Middle Israel: On Germans, Koreans and Jews

Having swiftly collected its lost limb almost immediately after the Berlin Wall's fall, the New Germany emerged as a major symbol of the New World.

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September 24, 2005 03:53

 
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Having swiftly collected its lost limb almost immediately after the Berlin Wall's fall, the New Germany emerged as a major symbol of the New World. Viewed later from the newly reconstructed Potsdamer Platz, where forests of ultra-modern hotels, theaters, malls and office towers came to carpet what had so recently been no-man's land, Germany became respected as a pioneer of a reinvented Europe that is vast, diverse, tolerant and rich, and a prophet of a new international system where justice would matter no less than power. The Korean Peninsula, at the same time, headed in the opposite direction. Since 1989 the 38th Parallel's already ominous system of barbed wire, land mines and watchtowers seemed to have only grown sharper, wider and taller. Here families remained torn by what is cartographically straight, diplomatically balanced and morally insane, and here the local equivalent of Erich Hoenecker not only survived the Cold War but was in fact succeeded by his son, who is reportedly even crazier than his father was. Understandably, then, few expected that by 2005, at a time when North Korea would make an unlikely contribution to international stability, Germany would be the one to emerge as a major source of instability. And yet, just when Pyongyang has begun inching away from its nuclear grandstanding, Germany's political system has failed to produce the leadership that its stagnant economy and perplexed society demand. Why? ON THE FACE of it, Germany's problem is limited to its unaffordable socialist heritage, and the cure for that would be a good dose of Thatcherism, probably even more than conservative candidate Angela Merkel had in mind for it. The ideas Merkel and her would-be finance minister, Paul Kirchhof, promoted were sound. Abolishing some 400 tax exemptions and subsidies, while introducing a flat 25 percent income tax on any income, private or corporate, higher than Euro 8,000 would have spurred growth, attracted investors, and created sorely needed jobs. Similarly, allowing companies to ignore wage deals struck with the unions, thus making hiring and firing cheaper than it became over the decades, would have introduced in the labor market some long-overdue flexibility. For now these plans seem all but suspended, unless Merkel and her archrival Gerhard Schroeder end up not only sharing power, but also rising above personal disdain and partisan reflexes in order to jointly focus on the good of their country. This kind of unlikely harmony actually happened once, in 1985 and right here of all places. Back then, an inconclusive election at a time of economic crisis produced a unity government that had its Labor component force the unions to accept previously unthinkable wage cuts, hiring freezes, subsidy abolitions and tight credit. Yet what the Germans are now going through is different, because their quandary is not merely about reengineering their national wealth, but about reassembling their nation itself; it is not about picking up from where Konrad Adenauer left off, but from where Otto von Bismarck began. KOREA AND Germany did not get split down the middle just because of 20th-century circumstances. The former had been historically torn by the constant push and pull of the gigantic neighbors between whom it has been sandwiched for millennia: Japan and China. The Japanese trampled Korea several times between 1592 and World War II, while the Chinese were Korea's effective overlords for centuries, when Confucianism inspired the peninsula's politics. The Sino-Japanese war of 1894 was mainly over who would get to dominate Korea. As for Germany, unlike France and England it did not emerge from the Middle Ages as a unified nation. Instead, it became the main battlefield for Europe's bloody religious wars in the 17th century, and unlike its neighbors it ended up split between Protestantism and Catholicism. Politically, it atomized into numerous principalities, until the creation of the modern German state in the 19th century by Bismarck. It follows that unifying Germany like emancipating Korea is about much more than removing borders and re-channeling funds; it is about changing hearts and reshaping horizons. When the Cold War ended, both nations were handed a golden opportunity to accomplish just that. Both squandered it. In Germany, the west did not set out to incorporate the east, but to impose itself on it, and even that task was not placed in the hands of the people, but of Big Government, through ambitious infrastructure projects. Fifteen years on, easterners, or Ossies, remain massively unemployed and underpaid, and eastern Germany itself not only fails to attract migrants from western Germany, it is crime-ridden and losing even its indigenous population, according to locally born and raised Jana Hensel's bestseller, After the Wall. In Korea the response to the end of the Cold War was far worse, since the North quickly detected the threat this development posed to its grip on power, while the South grew alarmed the more it monitored Germany's unification experience, and the political, economic and social indigestion that came with it. The common denominator between these situations is that all the leaders involved, from German unifier Helmut Kohl, who ostensibly rose to the historic occasion, to North Korea's unreconstructed Cold Warrior Kim Il-Sung, failed to understand that the history challenging them went back not just a few decades, but entire centuries. Had they understood this, the Germans would have not just poured money into the east's infrastructure, but also fostered a sense of national mission and social solidarity, and demanded the personal involvement and compassion of every western citizen who already had obtained his and her measure of prosperity and stability. The Koreans, at the same time, could have used unification not only for that purpose, but also in order to assert themselves vis- -vis China and Japan. Instead, they allowed the North's leadership to wave its nuclearized fists at any passerby before being called to task by who else? China and Japan, and in the process also starving millions. SET AGAINST this backdrop it is encouraging to recall that Israel, otherwise an Olympic champion in geopolitical incomprehension, will likely be recorded as the one country that rose to the occasion as the Cold War ended. First, unlike North Korea, the Jewish state lost no time establishing solid ties, now nearly 15 years old, with its Cold War-era detractors China, Russia and India. Then, and even more importantly, both the government and the people quickly understood that their own version of the Ossies, the immigrants from the former east bloc, are not liabilities but assets, and space was intuitively made for them in the workplace, the neighborhood, the educational system, the arts, the military, the municipalities, around the cabinet table and indeed in most ordinary citizens' hearts.

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