Now, in the 21st century, we Germans are standing at yet another crossroads: between a bold advance to a liberal, cosmopolitan Europe and a cowardly retreat to 19th-century petty nationalisms.
I have lived through two dark eras: the Nazi dictatorship and the Communist dictatorship of East Germany. My Jewish, communist father was murdered in Auschwitz. In East Berlin, I spent 12 years of my life barred from performing. It was a good time despite it all — my rebellious songs and critical poems spread all the more effectively for being illegal. In 1976, I was expelled against my will to the western side of the Iron Curtain, exiled from Germany into Germany. The international statements of solidarity protesting my illegal expatriation, and especially the protests within East Germany itself, jolted the regime.
During the Cold War, I was sure the Berlin Wall would last longer than I would. In 1989, when East Germans’ peaceful revolution toppled the wall, my melancholy pessimism of convenience was revealed as an illusion. I was overjoyed to be disillusioned.
The reunification of our guilt-ridden fatherland was placed on the agenda of world history. It was accepted quickly by the Americans, chaotically by the Russians, skeptically by the French and reluctantly by the British. And when the entire Eastern Bloc began to crumble, without a big bang, without a hot war, without bloody civil strife, I knew for certain that from now on, all throughout Europe, we would be singing a new and better song of life. Down with the communist experiment on human guinea pigs! Freedom of speech! Peace! And democracy!
The West German chancellor Helmut Kohl, told his countrymen the soothing fairy tale that reunification would not cost as much as they feared. “We’ll pay these expenses out of our pocket change,” he promised them. And like a profane messiah, he promised East Germans “blossoming landscapes.” Quite a while later, Kohl’s promises have proved at least to be half-true: The West was not bankrupted by the $2 trillion it spent to rebuild the East. And in eastern Germany, some cities and landscapes are blossoming more beautifully than many cities and communities in the west of our country.
Yet the past decades have taught us how much easier it is to build new roads and houses and modern factories than to turn subjugated subjects into tolerant democrats. In that peaceful revolution 30 years ago, the East Germans, the “Ossis,” liberated themselves at last — but then they had to learn the tough lesson that the magic word “freedom” means nothing more or less than taking responsibility for yourself. Freedom hurts for people trained as slaves. “Ostalgia” was the new, mocking term I used to describe the clandestine longing for the conveniences of dictatorship. And in the former East Germany, the growth of Western prosperity also brought a new paranoia, a paradoxical fear of social decline.
In 2015, when our chancellor, Angela Merkel, decided to open Germany’s borders to war refugees, especially from Syria and Afghanistan, the situation was tragic. Watching Shakespeare in the theater, you can grasp what tragedy means: Every possible solution is wrong. The dramatic hero does not have to choose between good and evil, but whether to make this mistake or that one. In a catastrophe of this kind, every choice is wrong.
For me, a traumatized child of the world, in the heart of Europe, it is clear — and I’ve learned this truth firsthand — that the most imperfect democracy is better than the best dictatorship. Three years ago, in an emergency situation, Ms. Merkel chose not to use barbed wire, clubs, water guns, machine guns and tanks to chase away thousands of desperate refugees on the German border, not to chase them back to Austria, Hungary, Greece, Turkey and possibly back to the war in Syria or Afghanistan. Yes, yes, it was a mistake. But it was the smaller, better mistake. The “right” mistake.
I support our chancellor completely, because she proved herself to be an energetic humanist, because she has acted as a true Christian and has remained a stoic European despite Europe’s internal turbulence. She shows the world the friendly face of human rationality.
That wonderful mistake that she made three years ago brought Ms. Merkel a wave of sympathy from around the world. Her brave decision did at least as much for Germany’s image as the “economic miracle” that won the world’s admiration in the post-Nazi period. Meanwhile, within Germany, the diverging views of East and West Germans almost model the difference between Eastern and Western states in the European Union. Here, too, we see that the effect of a dictatorship does not end with its downfall. The countries of the former Eastern Bloc, where there are hardly any foreigners and very few refugees, have the greatest fear of them.
The attacks against Ms. Merkel following the opening of the border in 2015 have sometimes escalated to hysterical heights. The populists fish these muddy waters. At the same time, it is important to remember that the parties that support Ms. Merkel’s refugee policy were elected by a vast majority of Germans.
At this time, Ms. Merkel is trying to persuade the more advanced of the European states, if not all of them, to uphold the politics of a liberal Europe. Toward that end, she has convened a meeting of the European Union’s top politicians this week. The question on the agenda: How can the European states come to an agreement on securing their external borders without abandoning the notion of a humane asylum policy? In Europe, we are arguing over the question of how to distribute the refugees fairly. If this question should trip Ms. Merkel up, it would be a mere setback for this strong chancellor; for Europe, however, it would be a disaster.
I believe that only a Europe of many peoples — as first embodied by Charlemagne, as prophesied by Winston Churchill after World War II — only a democratically unified Europe of diverse cultures will be able to prevail in the global struggle between emergent and established powers.
Global conflicts have always brought great dangers. But the greatest danger is our lack of courage.
It was in this spirit that I wrote a song for myself and my brave friends in East Germany: “If you don’t play with fire, you get burned.” Even the political prisoners in their cells chewed on these words, like bread for the soul.
What songwriter could render these lines so that my dear friend Joan Baez could sing them? They would fit that icon of indomitability. In East Berlin, in 1966 when I was an outcast, she visited me and gave me courage. A few days ago, we met at a concert she gave in Hamburg. We talked just as we had once talked, as though our hair hadn’t turned winter-white in the meantime.
Wolf Biermann is a German singer-songwriter. This essay was translated by Isabel Cole from the German.