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TCW’s Brexit Watch: Grasping Germany

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Our regular report from Bern, Switzerland

LAST week the Swiss Federal Council rolled on their backs and coughed up two billion francs of taxpayers’ money to pay the bills of Lufthansa. The CEO of Lufthansa quietly paid a visit to sort out the details. The media over the weekend have been sceptical and hostile. As Sontag Zeitung put it, a few million Swiss taxpayers are supporting many, many millions of German taxpayers. For two billion francs there is no guarantee that Swiss or any other airline will connect the country with the wider world, the Federal Council’s excuse for capitulating to the Germans.

I wrote the local media suggesting that for five and a half billion Swiss francs they could have bought Lufthansa.

I fear the Anschluss that my parents-in-law’s generation rejected in the 1930s made a long stride forward this week. I don’t see any sign that the present Federal Council will stand up to a grasping and greedy government run by Angela Merkel. She is sticking to the plan – Vorausshau 2040 – and clearly Switzerland is regarded as an urgent target for assimilation. 

However, this is good news for David Frost and his negotiation team. When Switzerland and its trillions of hard Swiss francs becomes the main target, it means we no longer are. 

The tactics are working. No truck with extensions, stick with your deadline. The Germans had Barnier trying to keep us in the EU for ever with little extensions. They wanted to tax the City next year to pay for Italy and Spain. They’ve given up. 

Just fend off the CBI and media through the month of June. But for heaven’s sake don’t make any kind of deal with them during the autumn – your warning of what happens is Switzerland, and that’s being gobbled alive. 



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When I worked at our embassy in Switzerland during the mid-70s, Winston Churchill was revered and so were the British for saving Europe from the dictators. Germany was forgiven but nothing forgotten. After all, they’d done it twice in twenty-five years. Now VE Day is marked by an interview with Professor Heinrich August Winkler, 81, professor emeritus of modern history at Berlin’s Humboldt University, about Germany’s future in Europe. 

A translation follows, but here are some thoughts about the interview.

The professor says: ‘At the end of the 1950s, a self-critical examination of German history began in the Federal Republic, as it could only take place in a free, pluralistic society. However, it was not until the 1960s that the extermination of the European Jews was understood as the central fact of German history in the 20th century.’

The second line above reveals a wall of misunderstanding greater than the Alps, perhaps the core reason why the Germans talk past their neighbours. Why Margaret Thatcher probably was right all along.   

Heinrich Winkler is about the same age as my elder brother. He was born in Konigsberg in East Prussia. His mother fled westward as the Russians advanced and stopped when she reached Catholic Swabia. He was six when Germany surrendered unconditionally and all the horrors of places like Buchenwald and Belsen were exposed as American and British troops occupied the western half of Germany. His father is barely mentioned on the internet in this new era of EU privacy laws. 

For our generation at that age the central fact of German history in the 20th century was their default foreign policy of waging aggressive war on their peaceful neighbours. Not once but twice. We saw the bomb sites every day. If we went up to London there wasn’t an office standing within a hundred yards of St Paul’s, just a sea of rubble. We knew the pain when a loved one went missing, never to return. The mass murder of the Jews appalled us, those poor living skeletons in striped pyjamas were shocking, but they did not surprise us – not even as small children. We accepted that was the sort of thing that Germans did to people they didn’t like. I was more shocked when as a young officer cadet in the Royal Engineers our class were shown films of the sappers having to bulldoze thousands of starved dead bodies into mass graves because the threat of sickness demanded speed. 

I’m fascinated that Winkler provides collateral for my own face-to-face research with people who grew up in East Germany and at the last Cold War Olympic Games where the Russian representative on the technical committee made no secret of his distaste for East German cheating in their eternal obedience to the cult of the master race.

Germany and China are rapidly becoming the new Axis.

More and more one really does begin to think that the EU began with a secret meeting called by an SS general at the Maison Rouge Hotel on August 10, 1944. 

This is my translation of the NZZ interview, which was conducted by Hansjoerg Muller in Berlin on May 8, 2020.

Hansjoerg Muller: Mr Winkler, you were six years old in the spring of 1945, when the Second World War ended in Europe. What memories do you have of the end of the war?

Heinrich August Winkler: My family and I lived in Schelklingen in Württemberg at the foot of the Swabian Alb. I still remember very well the entry of the American troops into this small town near Ulm on April 22, 1945.

HM: In May 2015, in your speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, you said that each generation would find its own approach to German history. How was your view of history shaped as a young person?

