World Views
12:14 pm
Tue November 5, 2013

Economic Lessons Europe Learned (Or Didn’t Learn) During The 20th Century

People walk past the former barrier between East and West Berlin after the Fall of Berlin Wall in November 1989.
Credit Raphaël Thiémard / Flickr Creative Commons
Listen to Suzette Grillot's conversation with Boston University historian Jonathan Zatlin.

Allied powers divided war-torn Germany into four zones of occupation after World War II, with three of those zones uniting in 1949 to form what became known as West Germany.

The Soviet Union controlled the fourth zone, and East Germany remained within the Eastern Bloc’s sphere of influence for the next four decades.

Boston University modern European historian Jonathan Zatlin says the divided nation served as a tripwire for all the tensions of the Cold War, and that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin worried a united Germany posed a security risk.

“Germany was a tremendous economic power, so there was a fear on the side of the Soviets that maybe the West would use Germany to invade the Soviet Union,” Zatlin says. “General [George S.] Patton made some pretty incendiary comments right after the war, saying that we needed to march all the way to Moscow and recruit Germans in that drive.”

The West and the Soviets also occupied post-war Austria, but did not divide the country. Zatlin says the difference has to do with Germany’s economy.

“Despite our sense that a lot of the Allied bombardment had destroyed German plants and factories, that wasn’t really the case,” Zatlin says. “You had a highly-trained workforce. So the concern that Stalin and other people have is that Germany might be able to rebuild its economy.”

Zatlin says even though Germany reunified in 1990 at the end of the Cold War, it took a long time for East Germans to become economically and politically integrated into the country.

“There seems to be no public recognition that some of the problems that East Germany has encountered are being encountered in the rest of Europe,” Zatlin says. “You use a central bank and money to integrate… but you don’t have the political [and cultural] mechanisms to do this, so very quickly there are institutional problems that show up.”

Zatlin also says a religious divide exists, and a perception that Protestant Northern Europeans are hardworking and industrious, while Catholic Southern Europeans are lazy and less rule-bound.

“That nasty little ethnic moment - despite World War II, despite the Nazis, and despite the way in which the communists tried to get rid of this way of thinking, but actually ended up reinforcing it – keeps coming back in,” Zatlin says. “I think [it] make[s] it harder to discuss the actual problems of economic asymmetry in this part of the world.”

Interview Highlights

How economics drove the division of Germany from 1945-1990

In a lot of ways, Europe in the 19th Century is built on a weak Germany, a powerful France, a powerful Russia, with the British trying to somehow or another maintain a balance of power, but once Germany is unified in [1871], it becomes this colossus. So the question is how do you restrain it in some way?

I think that it makes sense for a lot of people who might have fought in World War I, or grew up hearing about World War I and then are in a position of political responsibility in ’45. They really want to prevent another war from being unleashed. It’s not, I don’t think, a question simply of German culture and German institutions, it’s also a question of this economy and how it tries to dominate and trade with other partners.

Roots of the Holocaust in 19th Century economics

In the 1880s, there is a synagogue outside of Berlin that is destroyed in a fire and it’s anti-Semitic violence, and you can make all sorts of arguments about how that fits into a larger and increasingly vocal minority of Germans who want to strip Jews of their civil rights, and you can also make parallel, say for the United States after Reconstruction, in the way in which the South is governed in the kind of extralegal means that people used to make sure that African-Americans don’t enjoy full civil rights.

But what I’m actually interested in is the way in which people explain this. The synagogue is burned down, and the argument that’s made by a lot local leaders, not of the Jewish community, but of the Christian community, is that the Jews burned it down themselves, and they did this to get the insurance money, because they want to build a bigger synagogue.

So, on the one hand, this attention to finance this, this reduction of the spiritual values to financial values, which is a really old idea about what sorts of approaches Jews have to money and the economy, and on the other hand, this idea that people would actually destroy their own house of worship and inundate the rest of Germany. They would get bigger and bigger and become some kind of threat in some way to what is German culture, which has a lot to do with trying to figure what it means to be German.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Jonathan Zatlin, welcome to World Views.

