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Germany after Unification: Normal at Last?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2011

A. James Mcadams
University of Notre Dame


Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the concept of “normalcy” has occupied a prominent place in the pronouncements of Germany's most powerful politicians and policy makers. In addition, it has also suffused much of the emerging literature on the domestic and international implications of German unification. Some observers argue that unification embodies the call to normalcy, offering Germany's leaders the opportunity to put their nation's past behind them. Others treat the events of 1989–90 as part of an ongoing challenge to German identity. Finally, a third group of scholars regards the invocation of German unity as an excuse for papering over the crimes of the Nazi past. Although there is no a priori basis for considering any one of these approaches the most appropriate for assessing contemporary German affairs, this does not mean one's choice of terms is totally arbitrary. If German normalcy is to mean anything analytically, it must minimally represent an attainable and worthy goal to which the leaders of the Federal Republic can aspire in their efforts to make Germany more like other European states.

Review Article
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 1997

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1 There are some notable cases of states that might aspire to compete with the Federal Republic for this status. For example, on the hopes of many of Israel's founders to establish a “normal nation,” see Evron, Boas, Jewish State or Israeli Nation? (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 6263Google Scholar, 184–85. On the pursuit of normalcy in postcommunist Russia, see Boris Yeltsin's autobiography, The Struggle for Russia (New York: Times Books, 1994)Google ScholarPubMed, esp. the introductory chapter, entitled “A Normal Country.” On the Italian desire for a more normal democracy in which government and opposition routinely exchange power, see Alexander Stille, “Italy: The Convulsions of Normalcy,” New York Review of Books (June 6, 1996). The citations from the two epigraphs are, respectively, Kinkel, “Germany's Post-reunification Foreign Policy,” in Statements and Speeches, vol. 15 (New York: German Information Center, October 21, 1992)Google Scholar, no. 16; and Gansel, International Herald Tribune, June 19, 1993. Gansel is a social democrat in the German Parliament.

2 German normalcy has also been a subject of intense international speculation. See the useful study by Hubel, Helmut and May, Bernhard, “Ein ‘normales’ Deutschland? Die souveräne Bundesrepublik in der ausländischen Wahrnehmung,” Arbeitspapiere zur Internationaten Politik, no. 92 (Bonn: Forschungsinstitut der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, June 1995)Google Scholar.

3 An example of this tendency to rewrite history was the paid announcement, “May 8, 1945—Against Forgetting,” which appeared on April 7, 1995, in the moderate-conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The statement, signed by prominent representatives of the FRG's mainstream parties, characterized the day of the Nazi surrender “as not only the end of the National Socialist rule of terror, but also as the beginning of the expulsion terror and new oppression in the East and the division of our nation.” Cited in The Week in Germany (New York: German Information Center, April 14, 1995)Google ScholarPubMed. On the subject of German victimization, see Roger Boyes and William Horsley, “The Germans as Victims: A British View,” World Today (June 1995); and Jane Kramer, “The Politics of Memory,” New Yorker, August 14,1995. In the Daedalus volume under review in this essay, Jochen Thies, the foreign editor of the influential German daily Die Welt, comes surprisingly close to embracing the view of the Germans as victims. “Germany has paid a high price for Hitler's war and its consequences,” he writes in the first sentence of his article,”—so high, in fact, that Germans tend to repress it” (p. 263; emphasis added).

4 See Bark, Dennis and Gress, David, A History of West Germany: Democracy and Its Discontents: 1963–1988, vol. 2 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 424-25Google Scholar.

5 Whether Kohl himself, who was born in 1930, belongs to such a post-Hitler generation is doubtful. See the lively observations on this issue by the Berlin essayist Peter Schneider, “Hitler's Shadow: On Being a Self-Conscious German,” Harper's, September 1987.

6 Cited in Ian Buruma's remarkable study, The Wages of Guilt (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994), 244Google ScholarPubMed.

7 An excellent treatment of this subject is Maier, Charles, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988)Google Scholar. For the key documents, see “Historikerstreit”: Die Dokumentation der Kontroverse um die Einzigartigkeit der nationalsazialistischen Judenvernichtung (Munich: Piper Verlag, 1987)Google Scholar.

8 For related articles on this theme in English, see Gary Geipel, “Germany: Urgent Pressures, Quiet Change,” Current History (November 1994), 358–63; Gordon, Philip H., “The Normalization of German Foreign Policy,” Orbis 38 (Spring 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Huelshoff, Michael and Markovits, Andrei, “Introduction,” in Huelshoff, M., Markovits, A., and Reich, Simon, eds., From Bundesrepublik to Deutschland: German Politics after Unification (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Pulzer, Peter, “Unified Germany: A Normal State?” German Politics 3 (April 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Morris, David, “Bitburg Revisited: Germany's Search for Normalcy,” German Politics and Society 13 (Winter 1995)Google Scholar.

