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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Roger Cohen: The Miracle of Dullness

Roger Cohen in today's NY Times:

I bumped down in Frankfurt at 10:55 AM. A German landing, I thought — unsubtle and punctual.

The sky was clear, an un-German sky, and the colors that assailed me were pink (Deutsche Telekom), yellow (Lufthansa) and gray: cool colors at some remove from Caspar David Friedrich’s ecstatic dusks in forests of Gothic gloom.

Friedrich’s passionate romanticism is under control these days in a Germany that has become reassuring to the point of dullness. Europe’s most powerful nation is electing its leader Sunday — and nobody really cares.

Welcome to the most boring German election ever, former foreign minister Joschka Fischer told me by way of greeting.

That was enough to compel me to write about the miracle of German dullness. It is cause for hope, a commodity the commodity-rich Middle East does not trade in.

The drudgery is also cause for concern: more on that later.

Lest anyone forget, the world spent a goodly chunk of the last century agonizing over the German question, ruing the proximity of the Polish border to Berlin, digesting the crime. It’s just 20 years since this country was made whole and, with it, Europe. Now mighty Germany chooses its chancellor and, for all people seem to care, the election might be for the Würzburg city council.

It’s not true that everything changes so that everything can remain the same. The German demon got extirpated by American tutelage, European convergence and the rule of law.

Modern Germany, the Johnny-come-lately of European powers, settled down. The German frisson faded to a yawn.

Perhaps Bärbel Bohley, the former East German dissident, summed up the experience, and let-down, of unification best: We wanted justice and we got the rule of law.

Another protest leader, Joachim Gauck, ran her close: We dreamed of paradise and woke up in North-Rhine Westphalia.

Such is the way of adrenalin. It dissipates.

And along comes Angela Merkel, the adrenalin-free Ossi, who has been a chancellor of unmemorable steadiness, and who, barring an upset, will be re-elected at the head of her center-right Christian Democratic Union.

Merkel has been a leader in the image of a settled Germany. Everything about her screams drama over — Brandt on his knees in the Warsaw ghetto; chain-smoking Schmidt (a politician with vision needs to see an ophthalmologist) fighting the fight for medium-range U.S. missiles; Kohl clasping Mitterrand’s hand at Verdun and later inhaling unification with unabashed appetite. Every risk-averse fiber in Merkel’s body proclaims the social-market consensus has prevailed, even through financial crisis.

The extent of discord may be measured by the fact that Merkel’s chief opponent is also her foreign minister in the governing Grand Coalition: Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrat leader. He’s a likeable technocrat who always seems to be wondering how he ever ended up as a politician.

None of the above should suggest there’s nothing at stake. There is: a little. If Merkel gets her favored option — a center-right coalition with the liberal Free Democrats — tax cuts, nuclear power and support for the Afghan mission (Germany has sent more than 4,000 troops) will get a boost. If not, well, more of the same is in order. My sense is most Germans feel market reforms of recent years have gone far enough.

Germans are hunkered down, not unhappy but uninspired. This has been a campaign of astonishing intellectual nullity. I spoke of hope and concern: The former springs from Germany’s absorption of its eastern third and passage into normality, the latter from the country’s numbness.

Nothing — not the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, not the faltering direction of the European Union (once a German obsession, now a sideshow), not financial Armageddon — seems able to stir Germans from contemplation of their navels. This is bad for Europe. The world wanted a boring Germany for a while, but not to this degree, and anyway that time has passed.

Perhaps the center-right option would be a better outcome if only because the Social Democrats need time in the wilderness to resolve their relationship with the Left party. The Grand Coalition is an idea-dampening soporific. Prescription for more than four years is ill-advised.

Germany is in political transition. If the East has been economically absorbed, its political legacy, in the form of the Left party, has proved inhibiting, even paralyzing.

History moves in broad sweeps murky to its hindsight-deprived actors. We can say this: The eruption into the heart of Europe of a German nation state upended the Continent from 1871 to 1945 and a full normalization of Germany has taken from 1945 to the present. The long arc has been painful but hopeful.

The demon of instability, German-prodded, moved to the Middle East, where another modern nation state, Israel, in turn upended the order of things. Perhaps after 74 years (1871-1945), we will see glimmerings of a new, more peaceful regional order there. Hope is almost as stubborn as facts.

Hope, at least, is what my German years bequeathed me. Unsubtle and punctual bumpings-down now comfort me, like the unique hermetic thud of a heavy German door closing, one made to last and to fit.

(Zoon Politikon)



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