Don’t forget the other half of German history

the Bayerische Wald, or Bavarian Forest, is a region of low mountains, rivers and pastures; wolves, wild cats and owls; quiet towns and late Baroque Catholic churches; and loggers and small businessmen who are also mayors of Bavaria’s main political party, the conservative Christian Social Union.

The forest, nestled in a corner of southeastern Germany, lies between the Czech Republic and Austria. The Danube rolls slowly.

On a recent weekend, I visited the Bavarian Forest for personal reasons and in the hope of placing modern Germany’s past in a broader context than that of Berlin, where I live. Berlin, five and a half hours away by train, is a dynamic and sprawling city; in political terms, the most important capital in Europe; in cultural and geographical terms, a world far from the Bavarian Forest.

I went to stay with Ursula, a Bavarian friend who, as an au pair in my London house, had taken care of me when I was a little boy. It was a very long time ago.

One of Ursula’s strongest memories is when my father took her and the whole family to visit Cliveden, the English country house at the center of the Profumo affair. It was the sex and espionage scandal that rocked British politics in 1963, two years after East Germany’s ruling Communists built the Berlin Wall.

Going back the years, Ursula and I agreed that one of my parents’ motives in inviting her to London must be to contribute, however small, to the post-World War II Anglo-German reconciliation, which ended less than 20 years ago.

Her time in the UK certainly made her a lifelong Anglophile, just as my upbringing with Ursula and other German au pairs set me on the path to becoming a lifelong admirer of Germany. .

Yet when I returned to Berlin, I was struck by the fact that Ursula’s life story had an even deeper meaning. Now in her late 60s, she has lived about half of the 150 years since the unification of modern Germany under Otto von Bismarck in 1870-1871.

For much of the first 75 years of this period, Germany was under semi-authoritarian or tyrannical rule, its rulers prone to militaristic adventures, its political culture shaped by Prussian state domination.

For the second half of the period, however, German history was one of democracy, political stability, and a deep commitment to learning from past crimes. East Germany under Soviet-imposed communism is the important exception.

But the little-lamented workers’ and peasants’ state lasted no more than four decades. November 9 will mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by German reunification.

During this second 75-year period, a defining characteristic of German society was pacifism. Indeed, some of Germany’s NATO and EU allies have long argued that the country should spend more on defense. But politicians are reluctant to go further than public opinion would like.

That’s why it was sad, stupid and disgusting that Bill Cash, a pro-Brexit Conservative campaigner and member of the British parliament, suggested in a tweet in July that it was “gravely concerning” that a former German minister for Defense, Ursula von der Leyen, had been chosen as the next President of the European Commission.

One way to bury these prejudices would be to improve, and above all expand, the teaching of German history in the British education system. Insofar as schoolchildren learn about Germany, they are taught about the Nazi dictatorship and World War II. They learn almost nothing about the political and moral recovery of West Germany in the second half of the 20th century, or even about the German history of the preceding centuries.

As for the study of the German language, forget it – it fizzles in British schools faster than the foam of a neglected beer at Oktoberfest.


Ursula’s experiences in the Bavarian Forest suggest how one might shed light on German history with a different approach. In her long life, she has seen at least three waves of refugees cross the borders of her home region.

First, there were the 12 million or more ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia, Poland and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe after 1945. Ursula herself married one of these refugees.

Then, in the 1990s, another group of ethnic Germans arrived, who had lived in Russia since Tsarist times and settled in Germany after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were also refugees from the Yugoslav wars. Finally, in 2015-16 came one million refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, admitted to Germany on the initiative of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The long-term political and social consequences of Merkel’s decision remain to be seen. Integrating so many short-term newcomers is anything but simple. Yet life in the Bavarian Forest goes on. The air is fresh, the church bells are ringing. And the Danube flows, as it has for centuries.

Tony Barber is the FT’s European commentator

Email Tony at [email protected]

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