9 See Grass's chapter “Writing after Auschwitz,” in Two States — One Nation? trans. Winston, K. and Wensinger, A. S. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990)Google Scholar.

10 Among Garton Ash's many other works, see particularly The Uses ofAdversity: Essays on the Fate of Central Europe (New York: Random House, 1989)Google Scholar; and idem, The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of 1989 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague (New York: Random House, 1990)Google Scholar.

11 Cf. Gebhard Schweigler, “Normalitat in Deutschland,” Europa Archiv, no. 6 (1989).

12 For an elaboration of this argument, see Ash, Timothy Garton, “Germany's Choice,” Foreign Affairs 73 (July-August 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 For example, Garton Ash favorably cites one of Kohl's recollections of an early conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev in Bonn (unfortunately, he does not tell us when), in which the chancellor supposedly pressed his counterpart on the subject of German unity: “The river of history, he said, was flowing towards German unity, as the Rhine before them flowed down to the sea. You could try to dam the Rhine, but the mighty river would flood its banks and find a way around the dam. So also with German unity” (p. 118). Despite numerous cautions to the reader about the problems of interpreting such recollections, Garton Ash is clearly disposed to give Kohl and his party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the benefit of the doubt. In contrast, he reserves almost all of his criticism about the handling of the FRG's Deutschlandpolitik (national policy) for the CDU's opponents in the Social Democratic Party. Another approach to the subject, which Garton Ash does not follow, would be to identify the shortcomings of the CDUs national policy as well as the evidence that Kohl was not nearly so fore-sightful about the prospects for unification. See, for example, the records of Kohl's and others' private conversations in the 1980s with the former GDR leader Honecker, Erich, in Potthoff, Heinrich, ed., “Die Koalition der Vernunft”: Deutschlandpolitik in den 80er Jahren (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1995)Google Scholar.

14 In other publications I have found Garton Ash more upbeat about Germany's prospects. See Garton Ash, “Germany Unbound,” New York Review of Books (November 22, 1990); and idem, “Kohl's Germany: The Beginning of the End?” New York Review of Books (December 1,1994). The latter article seems particularly indicative of Garton Ash's fondness for the role of great leaders in history. About the German chancellor, he writes: “Helmut Kohl is still the most formidable politician—and statesman—in Europe. He will not lightly be deflected from pursuing the last great task that he has set himself: to bind united Germany into a united Europe” (p. 26). On the same page, his optimism about Germany's prospects shows through as well: “The Federal Republic has proved the Cassandras wrong so many times before. Let's hope it can do so again. In any case, it's worth remembering that when looking at Germany most people from most of the world, even from quite prosperous countries in the West, will exclaim: ‘If only we had your problems.’”

15 In this sense, Marsh joins a long and distinguished list of scholars and journalists who have put the trials and defects of German unification at the center of their assessments of the FRG's future. Among notable examples, see Gordon Craig, “United We Fall,” New York Review of Books (January 14,1994); Glaessner, Gert-Joachim, The Unification Process in Germany: From Dictatorship to Democracy (New York: St. Martins Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Jane Kramer, “New Nazis: A Chaos in the Head,” New Yorker (June 14, 1993); and Stern, Fritz, “Freedom and Its Discontents,” Foreign Affairs 72 (September-October 1993)Google Scholar.

16[K]ollektive Freizeitpark,” from a Bundestag speech on October 21, 1993, cited in Deutschland Nachrichten (New York: German Information Center, October 22, 1993)Google Scholar.

17 For an informative assessment of these problems, see Wolfgang Streek, German Capitalism: Does It Exist? Can It Survive? Kellogg Institute Working Paper Series, no. 218 (March 1996).

18 Marsh has already written authoritatively on the role of the German Bundesbank; see Marsh, , The Most Powerful Bank: Inside Germany's Bundesbank (New York: Times Books, 1992)Google Scholar.

19 On this subject, see Barry Eichengreen and Fabio Ghironi, “European Monetary Unification: The Challenges Ahead” (Paper presented at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, Washington, D.C., May 18,1995); and for an excellent historical perspective, see Feldman, Lily Gardner, “Germany and the EC: Realism Responsibility and,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 531 (January 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 For a rigorous analysis of the German decision to recognize the two states, see Crawford, Beverly, “Explaining Defection from International Cooperation: Germany's Unilateral Recognition of Croatia,” WorldPolitics 48 (July 1996)Google Scholar.

