Monday, May 18, 2009

Contradiction or Embrace?

While reviewing the items I've posted here, I can't help but notice how much of a classic picture they paint of my sensibilities. The picture below, of the romantic couple: beautiful, yes, but on a day where my anti-establishment side takes over, I shake my head in disgust at how bourgeois and meaningless something like that can be. But truly, it's not them, it's me. I'm a contradiction in so many terms, and I can't escape it. Solution? Embrace? 

What I really wanted to write about today is the ongoing discourse concerning German disunity in the middle of the twentieth century. What strikes me as absurd is the endless array of useless apologetics and rhetoric that couch this subject in the academic literature. What prompted this? Well, in my communications with various scholars about my dissertation, I'll often ask about opinions on certain sources. What I find nine times out of ten is that the history of the German Democratic Republic is still a sore spot for West Germans. For example, I'm reading a collection of essays by former East German officials titled, 'Flucht von der Junta'. The book details the East German assistance given to Chileans after Pinochet's coup in 1973. As someone who has some understanding of how history is written, I'm quite clearly privy to the fact that the book is coloured by a certain self-congratulatory tone on behalf of the authors, and as such can't be taken at face value. No shit, right? But it seems to me that this charge, (ie. East German sources are usually biased), is so often and so vehemently laid against any piece of literature published by former supporters of the GDR that it loses its credibility. The phrase: 'Why would you read that? It's an apology for the disgusting Honecker era,' needs to be assessed. I have to consider the nature of the criticism itself. 

To begin, this has to be approached from a broader view. Why have some West Germans not been able to accept their East German compatriots? And on the other hand, why do some, still, maintain that the division of the country was the most wretched and unnatural state of affairs? The fall of the Berlin Wall and the immediate grand welcome offered to Easterners has become a collective narrative in Germany that in some ways hides the dissatisfaction on both sides with the economic realities of the whole ordeal. That is not to diminish the immensity and importance of that moment for humanity, but it was a long time ago, and the attitude of Germans has changed quite a bit since then. 

What I want to get at is why there are so many conflicting stories told about West German acceptance of the partition in the late 40s? I asked a friend recently why she thought the Hallstein Doctrine (the Federal Republic's diplomatic policy which stipulated that they would not maintain relations with any state that recognized the GDR) remained in place for so long? After all, this lasted well into the period of Detente in the Cold War. She replied that to acknowledge the GDR as a separate state would be unthinkable for West Germany. "Germany must never be divided, and for any foreign country to acknowledge the GDR as separate would be to legitimate that division." Hmmm. Yes, of course, in hindsight West Germans can say, 'We never wanted this to happen, Stalin and his thugs tore you away from us'. But in light of the new documents, it's clear that Stalin repeatedly attempted to secure a democratic one-state solution for Germany, (not of course out of a sudden warm fuzzy feeling for parliamentary bourgeois democracy, but for purely strategic calculations. Out of plain fear of what a divided Germany would mean for the security of the other territories he had gobbled up). There are a number of reasons why the GDR was established, and I don't think anyone really wants/needs me to detail them here, but suffice it to say, the Americans and primarily the French were loth to continue bargaining with the Soviets about a post-war settlement in Germany. Trizonia was sufficient, and wrangling with Stalin's men over precisely how the zones of occupation would be merged was tiring and even unfavorable. Konrad Adenauer was eager to be the chief beneficiary of the Marshall Aid package. French economic recovery required an equivalent one in the industrial areas of West Germany, and that depended almost entirely on issuing a new currency. The Soviet Union could for strategic reasons never accept a separate currency in the allied zone because it would diminish their ability to exact reparations. Further, any suggestion that the German nation needs to be 'whole' again was most likely an unpopular one in both the East and West after the Second World War. That kind of nationalist sentiment didn't actually resurface until Willy Brandt's 'Ostpolitik', and then merely tenuously. So why the claims that Germans never wanted partition? I'm seriously interested, and want to do more investigation on the cultural side of this debate. 

To be sure, most Germans were saddened and oppressed by the division of their country. The crimes committed by the GDR against its own citizens are deplorable and bone-chilling. Families were separated, and travel through East Germany to reach West Berlin was never a pleasant journey. However, the constant categorization of the ordeal as a pitched battle between good and evil is never appropriate in my mind. What this tirade is all about is my ongoing frustration with the hostility among some historians concerning these issues. Not that this is avoidable, and not that I believe objectivity is possible (I for one, will never reach a neutral position on US foreign policy in Latin America). However, the little thing that irks me is that the actual position of West Germans in 1949 was much more nuanced than what they make it out to be today. Nor were all West Germans happy to foot the bill during re-unification. There's no solution for the historiography. At least not right now. But as a somewhat neutral third party, (too young to have witnessed what actually happened, enough of a humanist to abhor Ulbricht and Honecker's regimes, but also cynical regarding West German rhetoric during re-unification) I'll hopefully make a decent assessment of what former East Germans have to say. 

An important qualification: I do acknowledge, appreciate, and agree with the the emotional, passionate, and deep-seated criticisms leveled against the GDR's government. That's you, Mom and Dad.  

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