Easier Fatherland: Germany and the 21st century by Steve Crawshaw

How Germany stepped out of its shadow

In the late 1980s, Germany had somehow ceased to exist. "A former country in central Europe" was the definition offered by the Random House Dictionary in 1987. Instead, there was West Germany, "an economic giant and a political dwarf", in the words of Henry Kissinger: rich, but a little dull. Behind the Iron Curtain was a second Germany, the shadowy "German Democratic Republic", a small "Soviet Prussia" led by an ageing Communist dictatorship, best known as a drab backdrop for spy thrillers. Then came 1989, the fall of the Wall, unification: Germany was back.

Back were also fears of Germany. After all, the country was responsible for the worst crimes of the 20th century, the systematic murder of Europe's Jewry and a racial war of annihilation. When a wave of neo-Nazi violence swept the country, Germany's time in the warming spotlight of well-wishing attention was up. "They have a gene loose," was Martha Gellhorn's judgement in 1992 when she declared never to visit Germany again.

But as Steve Crawshaw, this newspaper's Germany correspondent during the 1990s, shows, something different has happened. Instead of looking for loose genes, the Germans are loosening up. After denial in the 1950s, political violence following the revolt of 1968, one-sided breast-beating and demands in the 1980s for "drawing a line" under the Nazi era, unification and generational change have brought about a Germany that acknowledges its past.

Moving the capital to Berlin, "an open-air museum of German history", added to this. As a result, the country is a little more at ease with itself. "Modern Germany understands that history matters," writes Crawshaw. "That is one reason why history no longer matters as urgently as it did before."

The extent to which the country has changed over the last couple of years is remarkable. Germany has substantially contributed to international forces in Afghanistan, "defending its security at the Hindu Kush", as German defence secretary Peter Struck put it. This would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Now, no one is particularly worried about this, not even the British tabloid press.

Easier Fatherland, a brilliant mixture of history, political and cultural analysis and reportage, deals with these changes and explains the debates that accompanied them. If there is one aspect slightly underexposed, then it is the way outside influences have contributed to Germany's changing attitudes. The late compensation of former slave labourers, mostly from Eastern Europe, is an instructive example. But this is a minor criticism of a first-rate book that is both well-informed and captivating, and a excellent road-map for contemporary Germany.

Henning Hoff

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