Visiting Berlin for two weeks, and in the evening I go to bed in a small hotel room, tuning the radio to a German-language station. I understand barely a word but it features a strangely compelling, eclectic mix of Bach, Brubeck and Tim Buckley, unfortunately sometimes interrupted by electronic dance music, the dreaded EDM.
The news plays on the hour and from the torrent of words I cannot comprehend I still can pull the occasional bits and pieces: FBI, CNN, Kavanaugh, Trump. The entire Kavanaugh disaster has been much in the news here although it competes with headlines from the rest of the real world: tsunamis, Syria and Yemen.
Here in Germany, only one in ten expresses any confidence in Trump, and according to a new Pew Research Center poll, “It is the country with the highest percentage (80%) saying relations with the U.S. have deteriorated over the past year… [It’s] also where the biggest declines have taken place in recent years regarding the belief that the U.S. respects personal freedom and that Washington listens to other countries in international affairs.”
As was true at the United Nations two weeks ago, in Germany they are enraged by and laughing at our emperor without clothes, the Orange Julius condemning globalism and international cooperation. With his retinue of the shameless – yes, you, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley, Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham, among too many others -- he defies public opinion, mocks the women of the United States, suppresses a proper investigation and rams through the nomination of a suspect judge just because he can and because it will hamstring American social progress for decades to come. Look to the White House, look to the Senate, look to our diplomats bereft of knowledge and experience: we are an international embarrassment.
All of which is beyond painful, but just as the clock strikes midnight over the radio in this Berlin hotel room comes an all-string ensemble playing a lovely version of the national anthem, Haydn’s Deutschland uber Alles, followed immediately by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
It’s the perfect combination for our current world and this still-conflicted country of Germany, once officially divided into east and west. Each was written by a great German composer; the first a patriotic hymn, the words of which too often have been used to encourage war; the other a song that celebrates peace, now the anthem of the European Union. As a visitor to this country, such are the contradictions and ironies you run into every day.
Not far from this hotel is the DDR Museum, a somewhat bizarre institution dedicated to the days of Communist East Germany. Opened in 2006 by some scholars and entrepreneurs, it presents a slice of what life was like in the dreary years of Soviet-dominated rule. You can sit behind the wheel of a Trabant, a car of infamous notoriety manufactured there during the Cold War, the so-called “sparkplug with a roof” that at one time featured no fuel gauge, turn signals or headlights. There’s a mock-up of what a block apartment in the drab worker’s paradise was like as well as a secret police interrogation room and a jail cell. You can read copies of 39 different newspapers, all of which hewed to the party line, then see how in spite of it all, resistance slowly built and finally overcame the authoritarian regime.
The place was packed, with kids too young to remember and grown-ups who remembered all too well. You’d think they’d be adverse to the museum’s mementos and the kitschy reminders sold in the gift shop, but they were transfixed, some thinking back to what their past lives in the east were like, others thankful they had never experienced the deprivations of the side that had been walled off from them with barbed wire and cement.
Wednesday, October 3, was German Reunification Day, the 28th anniversary of the day (nearly a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall) when East and West Germany officially became one country again. There were celebrations and fireworks reminiscent of the weeks when the physical barriers first were breached and people were brought back together and everything seemed possible.
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But although no longer divided into separate nations, just a few years ago The Guardian reported on a German newspaper survey that found, “Three-quarters of the population think there are ‘different mentalities’ between east and west.” Few from the west had visited the east and vice versa; only two-thirds of West Germans said they would marry someone from the east.
According to the latest report on the status of reunification, put out each year by the German government, the Berlin Wall is gone but an invisible wall remains. Leonid Bershidsky at Bloomberg writes that this year’s analysis shows that both east and west have seen dramatic improvements in their respective economies but the east continues to lag behind.
What’s more, he notes, “the political chasm is widening. The east is swinging to the far right because many of its people still feel like second-class citizens, and the recent arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants has only intensified their sense of being abandoned by reunified Germany’s mostly western establishment.” This despite a chancellor, Angela Merkel, who grew up in the east.
Anna Sauerbrey, an editor and writer at the German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, says, “East and west are drifting apart again.” There are far more right wing extremist crimes in the east – “it is a hotbed of far-right sympathy and outright hatred.” In a recent New York Times op-ed, she observed that “Some also claim that eastern Germans, not having learned what democracy is like, are more easily frustrated with its tedious processes and often less-than-perfect results.”
As in Trump’s America and other European nations, whether it’s the influx of immigrants or a lack of economic opportunity or insufficient representation in the government, the former East Germany increasingly favors a nationalist, populist political movement; in this case, the Alternative for Germany party.
Our American president would build a wall across the border with Mexico to squelch immigration but Berlin is a city that knows the horror of what such a barrier is really like. It lived with its wall for nearly three decades, the heart of a metropolis broken in two, splitting up families and friends and creating a nightmare of bureaucratic redundancy that’s still being sorted. And yet Germany may be sliding back into the same bigotry and nativism that tore it apart less than a century ago, the xenophobia and prejudice that threaten our democracy as well.
This past week, watching events in Washington from an ocean and continent away did not create any sense of distance because this nation of Germany is a constant reminder of how easily a republic can slide into dictatorship. Ever since the end of World War II, both by edict and desire, the people here have struggled -- with much success -- to make sure it never happens again. But once again events and resentment may be moving it ever so dangerously back toward jingoism and hate.
Meanwhile, our homegrown, would-be Caesar shouts America First and sets a wretched, hurtful example for staunch allies like Germany and the rest of the world.
Turn up the radio, please, and drown out the news with Beethoven. I’m afraid to hear how it all turns out.