The subject of "The German Comedy" is not the stuff of stand-up routines. This collection of reflections and reportage is about Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and though the moment was one of uncomprehending joy, Germans are not known for their joie de vivre. Indeed, Germans do not take life easy. Habitually more impressed by the cloud than the silver lining, they are still trying to figure out what happened to them in the aftermath of Nov. 9, 1989, when the Wall came down and reunification began.
Formal unity is now one year old. The Wall is kaput , and so is a hateful regime that had gone Soviet communism one worse by capping it with the dour discipline of indigenous Prussianism. But the wall in the hearts and minds has not crumbled. The Germans, once feared for their chauvinistic uber alles nationalism, still are confused by the sudden gift of togetherness. "Did we really need this?" ask East Germans, who suddenly discover the downside of capitalist plenty: carpetbaggers from the West, mass unemployment, and sheer helplessness in the face of a friendly but ruthless takeover by Bonn, Inc.
"The German Comedy," originally written for a German audience and sometimes translated a bit literally, does not make an easy read for the casual Germany-watcher. My advice is to start with the last chapter, entitled "Of Dogs and Germans," which puts the vexing events in a nice allegorical nutshell. Some 5,000 canines (mostly German shepherds--what else?), which used to patrol the 700-mile dividing line, were the first victims of reunification. Bereft of their jobs and masters, these dogs were facing imprisonment in animal shelters, or, worse, administered death. For who would want such vicious man-hunters? As it turned out, though, these dogs "were completely incompetent; they could not even bite on command," notes the author. And so these furry orphans of East German Stalinism soon found new homes in the West.
Peter Schneider, an essayist and novelist, who--unlike many of his compatriots--is gifted with an ironic sense of humor and a fine touch for the absurd, casts this tale into a memorable metaphor. Whenever these former border dogs "accompany their new Western masters on walks near where the Wall once stood, they are suddenly deaf to every call and run their programmed beat without veering right or left." The Wall has left nary a trace. Still, the "wall dogs move as if tethered by some unseen leash . . . following the old border along its wild zigzags through the city--just as though they were looking for, or maybe missing, something. . . ."
"But perhaps this story is only a legend," Schneider wryly concludes. Fable or not, the moral is on target--and it comes in many layers. Not only those four-legged guardians of Prusso-socialism may be missing something. The East Germans have lost the comfortable certainties that come with any all-powerful, all-providing totalitarian state. The West Germans face a different loss. Their previous identity was forged in the Cold War--by the ersatz nationalism of Europeanism and anti-communism. Their mission and home was in the West, yet now their capital is being shifted from Bonn-on-Rhine to Berlin, a mere 50 miles from the Polish border. Nor does the world at large know what to think about the Germans--the No. 1 power in Europe suddenly liberated from the fetters of bipolarity.
Like many of his generation, especially on the left, Peter Schneider does not quite trust his compatriots. His voyage through the German soul, circa 1989/90, is a long series of questions: Have the Germans learned their democratic lesson? Will they remain true to the liberal promise if the vaunted economic miracle were ever to fade? Unlike his leftish comrades from whom he has parted in many ways (e.g., on their sourpussed anti-Americanism and their self-righteous pacifism), Schneider does not deliver his pronouncements from the high perch of moral rectitude. His biting commentary is softened by wit and irony; he never stops with the obvious, but carries the reader along a twisting road of dialectical surprises.
A key chapter is entitled "Three Bad Reasons and Two Good Ones to Fear the Germans." Will there be a "Fourth Reich," which might mate size and economic clout with the ugly traditions of militarism and nationalism? Wrong on all three counts, the author argues. Size? The new Germany is smaller "than all previous German Reichs," and its economy, though gigantic by European standards, does not even come to half of America's.
Militarism? Schneider offers this sardonic comment on his peace- uber-alles compatriots during the Gulf War: "The world was amazed to realize that (Germany) currently possesses what may be the least motivated army around."
Nationalism? Not likely, because this time unity was not forged by "blood and iron," as Bismarck put it, and in "complete accord with (all) neighbors." If there will be German nationalism, it will be of the "boringly normal" kind--which "no longer draws its energy from the desire for revenge or the feeling of having come up short." The Germans have been lucky this time--and so has Europe.
What are the good reasons for fearing the New Germans? One is sheer xenophobia. There are hardly any Jews left to hate, but there are plenty of denizens who are not part of the Volk: Turkish "guest workers," Polish migrant laborers, African asylum seekers. Unfortunately, Schneider's fear has been validated by the passage of time--as demonstrated by the murderous rampages of German "skinheads" against all kinds of foreigners during the fall of 1991.
Another reason, paradoxically, is the new "goodness" of the Germans. It is their unflinching pacifism that really riles Schneider--and with good cause. For the sake of "peace," Schneider recalls, Germans stood ready to betray a host of other values--like freedom in Poland after the crackdown on "Solidarity" in 1981, or resistance to aggression in the Gulf. As a choice example, he quotes the memorable words of a Protestant church official: "Not even Hussein's . . . readiness to commit further genocide, this time against Israel, can justify a war."
Notes Schneider: "I have respect for consistent pacifism. What makes (such) utterances unbearable is not their objection to war, but their moral double standard. The peace movement did nothing when Saddam Hussein's army marched into Kuwait, and nothing again when he threatened the Kurds with genocide. . . ." And then came a "strange twist--many Germans considered the Allied attack against the Iraqi invaders as naked, unprovoked aggression, the true evil, the 'greater wrong'. . . ."
Still, why worry about German pacifism? Schneider's answer is this: "The problem with the German pendulum is that it always tends to make extreme swings," thus betraying an older penchant for the "ethics of pure conviction" and an aversion to the "ethics of responsibility," as the great German sociologist Max Weber put it. There is no reasonable center point.
Still confused about the New Germany? Then read this book and follow the author along his winding path through "East-West Passages," past "Two Rogues" and into "The Deep-Freeze Theory and Other Hypotheses," as various chapters are called. You might still be confused, but on the way, you will have made friends with a masterful guide who wields a wicked blade--one that cuts through cant and pretension with wit and precision.