Backs to the wall: the mood of many Germans

It comes as a huge shock to discover that a fifth of the German people would like the Wall back

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There are societies in this country dedicated to the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, three centuries on; there are others which single-mindedly promote the idea that the works of Shakespeare were written by the Earl of Oxford. Some people believe that the world is secretly run by intergalactic space-lizards; others that the Queen is the head of an international drugs cartel.

Even the most absurd propositions will, if you look hard enough, be supported by someone, somewhere, and we shouldn't really be surprised at the oddity of other people's opinions. All the same, it comes as an enormous shock to discover that a fifth of the German people, according to a poll this week, would seriously like the Wall back.

Most of these people are from the old West; a full quarter of those asked thought that East Germany should be isolated once more. Incredibly, however, 12 per cent of those who had grown up in East Germany agreed; at which point wilful eccentricity starts to look like near-lunacy.

How, exactly, this separation was supposed to work, even in the minds of those agreeing with this idea, I don't know; now that half of Eastern Europe is in the European Union, it might be quite difficult. Even on the level of wishful thinking, the idea is so bizarre and grotesque that it is hard to imagine who, exactly, might entertain it.

The daily miseries of living in East Germany need no reminder; nor does the catastrophic economy. It is incredible that anyone could wish themselves back in the DDR; hardly more credible that a quarter of West Germans should care so little for their neighbours and value their obligations so lightly as to wish them safely behind a big blank wall again.

By any rational standards, the brutal division of the country until 1989 was an ugly business. How bad can things be in Germany now for anyone, let alone such numbers, to hanker after the days of the Cold War? The answer is, realistically, not that bad at all, considering the immensity of the task faced after 1989. Compared to other countries in the Eastern bloc, a lot of old East Germany is thriving; many of the cities look spruce, have the appearance of concerted activity, and don't obviously present the spectacle of despair which this survey suggests.

But the dissatisfaction is genuine, and Germany's problems are far-reaching. When, last month, a series of demonstrations was launched against proposed cuts in welfare, the cynicism of the decision to begin in Leipzig, where the 1989 protests started, seemed deplorable. The fact that it seemed reasonable to compare a protest against the reforms of a democratic government with one against the brutal oppression of the DDR suggests a great deal about a blinkered view common among Germans.

The reforms to the welfare system are absolutely necessary. At present, unemployment benefits are crazily generous; not only is there an active disincentive to seek work, the cost of welfare acts as a terrible burden on the whole economy. The protesters want to cling to this security blanket, not quite accepting that if things continue, there may be nobody to pay for the blanket; they also want to cling to that other reassuring totem, the insanely prescriptive and constraining German employment laws.

Under the burden of rights and obligations, employers find it impossible to employ in a flexible way, and the structural nature of the employment market makes it difficult to make inroads into the unemployment figures. The way that a lot of English workers live, moving from job to job, strikes many Germans as unimaginable; but the demands of security are steadily leading Germany into a completely unsustainable situation.

No wonder that some of them start to fantasise about the life they used to lead, where everything was perfectly secure, forgetting that safety and stability came at a terrible price. The country is still dealing, too, with the consequences of a very restrictive and divisive immigration policy in the decades after the Second World War. If Germany had been more prepared to open its doors unconditionally to immigrants, rather than only grudgingly admit Turks as "Gastarbeiter", in the offensive term, while refusing them and their children citizenship, then we might now see a more dynamic society. Everyone can see the economic benefits which entrepreneurs of foreign birth have brought to this country; it is very difficult to point to anything comparable in Germany.

The fundamental problem with part of the German mentality, and one which I have heard many Germans complain about, is that solutions are regularly regarded as problems. The reform of the employment laws and the determination to take welfare in hand are regarded as disasters, without considering what the alternative might be.

Germany has to change, and it will: it is already thrilling to see how much of the East has been transformed. To an outsider, it is impossible to understand how people, living through such an exciting period of change and development could wish it all undone. Perhaps only long afterwards will it be possible to look back and see that what a noisy minority were complaining and protesting about were nothing worse than opportunities.

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