JONATHAN ZATLIN: Thank you for having me.

GRILLOT: Let’s first start with this issue of East Germany. You do a lot of work on East Germany and the eastern part of Europe, but basically focusing on various European issues, but can we start by, kind of, going back and thinking about, historically, what really was East Germany? You know, the differences between it, let’s say, geographically, politically, economically, socially, culturally, remind us of what those differences were between East Germany and West Germany, or East Germany and the rest of the West.

ZATLIN: Well, I think maybe we could take one step back and say something about the division of Europe, and that it really takes place inside of Germany so that you have a divided nation, but a divided nation that is a tripwire for all the tensions between the West and in the beginning, at any rate, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Stalin’s attempt to restructure Europe. Part of the concern that Stalin had, and I think it wasn’t paranoid at all, was that a united Germany posed certain kinds of security threats. There had been two world wars, both times the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union. Germany was a tremendous economic power, and so there was a fear on the side of the Soviets that maybe the West would use Germany to, in fact, invade the Soviet Union. In fact, General Patton made some pretty incendiary comments right after the war, saying that we needed to march all the way to Moscow and recruit the Germans in that drive. So, this wasn’t a fantasy and I think that although Austria, which is also occupied by the Soviets, as well as the western powers, doesn’t become divided, that really the difference has to do with the economy. That’s what drives the division of Germany.

GRILLOT: So, just explain that a little bit. The economy is what drives it. So we get the politics, right? We get that there’s this Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe kind of seen as this buffer zone, right, between Russia or the Soviet Union and the rest of the West. But what do you mean by the economy driving it?

ZATLIN: Well, the German economy was very large and despite our sense that, in fact, a lot of the Allied bombardment had destroyed German plants and factories and what have you, actually, that wasn’t really the case, and you had a highly trained workforce. So the concern that Stalin and other people have is that Germany might be able to rebuild its economy and since it hadn’t been particularly well integrated into Europe, in a lot of ways, Europe in the 19th Century is built on a weak Germany, a powerful France, a powerful Russia, with the British trying to somehow or another maintain a balance of power, but once Germany is unified in [1871], it becomes this colossus. So the question is how do you restrain it in some way? And I think that it makes sense for a lot of people who might have fought in World War I, or grew up hearing about World War I and then are in a position of political responsibility in ’45. They really want to prevent another war from being unleashed. It’s not, I don’t think, a question simply of German culture and German institutions, it’s also a question of this economy and how it tries to dominate and trade with other partners. So the question is really how to do this in a peaceful way, and if the entire German economy had been integrated into the West, I think from a Soviet perspective, this would propose a really serious security risk, and then there are about 80 million Germans. If you’re going to actually to plan an assault, a military assault, on the Soviet Union, then you have even more men you can put into the field of battle.

GRILLOT: So, this is a very interesting perspective, then, on how a unified Germany is a threat from many different angles. So let’s fast forward then to the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and very quickly after that, a reunification of Germany. Tell us a couple things about that. First, how they overcome that notion that Germany, a unified Germany, would be a threat, because there was some concern, I think, and some hesitation on the part of some that reunifying Germany was a concern. But also, how different, really, were these two countries, if you will, East Germany and West Germany, by this point in time, decades down the road, in terms of cultural, social, you know, way of life issues that inhibited in any way, or facilitated, perhaps, them reunifying in 1990.

