Three Shades of Black

The year 2014 saw Germany celebrate 25 years of unification, the last ten years of it spent with East German born-and-socialized Angela Merkel at its helm. The year also saw Germany celebrate its real return to the arena of world politics, with Russian-speaking Angela Merkel again playing a key role. As the only Western leader able to converse as an equal with Vladimir Putin she carefully helped guide Europe during the Ukraine crisis. Indeed, the Germany that was now enjoying what officialspeak calls ‘unity’ had emerged from the economic and financial crises of the Noughties robust (albeit with its growth rate dented) with the number of jobless down at a long-time low. Having now shouldered a geopolitical role more commensurate with its size, it stepped into 2015 as a big player.
It will come as no surprise that such a country is very attractive to those less fortunate, whereby it is currently a magnet for two different categories of persons. Firstly there are the purported ‘economic migrants’, most of whom are inhabitants of EU member states that lie east of east Germany. Then there are asylum-seeking refugees from countries savaged by civil war or war unleashed as part of the global destabilization that has occurred in the post-Cold War world. Of late, a few thousand of the latter, Syrians, have fled to Germany; it bears stating that the numbers are not such as to amount to much more than the populace of a small village and hardly compare with the Africans who wash up on the Italian coast, dead or alive.
So why, if the country is in such fair fettle and immigration is so low, is there suddenly such an undercurrent of fear that the country is being swamped by foreigners, its culture undermined by fundamentalist Islam, employment opportunities eroded by non-nationals? The trend is epitomized by the media hype surrounding the PEGIDA Monday marches that started in Dresden. What is actually behind it these demonstrations that have prompted many a politician to say “we must take their concerns seriously” and provoked the Bavarian Conservatives into a face-down with Merkel over changing asylum processes? The answer, and it is the key piece of news from Germany in 2014, (but not one the politicians want to hear): failed unification. There is no avoiding the worry that the self-celebration by the political caste last year only served to mask the sad reality that there is no unity. But how can that be?
History lessons
The political landscape in the geographical region that was represented post-War by the Soviet Zone and thus became East Germany with the upper-case “E” has over time been vacillated between various different shades of blackness – that being the color of the deeply conservative. The first shade of black prevailed until 1933 with the political order of the mainly agrarian society being almost feudal, lorded over by the Prussian kings, with Western Pommerania running into what is now Poland. Prussia set itself off clearly from the ‘East’, but likewise from the often liberal states in much of the rest of what is now Germany. The populace that still had jobs after the industrialization of agriculture in the Northeast (and had not immigrated) or could still make ends meet after industrialization in the Southeast (and had not immigrated) did not enjoy a bright life. Things turned even darker, with the advent of the second shade of black from 1933-45. Now even the shirts were black (as they were elsewhere in Germany). And the region became home to most of the ‘Stammlager’.

The third shade of black followed after a brief interlude, from 1949-89, and brandished red flags. The one authoritarian regime (critical theorists, remember Adorno’s “Authoritarian Personality” scale!) gave way, once the Red Army left, to an equally authoritarian regime. This third shade of black was highly confusing for the population, not only because it initially painted the towns red, but also openly declared: “You are all anti-fascists”. In other words, officially those to the West in Europe enjoying liberal democratic freedoms were now labeled as fascists. Things had not been helped during the region’s time as the Soviet Zone, as that brief interlude also did not do anything to render the local culture more permeable. Rather, East or East Germany ‘missed out’ on the influx of refugees from the East that flooded into West Germany. The wagons were filled by admittedly ethnic Germans, but these were Germans with a very different culture and in part a distinctly Slavic acculturation. Likewise, the East Germans also missed out on the influx of ‘guest laborers’, be they Italians, Turks, or Spaniards (a fact that set east German cuisine back decades), and later Yugoslavs. Instead, the East Germans anti-fascists were all busy declaring their solidarity with the non-aligned countries – not that they had never visited such countries, let alone been exposed to persons from there, bar the odd West African, Angolan, Ethiopian or Vietnamese.
European bell jar
In fact, what gets forgotten in the official histories is not just the shades of black that characterized political life in the region, but also that it was not Great Britain but East Germany (the Germany Democratic Republic) which was the only country ever to exist in splendid isolation inside Europe. It was cut off from its cultural roots (and language) to the West and had little or nothing in common with its Warsaw Pact neighbors to the East. To make things worse, unlike them it had to tolerate a far larger number of Soviet troops on its soil, and a far larger proportion of quislings among its own folk, as exemplified by the film “The Life of Others”. Small wonder that it was East Germany which was last to come out – against the paymasters or whip-wielders in Moscow as the undertow of Glasnost swept the Eastern Bloc away. (Officially, the country only beat Bulgaria to ‘freedom’ by a day.) The popular discontent with the government did not actually bubble up until May 1989 (in the context of the local elections), long after Solidarnosc, the Hungarians and the Czechs were busy freeing themselves from the Muscovite yoke. In East Germany, the popular civil discontent became more manifest after the 1989 summer (hey, holidays come first), in the form of the September Monday demonstrations in Leipzig and later in Dresden. The East Germans were the me-too’s of their Eastern brothers and sisters, a country under-exposed to things foreign, foreigners, and the open-mindedness that is said to come through an encounter with ‘difference’.
Check-book unification
Into this bleak and black scenario steps Helmut Kohl, with a big fat check-book to pay Gorbachev’s bill for East Germany and to welcome it back into the fold swiftly. It was a great achievement, with Kohl putting his money (well, it was the West German taxpayers’ cash actually) where his mouth was and dishing up a 1-for-1 exchange rate – whereas the east German mark fell short of the deutschmark by a factor of at least four. In this regard, and henceforth, unification was about economics. And it was always part of the neo-liberal flavor of the day, was a purely market-driven, economic project. Unification saw capital shift into east (lower case now) Germany, wooed by subsidies and other incentives, turning brownfield industrial combines into wastelands and setting up new factories that stayed as long as the subsidies. Countless kilometers of new black top were laid, and the population was soon enjoying the blessings of cable TV, porn shops, second-hand cars, modernized city centers, and all the other things that go to make Western-style consumer capitalism such a laugh. Unemployment was a bit of a problem, as was migration from rural areas (where the farming collectives had collapsed into piles of porcine manure), but all change has a price tag, does it not.

