Diarmaid Ferriter: Nostalgia for East Germany is not surprising

Convulsions always generate a hankering for what has been displaced

Genuine elation greeted the breaching of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago today, November 9th, but there was also much triumphalism. As the renowned historian of postwar Europe Tony Judt was later to observe, gloating by some Western commentators “proved irresistible”.

“This, it was declared, marked the end of history. Henceforth the world belonged to liberal capitalism and we would all march forward in unison towards a future shaped by peace, democracy and free markets.”

German writer Gunter Grass poured cold water on the end-of-history thesis. Late in 1989, just after the fall of the wall, Grass was approached by a young man at the central station in Hamburg and accused of being a “traitor to his fatherland”. In rejecting the prevailing euphoria, Grass insisted it would be better for East Germany to retain its independence in the short-term rather than rush to embrace unification; he was widely regarded as being on the wrong side of history.

Grass argued in 1990 that chancellor Helmut Kohl was treating unification as a crude speculative investment, seeing a poor East Germany as an asset to be absorbed and turned profitable, and that in the process of codifying unification East Germany was to conform to West Germany’s laws, standards and regulations.

Berlin-based writer Cameron Abadi has suggested the fear was that this process “left no political room to articulate a defence of any positive aspects of life in East Germany, though there were plenty of arguments to be made in favour of the east’s education and childcare systems and its fostering of gender equality”.

Such arguments were never going to gain much traction at that stage. Critics saw them as indulgent nostalgia for the defunct GDR by leftist German writers.

In truth, the great march forward in postwar western Europe involved amnesia and contradiction

Grass had a preference for kulturnation, a nation united by its common cultural heritage rather than by common territorial boundaries. Because he feared the revival of the Bismarckian nation state, he advocated confederation of the two states rather than reunification. However, his 19th-century frame of reference was criticised as inadequate for the late 20th century.


German politicians, however, including former chancellor Willy Brandt, also indulged in simplicities in maintaining “that which belongs together is growing together now”.

The peaceful resolution of the German question was a profound achievement, but self-satisfied narratives, as Grass recognised, were dishonest and misleading.

The same was true of western Europe where a distorted historical narrative emphasised Europe’s dramatic postwar recovery in the context of capitalist prosperity, the emergence of the welfare state, social peace and external security.

While there were undoubted achievements in all those areas, it was a lopsided history that bogusly suggested the history of two halves of postwar Europe could be told in isolation.

In truth, the great march forward in postwar western Europe involved amnesia and contradiction. Initially it seems for the postwar recovery project to succeed – and nowhere was its success more evident than in West Germany – remembrance of the past had to be kept at bay; collective amnesia was needed to create the recovery.

Britain deliberately cultivated a degree of self-imposed isolation. The postwar documentary Family Portrait by English film-maker Humphrey Jennings made no reference to allies or neighbours; the country was presented in 1951 as it was in 1941: alone.

Had Britain moved to embrace Europe when its authority was still relatively unrivalled, the history of the postwar continent might have been different.

There was also the obscene paradox of initially destitute imperial-minded Europeans running the non-European world, and the fact that the first postwar French Republic was crippled by the cost of colonial war, with two million French soldiers serving in Algeria between 1954 and 1962.

Free market

Convulsions always generate a hankering for what has been displaced, and it is hardly surprising a degree of nostalgia for the seductive egalitarianism of a defunct communism developed as a result of the uncomfortable realities of the free market after the upheavals of 1989, where privatisation amounted to “kleptocracy”.

By 2004, for example, 36 Russian billionaires corralled $110 billion, one-quarter of the country’s entire domestic product.

In Germany much suspicion remained between east and west, and the economic gulf between them was, and remains, pronounced.

Given what has been witnessed in Europe since 1989, including butchery in the Balkans, the reappearance of concentration camps, unfettered markets but deep resentment at free movement and immigration, it was hardly surprising that Tony Judt returned to the challenge of analysing European history before his premature death in 2010.

What preoccupied him was the poisoning of hope and the inability to appreciate the durability of nationalist sentiment of which we have had no shortage of reminders, including the rise of populism, the far right and Brexit.

Those breaching the Berlin Wall 30 years ago justifiably felt they were at the centre of history, but they were not remotely near the end of it.