21 In reading Habermas, I have benefited greatly from A. Dirk Moses, “The Historikerstreit Continues: Germans and Their History since Reunification” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the German Studies Association, Dallas, Texas, October 6,1994).

22 “Big lie” is an awkward translation of the difficult German term, Lebensliige. The concept refers to an illusion that both states and individuals maintain as a way of rationalizing their actions. Habermas's “first big lie” is the notion that “we are all democrats,” which he attributes to the period of Adenauer's chancellorship. For the original article from which this section of The Past as Future is drawn, see Habermas, “Die zweite Lebenslüge der Bundesrepublik: Wir sind wieder ‘normal’ geworden,” Die Zeit (December 18,1992).

23 To promote rapid unification, the Kohl government chose to follow Article 23 of Germany's Basic Law, which provided for the nearly automatic admission of the constituent parts of the former GDR to the Federal Republic. The other available approach to unification, favored by Habermas and numerous other German intellectuals, was to follow Article 146, which would have instituted a constitutional convention to decide the manner for uniting the two states. For his more detailed views on the subject, see Habermas, , “Yet Again: German Identity—A Unified Nation of Angry DM-Burghers,” in James, Harold and Stone, Maria, eds., When the Wall Came Down (New York: Routledge, 1992)Google Scholar. For another critique of Kohl's approach, albeit from an angle different from Habermas's, see Seibel, Wolfgang, “Necessary Illusions: The Transformation of Governance Structures in the New Germany,” La Revue Tocqueville/The Tocqueville Review 13 (1992)Google Scholar.

24 For a bitter critique of Habermas's position, which accuses him of rejecting “liberalism and liberal thought,” see Lilla, Mark, “The Other Velvet Revolution: Continental Liberalism and Its Discontents,” Daedalus 123 (Spring 1994), 145Google Scholar. Lilla does not appear to have used any of the interviews or essays reprinted in The Past as Future. My own view, however, based upon materials that were available to Lilla, is that Habermas s arguments are consistent with basic liberal principles, indeed, that they are in some respects quintessentially liberal. Consider, for example, the notion of “constitutional patriotism,” which Habermas has popularized since the mid-1980s. This view holds that the constitution, and not the nation, should be the ultimate point of reference for individual identity; see Habermas, “Erne Art Schadensabwicklung,” in Historikerstreit (fn. 7).

25 For an incisive commentary on the predicament of the German left, see Markovits, Andrei, “The German Left: Dilemmas and Uncertainties of Power,” German Politics 1 (April 1992)Google Scholar.

26 This turns out not to have been a bad prediction. For just such an about-face, see the very similar reflections by Green Party leader Joschka Fischer, “Für neue Abenteuer fehlt hoffentlich die Mehrheit,” Die Zeit, July 21, 1995, p. 3. See also , Fischer, Risiko Deutschlands: Krise und Zukunft deutschen Politik (Cologne: Kiepenheuer und Witsch, 1994)Google Scholar.

27 Notably, Habermas also shows himself to be a supporter, albeit a cautious one, of the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, at the time a divisive subject among the German left. In Habermas's view, the war was legitimate both because it was a war against tyranny and because the West's decision to conduct the campaign under the umbrella of the United Nations approximated a Kantian vision of a “cosmopolitan state” (pp. 5–31).

28 For accounts sympathetic to Habermas's position, see Manfred Frank, “Nationality and Democracy,” Common Knowledge (Winter 1993); and Heinrich August Winkler, “Rebuilding a Nation: Germans before and after Unification,” in the issue of Daedalus under review in this essay (esp. pp 121–23).

29 For example, consider Helmut Kohl's remarks at the opening of a national museum in Bonn devoted to the history of the Federal Republic, on June 14,1994, in Bulletin, no. 59 (Bonn: Presse- und Informationsamt, June 17, 1994), 557-59Google ScholarPubMed. On the German government's shifting approaches to this burden, see Buruma (fn. 6).

30 Mertess point is a good one. Based upon the surprising, mid-1990s electoral successes in the east of the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor to the former East German regime, one might only object that he should not have underestimated the ability of the “old Communists” to harness this authenticity.

31 “Zum 50. Jahrestag des Endes des Zweiten Weltkrieges,” Bulletin, no. 38 (Bonn: Presse- und In-formationsamt der Bundesregierung, May 12, 1995), 330-31Google ScholarPubMed. For an extremely insightful analysis of the ways the Kohl government has sought to exploit the theme of the East German revolution to its electoral benefit without, however, adopting any of its lessons, see Gregg Kvistad, “Parties and Citizens in the Western German Unification Debate,” German Politics and Society, no. 30 (Fall 1993).

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