HAW: American democracy fascinated me. Even as a student I was a regular visitor to the Amerika-Haus in Ulm. In 1986, at the height of the historians’ controversy over the uniqueness of the Nazi extermination of the Jews, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas issued the verdict that the opening of the Federal Republic of Germany to the culture of the West was the most important intellectual achievement of his generation. In a way, this verdict was something like the birth of a posthumous Adenauer Left. Left-wing intellectuals, too, were now paying positive tribute to Konrad Adenauer’s politics of westward integration, or at least to its cultural consequences.

HM: Would the success of this second German democracy have been conceivable without ties to the West?

HAW: Hardly. In any case, this success had a lot to do with the fact that democracy in the Federal Republic, unlike in the Weimar Republic, was in many ways deliberately oriented towards the example of the Anglo-Saxon democracies. In the Parliamentary Council in Bonn, which drafted the Basic Law in 1948/49, the surviving Weimar citizens drew anti-totalitarian conclusions from the German catastrophe. There should never again be a dictatorship, but also never again a democracy that is neutral towards its own validity. 

HM: How did people in East Germany deal with the past?

HAW: In the Soviet occupation zone and later GDR, only so-called anti-fascist conclusions were drawn from the German catastrophe. This justified the establishment of a second German dictatorship, this time under communist auspices. In the West, the economic miracle, the rapid rehabilitation by the Western victorious powers and the close Western European and transatlantic co-operation soon helped the German democracy to gain broad popular support.

HM: Is East German anti-fascism a myth?

HAW: It corresponded completely to the self-assessment of the party and state leadership, which had experienced the years of the ‘Third Reich’ in exile in Moscow and now felt part of the victorious camp. Big capital and big property were considered to be the supporting layers of fascism. This led to the fact that, although so-called structural conclusions were drawn from the experience of National Socialism, such as the expropriation of land and large-scale industry, they saw themselves as being removed from a self-critical examination of the national past.

HM: And that still has an effect today?

HAW: In parts of the East German population, the older, German-national view of history, as it was commonplace in Wilhelmine Germany and the Weimar Republic, was able to survive unchallenged. Anyone who wonders about the slogans that Pegida has been using in Dresden in recent years will find an explanation for what at first glance seems to be a paradoxical continuity of German nationalist and anti-Western prejudices. This is why the AfD is relatively strong in the East: it appeals to a German-national defiance, which is still present in West Germany, but much less common than in the new federal states.

HM: In the GDR, people liked to emphasise how many former Nazis in the Federal Republic had regained office and dignity soon after the war. That was propaganda, but it was not completely wrong either.

HAW: In the Federal Republic there was indeed a great deal of continuity in personnel. Former Nazis were able to make a career on a larger scale than in the GDR. In the early 1950s, what the philosopher Hermann Lübbe called communicative silence still predominated in the Federal Republic: people quickly distanced themselves from ‘Hitler and his accomplices’, as it was then called, but they did not talk about their own involvement or that of their immediate surroundings.

HM: When did this silence end?

HAW: At the end of the 1950s, a self-critical examination of German history began in the Federal Republic, as it could only take place in a free, pluralistic society. However, it was not until the 1960s that the extermination of the European Jews was understood as the central fact of German history in the 20th century. An important event was the publication of the book Griff nach der Weltmacht [Grip on World Power] by the Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer, which appeared in 1961. It dealt with Germany’s share in the First World War and its war aims. In the period that followed, Fischer placed National Socialism and its bourgeois allies in the context of a German national and imperialist tradition. Other important books by historians, sociologists and psychologists followed.

HM: So the claim of some people in ’68 that it was they who initiated the debate on Nazi crimes is not true?

HAW: The extermination of the Jews played almost no role in the debates of the ’68ers. They revived the old, communist or vulgar Marxist theory of fascism, which sees National Socialism merely as a manifestation of fascism and this in turn primarily as a regime to secure late capitalist society. The Federal Republic was considered a late capitalist regime, and much of what happened there was denounced at least as fascistoid, if not immediately as a modernised new edition of fascist practices. Basically, this played down National Socialism.

HM: In 2015 you warned against a ‘day-to-day political instrumentalisation of the murder of European Jews’. Where did you see such an instrumentalisation at that time?

