Accessibility links

Germany: Analysis From Washington--Nations, States And Stability

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 4 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Many conflicts around the world stem from the lack of correspondence between political and ethnic borders. And many observers have argued that bringing the two closer together will help not only to resolve these conflicts but also to generate greater stability within and among states.

But the problems a reunited Germany continues to face suggest that policies designed to increase the correspondence between the two kinds of borders may not always have the intended consequences and may even create new and more difficult problems as well.

Even more, the difficulties Germans face in integrating the former German Democratic Republic into the Federal Republic of Germany highlight the changeability, the fragility, and the deeply political nature of ethnicity itself.

For many, the reunification of the two Germanies almost a decade ago not only marked the end of the Cold War but opened the way for the emergence of a new Germany, one that had come to terms with and overcome its tragic past.

And optimism on these points was fueled by the remarkable commitment the central German government made to build up the east to the level of the west.

But any optimism that existed earlier has been largely undercut. On the one hand, many residents of the former East Germany resent Westerners for failing to do even more and for ignoring what they see as their distinctive situation, one produced by almost half a century of communist rule.

On the other, many residents of the former West Germany resent the financial and political burdens that their efforts to help the Easterners have imposed, burdens that have called into question whether Germany will be able to revive itself as an economic powerhouse.

This split between east and west has been reflected at the ballot box, with easterners voting for extremist parties of the left and the right and westerners increasingly voting against the ruling Social Democratic Party in many cases because of its commitment to assisting the east.

Indeed, a few voices are even being raised in both sections of Germany about the desirability of reunification, voices that received added support last week when Guenther Grass, who opposed reunification, received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Many German commentaries about Grass focused on his views on this subject, yet another indication of just how difficult reuniting the two Germanies has been and remains, even when most of that country's political class is still committed to overcoming the earlier divide.

But these discussions in Germany have the effect of calling attention to three aspects of the relationship between ethnic identity and political loyalty that affect many other nations and countries.

First, they show just how changeable ethnic identifications are. The German nation was hardly uniform even in 1945, but the impact of living in two states for most of the post-war period introduced a new division in the nature of ethnic identity among Germans, one that makes fashioning a new unity much more difficult.

Second, these discussion highlight just how fragile identifications -- ethnic and political -- often are. Only a few years ago, many assumed that German ethnic identity and German political identity would allow Bonn and now Berlin to overcome these divisions with little difficulty, something that has not happened.

And third, they highlight the close linkage of ethnicity and state power. As German history since World War II shows, on some occasions, the existence of a state helps to strengthen ethnic ties, but at other times, the existence of a state has the opposite effect.

Taken together, these three factors call into question the often unquestioned assumptions about the value and survivability of the nation state, even when it is more or less homogeneous in ethnic terms.

But by highlighting some aspects of the complex relationship of ethnic and political identities, the German experience suggests that ethnic groups which find themselves in a minority status in one state may evolve more quickly than some assume.

At the same time, the German case clearly suggests that no state can simply assume that it will and can count on the unity of its largest ethnic component just because that state claims to act in that ethnic community's name.

And these twin outcomes in and of themselves may open the door to a new debate about the meaning and the future of the nation state as the core element of the current international system. ss
XS
SM
MD
LG