To spend time in the United Kingdom and Germany in early 1993 is to become aware of levels of discontent unimaginable four years ago. Superficially, the disappointments appear to be linked to the worldwide economic recession, with levels of unemployment exceeding what dem-ocratically elected governments are supposed to tolerate. Except for those with a professional interest in arguing that the moment of recovery is at hand, there is little expectation that the happy days of 1989-minus the Soviet Union of course-are scheduled for an early return. Folk wisdom tells ordinary people that something more than an economic slowdown has occurred in what was once seen as a group of self-confident democracies on the road to making a new Europe.

This is not to suggest that the recession has not been serious, for Britain even more than for Germany. To have three million men and women unemployed out of a total population of some 57 million in the United Kingdom, with a million having had no work for a year or longer, is to experience the tragedy Margaret Thatcher imagined she had permanently overcome by her drastic and presumably effective free enterprise policies. The failure to make British industry competitive, productive and lithe, and its working population industrious, has deflated the most ambitious of the Tory Party's many well-advertised ideologies. The results of the recession are conspicuous, not only in the nineteenth-century industrial cities of northern England, but also in the home counties, in London itself: boarded-up, empty storefronts of a thousand high streets, homeless men and women sleeping in doorways off Fleet Street and along the Strand, widespread unemployment and underemployment spoken of in all social strata. It is particularly painful for the young, including many who are university graduates, and it generates a pessimism that is palpable. For the middle class the collapse of the real estate market has been an especially hard blow, made more serious by the fact that so great a part of a family's purported wealth is in its house and garden. In Britain the talk of "decline" is more pervasive than it has ever been, and not merely because of a devalued pound.

The situation in Germany is not nearly so serious. Only at the end of 1992, for example, did the Bundesbank feel obliged to acknowledge that the country was in recession. The evidence of prosperity remains conspicuous: in Bonn, where construction derricks fill the skies and building crews work to create more office space, the proposition that a once somnolent Rhine city is likely soon to be seriously diminished by the movement of Germany's capital to Berlin seems unlikely. In Düsseldorf, a city not famous for its hordes of tourists, the shop windows display merchandise of such luxury and expense that one can only believe that consumer confidence remains high, at least among well-paid executives. In Munich and Berlin, Hamburg and Mannheim, the solid comfort of yesterday is much in evidence. Yet German unemployment statistics tell a story constantly repeated by the mass media: almost three and a half million Germans are currently unemployed. Some 7.5 percent of the labor force in the former Federal Republic of Germany is out of work; in the former German Democratic Republic the number rises to 14.5 percent. While urban renewal in Dresden and Leipzig, in East Berlin and Potsdam, suggests that Bonn authorities are beginning to cope with the problems of underdevelopment in the newly incorporated eastern states, there is still much talk of economic hardship, created in great part, it is believed, by the high costs of reunification.

It is not only the financial dailies that speak of pounds and marks. These are the principal currencies of much of the political dialogue not wholly consumed by the more popular media themes: murder and mayhem, crime and punishment. In these circumstances, it is easy to forget that the Germans and the British have had very different economic and political experiences in this century and remain more suspicious of each other-perhaps even more resentful-than either is prepared to admit.

BRITAIN'S BLUES

If Great Britain suffers today from a single social and political malady, it is that of regret-not to be confused with nostalgia. Few in Britain believe that the way back to societal health is through a reversion to Victorian ways. Yet the century has clearly not turned out to be what its politicians or social, economic or intellectual elites expected it to be. Disappointment with the slow growth of the economy conceals a deeper dismay, with a society that remains sharply divided between the very rich and the very poor, with a much expanded middle class, admittedly, but with many having fewer opportunities at home and abroad. The violence of the cities, now recognized to exist also in towns and villages, refutes the reputation for public safety established more than a century and a half ago with the creation of an unarmed national police. The old established institutions, except for the military, are seriously diminished both in their reputation and prestige.