HAW: My remark referred to the tendency of some German politicians to use the Holocaust as an argument for very different purposes. In the mid-1990s, a section of the political left, including some Social Democrats, invoked Auschwitz to prevent participation in a humanitarian Bundeswehr mission to protect the civilian population in Bosnia-Herzegovina. About four years later, Joschka Fischer and Rudolf Scharping, two ministers of the then red-green federal government, referred to Auschwitz to justify Bundeswehr participation in an equally humanitarian mission to protect the civilian population in Kosovo. It is highly problematic to try to justify day-to-day political decisions by referring to the crimes of the National Socialists. Here too there is a danger of trivialising and relativising them.

HM: Does this danger also exist in the debate with the AfD? Some call politicians or sympathisers of this party ‘Nazis’ or ‘fascists’. Such a frivolous use of historical terms loses their meaning.

HAW: Today, we are indeed dealing with an inflationary use of the term fascism, which can tend to lead to a false and trivialised picture of National Socialism. I am convinced that it is quite sufficient to attest to the radical forces in the AfD a folkish nationalistic, backward-looking attitude and to fight them for this reason. In its entirety, the AfD is a deeply illiberal nationalist party which calls into question the very foundations of the political culture of the Federal Republic.

HM: Many Germans today seem proud of the way their country has come to terms with its past. Is there a danger that this pride could turn into complacency? In the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016 you spoke of a new German arrogance.

HAW: This tendency has been evident for much longer. In 1988 the then deputy leader of the SPD, Oskar Lafontaine, published a book entitled The Society of the Future. In it he put forward the thesis that precisely because the Germans had had the most terrible experiences with perverted nationalism, they were predestined today to push Europe forward in supranational unification. From perversion to predestination, an almost daring dialectical volte-face! In the so-called refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016 one could hear several times that we Germans are now something like the world champions of helpfulness and philanthropy. The feeling of being able to show others the way by adopting an emphatically moral attitude was not free of traces of national arrogance.

HM: Because the Germans have had such bad experiences with their nation state, do they think today that other peoples should also overcome their nation state?

HAW: The Germans ruined their first nation state, Bismarck’s Reich of 1871. There is nothing to interpret about that. But that does not yet give them the right to deny others the right to a nation and a national identity. More self-critical distance to their own history and less moral claims to leadership over others, that would be the right conclusion to draw from the German past.

HM: And what does that mean for political practice?

HAW: Here it is always important to behave responsibly and ethically in the respective situation. In the sense of Max Weber, this means considering the foreseeable consequences of one’s own decisions as best one can. In relation to our current allies in Eastern and Central Europe, we have a duty to understand their interests as legitimate European interests. That is why we must not give the impression, either in the Baltic States, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia or anywhere else in eastern central Europe, that we are making any decisions with Russia over the heads of these countries. Before the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany in 1941, it was a partner of the German aggressor through the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. The memory of this still lingers in our eastern neighbouring countries today.

HM: Nevertheless, the Soviet Union was not only the perpetrator but also the victim of German aggression. The historical responsibility you mention should therefore also apply to Russia and other former Soviet republics.

HAW: Of course, we must strive for the best possible relationship with the great power Russia and for a constant dialogue with it, but that cannot mean that we are taking a special path towards Moscow. In 2014, Vladimir Putin tore up the Charter of Paris by annexing the Crimea in violation of international law. In November 1990, all the members of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe declared their support for the right to self-determination and the national and territorial integrity of the signatory states. The initiators envisaged a democratic, tri-continental peace zone from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Unfortunately, today we do not find ourselves with Russia in the community of values in which many believed at the time.

HM: The EU claims to be such a community of values. However, Poland and Hungary are on a course of confrontation with Brussels. How should Germany act in this respect? Is interference or restraint appropriate?

HAW: Germany must press the EU for a clear line, otherwise sooner or later it would degenerate into a mere economic union. If Hungary and Poland question the foundations of the rule of law, they are leaving the normative foundation of the European association of states. The EU is thus unfortunately no longer a community of values. If it were up to the Treaty of Lisbon, the suspension of the voting rights of these states would actually have to take place, but such a step can only be decided unanimously. The threat of this is therefore a blunt sword. As a result, the EU must consider how to restore respect for the principle of compliance with the Treaty in the distribution of budgetary resources.

HM: Do you understand that some in Poland are sensitive to German criticism?

HAW: I don’t think that this is true for the whole of Poland, but above all for the governing party PiS. From the liberal opposition I hear completely different tones. They expect solidarity with the demands for the restoration of the rule of law, not false indulgence of the national-conservative government. If Hungary and Poland were to disregard the ruling of the European Court of Justice, this would be a declaration of war on the EU.

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Adrian Hill
Adrian Hill
Adrian Hill. Former soldier and diplomat, afterwards member of CBI Council and author.

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