Opinion

A fallen wall, a renewed Germany, a united Europe

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, harmony between Germany and the rest of Europe at last seems natural and durable.

By

Hanna Gleiss doesn't remember much about the fall of the Berlin Wall except for the painted shards her parents chipped out once upon a time and kept around the house as mementos. But because of that spectacular end of the cold war two decades ago, she and her generation of East and West Germans alike can take for granted the exhilaration of studying in Paris.

I met Hanna a few days ago when her joint team of German and French university students invited me to take part in a panel at the Institut d'Études Politiques on the mauerfall, or "fall of the wall" in 1989. The easy camaraderie of this transnational cohort that never experienced either the cold-war division of Europe or the century-long Franco-German enmity that preceded it offers the best possible proof of just how much that mauerfall has altered the face of Europe.

The political change wrought by the end of the cold war was immediately apparent. The demonstration of civil courage by East German "dissidents" in their march in Leipzig on Oct. 9, 1989 – in a land not renowned for civil disobedience – set off a happy chain of events to the east. The Leipzig example sparked the breach of the Berlin Wall in November. That, in turn, set off a chain of popular demonstrations and democratic regime change in Prague; Sofia, Bulgaria; and elsewhere. Remarkably, in a historic first for breakup of empire, there was no bloodshed except in Romania.

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With Moscow's empire gone, Poland, Hungary, and other Central European states resumed their traditional Western orientation and eventually joined the European Union. Living standards rose sharply throughout the region. Polish plumbers and cleaning ladies commuted to Paris and London and Berlin to fill labor shortages there. Central European students won scholarships to Oxford, the Sorbonne, and the new Central European University in Budapest.

That transformation was self-evident. But two corollaries were both more subtle and more far-reaching. The first was the revelation to other Europeans of the sea change in the German mentality that had evolved in the half-century after the defeat of Hitler. The second, not unrelated, was the solution at long last of the vexing two-centuries-old "German question" of how to incorporate a big and dynamic Germany into a stable European order without igniting war. That question again became acute as the suddenly reunified Germany now boasted a population of 80 million – one-third more than either France or Britain – and revived memories of 1870, 1914, and 1939.

The changes in the German mindset after World War II started with the new modesty – and yet empowerment – that displaced the old rigid German exercise of authority and obedience to it. In West Germany, ordinary citizens learned to challenge hierarchies.

Thus, the upstart Green Party of knitters and nursing mothers entered Parliament and quickly put saving the planet on the agenda of all the more orthodox political parties. And German governments, which labored long under the mistrust that Hitler bequeathed his successors, learned how to act unobtrusively to mobilize an inner core of European allies before launching any foreign-policy initiative. Often enough, they credited others with having dreamed up the policies they themselves had first advanced.

With time, this practice of shifting coalitions and consensus-building in fact became the standard form of decision-making within the European Community – the "Community method." There was no single dominant player in the EC that could emulate the United States in NATO in forcing agreement. Consensus, based on the gradual convergence that was being shaped by the EC, was the only feasible way to reach decisions.

For the European Community – today called the European Union (EU) – this method of decisionmaking was a stroke of genius. Without it, the counterintuitive invention of the EC/EU as far less than a federation but far more than a loose confederation would not have survived.

And without the 1980s project of "deepening" the community by establishing a single market by 1992, it is doubtful whether the EU framework would have been strong enough to solve the lingering "German question" by embedding a dynamic Germany in an equally dynamic EU. The EU institutionalized the Continent's new trust both in German responsibility and in the overproportional voice the EU structure gives its smaller member-states.

That institutionalization succeeded brilliantly, as Hanna Gleiss's experience shows. We chatted in German in a crowded Left Bank restaurant, and none of our fellow diners so much as raised an eyebrow. Nor has she encountered anti-German hostility in her time in France. Today it's as acceptable for Germans to be in Paris as for French to be in Berlin.

Indeed, the fact that Hanna's generation needs my generation of eyewitnesses to explain how it came about that they can take their student exchanges for granted today is itself a tribute to that supreme accomplishment of 20th-century statecraft.

Elizabeth Pond is a former Monitor correspondent, the author of "Beyond the Wall" and coauthor of "The German Question and other German Questions."

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