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From Ashes to Affluence, Democracy : West Germany: ‘Miracle of Modern Age’

Times Staff Writer

It is Germany’s third attempt at democracy and, against the odds, it has worked.

Today, West Germany is easily the most affluent, visibly successful nation in Europe as well as the European cornerstone of the Atlantic Alliance.

West Germany enjoys a level of success totally beyond the comprehension of those who sat among the ashes of a defeated German Reich on the day of its collapse, 40 years ago Wednesday. That a modern, democratic German state has been firmly established within four decades is judged by those who know it best as an extraordinary achievement.

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“A miracle of the modern age,” is how U.S. Ambassador Arthur F. Burns recently described the development of democracy in West Germany.

“It’s a political wonder supported by an economic wonder,” echoed Cologne University political scientist Hans-Peter Schwarz. “It was fully unclear at the end of the 1940s whether the Germans could make democracy go.”

The Federal Republic of Germany, as West Germany is formally known, has already outlived its two democratic predecessors--the ill-fated Weimar Republic, which disintegrated into the Third Reich in 1933 after 15 years, and the Frankfurt Assembly, which lasted only nine months in the late 1840s.

Nurtured with liberal American economic aid, the fledgling Federal Republic absorbed 12 million refugees in its first decade and put German industry back on its feet. Since then, it has sailed through a series of political crises with an ease that has surprised even the Germans themselves.

But despite its admirable achievements, democratic West Germany remains trapped by its past and worried about its future.

To be sure, the physical reminders of the war’s devastation have long since disappeared. Gone are the panic and despair chalked onto countless broken walls of bombed-out cities after World War II: “Mom missing, gone to Peter’s.”

Forgotten, too, is the deprivation of the early postwar years. The people of a country that today counts obesity among its major health problems subsisted during their first postwar winter on the same amount of food that refugee officials today are trying to feed famine-stricken Ethiopians--1,550 calories a day.

Yet beneath the gloss and wealth that is modern, democratic Germany, behind the carefully polished Mercedes-Benzes and neatly manicured gardens, the psychological wreckage of those terrible years is still there.

“I still live with guilt,” noted German-born historian Juergen C. Hess, now living in Amsterdam. “I live under the shadow of it all.”

Hess spoke for many of his generation, though most of them were far too young to have had any direct involvement in the Third Reich.

But more than guilt, there is an inner confusion and disorientation born of Germany’s past that clouds the country’s visible success and, in the longer term, poses serious questions about its future.

Defeat or Liberation?

West Germans have yet to come to grips with their past. What happened to Germany 40 years ago continues to to be a matter of emotional public controversy. Were the Germans freed from tyranny by the Allies or were they conquered?

In the spotlight of the 40th anniversary commemorations, the issue has virtually split along party lines, with Social Democrats tending to stress the liberation argument, while conservative Christian Democrats view the events of 1945 more in terms of military defeat.

Making matters worse, the debate for years was carried on in ignorance, with the history of the Nazi era de-emphasized in schools and the Holocaust a taboo subject in most homes.

Only in the last five years have West Germans launched their own intensive look into history. But even last month, when the Bundestag considered a bill to make it an offense to lie about the Holocaust, only a watered-down version passed.

Equal uncertainty persists about the future. Is the Federal Republic still a temporary segment of a greater Germany as stated in its constitution? Or have events and its own success made it a nation-state in its own right?

The 2 Germanys

Germany has been divided since 1949, when the French, British and American zones of occupied Germany became the independent Federal Republic and Moscow responded a few weeks later by transforming its zone into East Germany, the part of the prewar nation that failed to develop democracy.

And reunification of the two Germanys seems more remote now than it did then.

Yet, when former Defense Minister Hans Apel declared last year during a television interview that the question of German reunification was “closed” for the foreseeable future, he touched off a political furor that took weeks to die down. Reunification remains a political touchstone here--enshrined in the constitution, desired by most Germans, supported by all political parties.

Still, those who shouted loudest about Apel’s remarks had no plausible answers themselves about how to achieve reunification.

An equally emotional debate followed earlier this year over possible German claims over land lost mainly to Poland and the Soviet Union during the last war.

The turmoil of 20th Century Germany has left the young democracy with only tentatively rooted values and its citizens with a collective angst only slightly diminished by four decades of peace and freedom.

Persistent Inner Worry

And, despite West Germany’s robust image, an inner worry raises persistent doubts about its ability to survive the strain.

