In Café November

During the six months I spent in Berlin many years ago, Café November was a frequent destination, often in the company of Thomas Geoghegan, who, predictably, had found it. The dilapidated Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood was becoming evermore gentrified. But Café November had opened in 1993, before Ostalgie set in.  November was fraught with significance in memory; it was the month of the Armistice that ended World War I and in which the Kaiser abdicated, 1918; of Kristallnacht, in 1938; in which the Nazi Army became encircled at Stalingrad, in 1942; in which Berlin was first partitioned East and West, in 1945; and, of course, the month in which partition ended, in 1989.

In all the stories I read last week about the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the Berlin Wall, the single article that seemed to me most thoughtful was an interview with Wolfgang Hübner, editor of Neues Deutschland.  Once the official paper of the East German Communist Party, controlled by its central committee, ND has seen its circulation decline from 1.1 million in 1989 to around 25,000 readers today. Under the headline German Paper that spoke for GDR still fights for socialism, Hübner told FT correspondent Tobias Buck:

Our readers expect us to look back [at the falloff the Wall] in a way that does justice to their own experiences and to their memories of the GDR. They don’t wish the GDR back the way it was, and they mean that. There is a widespread feeling that things went wrong.  But they also think there were some basic ideas [underpinning the socialist system] that should be back on the agenda. People say: the GDR never took part in a war. There were no homeless. There was no unemployment….  But the paper as it appears today could not have been published in the GDR.

That sense of loss seems central to German’s political problems today.  The generous terms of reunification are recounted in this well-balanced article from The Economist last week, along with the relative upheaval suffered by citizens of the former GDR during the long, slow process of matching the development of West Germany. “On October 4, 1990 [the day after reunification], after a night of partying I carried on my life as normal,” a senior Berlin bureaucrat told the magazine. “Not a single east German had the same experience.” Immigration has exacerbated a situation that had already become testy.

The desirability of paying attention to the experience of others was emphasized elsewhere in connection with the years since 1989.  In 1989 Wasn’t the End of History After All,  political scientist Yascha Mounk explained, in The Wall Street Journal  (subscription required) how the motivations behind the rebellion against communism in Eastern Europe were always more mixed than the Western triumphalist narrative suggested.

Those brave protesters in the streets of Dresden and Gdansk, Budapest and Sofia, were united by a hatred of their communist regimes. But they were far less unified in their aspirations for the future. A great number did seek to realize the core values of liberal democracy. But others primarily wanted to liberate their nations from Russian domination, to revive the influence of their ancestral religion or to give free rein to nationalism. In that light, today’s battle against liberal democracy by populists like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski is not so much a betrayal of the revolution of 1989 as a civil war among its protagonists.

Civil war is sometimes mentioned in connection with the US, too.  I’ve long believed that domestic policy in America was  shaped by foreign policy at least since 1939, and that the Cold War imposed a discipline on American discourse that lasted for most of forty years, It eroded during the 1980s and was lost altogether when the Soviet Union dissolved. Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh concisely made that argument last week, in What the US lost when the Berlin Wall fell, that the US requires an external enemy to serve as a “binding agent.”

“As long as the country was menaced from the outside, there was a natural limit on its internal squabbles.”  Since 1989, partisanship has grown rampant.  Citing the writer Peter Beinart, he notes that George H.W. Bush was the last president whose election was universally recognized as legitimate. Since then, Bill Clinton was dogged by accusations of Arkansas scandals, George W, Bush was said to have been installed by friendly judges, Barack Obama was accused of lacking citizenship, and Donald Trump to have been elected thanks to Russian interference.

When the wall fell, wrote Ganesh, “so did a certain kind of US nationhood.” Islam didn’t do as a unifying enemy.  Neither will China. “The partisanship that followed will endure until the next worthy ogre comes along.” The columnist ended on an especially dire note.

It is as though hatred obeys the first law of thermodynamics. Like energy, it can be transferred but never destroyed. The less of it a nation directs outward, the more it must channel at home. America’s victory in the cold war was a feat of strategy and patience that should be saluted this weekend. It just happens to be a victory from which it has never recovered.

Not yet, anyway. True, the divisions today seem very deep.  But the 2020 presidential election offers fresh hope that a young, moderate Midwesterner may be elected. (I have grown partial to Pete Buttigieg and look forward to the Iowa caucuses.)

As for the next “worthy ogre,” global warming will play that role for decades to come. If you believe the science, there can be no doubt that a long, taxing, dangerous struggle lies ahead. If you believe, with Henry Adams, that “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds,” then expect growing personification of atmospheric polluters.

.                                 xxx

New on the EP bookshelf:

Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton (Princeton, March 2020)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *