of a Roman army which was becoming more and more dependent on recruits from the regions of the empire. At the turn of the 5th century, during the final agonies of Roman Italy, people of Germanic stock were amongst those who defended as well as those who threatened the empire.

A vacuum followed in which various Germanic kingdoms formed and reformed in Western Europe. The most successful was the Frankish kingdom, which expanded to cover much of what later became France, the Low Countries, western and southern Germany, and northern Italy. On Christmas Day, AD 800, Charlemagne was crowned emperor in Rome by the Pope. The Roman Empire had been reborn. The centre of Charlemagne’s empire was his stronghold at Aachen. The cathedral at Aachen, whose central basilica was built under Charlemagne, still stands today as a monument to his extraordinary achievement. Built to rival the splendours of the Eastern empire of Byzantium, the basilica is in the style of San Vitale at Ravenna – though without the mosaics – and was for 200 years the tallest building north of the Alps.

But the empire was too vast to control: after Charlemagne’s death it fragmented, initially into three: a western kingdom including much of what is now France, the middle (largely what is now the Netherlands, Burgundy and northern Italy) and an eastern kingdom, which was all that was left in Carolingian hands and which covered most of what is now western

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