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The schizophrenic superpower

Germany is the strongman of Europe; yet at home it appears weak and divided. Rob Knight reports from Frankfurt on Germany's split personality

Germany's international image has become strangely unstable over recent months, particularly as seen through the eyes of British commentators.

One week, they warn us that Germany is well on the way to dominating Europe. So Robert Harris, author of the bestselling Fatherland (a novel about how a victorious Hitler would have run Europe which has been described in the German press as pornography for the British upper classes), points to 'the similarity between what the Nazis planned for western Europe and what, in economic terms, has come to pass' (Sunday Times, 10 May). But the next week, British commentators will be crowing that a strike-ridden Germany is becoming the new 'sick man of Europe'.

Kohl falters

Within Germany, too, there has been a change in the political climate, reflected most obviously in the declining public status of chancellor Helmut Kohl and his government. After German reunification in 1990, Kohl appeared strong, confident and politically unassailable. Now, he is increasingly unpopular and there is talk of his government not lasting the full term, despite the fact that it commands a big parliamentary majority.

The reputation of the Kohl administration at home and abroad has been damaged by a series of resignations of top ministers, especially that of foreign minister Hans Dietrich Genscher; by a string of bad election results; by allegations that the costs of reunification have spiralled out of control; and by a humiliating climbdown in the public sector strike.

So which is the real Germany? Is it the new European superpower? Or is it now so beset by internal problems that it will be unable to assert itself abroad? What is the truth about the problems and the opportunities facing the German authorities today?

Germany's different

The first thing to be clear about is that, despite the recent attempts by British economists to claim that Germany has sunk to 'our' level of recession, the German economy has not yet been seriously affected by the world economic downturn. The extra demand created by reunification has helped German capitalism to avoid the slump which has afflicted much of the rest of Europe. The German economy certainly has more problems today than it had a few years ago. But compared with just about anywhere else in Europe, Germany remains a remarkably stable and prosperous country. Even the big strikes of recent months were conducted in a low-key atmosphere and settled through the traditional methods of compromise.

Politics not economics

The air of crisis that hangs over Germany today is first and foremost political. The German government has been shown to be weak and indecisive over a range of issues. As a result, and despite the country's relative prosperity, the Kohl administration has little political authority left.

The German government's problems have far deeper causes than a few unpopular policy decisions or ministerial character defects. After all, other European governments have less support inside and outside parliament (Francois Mitterrand's French Socialists were down to 18 per cent in the latest local elections), yet they do not seem to be in quite the same state of permanent crisis and indecisiveness. Nor does the resignation of a government minister cause such ructions elsewhere as it does in Germany.

1945 and all that

The particular instability in Germany has its roots in the German authorities' lack of historical legitimacy, and the crisis of confidence which results. To understand this lack of legitimacy, it is worth looking briefly at the way in which the ruling elite of modern Germany emerged from the Second World War.

By the time the Nazi era came to an end in 1945, the German elite had been utterly discredited through its collaboration with Hitler. After the war, a power vacuum existed in German society. The American military filled it temporarily. But in order to re-establish durable stability for German capitalism, something more was required. Germany urgently needed a new social order, with a new ideology that could cohere society.

The division of the German nation between East and West, and the advent of the Cold War, provided a kind of solution. The politics of the Cold War ensured that modern West Germany was created as a state which defined itself through its opposition to the Soviet bloc. Anti-communism became the official state ideology, the unifying cement of West German society.

A new ID

To win its citizens over to the new order, the West German state introduced a comprehensive social security system. To ensure a degree of social peace, the new state installed a complex system of arbitration and conciliation in labour relations. The West German authorities succeeded in cementing their society together because, with the aid of massive US investment, the economy grew rapidly in the fifties and sixties. The combination of material success, the social system and anti-communism gave the new state a degree of public legitimacy and established a consensus. West Germany was increasingly seen as the mirror image of East Germany, prosperous where the other was poor, democratic where the other was repressive.

The main penalty that the German ruling class paid for these postwar arrangements was that its ability to play any kind of role internationally was severely constrained. The division of Germany, the Cold War and the US occupation made Germany largely subservient to American foreign policy.

Against this background, it is possible to see why the collapse of the Soviet Union and reunification of Germany has created both opportunities and problems for the Kohl regime. The plus side of reunification is that it enabled Germany to emerge as the undisputed leader of Europe. Germany moved rapidly from being a divided country on the edge of Europe to a united power at its centre.

