On Nov. 9, Berlin will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall that divided the city during much of the Cold War. At the time, images of exuberant wall-breakers signaled the end of communism. A quarter-century later, the event seems to have also been a prelude to the rebirth of Berlin and the emergence of Germany as Europe’s supreme power.
This astonishing turnaround contains many inescapable historical ironies. Germany’s great intellectual, political and scientific talent had once destined it to be the principal nation of Europe. But Germany went on to produce the most terrible variant of European imperialism, and almost brought about the destruction of Europe itself.
Not surprisingly, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the prospect of a reunified Germany struck terror in the hearts of British and French leaders. The late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher recorded in her memoir how she pulled out a map from her famous handbag to show French President Francois Mitterrand “the various configurations of Germany in the past, which were not altogether reassuring about the future.”
Mitterrand, going all misty-eyed, said that “at moments of great danger in the past France had always established special relations with Britain and he felt such a time had come again.” Thatcher solemnly concluded that “although we had not discovered the means, at least we both had the will to check the German juggernaut. That was a start.”
It remains one. In Berlin, from where I write, this Anglo-French grandstanding makes for sad reading today. France and Britain have rarely been so divided from each other since the end of World War II. In that time, their international stock has never been lower.
Even as ethnic-racial chauvinists around the world pursue a range of enemies – from Shiites, Kurds and Roma to Ebola-Obama – Britain is locked into a puerile debate about immigration and the European Union. The far-right U.K. Independence Party seems almost to be dictating the national agenda. British Prime Minister David Cameron has responded to the rise of UKIP by threatening – imprecisely – to crack down on EU migrants rather than rebutting the far right’s scaremongering. His demand for restrictions on free movement within Europe – a sacred principle in Brussels – could help bring down the European Union.
Diminished by private scandal and economic setbacks, French President Francois Holland looks similarly helpless against the National Front’s popular rightist leader Marine Le Pen. Earlier this year, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls was reduced to insisting that “we are a great nation,” suggesting that France was not as obliged as Portugal, say, to follow the rules of the European Union on budget deficits.
Meanwhile, Germany has become the world’s second-biggest immigrant nation. Berlin’s mixed population, which now includes Jewish immigrants from Israel as well as Turks and Arabs, is engaged in a fresh European experiment in coexistence. The Euroskeptic Alternative for Germany Party is a fringe nuisance.
Thatcher and Mitterrand did not envision such a fractious and crisis-prone Europe, and never imagined Germany would become its reluctant leader. Of course, Germany’s pre-eminence within Europe may not last forever; already it is hardly loved. In countries such as Spain and Greece, one only has to start a conversation about Germany – as I did in Barcelona recently – to quickly tap into reserves of deep unhappiness and distrust, if not outright loathing.
At home, Germany has just suffered the biggest strike by workers in years, which crippled rail services across the country. Industrial output is down, and uncertainty about China’s growth clouds the future. Racism remains a big problem. Even Berlin’s canny branding as “poor but sexy” conceals its exceptional character among German cities, not to mention such problems as an endlessly delayed new airport and other white elephant projects.
Germany also confronts more pressing new questions abroad. What to do about the Russian juggernaut? Or about right-wing leaders in neighboring Hungary, who mock with their xenophobia and open love of Chinese-style authoritarianism the ideals of the European Union?
Indeed, instead of ending in 1989, history may have now embarked on one of its most ironic episodes. Germany finds itself saddled with an unexpected and unsought responsibility: having once almost destroyed Europe, it may now be called upon to save it.
Pankaj Mishra, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,”