ZATLIN: On a superficial level it looks like West Germany and East Germany are very much connected to each other, because they both speak the same language, they can both point to Goethe, and Schiller, and Beethoven, and people like this as being part of their cultural heritage, but I think you’re absolutely right, by 1989 there are a lot of differences. So, first of all, West Germany had become a country in which you have an enormous amount of democracy. Institutions become democratized, there’s a lot of freedom of religion, and religion plays a very great role in politics. You have a Christian Democratic party that rules Germany, West Germany, rather, for most of its history. And in the East, the Communist Party’s very good at actually loosening people’s ties, de-Christianizing, if you like, the country. So there is still a tradition of Protestantism, in particular, and people have deep ties to it, at one particular level of values, but in terms of actually going to church, and part of this is the power of the state actually trying to prevent people from going to church, and harassing church leaders and pastoral leaders. But part of it really is just the general idea that you all belong to a community that’s not formed around any kind of religious or ethnic lines. In fact, what you’ve got is a planned economy, and the ideas that you are all working to an end through that, and that’s not how a West Germany society functioned. The other thing I would point to is that the planned economy meant, actually, that people were really dealing with scarcity all the time. So where the West Germans start to get nice consumer goods, like refrigerators and cars, by the, let’s say, the end of the 1950s, early 1960s it’s within reach of an average household to buy an automobile, a refrigerator, a television set. It’s not a question of money for East Germans; it’s a question of scarcity. They just don’t make enough of these goods. In fact, they are told all the time to not worry about consuming things. That’s what the bourgeois types in West Germany do. So even if you don’t believe that, you don’t have the car, you don’t have, or later on maybe you get a chance to have the car, but to get the car you have to do all sorts of things, and if you don’t have the car, if you’re crammed into a small apartment that has a leaking ceiling, or whatever, you’re dealing with some kind of economic deprivation, and that shapes, not only the way you think, but it shapes what you actually do, so I would argue that by 1989, people had all sorts of different practices that didn’t look similar in both countries. Not only that, but there was a way that East Germans had of thinking that they were, even if they disagreed with the regime, that there was something more moral about East Germany. Not because it was a totalitarian country. In fact, the argument was that the communist dictatorship was really, I think most people felt this way, that it was a terrible thing, and that’s why you get a popular revolution, but at the same time, that there was something really good about the lack of commercialism, the fact that people were encouraged to read and write quite a bit, and that somehow or another, West Germany was superficial and commercial and Americanized, and what have you. And the problem, I think, is that once the communistic dictatorship collapses, you still have this notion from the East German side, that there’s something special and unique about East Germany that needs to be preserved, and they don’t really bring that much to the table. In fact, there’s, in terms of economic assets, there’s this dramatic pollution, you’re talking about factories that are outdated, the country has very skilled and highly disciplined workers, but if you are dealing with an old plant, then they are going to be out of jobs. There are very few resources, natural resources that the East Germans have, so they don’t really bring that much to the table. It’s smaller, much smaller. It’s about a third of the size of West Germany in terms of its population, so they can be ignored politically, in  a somewhat safe way, at the level of national politics, so they can make arguments about their, let’s say their cultural superiority to West Germany, but that’s not going to sway many people politically. And at the same time, what’s so fascinating is that you actually have the emergence of leaders like Angela Merkel, who was an East German and became involved in politics, and is now the chancellor of the country and probably will continue to be chancellor.

GRILLOT: Despite, or perhaps, in spite of all of these differences and distinctions that emerged throughout that time, Germany did reunify. It is the strongest economy in Europe, but, yet, Europe has been struggling. We’ve had the European financial crisis going on for some time. Germany is coming down where on this? I mean, they seem to be doing better than others; also others are looking to them to help. What is their position on this and how has their history kind of helped them manage this particular crisis that they’re dealing with today?

