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The New German Question

What does German sovereignty mean to Germany, Europe, the United States and the world today?

November 9, 2007

I am chagrined whenever I hear that East Germany made only three contributions to united Germany: the right-turn-on-red arrow, the Sandmaenchen puppet and Chancellor Angela Merkel. So quickly have we forgotten those Germans in the German Democratic Republic, who in the fall of 1989 took to the streets for freedom and risked their lives and careers for their beliefs.

East Germany’s real three contributions were a revolution for freedom — disparaged as a “turnaround” in politics — a free and fair election displacing the communist regime and accession to the West German Basic Law to achieve German unity.

East German dissidents in 1989 defied the ruling Honecker regime at a time when Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev faced the demise of the Soviet Union and loss of the Soviet iron grip on the German Democratic Republic. Demonstrators pressed for the freedom to travel, while carefully avoiding confrontations with the People’s Police, the East German armed militia and their Army, which they would surely have lost.

They championed Gorbachev’s call for political openness (“Glasnost”) to help them defy Honecker. They counted on Gorbachev’s statement that those who come too late will be punished by history.

The East German revolutionaries wanted history to punish Honecker, and they marched until the East German Communist party, the SED, ousted him from office. They formed political parties under the noses of the East German Ministry for State Security (Stasi), which led to the abolition of the SED monopoly on power in the constitution.

They continued to march for freedom as their countrymen fled to the west by the hundreds of thousands. They brought down the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Finally, the East Germans voted for a parliament to unify Germany through East Germany’s accession to the West German constitution.

German sovereignty was won by this revolution that was determined to put the fate of Germany in German hands, not those of the Soviets or the West. Still, the peaceful revolution is discounted, disdained and ignored.

With unification came full German sovereignty and international responsibilities that have changed the German role in the world. Soon after the last Russian military forces left Berlin in August 1994, NATO enlarged.

As acting American Ambassador in Germany, I signed the agreements for the first NATO enlargement making the territory of the former German Democratic Republic and the Bundeswehr Ost integral parts of NATO.

That NATO expansion followed close on the heels of the 1994 Karlsruhe Court decision allowing Luftwaffe crews to participate in out-of-area operations in support of NATO in the Balkans. Deployment of Bundeswehr troops to Bosnia came next, and soon a German general took up a position in the NATO chain of command over combat troops outside German territory.

Never again

By 1999, when ethnic cleansing had taken so many lives in the Balkans and spread to Kosovo, international outrage was inflamed and military intervention was demanded.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer joined U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to convince NATO to intervene with a bombing campaign to stop the killing. Fischer invoked the Basic Law commitment for Germany to protect the inviolability of human dignity and called on them to ensure that “Never again Auschwitz.”

The question is whether an enlarged West Germany could have made these decisions without full sovereignty brought by the 1989 revolution, the March 18, 1990 Volkskammer election and the accession of East Germany to the West German Basic Law through the 2+4 Negotiations that led to the unification of Germany. I think not.

Today the Bundestag is debating Germany’s role in Afghanistan. The recent Bundestag vote on the International Security Assistance Force demonstrated that the Berlin Republic understands and accepts its international security role, particularly in NATO.

The Afghanistan vote for Operation Enduring Freedom is another step along the way of defining German exercise of its sovereignty. I am confident Germany will make the right decision to stay the course with NATO.

Of course, the future of Germany lies in much more than the story of security policy. Some say that the German Question — asking to whom Germany belongs, and to whom Germans owe their allegiance — has been resolved since 1990. However, the European Question remains open — and Germany is still the key to the European Question.

German unification with East Germany’s accession to the Basic Law did not end the politics of the revolution. Nevertheless, remembering that both the western democracy and the eastern revolution changed Germany is a challenge.

Historical transition

The historical debate stimulated by the Kaczynski brothers in Poland reminds Germans to remember their unification history and to avoid the sin of historical omission that would question Germany’s constitutional commitment to human dignity. Failure to remember that history portends a new German Question.

Over the last two years, the Kaczynski brothers, President and Prime Minister of Poland, have argued that President Lech Walesa’s early engagement with the reformed communists in the 1990s was an original sin in the transition to democracy and was the basis of Poland’s problems.

To make amends for that sin, they sought to exclude former communists and their collaborators from politics and attacked their unexposed co-conspirators.

This debate has taken a toll on German and European Union relations with Poland, led to the October Polish elections and has opened questions on the European Union’s future. It also reminds us that the trouble with the past is that it is not even past — it is present-day politics.

Germany’s own transition to the Berlin Republic is not excluded from historical re-examination. In 1989, although the pace of the revolution was breathtaking, German unification was not on the active political agenda of either East or West Germany. Now the understanding and acceptance of the events that led to the achievement of German unification seem to be largely forgotten.

Getting the history right

Did East Germany’s contribution to unification through the peaceful revolution, free elections and accession to the Basic Law make German unity possible? Reflecting on the new Germany in 1998, President Roman Herzog said the “process of unification, in short, will continue to take place within a constitutional framework that has successfully met the challenges of a changing world for a half century now.”

Yes, the German Basic Law and its commitment to human dignity are the political bases for the Berlin Republic, but unity did not just happen through international negotiations.

Remembrance is the basis of sound politics, and the legitimacy of German sovereignty rests on getting the history right. If not, a reborn Germany faces a sin of omission that will return as a political question.

Looking at the Kaczynski brothers, who led a boxing bout with Solidarity’s original sin of engaging with Poland’s communists, reminds us that the past is today’s politics. Will the original sin debate that has plagued recent politics in Poland lead us to a sin of omission in the German historical debate?

Overcoming history (Geschichtsbewaeltigung) is well known in Germany. West Germans are understandably proud of their courageous examination of the Holocaust, which supports their commitment to human dignity. The East German Parliament, the Volkskammer, began and the West German Bundestag continued an historical examination of the role of the East German Ministry for State Security (Stasi), confronting the crimes of the SED regime.

It is, however, the lost stories of the peaceful revolution that are missing in the history of unification, a sin of omission that could lead to a questioning of the German constitutional commitment to the inviolability of human dignity and Germany’s role to ensure that “Never Again Auschwitz” becomes more than a slogan.

President Herzog has said that united Germany rests on two pillars: democracy of the Federal Republic of Germany as well as the 1989 democratic revolution and 1990 election in the German Democratic Republic. Yet too many people still see united Germany as West Germany simply enlarged.

Is the omission of the stories of its revolutionary birth of the Berlin Republic — daring Germans willing to confront and throw off their oppressors — not a compelling story of the fight for liberty that needs to be told and re-told?

If Germany is to avoid a future political battle reminiscent of the Polish battle of original sin led by the Kaczynski brothers, remembering the successful revolution will play an important role. Incorporating the more complete story into Germany’s history is crucial for a deeper understanding of the Berlin Republic.

If the past is politics, then we should deepen the historical debate about the path to unity, one that addresses the revolution and what German sovereignty means to Germany, Europe, America and the world today.