The EU - Germany's active attempt to stay European
PUBLISHED: 07:00 09 December 2017
Berlin was once the hometown-that-never-was, but what do Germany and its capital represent now?
Our driver was called Mehmet H. He performed what he described as a “Turkish tactic” and got us through the Berlin traffic faster than we would have done otherwise.
On the way to the Checkpoint Charlie area, he pointed out the place where the old Tempelhof Airport had been, and told us a bit about the current state-of-play there. He told us about the day when East Germans could finally cross over into West Berlin.
His uncle had to stock his shop three times in less than a week because the East Berliners wanted everything. There were fruits they had never seen. West Berlin and West Germany were on another planet. Those were crazy, happy days. Now he avoids crowds of young men because they shout at him to “Go home!” but, of course he has lived in Germany since 1978. His four sons (“My sons are my friends”) were born in Berlin. But the toxic lunacy of Britain First would call them immigrants all the same. It is a dangerous time in Germany. But maybe it always is.
If you were born and brought up during the Cold War, Berlin is the hometown that you never lived in; Germany, the broken nation of the Good and The Bad and The Cool. A German accent in anyone signalled both high intelligence and high evil. They tried to make us kids laugh at the Germans in TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes about a bunch of American GIs in a prisoner-of-war camp during The Second World War. Or when we reached teenage/young adulthood, it was the particularly English sadism of Basil Fawlty and his “don’t mention the war” refrain that became a classic.
But not for us. It is not easy to cast aside East Berlin/West Berlin; Second World War Berlin; the “yellow star” and the Holocaust. Not easy to forget the stories (the ones my uncle could tell me) of African American GIs after the Victory: free at last; victorious; and loving and being loved.
Berlin, my hometown-that-never-was, was gaudy makeup and wild clothes and gender-fluidity and the questions; questions; questions that young Germans-young Berliners – asked their parents over and over and over: “Why? Why?”
Germany was Berlin and Berlin was The Wall. A real wall that people tried to climb over and were shot dead in the attempt. Berlin was David Bowie’s Low period; it was Roberto Rosselini’s neorealism classic Germany Year Zero, it was Kraftwerk, it was everything Rainer Werner Fassbinder did and said and was.
Fassbinder even interrogated his own mother on camera about the war years. The poor woman, not especially articulate, just had no answer for her son or for us. Fassbinder was cruel, a manipulator, and a genius. Watch one of his last works Berlin Alexanderplatz, made for TV. You’ll see.
These days, an English guy explained to me, “you have to be careful in Alexanderplatz”. Because of the pickpockets. Maybe you always had to be careful there, but the word pickpocket is code. One German woman told me straight up that she was afraid to go out at night because of “the immigrants”. She was also afraid to be called a Nazi because she expressed her fears.
On December 1, as part of a German/British panel, invited by the Green Party of Germany, I looked at the matter of hatred. Specifically, the panel was organised to discuss and debate the matter of the Alternative für Deutschland, and their entry into the Bundestag, the first time that a far right political party had won seats in Parliament since the war. The trauma of this, and the possibility that they might win even more seats in another election, is causing other political parties to come together. The AFD debate in parliament about the importance of German wombs; the sort of language almost literally stunning in its fascism. That this party has seats and a place in the political debate raging now, a debate in which the nation itself is being re-thought and re-fought for, has caused Germans to look at themselves and ask who they are.
And it would be Germany that would dig deep in search of answers; Germany that would ask the questions. Because it has to.
One thing that the Brexiteers have right is this: The European Union is a German project. To be exact, it is a German and French project. Germany and France had been at war continually, except for the defeat of France in the Franco Prussian War and the Armistice after World War One, from 1870-1945.
These wars were not just about ideas. They were about feelings, emotions, the sense of what it meant to be French and what it meant to be Prussian (later German). It would have been impossible to explain to a young French soldier as he yelled “à Berlin”, that times had changed. That the French military that they fought in, even the French state that they were going to die for, was coming to an end.
Germany’s sense of itself, wrapped in ideas of blood and soil, came to transcend rationality itself. Nazi Germany, what with its other evils, was also a fiesta of kitsch. Freed from self-examination by a political party which believed itself to be the Chosen One, Nazi Germany lauded zombie science and sheer trash – they called “art”. The state murdered millions and millions of its own citizens and millions of others. On an industrial scale.
Speaking at the State Parliament of Berlin, every room named after a resister of Hitler and Nazism, it was clear that the European Union was and is Germany’s active attempt to stay European. It cannot return to what it was.
The AFD presents a literal and existential crisis for Germany.
And it is the EU that presents a platform for the way forward. Because of this reality. In spite of its need for reform, (every institution needs reforming), the EU strives to be a noble project. The UK had and it still has a contribution to make: healing a nation, a fellow European one. And helping it transcend its own history.
As former ambassador to Germany, Sir Paul Lever states in his excellent book ‘Berlin Rules’: “Now that we (the UK) are leaving, it is Germany that is in charge... Germany... voice will be decisive. Germany will also determine the EU itself... In the multinational organisations to which the UK belongs... we(the UK) will not have the authority or be able to exercise the leadership that Germany will have.”
Our driver, Mehmet H, picked us up to take us to the airport. The Berlin Christmas markets were bright as usual and very busy this year. They were defiant, too. There were bollards up to prevent more truck-terrorism like the kind seen last Christmas season. They were decorated so as not to frighten the children. Mehmet H and his sons were going shopping. They are always busy.
There is a lot to do in Germany.