ZATLIN: So, I guess, I would start off by saying that although the country was unified, it wasn’t particularly well integrated, which means that the seventeen million or so East Germans, many of whom have actually moved to West Germany, that the people who remained are not economically and politically well integrated into the country. So when you talk about Germany today, you have a situation that’s actually somewhat similar to what’s going on in the rest of Europe, where you have a center that centers around Germany and France, in particular, and then a periphery, say the Iberian peninsula, and what’s on about the situation is that there’s no, there seems to be no public recognition that some of the problems that East Germany has encountered, are being encountered in the rest of Europe, so you use, for example, a central bank and money to integrate, or let’s say unify the country. This is how the European Union, but you don’t have the political mechanisms and the cultural mechanisms to do this, so very quickly there are institutional problems that show up. So that’s what I would say curiosity and I’m not sure how to explain that, other than that East Germans, generally speaking, don’t have the ability to articulate this based on how they are somewhat marginalized, and when they aren’t marginalized, they aren’t thinking in those ways. They’ve taken on a very West German approach, and that approach, I think, when you talk about history, it’s the West German experience of maybe American occupation. So you have all of these Nazi institutions, and you want to democratize, and the democratization doesn’t work very well. Nazis managed to remain in positions of economic and political influence, and this is perceived as not a good thing and so you want to take the chance to make sure that institutions are not corrupt, that they are not driven in a way that’s going to help elites retain power, that in fact things are democratized both politically and economically. So when they look at a place like Greece, I think people tend to sit there and say, well, those are corrupt institutions, and what they really need is somebody to help them revitalize those institutions, and our institutions are not like that. Why should we be asked, as taxpayers, to distribute or redistribute our money if their institutions are corrupt? And I think  the problem that you detect in which the way people talk about things, there’s also a divide going on that is about Christianity, that the northern countries that are Protestant and this idea that somehow or another Northern Europeans are hardworking and industrious, while Southern Europeans, maybe a little lazy, maybe a little less rule bound, and that nasty little ethnic moment, that Europeans, despite World War II, despite the Nazis, and despite the way in which the communists  tried to, on the one hand, get rid of this way of thinking, but actually ended up reinforcing it, that this keeps on coming back in, in ways that, I think, make it harder to discuss the actual problems of economic asymmetry in this part of the world.

GRILLOT: So let’s, very quickly then, connect this issue to what you’re working on today, and that is the connection between race and, in particularly, religion, in terms of the Jewish connection to economic issues. What do you specifically talk about in this work that you’re doing now?

ZATLIN: Well, I want to think about the Jews, just this one potential case. Others you could think about, other, either ethnic minorities, or different religious ways, to think about how, what is legitimate in terms of economics. When I’m making some kind of a business transaction, how should I be doing it, what’s ok, what’s not ok? What is the kind of business I shouldn’t be doing? So in the German/Jewish case, which is what I’m looking at, I started in the 19th century, and you can see all sorts of interesting ideas that Germans have about Jews, in particular, and this idea, for example, in the 1880s, there is a synagogue outside of Berlin that is destroyed in a fire and it’s anti-Semitic violence, and you can make all sorts of arguments about how that fits into a larger and increasingly vocal minority of Germans who want to strip Jews of their civil rights, and you can also make parallel, say for the United States after Reconstruction, in the way in which the south is governed in the kind of extralegal means that people used to make sure that African-Americans don’t enjoy full civil rights. But what I’m actually interested in is the way in which people explain this. The synagogue is burned down, and the argument that’s made by a lot local leaders, not of the Jewish community, but of the Christian community, is that the Jews burned it down themselves, and they did this to get the insurance money, because they want to build a bigger synagogue. So, on the one hand, this attention to finance this, this reduction of the spiritual values to financial values, which is a really old idea about what sorts of approaches Jews have to money and the economy, and on the other hand, this idea that people would actually destroy their own house of worship and inundate the rest of Germany. They would get bigger and bigger and become some kind of threat in some way to what is German culture, which has a lot to do with trying to figure what it means to be German. So this is sometimes a violent kind of discussion, and sometimes one which people simply are trying to figure out what it means to be German, what it means to be Jewish, and, of course, we know that the end of the story is a very unhappy one in which the Jews are told that they are not Jewish and that legitimates both the plunder of German Jewry, as well as their eventual extermination.

GRILLOT: Well Jonathan Zatlin, thank you so much. Very interesting topic and we’ll be looking forward to reading more about it. Thank you for being with us.

ZATLIN: Thank you so much for having me.

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