Inside Germany

ANYTHING written by Timothy Garton Ash can be relied on for solid learning and insights, thorough use of written sources, and revealing interviews at the highest level. A sprightly style, a clear moral focus and historical sense: All this has made Garton Ash the preeminent chronicler of the decline and fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe.

In ``In Europe's Name: Germany and the Divided Continent'' he is reaching further into the complex record of subtleties and nuances that characterized relations between East and West Germany from the 1960s to their unification during 1989-91. Starting with Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, the pursuit of closer connections with Eastern Europe in general and East Germany in particular; and continuing through the governments of Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, a tapestry of policies and relationships was woven between Bonn and the Communist capitals.

Behind all this lay the transformation of German political consciousness, a deeply shamed realization that Germany was largely responsible for the holocausts of 1914 and 1939. Only if Germany changed could Europe survive the nuclear age. So war, or the bullying of old, was unthinkable.

How, then, to achieve unification? The answer was through peace, conciliation, and closer economic and cultural ties between the two Germanys, even as Bonn retained its position with NATO and the West generally. West German politicians were, in effect, committed to stabilizing East Germany, lest an internal crisis - such as the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 - detonate a conflict. Garton Ash is portraying a benign, mutual conspiracy to help preserve a political balance that safeguarded European peace and kept the door ajar for eventual unification.

And he shows how secret negotiations by intermediaries enabled tens of thousands of East Germans to be reunited with their families in the West in return for large payments from Bonn that bolstered the East German economy. Mutual cooperation helped lessen the spectacular escape ventures. Garton Ash points to the replacement in East Berlin of the rigid Stalinist, Walter Ulbricht, by the more flexible Erich Honecker, as a major turning point in the 1970s.

The crucial question is whether this de facto German-to-German rapprochement retarded or encouraged unification. Anti-Communist hawks, particularly in Washington, argued that strong pressure would topple East Germany, but Garton Ash disagrees. To the contrary: Pressure would have strengthened the hard-liners in East Berlin - and in Warsaw and Moscow as well. Violence, firing on demonstrators, was their forte, and the consequences might have been horrendous. Ostpolitik he defends as a great success story, its climax the destruction of the Wall itself.

The intellectual enthusiasm and sheer gusto with which Garton Ash presents his story carries us along for a time. His remarkably close access to West German leaders shows itself in quotes drawn from their rough notes on diplomatic meetings and drafts of speeches; such intimate documentation rarely reaches the public.

But there is a downside to Garton Ash's fascination with speeches, communiques and editorials. He assumes a level of knowledge - and interest - more likely in an academic seminar than among general readers. Names, dates, and events are taken for granted, and the narrative becomes mired in commentary.

And the climactic story of 1989-91, when the East Germans demolished the Berlin Wall and created a new era, becomes lost in the constant round of analysis. Great events deserve better than that.

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