22 NOVEMBER 1997, Page 19


Andrew Gimson on a flood

of new books arguing that the Bundesrepublik has gone wrong

Berlin EAST Germans can remember the exhila- rating days when they threw out Erich Honecker and his tawdry crew. Despite the palpable sense of decay about Helmut Kohl's regime, there is no sign of that fate befalling it next week. The German com- mentator Thomas Kielinger cites a story by Grillparzer to show the country's state of mind. A German dies and is on his way to heaven when he comes to a fork in the road. Signs tell him that one way leads to `Heaven', the other to 'Lectures About Heaven'. Naturally he chooses the lec- tures.

Germany today is full of lectures about what is wrong with Germany. One trouble with these lectures is that they are too long. Anyone who fails to see more or less on first acquaintance that the Bonn elite feathers its own nest and is out of touch with the rest of the country is unlikely to be persuaded by the 450 pages of Die geschlossene Gesellschaft and ihre Freunde (The Closed Society and Its Friends), the new blockbuster from Margarita Math- topoulos. Her excellent title could stand alone, or at the head of a pamphlet, but there is a sort of laziness in writing a whole book about it. (A friend tells me this last paragraph is horribly uncharitable, consid- ering that I nearly let myself be flattered into doing such a book myself, but was too idle to complete the outline.) The lectures also tend to be informed by a relentless pessimism, producing in all but the most depressed reader the feeling that things can't surely be as bad as all that. Not, anyhow, as bad as they were in Ger- many at various points within living memo- ry, or during the Thirty Years' War. Even the authors tend to suffer from this reac- tion, and have to satisfy their slave-driving publishers — who have commissioned 90,000 words of gloom and are determined to get them — by suggesting that the situa- tion will become catastrophic if things go on as they are.

And there we come to the weak point in the arguments advanced by the German pessimists. Things will not go on as they are. The mere fact that books like Arnulf Baring's Scheitert Deutschland? (roughly translated, Is Germany Going Down the Tubes?) or Hans Herbert von Arnim's Fet- ter Bauch regiert nicht gem (a study of the fat-cat MPs who prefer a functionary's life to governing the country) are pouring from the country's presses is a sign of impending change. It is obvious to Ger- mans with eyes to see that the Bonn Republic is played out.

After the war, the British and American occupiers of Germany set out to create a country which appeared to be a democracy, but which could not really think, politically, for itself, so could never go its own way. The Germans had had enough of going their own way, and did not want to become Stalin's vassals if they could help it, so they went along with the Anglo-American scheme. An organised liberal hypocrisy was set in motion, and has proved astonishingly successful. The German people in theory have a great deal of power, and in practice have next to none. The country is in the grip of a liberal elite, which itself has very little power to change anything, because everyone in Bonn has to agree with every- one else before any reform can be imple- mented.

The advantage of this system was that it prevented Germany from making mistakes during the necessary period of convales- cence after the war. The disadvantage is that it has produced a political class most of whose members do not know what poli- tics is, and don't even know they don't know. West Germany was led in its early years by great men, Adenauer and Erhard, who had seen and made enough mistakes at earlier points in their lives to have devel- oped into considerable figures. So had Brandt and Schmidt, and so, at a pinch, had Kohl, even if his formative wartime experience was walking home after service in the Hitler Youth all the way from Berchtesgaden to Ludwigshafen, feeling terribly hungry and fearing his parents were dead. Polish forced labourers who had been liberated beat him up and the Americans would not let him across the Rhine until he had been deloused, but he found his parents alive.

Kohl has great natural gifts as a power politician, and has matured in office, rather as Margaret Thatcher did. But when one looks at the callow people he domi- nates in Bonn, one's respect for his achievement diminishes. Few enough inde- pendent voices — if independence is understood as the willingness on occasion to defy one's own party — can be found at Westminster, but are there any in Bonn? No wonder Tony Blair intends to give the Scots a list-based system of proportional representation modelled on Germany's. It should ensure the total dominance of the party machines, the appearance of free- dom without the reality.

One of the most acute analyses of Bonn's weaknesses was made by Carl Christian von Weizsacker on 4 July this year, in the pleasantly short form of an article published in the economic section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. We must pray that no one persuades him to expand it into a book. Professor Weizsack- er, a nephew of the former German presi- dent Richard von Weizsacker, argues that the postwar German constitution, with its bias towards consensus and the status quo, has turned Germany into an 'extremely conservative' country. He draws a compar- ison with Britain, which had the Thatcherite upheaval, while in the same period there was 'no decisive legislative change' in Germany.

He fears the total blockade of reforms in Bonn is gradually driving Germany into difficulties as severe as Britain faced in the 1970s: 'But our constitution does not allow a similar answer to the one given in Great Britain.' Voters at the general election in September next year will not be presented with a clear alternative to the present gov- ernment.

What should Germany's friends hope for? Different things, depending on whether one is a friend of the oligarchy or the people. Writing as one who believes in the creative genius of the German people, and sees in it at least a greater instinct for liberty than is found in the elite, I hope the organised liberal hypocrisy comes tum- bling down and the Germans can at last build a representative system of their own.

Andrew Gimson is Berlin correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.