The foyer of Berlin’s swanky Adlon Kempinski Hotel at the bottom of Unter den Linden is bustling on Thursday morning. With all the to-ing and fro-ing, checking out and checking in, most of the throng fail to notice the frail old man with the walking stick as he shuffles past the piano bar. He hesitates – without looking up – and negotiates his way methodically, one step at a time, past two laughing hotel porters who are eyeing up the guests to see who is a tipper and who is a Scrooge.
Here at the Ground Zero of European political history, hemmed in by the Reichstag on the right and the Brandenburg Gate on the left, it seems somehow apt that the fiercest of all the Cold War warriors – the now ancient Henry Kissinger – should be making a cameo appearance as he moves slowly towards the lifts.
And why shouldn’t he be here? After all this is his birthplace. As a child, Kissinger was one of the last of the 270,000 German Jews – just under half the German Jewish population – who managed to get out of Germany between 1933 and 1941, when, so cruelly, the doors were finally sealed on one of Europe’s most remarkable tribes. Very few of them survived the next four diabolical years. Europe and Germany are much the weaker for their absence.
And absence is one of the feelings you get in Berlin. Even though this is my umpteenth visit to the German capital – I first ventured through Checkpoint Charlie on a Dalkey United schoolboys’ football trip more than 30 years ago with none other than the great Paul Mc Grath – I still get the feeling that the place is not complete. Something is missing and can never be put back.
Maybe it’s the sense that this city can never again be the legitimate capital of Europe.
Granted, a huge European flag flies beside the flag of the Bundesrepublik from the renovated Reichstag. But something tells you it doesn’t fly proudly beside the German flag as an equal.
It flies as much as a counter-balance to the German flag, to hold in check the German flag, to police the German flag, to give the Germans the permission to fly their own flag in their own capital.
It is there to make sure the German flag at the heart of Europe doesn’t fly alone, because there is still too much history here.
This angst-ridden self-consciousness continues to dominate and ultimately undermine German thinking about Europe. This feeling comes from Germans themselves.
It is nearly 50 years since the wonderful post-war chancellor, Willy Brandt, described West Germany as “an economic giant but a political pygmy”. Now 20 years after unification, not a huge amount has changed. Germany remains Europe’s reluctant leader. It is the natural leader of the EU, but is a superpower which remains hostage to its past.
In the past two days here, I have been speaking to many German financial managers – the people who manage the money of this huge economic superpower.
All of them realise that at this time of Europe’s crisis, Germany must lead. Yet all agree that Germany is still wary of this. Most of these people are young professionals who were not born when Brandt made his famous speech.
Few of their parents were alive during the war and fewer still have anything other than a folk memory of the 1920s and 1930s. Yet they all remain hostages to history.
This is the absence you feel in Berlin; it is an absence of political leadership.
For the German people I have been speaking to, there only seem to be two forms of German politics when it comes to Europe – one is reasonably benign, yet ineffectual compromise, the other is full-blooded apocalypse, with the historical echoes of the jackboots.
They know the latter will never happen but are afraid to admit it, as if admitting that Germany has changed for good is tantamount to trying to erase the memory. Thus, rather than acceptance being the prerequisite for moving on, the very act of acceptance becomes the stumbling block in itself.
As long as the average German feels that Germany has only two gears – forward or reverse – Europe is stuck.
For those who have spent any time in the Bundesrepublik with German people, this unwillingness to accept European leadership because of what their grandparents or great grandparents did 70 years ago verges on a sort of neurotic self-loathing. It also bears no relation to the evident aspirations of modern Germany. But it is as it is.
And yet this German self-loathing is a disaster because only Germany can save the eurozone from a messy break-up – or prolonged stagnation which will lead to a messy break-up.
Unless Germany leans on the ECB to buy up more and more European government bonds, the present crisis will continue and end in chaos. The reason the Germans won’t mandate the ECB to do so is because they are worried about hyperinflation if the ECB prints too much money to buy all these bonds. It has seeped into German folk memory that the economic cause for the rise of Nazism was hyperinflation. This has been parroted again and again by those who don’t know their history. The opposite is in fact the case.
The hyperinflation was over by 1924. Hitler came to power almost a decade later and what propelled him into power was the response to the 1929 crash: fiscal tightening. In 1930, the German chancellor, responding to the fall in German output in the 1930-1932 period, inflicted too much austerity. Unemployment soared and Hitler rode to power.
So Hitler came to power not because of inflation but because of deflation. If there is any lesson from German history, it is to loosen policy – both budgetary and monetary policy – in a downturn, not the opposite.
As I watch the old Jewish German, Kissinger, enter the lift, I am riffling through the German papers in the foyer, to see how they reported Enda Kenny’s visit on Wednesday.
It was big news in Ireland. Here there is nothing. Not in the Berliner Morgenpost, Berliner Zeitung, Die Welt, SÃ¼ddeutsche Zeitung or Die Zeit.
There are one or two secondary stories about Italy and the new government, but nothing, not even a footnote about us.
So what was the headline in all the German papers on Thursday, November 17, 2011?
It’s a story about an obscure neo-Nazi group, which was broken up by police in the poor province of Mecklenburg. Germany’s future plays out in front of us, yet its past still dominates.
The lift closes and Kissinger is gone.