Germany's backyard

In addition, Germany now has to its east a group of client states which provide it with markets, cheap labour and diplomatic support on international policy bodies. Creating such a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe was a traditional foreign policy goal for generations of German statesmen before Hitler. The fact that Germany now wields neo-colonial influence in the east could have far-reaching consequences for the global balance of power.

The downside of reunification for the authorities is the way that it has upset the pattern of internal German politics. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ideological cement which bound West Germany together has gone. Anti-communism can no longer play the same role in cohering German society that it did in the past. As a consequence, the ruling elite is now experiencing a loss of direction and a crisis of authority. Robbed of the certainties of the Cold War era, Germany's rulers no longer feel secure.

The Kohl government has tried to regain its grip by asserting the importance of the basic values of capitalism and nationalism. This explains the administration's attempted offensive against immigrants and the trade unions, and its attempts to reform the social state.

Panic stations

The problem for the German authorities is that a more robust assertion of capitalist values means breaking with the dominant liberal and corporatist consensus. Such a shift to the right will tend to polarise society, with potentially destabilising consequences. It is here that the insecurity of the authorities becomes an important factor. As soon as it looks as if things are polarising and the cracks in society are widening, the government starts to panic and tries to revert to the traditions of consensus. The only effect is to create the appearance of weakness and indecisiveness, further undermining the government's authority.

A good example of how this works is the current discussions over Germany's asylum laws for refugees. The government deliberately started a debate about tightening up these laws, as a way of raising the nationalist stakes. This provoked a wave of violence against foreigners and increased support for far-right parties in elections. Instead of then raising the racist stakes again to head off the far right, as for example Margaret Thatcher did in Britain to marginalise the National Front in the seventies, the Kohl government panicked, backtracked, and called for an all-party alliance against the far right.

Faced with the choice of breaking with the past or withdrawing into the familiar politics of consensus, the German government took the soft option. As a result, it has been left with the worst of all worlds. It has damaged the social consensus by raising the temperature on the race issue, and then allowed the far right to reap the electoral benefits.

A similar process could be seen at work during the recent major strikes. First the Kohl government challenged the trade unions and tried to act tough, then as soon as there was a confrontation it backed down. This time it was the union leaders who were made to look good, although in reality they were even less keen to fight it out than the government.

Reunification has not only robbed the German authorities of the ideological coherence provided by anti-communism. It has also brought a further problem for them to grapple with: how to incorporate East Germany into the new nation.

East Germans have less attachment to the German state than the people in the west. The 'Ossies' supported unification with the West for one reason above all else: prosperity. After decades of misery under Stalinism, East Germans were desperate for a share of the hi-tech consumer culture they saw in the West. Two years after reunification, the vast majority of them are still waiting for their share. The failure of the West to bring them prosperity means that there is little to attach most easterners to the German state - especially as many of those running the 'new' Germany in the east are the same people who ran the old Stalinist regime.

Eastern support for the traditional political parties is tenuous. The Social Democratic Party, for example, has 930 000 members in the west but only 30 000 in the east. Politics in eastern Germany seems likely to follow the unstable pattern of Eastern Europe, with voters switching from one party to another and supporting minor and fringe groups. All of this means that the German government's problems of legitimacy have been compounded by the inclusion of East Germany.

End of an era

The crisis of legitimacy in German politics is having a corrosive effect on the old political structures. Conflicts within the ruling coalition have become more open. The drifting apart of the coalition partners further reduces the authority of central government. The government is now so insecure that some of its own members have been calling for a grand coalition of Kohl's Christian Democrats with the opposition Social Democrats, to deal with the current political crisis.

It is also possible to discern within Germany a trend towards regionalisation, similar to that which is growing across Europe. The regional councils, or Länder, are pressing for more power and control over the terms and implementation of the Maastricht treaty, and Kohl has had to make significant concessions on this. Recent local elections in west Germany brought setbacks for both the CDU and the SPD, and the growth of fringe parties reflecting regional and parochial concerns. With the ideological glue provided by anti-communism removed, German society is becoming unstuck in a variety of ways.

The insecurity of the ruling elite means that in the short term, at least, Germany is likely to present something of an anomaly. Externally, its superior economic strength enables it to be the dominant power in European affairs. Yet, at the same time, internally it is set to stumble from one political crisis to the next, while the authorities seek desperately to establish a new legitimacy among their own people.

Society of sand

The situation in Germany bears powerful testimony to the post-Cold War political crisis facing the rulers of the Western world. It shows that, even in the most dynamic European economy, modern capitalism is haunted by the problem of how to hold a society together under the control of a minority ruling class.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992

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