After the Berlin wall: How Germany became a greater Switzerland

Berlin has turned punching below one’s weight into an art form. This is not good enough, either for Germany or for Europe.

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Like many Germans, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the night the wall came down in Berlin. I was in the city to discuss Europe and German’s European Community policy with a group of American history professors at the European Academy in Grunewald. So I had made the journey from Bonn to Berlin, rather unusually by car and with my wife, whom I had promised a weekend there. After my talk and dinner somewhere in West Berlin, we returned to the academy and found everyone gone. Günter Renner, the director of studies and a native Berliner, had taken the whole group to the Brandenburg Gate to see the Berlin Wall open. Of course, my wife also wanted to go. But for me, world history in the making was a bit much after this long day, so I gave her my IR wisdom in a nutshell: “If the wall is really open, it will still be open tomorrow morning.” And to myself I said, it would stay open forever, and everything would change.

We spent the whole of 10 November visiting the various border crossings, overwhelmed by the excitement of thousands of East Germans who had come from all corners of the GDR to cross into West Berlin – if only for a day.

My analysis the evening before may have given welcome cover to my individual needs, but the West German political class was also initially hesitant about the events in Berlin, a response which was not without foundation. Though Mikhail Gorbachev had appeared critical of the GDR leadership when he visited Berlin for the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the East German state a few weeks earlier, his remarks about life punishing those who come too late left some ambiguity about the Soviet response. Could the fall of the most iconic symbol of the cold war trigger a Soviet military response? Or could a crushing of the civic movement by the East German military cause the Soviet Union to take things in hand? Both were questions raised in Warsaw too, where the first negotiated transition and subsequent elections had brought a post-communist government to power. Helmut Kohl, who was in Poland that night, was confronted with grave concerns about events getting out of hand in East Germany and Berlin. The prospect of German reunification might also have meant the end of Poland’s path to democracy, as a step too far beyond the Yalta order.

Developments did indeed get out of hand, and plans had to be constantly rewritten, including Kohl’s famous 10-point plan of December 1989. Transition in eastern Europe and German unity came faster than most expected, and the Kremlin did not oppose it. None of Germany’s neighbours was enthusiastic about unification, and they might well have succeeded in delaying or diluting the process if Washington had not decided to back German unity, and Moscow to support it for the opportunities it opened up.

As it happened, the French desire to strengthen ties between members of the European Community went well with German ideas about a European currency and a political union. Deepening integration became the European framework in which unification took place, and in the German view this implied that the unification of Europe would also take place within the European Union.

But, over time, it transpired that both deepening and widening the EU became more difficult, took longer, and caused more controversy than anticipated. Today, a political union still remains uncreated, enlargement is incomplete, and much of the aspired European unity has been lost in the endless bargaining of a diverse club. And while Europeans struggled with this adaptation, the world continued to change. In spite of efforts to shape up, the pace of events kept Europeans clearly behind the curve. There are many reasons for these weaknesses, for the failures of European integration as a framework for protecting and promoting member states’ prosperity and security. And moving integration beyond its current state while managing the heterogeneity of different economies and societies poses objective difficulty. But the truth is that Europe also suffers from a lack of trying. There is no shortage of speeches and grand rhetoric on the part of even some of today’s leaders, but there remains a clear absence of mission, of strategy, and – most of all – an absence of political will and capacity to act.

Germany’s agenda is shaped by its past rather than its future

Nowhere in Europe is this lack more prominent and damaging to the EU than in Germany: indeed, the key to Europe’s current stagnation is Berlin’s preference for the status quo, which it sticks with because it does not believe change is possible. No speech Emmanuel Macron could ever dream up will change this. To the German mind, reunification completed a journey of extremes: from the Prussian-led unification wars 150 years ago to Imperial Germany’s fall in the first world war; from the first republic to the deeply inhumane and brutal Nazi regime. From a devastating second world war to total defeat, that journey saw the disintegration of Germany and the founding of two German states, their consolidation and rise to economic and political success (which in relative terms also applied to the GDR’s position in the Eastern bloc), and – ultimately – their reunification in peace. “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” (unity, the rule of law, and freedom): these three missions spelled out in the first verse of the national anthem had been fulfilled in the course of the year which followed the opening of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989.

No speech Emmanuel Macron could ever dream up will ever persuade Germany change is possible.

Seen from the year 2019, Germans have enjoyed the happy ending of their country’s darksome, tumultuous historical journey a little too long. After 1990, Germans allowed themselves the delusion of being a greater Switzerland: rich, secure, and keeping right out of conflict. Meanwhile, in the political class, preventing the EU from falling apart has become the mantra of defending the status quo. The present and future of Germany in Europe, however, demand more action, be it by national means or by activating the European framework. The country’s elite now responds with words rather than deeds, issuing earnest remarks about Germany’s responsibilities and the need to shoulder them. But much of this appears to be guided by the German commitment not to repeat the past, while the wider public prefers to further conserve the current favourable, politically cheap, and economically lucrative situation as long as they can.

A sort of pleasant melancholy hangs in the November air of Berlin these days. The governing coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats has exhausted its common agenda, and is effectively waiting for the parliamentary term to end in 2021. But times are changing, and the political climate is becoming rougher – so let’s hold on to the great moment of 1989, because it was so heartwarming. This moment remains the formative event of so many of Germany’s leading political actors, and in particular of Angela Merkel. In the run up to the thirtieth anniversary, as on numerous other occasions, she has described how her life changed on the night of 9 November. She seems to feel the obligation to protect the achievement of 1989. But she does not see that it was the will to adopt a different course and to develop a new model of governance in building the EU that helped to bring about the end of the division of both Germany and Europe.

In the early 1990s, the strategic minds of German diplomacy expected the country to become the most powerful nation in Europe after the turn of the century – a future to always think but never speak about. Three decades on, the anticipation has become reality, but the German elite appears to be profoundly uncertain as to what to do with it. It has no idea about the future; no clue about what Europe it wants or how to build it; and no sense of how to respond to the return of power politics.

I confess to feeling tired this November 2019, though for very different reasons than in 1989. The escapism into our past, Germany’s unwillingness to take the common European destiny into our own hands – it is all wearing me down. The country’s missing sense of purpose diminishes the power potential that it has. Berlin has turned punching below one’s weight into an art form. This pleases those outside the country who do not wish to see Germany shaping Europe, and it pleases those inside the country who would rather not make the effort. At a juncture in world politics that may yet turn out to be a tipping point for European integration, this overweight, unenergetic Germany is contemplating its historical navel and has become a burden to Europe – but one Europeans are unable to move forward without

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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