Beside all the evidence of discontent and grievance lies a more parochial disappointment. While Thatcherism is now criticized-its only major and permanent accomplishment in the eyes of many being the defeat of the trade unions, with their greatly exaggerated claims to power-there is no new regard for the institutions Mrs. Thatcher so persistently and powerfully disparaged. In her disdain for the universities and for intellectual life as Britons had known it, she did irreparable harm to British education, which already was suffering adverse effects from too much tinkering at the primary and secondary school levels.

Nor have surrogates been found in technology. Having lost its promising situation years earlier in aeronautics and automobiles, Britain has gained no new distinction in such areas as electronics and computers. While the country retains some advantages in pharmaceuticals, and profits greatly from its North Sea oil resources, the latter is regarded as a wasting asset. The old coal and steel industries have collapsed, as they did in much of Europe, and the hopes for a new economy based on banking and insurance have never been wholly realized. Tourism is Britain's not-so-secret economic weapon, and its success threatens to make London (and much of "traditional" England) the Venice of the north, a prospect with limited appeal to many Britons. Incapable of profiting from Thatcherism's unreserved commitment to the principles of the market economy, Britain seems imprisoned in a time capsule that does not bear a 21st-century imprint.

THE DISTRACTIONS OF WEALTH

The situation in Germany differs vastly. Germans recovered in record time from a disastrous and shameful war, creating the impression that hard work and an overwhelming determination to obliterate their Nazi past would produce the longed-for rehabilitation and that it would be reflected in unprecedented prosperity and peace. The decision by the United States to enlist Germany's help in the conflict with Soviet communism made its economic recovery all the more certain. A truncated and reduced Germany, the pariah state of 1945, achieved levels of prosperity never experienced in the days of the kaiser or in the short-lived Weimar republic. The nation rebuilt itself-its cities, in the first instance, but also its institutions. Nazism was made to appear a national aberration, extinguished not by individual heroism-the July plotters who risked their lives in attempting Hitler's assassination never figured as national heroes-but by a collective effort to create a constitutional order based on an aversion to violence.

The Federal Republic, increasingly prosperous, secure and provincial, protected by others but also contributing to its own defense, knew itself to be economically superior to the German communist regime across the dangerous divide symbolized by the Berlin Wall. Its old foe, France, under both the Fourth and the Fifth republics, became a partner that helped to make a new Germany possible. Having emerged as one of the major architects of the European Community, Germany regained its former respectability.

If, in Germany's rhetoric, attention was given principally to the strength of the Deutsche mark and the qualities of the Mercedes-Benz, if less was said about its universities, about its intellectual and scientific prowess, this was because of the insatiable national preoccupation with material comfort and well-being. Travel, second homes, sports and holidays became symbols of a society engaged in an increasingly reckless race to find and enjoy the sun. A growing prosperity brought millions of foreigners into the country, never as citizens, but as "guest workers," to do the menial jobs.

RETHINKING THE PAST

Today, four years after 1989, both Britain and Germany are compelled to rethink their pasts. The British do so because Thatcherism has fallen into disrepute. The Germans are compelled because a united Germany will not be what Helmut Kohl imagined even as recently as a year ago. The Chancellor is not much preoccupied with Europe-shy Britain or with his more reliable and beleaguered friend, François Mitterrand. Today his concerns are largely domestic. The country is divided over its obligations to the hundreds of thousands who wish to settle in Germany. The old idealism, proclaimed in a constitution that extolled Germany's interest in welcoming refugees-implying some sort of national atonement for past aggressions-seems to belong to another age. When Germans reflect that in the last year alone almost a million men and women came from abroad to seek refuge in Germany, that 450,000 sought to qualify as "asylum seekers," that 250,000 refugees came from former Yugoslavia, and that another 250,000 "ethnic Germans" arrived from the East, taking advantage of the "right of return," the situation is thought to be out of hand.