East German immigration
Unfortunately, the heavy-handed politicos forgot that these east Germans had still not been exposed to foreigners – at least not on the ‘home front’, for they all set about getting Canary, Balearic or Turkish sunburns as soon as the charter flights started taking off from Berlin or Leipzig. Those politicians then placed nothing worse than asylum-seekers among the east German populace – in line with the standard metric for dividing up the flow of incoming refugees among the German laender. They did so without having first putting in place an acculturation program teaching east Germans what democracy was, how it was not to be confused with consumerism, and spelled, among other things, tolerance. Hardly surprising, since tolerance cannot be quantified and therefore measured by some economic system. And this shortfall has knocked on into the political system, where equality of economic opportunity does not go hand in glove with an equality of representation – or certainly not at cabinet level, where to date the Conservatives have posted one east German minister (Thomas de Maizière), as have the Social Democrats in the form of Manuela Schwesig. A glance at former Merkel-led cabinets shows that the only other east Germans to ever make the grade has been Wolfgang Tiefensee, formerly Lord Mayor of Leipzig. Matthias Platzeck made Chairman of the German Social Democrats, but never achieved ministerial status.
The politicians have ‘integrated’ east Germany successfully if the yardstick is ensuring the quality of life there has been continuously raised such that it no longer lags so far behind that in the west of the country. But they have done so while neglecting to provide a real education in democracy and tolerance – after a couple of centuries of shades of black something that is desperately needed. Unless you count exercising democratic rights a majority of a town deciding to burn down a home for refugees. Or the majority deciding not to bother going to vote. This is pure anti-anti-fascism, as back under Honecker everyone went to vote and the Socialist Unity Party of course pulled well over 95% of the vote. Today, under 50% of the Saxon electorate goes to vote, no doubt out of a wish to demonstrate that they have learned democracy is about choice and that they have chosen a Sunday in front of the TV. This is a sane strategy, as they need to be nicely rested to go and protest against being flooded by immigrants and refugees at the Monday PEGIDA protest marches in Dresden. There, they declare that “we are the people” (sounds like Democracy Lesson One) and that they are fed up with politicians not listening to them and instead gently inserting the one or other foreigner under the bell jar that was once East Germany and has now been robbed of its capital.
Politicians, listen, these people have not been socialized to like foreigners, neither have their fathers nor were their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. These people, who at least realize they are the people, have spent decades, if not centuries, under authoritarian regimes, have never experienced much other than black. They certainly have not experienced blacks. Their sense of colors is limited to red necks. Their palette does not include yellow or brown, or Turko-black moustaches, or Italian red-white-and-green. They do not understand color. They cannot understand color. They have not been taught to. All they know is that they have gained much over the last quarter of a century in terms of spending power – and that they will defend at any cost. Because, like 25 years ago, they are still the people. And in this regard Germany is certainly not unified, united or otherwise welded together.
The center is right
The only conservative to have understood the lessons pre-War German history might teach us would seem to have been physicist Angela Merkel. She, at least, seems not to have suffered from the same loss of collective memory as everyone else in her party. The only way of keeping the country impervious to right-wing extremism is to maintain a strong center, she insists, something very much missing in Weimar. And neatly this also means keeping herself in power by occupying the middle ground. Perhaps she also realizes that she need not worry about a majority in Germany left of the center, as the one or other leftist has claimed was possible or hoped for in recent decades. (For the Greens, and that is now the dilemma they face, found out in Baden Württemberg that they mainly bag new votes from the right, among conservatives driven by an opposition to progress and a wish to uphold old values, such as nature as opposed to railway stations.) By admonishing her fellow citizens in her New Year’s address to not become xenophobic she sought to maintain that strong center. The subtext was a different one: It was Merkel the successful leader seeking to warding off her very own legacy of failure in unification.

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