BOOK REVIEW / The verbal tulip fields round Bonn: Godfrey Hodgson explores a big, timely and authoritative portrait of modern Germany. 'In Europe's Name' - Timothy Garton Ash: Jonathan Cape, 25 pounds

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The Independent Culture
From the day in May 1955 when the Federal Republic of (West) Germany recovered its sovereignty until 31 August 1990, when Germany was reunited (or, as Timothy Garton Ash prefers, united) the Republic's political life was crammed into a tiny space between the Rhine and the main road from Bonn to Bad Godesberg, a mile or so south of the capital.

Here was the Palais Schaumburg, where Adenauer reigned amid eclair architecture, and the modernistic chancellery where Helmut Schmidt chainsmoked. Only a few yards away was the legislature: the modernistic amphitheatre of the Bundestag and a highrise building for its members' offices. Here too was the home of the Fourth Estate: the government press office, a press club, and, clustered around a former tulip field, the offices of the national and international media who did their best to keep the drama of German politics before the world.

Many were the shrewd journalists and learned academics who laboured in the tulip field. Few, if any, had the contacts, the knowledge, the intuitive understanding of German internal and external, that Timothy Garton Ash has; few foreigners have his mastery of the German language. As foreign editor of the Spectator in the Eighties and as a contributor to the Independent he kept the central importance of what was happening in Eastern Europe before the attention of a readership that was all too ready to take the view that faraway countries of which we know nothing began at Calais. And as a historian at St Anthony's College, Oxford, he has published a series of massively authoritative books about Germany and Eastern Europe.

In Europe's Name is equally massive and authoritative. In it, Garton Ash once again deploys his encyclopaedic knowledge of the history and culture of politics in Bonn and Berlin, Moscow and Warsaw and his uncanny ability to read the subtexts behind the oceans of cautiously intelligent verbiage poured so profusely forth by German politicians.

In spite of its slightly gnomic title, this is a history of Ostpolitik, that is, of the West Germans' effort to overcome the Yalta division of Europe. It focuses on the 20 years from the diplomatic efforts of Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr in 1969-70, which led to the treaties with Moscow in 1970 and with East Germany in 1972, to the collapse of East Germany and unification in 1989-90.

Garton Ash has tried to write a book which will tell this story to the general reader, while overwhelming any doubts on the part of professional historians with some 250 pages of scholarly apparatus. It is fair to say that Garton Ash is not cut out for the role of populariser: even his text aimed at the lay reader is studded with polysyllabic German nouns and words like 'apodictic' and engrenage. But this study is based on personal interviewing of almost all the main actors as well as on the archives, including some newly available material.

This is a tough book, but one well worth wrestling with. Its message is in the end plain enough. Garton Ash understands the constraints under which German politicians had to work. They were always vulnerable to blackmail by East Berlin and Moscow, and to the reservations and suspicions of their Western allies, few of whom truly welcomed the idea of a reunited Germany. But in the end he still calls them to account for what he calls their 'insatiable striving after international harmony'. He agrees, I think, with Vaclav Havel's hard saying that by Ostpolitik they meant 'renunciation of freedom - other people's freedom'.

Garton Ash does not argue that Ostpolitik had nothing to do with the coming of freedom in Eastern Europe. On the contrary, he says that Ostpolitik was 'the first hole' in the Berlin Wall. But his main point is that in their fear of alienating the governments they had to deal with if they were to negotiate better relations for Germans in the east, they actually strengthened those governments. He approves Richard Lowenthal's judgement that the younger Social Democrats forgot that 'the conflict with the Soviet Union was not only a conflict between two great powers and their associates, but also a conflict between freedom and tyranny'.

Where his thesis becomes cloudier is when he relates the (already complicated) relationships between Bonn and Moscow, Bonn and East Berlin, Bonn and the other capitals of eastern Europe, to the larger concept of 'Europe'. It is clear that Garton Ash is a European, in the sense of a person steeped in European languages and culture and passionately concerned about Europe. It is equally plain that he is contemptuous of shallow optimism about European unity and impatient of the machinery of 'Europe' in Brussels.

The key to my own difficulty with this book is the misfit between those parts of it which write the history of Ostpolitik and those which amount to an essay on its implications for Europe. The history, while relatively narrow in its relevance, is brilliantly achieved. The second, I have to say, I found obscure. I suspect Garton Ash has attempted at once too much and too little.

On Ostpolitik, Garton Ash has a moral judgement to make. If the German politicians - Christian Democrats as well as Social Democrats and liberals - prepared the way for unification by their patient diplomacy, they may have done so at the expense of other, East, Germans as well as others in Eastern Europe. No doubt he is right. But it is fair to ask what other course Brandt or Bahr, Kohl or Genscher ought to have followed, and that is not spelt out here.

For British readers who are prepared to march, machete in hand, through the dense diplomatic and political undergrowth, Garton Ash has a vitally important point to make. Germany, he insists, not Brussels, is the centre of Europe. His perspective is not that of those who know Washington better than Bonn, who speak French better than German, and who spend their holidays in France or Italy, not in Germany, and that probably describes most of those who have an input into British thinking about foreign policy.

He is historically correct. The problem of Europe is still above all the problem of Germany's relations with her neighbours. Building Europe is not simply a positive sum game of reducing trade barriers, nor yet a matter of creating institutions in Brussels or Luxembourg. It is the titanic task, which neither the Germans nor their neighbours have yet succeeded in carrying out, of creating structures to accommodate the energies and the legitimate ambitions of that people, and to balance their fears and dreams between East and West. In the past Europe has paid a terrible price for failing to understand the centrality of the Germans. Europe cannot afford to make that mistake again.

(Photograph omitted)