As Berlin goes so Germany goes. It is a city that condenses all the fragmentation and contradiction of this nation in one place. The name itself, iconic. It is at once a symbol of hope and doubt, joy and fear, triumph and tragedy. It is sophisticated and degenerate, inspirational and irritating, cosmopolitan and provincial. It is German.
The post-World War II West German Republic was never intended to be strong or politically efficient. Following the disaster of fascism, the last thing West Germans and the world wanted was a government able to effectively implement the majority will of its people, favouring broad consensus rather than popular dictatorship. Majority rule was unacceptable, proportional rule with significant power allotted minorities was the only conceived way to prevent a relapse into oppressive government. The post-war constitution and governments since 1949 have been an acknowledgement that Germans intrinsically do not trust each other, to a certain extent even fear each other.
Shame of being German starts at an early age, when young students are exposed to the horrors of the holocaust and the madness of Nazi militarism. It is hard to flip through an evening broadcast and not find some documentary detailing the grim history of German dictatorship and defeat in the first half of the 20th century. It is difficult to be a proud German, even today.
Among the many humiliations following their defeat in World War II was the redrawing of Germany’s borders and eventual division of the country into the communist East and the free West. The expulsion of Germans east of the Oder River from what became Polish territory consolidated the German people into the nation we now call Germany. By 1949 Germany was the subject of a great Cold War experiment, to prove once and for all the inferiority of socialism. Furthermore, many Europeans felt a divided Germany was in their best interests. Some still do.
If Germans had any semblance of an identity before the war, it was certainly eviscerated in the immediate years following. The west quickly became a towering demonstration of free market dynamism, the east a daily reminder of the backwardness of socialism. West Germans, though cognisant of their past, had much to be proud of in the decades following the war. Though partisanship existed, there was unity of vision and general solidarity of purpose with the nations of the west. Yet for many Germans in both the East and the West there lingered the dream of reunification. In 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the inevitable implosion of the communist regime of East Germany, this dream began its steady transformation into hard reality.
It didn’t take long after the euphoria of reunification for Germans to find themselves internally at odds with each other. The de facto one party dictatorship of the east was wiped away and the western system adopted. Yet the distortions of more than 40 years of Soviet style socialism in the East did not undergo the same organic healing process experienced in so many other Soviet Block nations. Many from the West quickly began to feel that they were subsidizing the dependency of those from the east that could now claim generous entitlements under the west’s “social model”. As the years went by, the parties positioned themselves to leverage advantage in an increasingly divided country. The socialists once led by such seeming moderates as Helmut Schmidt, moved decisively more to the left. Conservatives that held a virtual monopoly on the Chancellorship for 16 years found themselves out of power. What had seemed so promising was quickly turning ugly. The promise of a united Germany was slowly showing itself in reality to be a deeply divided Germany, perhaps more than it had been before. The dream of one Germany where its people could once again identify themselves as “German” seemed rather a pipe dream.
Germans today effectively share one of two identities, 'Ossi' or 'Wessi'. Those from the former east are often viewed as ignorant, unrefined and lazy, the thankless beneficiaries of the west's 'solidarity' subsidization. Those from the west are often viewed as arrogant, cold and greedy, unwilling to accept their fellow citizens from the east as true fellow Germans. Today the hope and promise following the ‘Fall of the Wall’ more than 15 years ago has now eroded into fear and loathing. The rigidity of the German bureaucracy, combined with a hopelessly embattled multiparty proportional system of government has left a nation, compelled to restructure and reform itself, stagnating. Many recent graduates have their eyes set on careers anywhere but Germany.
Decades of socialization in both west and east programmed much of the German public to immediately turn to government for solutions to their problems. At the same time German voters feel distant and unable to influence their government. Sunday’s poll saw the second lowest turnout in post-war German history and by far its most disturbing result.
In Germany, parties rule and much of the public distrusts them. Voting is more often motivated by a desire to prevent a particular party from dominating than to support a particular platform. This “voting in the negative” only adds to existing public cynicism exacerbating the already significant divide in western and eastern public opinion. Accountability to one's party is the first law of survival for a German politician. Parties lay down the rules and decide who gets the privilege of leading. The layers of decision makers and interests, extend the distance between constituents and their living breathing representatives. Few Constuents have ever contacted their representitives office, much less know who they are. The party is the real representative, a colourful logo with a catchy slogan. These faceless institutions are entrusted with the duty to serve the people.
It is hard to know exactly where the buck stops in German politics, you often get the feeling it's nowhere. "What choice do we have?" is a common response from disenchanted voters. Passive political attitudes are not only typical among German voters but chilling in their implication, a haunting reminder of Madison's Federalist 10. Just how willing are voters to capitulate to a nebulous party organization, opaque institutions that have little personal accountability to constituents? How can such organizations effectively address the underlying needs of the German people in moments requiring decisive leadership? Are the institutional interests of a party able to adequately respond to the needs of the nation? These are the true great questions to arise out of the September elections. Called because of a crisis among the parties, little else.
Germans have much reform to consider, but I would venture to say following the disaster of this most recent election they must recognize that their party-based election system is broken. Today’s Germany requires leadership, not faction. The lessons of the past should invoke restraint, not fear of changing what is now a broken system. Germany needs flexibility to adapt to the rapid pace of change in the modern world and not continuously struggle with internal divisions that only irritate existing anxieties and hinder the growth, progress and great contributions of the German people.