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Book Review

German Democracy: Is It Catching On?

November 29, 1985|HARRY TRIMBORN | Trimborn was The Times correspondent in West Germany from 1978 to 1983. and

Germany Today, a Personal Report by Walter Laqueur (Little, Brown: $16.95)

Toward the end of his book, Walter Laqueur states that "Parliamentary democracy has come to (West) Germany to stay, irrespective of the magnitude of the problems and threats ahead."

Yet a few pages later, in an assessment of the future course of the nation: "There is a negative trend in German public life which is dangerous and may, in certain conditions, undermine the democratic system."

This trend, he writes, is rooted in what he sees as the Germans' inability to compromise, a sort of all-or-nothing mind set. The Germans are pictured as perfectionists who are ready to chuck overboard any ideas or institutions that don't work exactly as they want them to.

When they are good, the Germans are very good, and when they are bad, well, there were all those Prussians in spiked helmets, Hitler, the concentration camps.

"For it is precisely this inclination towards the extreme," Laqueur writes, that is responsible for "the fatal weakness of German politics."

Yet far from being a fragmented society that might be expected from people with an "inclination towards the extreme," West Germany has achieved an enviable measure of industrial, political and social peace precisely because of the successful efforts of the Germans to reach compromise. The strains of recent years, as Laqueur points out, have not undermined the fundamental stability and moderate views of the country.

Thus Laqueur, a refugee from Nazi Germany who has written extensively about the country, seems as wary and perplexed as the other scholars, psychologists, journalists and sociologists who are part of the thriving cottage industry that has sought, especially since 1945, to nail down the German character.

Despite the seeming contradictions, Laqueur has produced an interesting and generally sensible work with the balance and good judgment missing in other works on a subject that continues to inflame passions 40 years after Hitler's death.

His achievement lies in stripping away the stereotypes and cartoon portrayals of Germany and Germans that have become a fixture of Hollywood, popular fiction and shallow reporting. He offers the far-from-startling conclusion that today's Germans, including the youth, are not much different from other Europeans and Americans; that they have the same concerns about war and peace, the environment and the paycheck.

Legacy of Troubled History

The difference is that the Germans feel the pressures more intensely than others, due to the legacy and burden of their troubled history and the "tragedy" of their geographical position in the heart of Europe where they are assaulted by influences and forces from all sides. As Laqueur points out, Germans are worriers who wake up every morning to find a molehill at the foot of their beds, then spend the rest of the day making a mountain of it.

Shattering one of the most common stereotypes, that of the arrogant, know-it-all German, Laqueur notes that "one of the main problems facing contemporary Germany is a lack of self-confidence."

In addition, the Germans continue to grapple with a problem that the French and British, among other Europeans, have resolved long ago--a sense of national identity. While there is a broad consensus within West German society, the larger German nation--Germany of the pre-World War II map--is again, as it was during most of its history, fragmented.

Laqueur is convinced, despite concerns over "negative trends," that Germans are, and will remain, good democrats because they have become sensible and prudent. They have taken to heart the awful lessons of the Nazi era. Laqueur writes: "Germans are likely to commit all kinds of mistakes in the years to come, but not the one for which they had to pay so dearly in their recent history."

And part of the problem is the implied compliment that the rest of the world pays Germans: More is expected of them.

Advice Is to Cool It

Laqueur's advice is to cool it when watching developments in Germany. Warning of the danger of the "Cry wolf!" syndrome, he cautions that a handful of young people saying or doing outrageous things does not signify a resurgence of Nazism. A rise in unemployment does not portend a return to the economic chaos of the Weimar era. The questioning of American policy and a desire to ease relations with the Soviet Union and the Germans on the other side of the wall does not mean that the Federal Republic is about to cast off into the treacherous waters of neutralism.

The emergence of the Greens party and the massive protests against American missiles a few years ago does not signal the destruction of the prudent, conservative mainstream. The resurgence of nationalist feelings, with the return to respectability of the term "fatherland," does not mean that Panzer divisions are about to roll across the borders.

The new nationalism and neutralist sentiment, Laqueur points out, are manifested "not in aggression and expansion but, on the contrary, in the desire to withdraw from political entanglements."

In short, he offers the sensible suggestion that Americans and other foreigners should not succumb to the German tendency to make mountains out of molehills.

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