The End of History Dies Hard in Berlin
Essays
The End of History Dies Hard in Berlin
Are Germans still too optimistic about the future, despite everything?
Published on: Apr 8, 2022  |  

If history had ended in 1989, it would have ended in Berlin. I often think of this city, where I live, as a monument that sprung up in the place where history collapsed, like a cathedral to a martyred saint. This is not even really a matter of metaphor: after World War II, Berlin was carved up into an American sector, a Soviet sector, a British sector and a French sector, all poised to face off against each other until one of them crumpled.

Today, there is a scar that runs across the streets and along the sidewalks where the Berlin Wall once stood. In the meantime, the 20th century inscribed itself on the city's architecture, which now appears like a cross-section of the last hundred years: there is the domineering Nazi neo-classicism from the 1930s, the triumphal Stalinist city blocks of the 1950s, the quiet bourgeois suburban style of West Berlin from the 1970s and '80s, the optimistic skyscrapers of the Sony Center that went up in the '90s. As an American, I sometimes find all this heavy imagery overbearing, as though I'm trapped on the set of an epic war movie.

Berlin has made for an eerie backdrop in the last month as Ukrainian refugees arrive here daily from neighboring Poland. The lower level of the central train station has been set up as a processing center with the usual German rigor: there are schedules announcing when trains come in; a line where arriving Ukrainians can get free train tickets to join family members in other parts of Germany; there is a covid testing station; tables with stacks of sandwiches, toothpaste, toilet paper, and cat food; a children's play area with toys and books.

German humaneness is learned from history. I wasn't yet living in Europe in 2015, when a large influx of refugees arrived from Syria, so I'm not able to offer a first-hand comparison. By all accounts, Germans largely supported the government's efforts to house and help Syrians at that time. But the asymmetry between the response seven years ago, and what has been a veritable public outpouring for Ukrainians, whom Germans are taking into their private homes, has been disheartening. Still, I would contend that there is a historical dimension to the discrepancy. The sight of mothers and children from Eastern Europe filling the train station in Berlin is a trigger for a memory that is not very distant, only a generation away for some Germans my age whose parents were themselves refugees. The destruction and dismemberment of Europe was not supposed to happen again.

Ideas about "civilization" are stricter and more uniform in Europe than in America, but Europeans regard it as more fragile, which seems to make it so. Germans, especially, believe that no matter how solid the order around us looks, it can disintegrate quickly. I have mostly found this irritating—what I call German "catastrophic," this culture of expecting that everything that one has can disappear in an instant. Recently, I began to wonder whether they weren't right. Berliners began buying iodine pills to take in case of radiation exposure. We woke in the middle of the night to the news that a nuclear reactor 1,200 miles away was on fire. Berlin itself is in the former East Germany, which was part of the Soviet sphere, and therefore potentially within the sights of a revanchist Putin. And the German military is notoriously ill-equipped. Americans have limited possibilities available to the imagination, whereas Germans can see foreign tanks rolling down their streets because it happened just a few decades ago. Everyone around me talked about war coming, perhaps first spilling over into Poland, then drawing Germany in too, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

Yet the rising certainty of impending doom has started to reverse course as the Ukrainians have punched far above their weight, and the Russian invasion has appeared to stall. Maybe the whole European continent won't be at war, and history has ended after all. Which begs the question: what if economic interdependence, the fact that the West can act together to choke Russia off, actually can stop war? What if democratic accountability— the hundreds of thousands of Germans protesting in the streets for their government to curb Russian oil and gas imports, and demanding that they send the Ukrainians arms, things the German government long resisted—can stop the war from spreading?

The war has not stopped for the Ukrainians, and I have no soothing words in the face of the tragedy of circumstance that they are the ones forced to fight it. The gruesome new evidence of war crimes is unbearable. We should see them as our Greatest Generation. To that end, it has been dismaying to watch partisan American pundits play their shallow, zero-stakes games: the nationalists claiming the Ukrainians are nationalists, the liberals claiming the Ukrainians are liberals, and so on and so on. This is an anti-colonial war, and there are surely both liberals and nationalists fighting it, as well as socialists, anarchists, and skinheads, none of whom want to live under the yoke of an occupier. In this context, it is silly to argue that efforts by Ukraine, a country that has been repeatedly invaded and brutalized in the last century, to impose nation-unifying measures (a national language for example) are similar to the goals of national conservatism in a great power like America or France. They aren't.

It has also been instructive to witness Russia turn into a totalitarian society overnight. Of course, it wasn't overnight. It happened slowly—state media capture, the persecution of political opponents, the erosion of tolerance and minority rights—and then all at once. In Germany, historical guilt prevents anyone from ever making Holocaust comparisons, so it is striking to hear Germans say soberly that Putin is a new Hitler. Much of the work I've done as a journalist over the last five years has been an attempt to answer to my own sense of crisis after Trump's election in 2016, that maybe liberal democracy didn't contain the solutions to our problems.

Reporting on democratic backsliding around the world, I sometimes took issue with journalism that relied on the premise that liberalism was the pinnacle of political systems, without ever bothering to prove the assumption. Now I can see with perfect clarity where the dismantling of liberal structures inevitably ends: seemingly small erosions of media independence mean that one day we will wake up to find that the state controls the circulation of all information. The intermingling of power and money among a small group of elites who remain in place for decades leads to a day when they are capable of making decisions about the country without any public accountability whatsoever.

Some German friends are pleased with the country's recent turn toward a more muscular defense policy, though I wouldn't go so far as to call it optimism, which is not a natural German trait. Among those looking at Germany's change of heart from the outside, and who are more inclined to be optimistic, there is a stronger whiff of triumphalism. It would be naïve, however, to think that we are going back to a supposed "liberal world order," where Western values naturally transform societies.

But liberalism, as a system of values, is not dead, nor even tired. Quite the contrary.