BOOKS - NEW GERMANY - TEN YEARS ON - Along the Wall and Watchtowers, Oliver August, HarperCollins £19.99. Mark Leonard goes on a journey around modern Germany with a capable guide whose travelogue is insightful, if at times a little rambling.
On 9 November 1989, the crowds partied on the Berlin Wall. By 3rd October 1990, the 'German Democratic Republic' had been officially consigned to the dustbin of history. This rapid reunification on western terms was not inevitable. Gorbachev, Mitterrand, Thatcher and most of the German intelligentsia, both east and west, wanted slower evolution to a more-open destination. Helmut Kohl seized upon popular sentiment - as the placards changed from wir sind das Volk to wir sind ein Volk - to turn them all into Canutes, unable to hold back history. But could Germany really become one nation so easily? Oliver August travels along the disappeared border and finds that few people want to commemorate or even talk about it.
Yet the division between 'Ossis' and 'Wessis' is everywhere. Those whose life was the party are left without moorings. But a milder 'Ostalgia' is shared by most East Germans who wanted change, but not second-class citizenship and broken dreams. August seems the ideal German tour guide for British readers. His father escaped west across the unfortified border in 1949; he also visits the uncommunicative relatives left behind.
The book meanders like the journey. Everything depends on who August bumps into. Tales of consistently appalling customer service begin to pall. We even border on spy-novel-cum-farce as he joins sad Herr Schneider's search for the Russian mail-order bride who never turned up.
Our glimpse of tight-knit, entirely detached Russian communities shows the absurdity of imperial blood-based citizenship laws which accept ethnic Germans from Kazakhstan without a word of the language while rejecting German-born-and-bred third-generation Turks and Bangladeshis. One in 10 residents is an Auslander - the limited reforms currently mooted are too little, too late.
Immigration was almost unknown in East Germany and the regime even falsified maps so that 'fugitives from the republic' would think they had reached the West and not East German Volkspolizei camps. But is there anything new to say about its inhumanity? The book ends with a hard-won prison interview with a defiant General Baumgarten, who was in charge of the Iron Curtain and the border guards.
Having survived this prison state with more spies than doctors, many East Germans feel that they are all under suspicion; that Westerners, desperate 'not to repeat the 1950s mistake by ducking denazification', are judging them all guilty. So the ex-Communists remain significant by offering nothing constructive beyond empathy with the Ossi identity. This makes them a useful performance indicator for those seeking to make unification a reality. This may require not just a generational shift, but for the western-dominated mainstream parties to invent a different and more bottom-up style of politics.
But completing unification is not just about the East. Whenever I go to Germany I am struck by how much the West has been transformed too. Traditionally cautious, conservative Germany is living through a whirlwind of change - the euro; goodbye to Bonn; Luftwaffe missions over Serbia; the end of Kohl. The 'Berliner Republik' shifts Germany's centre of gravity east and its focus outwards. Paradoxically Germany's renewed self-confidence should be good news for Europe - both to enhance its global influence and to drive internal reform.
Germany will press for Europe not to betray its enlargement promises but will not be prepared to foot so much of the bill for an irrational Common Agricultural Policy.
This is not the death of the Franco-German relationship - but it is being rebalanced and becoming less exclusive. We are only just realising that 1989 marked the death of the provincial west as much as the Communist east.