An open letter in defence of perestroika

BERLIN, May, 1989.

Dear Secretary of State,

Last week you rattled your sabres in the House of Commons, and again at Perth. You reaffirmed the highly dubious principle of nuclear deterrence: states must be prepared to use their weapons even if in so doing they destroy the earth. A couple of weeks ago your boss came to West Germany to insist that the Federal Republic continues to support the modernisation of Nato's short-range nuclear missiles.

I don’t know how much time you have recently spent in West Germany. You should come. Leave behind the civil servants and talk to ordinary people. The fixed positions in European politics are crumbling fast, and a new strategy for the Western Alliance, which since the war has guaranteed the freedom and prosperity of West Germany, is urgently required.

Indeed, you and your boss may represent one of the last fixed points about which the post-war geopolitical system has revolved. The others are shifting. Even the US is talking about withdrawing troops. What it all means I don’t presume to understand: that it is a challenge for statesmanship is not to be doubted.

The trouble is that your inflexibility and your attachment to standard doctrine are feeding cynicism among the West Germans, especially among young people who look towards Gorbachev with shining eyes and long for reconciliation with the East. Just at the time when the Federal Republic is preparing to yield sovereignty within the post-1992 European Community, it has suddenly found the ice melting beyond the Elbe.

Pick up a German newspaper and you will find little about Britain. Our concerns seem suddenly remote and parochial. You will read a great deal about

Hungary, about the departure of Kadar, about the emergence of political parties and the prospect of the first free parliamentary elections since 1948; and you will begin to see that for Germany the centre of Europe is for the moment not Brussels but Budapest.

You are cautious about perestroika. So are the Germans, so are many expert commentators. They see how the old guard in East Germany hangs on to its old ways (even banning the newly bold Soviet press from the country). They fear that the East Germans, not content with their ghastly Wall, will soon even prevent their citizens from going to Hungary, because they would be able to proceed freely from there to the West.

They fear that the Old Guard, in East Germany and elsewhere, jealous of its privileges, its wealth, its limousines, its luxury apartments, will fight back and Eastern Europe will freeze over again. They fear that what we are seeing in Hungary is not so much liberalisation as fragmentation.

People here think perestroika needs all the help it can get and are desperate to support it. And they do not think that you are doing enough. Dr Herta Daubler-Gmelin, a chairman of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), told editors attending the congress here of the International Press Institute: ”For the older generation, nyet was a clear fixed point. Now nyet is the standard answer of Nato and our own Ministry of Defence. But people are demanding that we take perestroika seriously. Our failure to do so explains the cynicism among the people.”

Maybe you will come to recognise that the Thatcherite pursuit of affluence seems to lead up a blind alley. West Germans I spoke to, and political leaders whose remarks I heard, expressed disillusionment with affluence.

They have found that the road they have travelled so industriously since the war has not produced happiness. Indeed there is something vapid in their glossy shops. They pity the East Germans their poverty but their Eastern counterparts have kept something the West Germans believe they have lost — a sense of family and community that flourishes below the level of politics like a carpet of flowers on the forest floor.

I have to say I take this kind of talk with a pinch of salt. It sounds like nostalgic prattling of the kind that celebrates the delights of the old tenements with their overflowing middens and lack of sanitation. But Dr Lothar Spat is no starry-eyed ecological romantic: he is a seasoned politician, the CDU Minister-President of Baden-Wurttemberg.

He says: ”People here are very anxious.” They have found that prosperity simply raises new questions. There is disillusion with the post-war parties (the CDU, the SDP and the Liberal FDP). There is a thirst for a new approach, a new debate.

Two significant parties have emerged to canalise, on the one hand, German resentments and nationalism and, on the other, the concern about the environment which, since Chernobyl, has come to dominate European politics.

The right-wing Republicans are viewed with equanimity. Indeed, mainline politicians think it healthy that poujadiste sentiments can find expression within the system. By common consent the Greens, whose pragmatic wing has formed coalitions with the SDP and wrested West Berlin and Frankfurt from the CDU, represent a significant new force.

The Greens believe that economic development must be checked before it destroys the earth. Such views always sound unconvincing from the lips of a rich man; and you can characterise the Greens as regressive, reactionary, against economic progress. Chancellor Kohl himself has said: ”Anyone against technological progress cannot guarantee productivity.”

No-one is going to have more need of technology than the West Germans if they are to stay top of the economic pile. As Dr Spat explains, they have the highest GDP in the EC but the highest costs. Multinational companies will play off nation-states within the EC against each other and go to the most competitive country. The West Germany economy will lose many unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.

High unemployment might be enough to reawaken the sleeping dog of German nationalism. It would certainly turn West German eyes to the dormant, undeveloped markets of the East. Almost as daunting is the thought of the surge of immigration from the East should the Wall come down, as surely it must.

Already there are holes in the Wall, as one West Berliner put it to me the other day. Many East Berliners come to work in the Western sector. East Berlin lures Western fatcats to its luxury hotels, which are apparently better than anything in the Western side.

After more than four decades of suppressing their political instincts and putting their shoulders to the wheel the West Germans have remembered that they live in a European ”house” that contains more rooms than those occupied by the EC. I did not meet a single German who believed that reunification was desirable or likely. In Berlin especially the Wall, the memorials to the dark days, and the pristine modernity of the rebuilt city make it impossible not to value stability above almost everything else.

But West Germans do want a partnership with the East. Indeed, the real facts of economic development are running ahead of the understanding of politicians, and trade is growing constantly. Dr Spat and his fellow politicians do not question West Germany’s home in the EC; but they think that as the nation-state dies as a political concept a European region will emerge to include, either in partnership or association, the Germans’ old trading partners to the East.

Secretary of State, your party makes much of market forces. That includes the idea that change must be accommodated, not resisted. It’s time that Western doctrines were modernised. Here is a challenge to statecraft: it needs more than politics by rote.

Yours sincerely,

Arnold Kemp.