If there is scant sympathy for the neo-Nazis who attacked and killed a 10-year-old child and her Turkish grandmother, part of a family that had lived in Germany for decades, if the xenophobia revealed by such action dismays decent men and women living in nearby Hamburg, the publicity that attends such incidents is also painful. Abroad as much as at home, Germany is being asked whether the recent showing of the National Democrats does not reflect the revival of right-wing extremism. The citizens of Frankfurt find such questioning impertinent, almost insolent. What would others do if they suddenly had to find housing and provide other facilities for 170,000 foreigners who had chosen their city to live in? Would others be so accommodating?

On proposals that the Germans should involve themselves in military action in Yugoslavia-some believe they bear some small responsibility for the present impasse, having pressed their European Community colleagues to recognize Croatia and Slovenia last year, against the better judgment of both France and the United Kingdom-the official German response is to cite the postwar constitution's ban against using German troops abroad. Still, Germany may be prepared to give money, as it of course did after a certain amount of American pressure during the Gulf War. Money, though said to be in short supply, is always available for worthy foreign causes, and there is not a little pride in the periodic announcements that Germany is doing more to help the newly democratic states of Eastern and Central Europe than any of the other rich industrial societies.

The German government, inward-looking not only for constitutional reasons, is unprepared to risk the lives of German soldiers in any war, including the current Balkan conflict, despite awareness of the risks that an extension of the fighting poses for the whole of Europe. In this, Germany resembles all its European friends in the Community. Knowing that the United States entered the Gulf War only because it was safe to do so, that there is no equivalent prospect for negligible loss of life in the Yugoslav imbroglio, it has no illusions that President Clinton will do more than take the most limited military measures, if any.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

Unification has proved to be not only an economic problem, but a deeply troubling psychological one. Whatever the West Germans learned about the East German regime when visits across the fortified borders were common, they were unprepared for Stasi revelations that millions willingly collaborated with the secret police to spy on their neighbors. This disconcerting episode has stoked memories of comparable, widespread behavior in the period when the Nazis held sway, from 1933 to 1945. A dismal chapter in German history, purportedly closed, has been reopened, with consequences that are still not fully acknowledged.

Interestingly, something similar is occurring in the United Kingdom, but for very different reasons and with quite different results. The manifest and continuing failures of the British economy, exacerbated by growing disillusion with the social policies of the Tory government and the performance of more permanent institutions-including the monarchy itself-has led to new introspection on what went wrong in the years after World War II. The shabbiness of public life, the sordidness of stories communicated daily by a press that believes the public's craving for scandal is insatiable, but mostly, the narrowing of the nation's horizons-an empire lost, Europe, and not just the Community, in deep trouble-has generated bewilderment.

A book that created something of a sensation late in 1992, if only for a moment-a new biography of Winston Churchill by a young Tory historian, John Charmley-sought to remove Britain's leading twentieth-century hero from his firmly established World War II pedestal. In doing so, Charmley not only dethroned a folk hero but denied the spirit of an age. Charmley was saying that even the war had been a mistake, that Churchill's conduct of it had been disastrous, and that only a silly conspiracy on the part of official and other historians had concealed the truth.

If the war was a mistake, what pride could be taken in what followed, in the achievements of a Labour government that gave Britain its welfare state, India its independence and the United States its most faithful ally? If all this was nothing, it would be the ultimate denial of a people's wish to be remembered as heroic, if only for a moment.

In Britain and Germany, the new urge to look back at the war, to tell the unvarnished truth, presents great opportunities for discovery and also great hazards. Given the mood in Europe, and not only in the United Kingdom and Germany, where conservative political leaders seem disinclined to acknowledge the sources of their publics' discontents, and where their oppositions are no more able to do so, the discourse is largely about peripheral inessentials. When and if more fundamental issues come to be discussed-race, nationality and religious belief-the significance of the twentieth century will be seen in a new light. The revelations may not be wholly flattering nor even very encouraging.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now