“It is very easy to make people afraid in this country,” said Volker Ruehe, Christian Democratic deputy parliamentary leader.

Insecurity Reflected

In a series of recent interviews, politicians from all major parties, businessmen, trade union leaders and students all reflected, in varying degrees, a sense of insecurity about the long-term viability of their democracy.

Unemployment, recession and terrorist bombings are viewed by many Germans not just as pressing social problems, as they are in other countries, but as threats to the entire political system.

Unlike other Europeans, West German politicians use this fear to justify a liberal program of social welfare benefits. Without this safety valve, they argue, intolerable pressures could build up.

British political commentator Timothy Garton Ash recently likened West Germany to one of its model businessmen:

“A hearty, sun-tanned 40-year-old, hair neatly parted, smartly dressed, with nice manners and a stock of sensible conversation--but forever dashing . . . to check his blood pressure, or glancing at his reflection in the shop windows to see if he hasn’t got a nervous tic.”

To some degree, the worry is warranted. And as Ash pointed out, if Germans didn’t worry, others would.

But this insecurity--evident in parliamentary debate, in the thousands of minor regulations that restrict personal initiative and in the propensity to vastly over-estimate potential dangers--helps fuel an intolerance inherently harmful to democracy.

Considering its achievements, West Germans are also remarkably indifferent towards their democracy.

Stated a 1983 commentary in the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit: “The Federal Republic is, all things considered, not a bad country, perhaps even the best ever to rise from German soil. But who likes to feel themselves as Federal Republican?”

Little Emotional Support

Novelist Dieter Wellershoff remarked that describing himself as a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany made him feel odd. “It contains about the same emotional resonance as a University German Automobile Club,” he said. “It indicates the synthetic character of the political concept. It has little meaning and sense of its own.”

While Germans in recent years have begun delving into their national past, there is virtually no desire to know more about the current republic.

German bookstores are filled with histories, most of which end in 1945. To date, there remains no definitive history of the Federal Republic.

A television series entitled, “Adventure of the Federal Republic,” documenting the birth and growth of Germany’s democracy, was a flop, according to Juergen Ruehle, who heads the deparment for historical documentaries at West German Broadcasting. “The interest level was zero, absolutely zero,” he said.

By contrast, the powerful U.S. television drama “Holocaust” stunned the country when it was aired in 1979.

‘Lots to be Proud Of’

Ambassador Burns recalled visiting Berlin in 1983 during observances of the 35th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift and being appalled that younger children he talked with knew little of the city’s struggle for survival in the late 1940s.

“There’s lots Germans can be proud of,” he said. “They can’t forget their tragic mistakes but they must recall their contributions to the arts, music and culture of the past. If I were a German teacher, that’s what I’d try to instill.”

There are several reasons for the German absence of pride in their republic.

In general, appeals to patriotic symbols and national pride have been rejected by Germans for much the same reason that they stir nervous suspicion outside the country: In the past, such appeals have led to catastrophe.

But in the past few years, a body of opinion has emerged that argues that some sense of pride and awareness of the republic’s history is essential for the democracy’s longer-term stability.

Like all things touching such subjects, the idea remains controversial.

Stimulating Pride

Since coming to power in 1982, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has cautiously tried to stimulate feelings of national pride and patriotism.

He is the first West German chancellor to have the national flag in his office, has resuscitated previously tainted words such as vaterland and has taken a personal interest in the country’s first memorial devoted exclusively to Germans killed in World War II.

Kohl, who likes to remind foreign audiences that he was 15 years old at the war’s end, sees reconciliation with Germany’s former enemies as an important, long-overdue task. But, as Kohl has learned, even nations now friendly with West Germany find it hard to forget.

And response to the chancellor’s pride-building efforts has been lukewarm even within West Germany.

One of the two national television channels began playing the national anthem for the first time at the close of programing April 15, but the other remains uncertain about the idea. And last month, American violinist Yehudi Menuhin had to coax a West German orchestra to greet the country’s president, Richard von Weizsaecker, with the anthem as he entered an opera house here for a performance.

Dim Views of Bonn

At present, Germans’ feelings for their democracy remain much like their view of Bonn, their quaint, but small, capital, which they regard as boring, colorless, uninspiring.

That Parliament will move next fall to an abandoned waterworks while the present chamber is renovated fits right in.

Johannas Schule, who drives occasionally from his home in the Ruhr to check on property he owns here, summed up the feelings of many of his countrymen: “When I drive into Bonn, I ask myself how other nations can take us seriously.”


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