- The Axis Powers 50 Years LaterGermany-A New "Wall in the Mind"?
For the second time in this century, political developments in Germany are posing a challenge to widely accepted assumptions about democracy. On the first occasion, optimism was shattered by experience. This time, however, it may be pessimism that falls before the facts.
The devastating transformation of the homeland of Kant, Goethe, and Beethoven into the Nazis' Third Reich provided the limiting case for most postwar theories of what makes democracy work. Explanations focusing on psychology, economic and social conditions, or culture have alternately vied with and complemented one other, always with the German experience either at center stage or waiting in the wings.1 Each explanation, especially if it shows optimism concerning the future of democracy, must confront the question: Why did democracy fail in Germany? A substantial body of persuasive scholarship—regularly represented and cited in the pages of this journal—now stands in implicit if not explicit response to that question.
The second challenge to prevailing views about democracy—the one posed by events since 1989—stems from the relative success of the recent German experience. The evidence for this success is strong enough to warrant the belief that united Germany is doing better than might have been expected, especially given the initial pessimism that flowed from prevailing hypotheses about what makes democracy work. [End Page 30] Much of the relevant evidence comes from post-1989 survey research, which suggests that the political soil of the former GDR is more fertile than expected; that democratic norms have taken root there and are growing steadily; and that the differences between citizens in the east and west are narrower than many have supposed.
Committed democrats cannot help but wish the Germans well as they strive to achieve the political and economic transformation of that part of their country which was once the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). Nonetheless, a positive report on the health of postunification democracy is not, at first blush, an obviously warranted or intellectually comfortable assessment.
Analyses abound suggesting that two generations of authoritarian rule polluted to the point of infertility not only the soil but also the soul of the former GDR. To the direct, poorly estimated costs of reunification must be added the hardships of the broader recession of the early 1990s, for which many in the European Community (EC) hold the Germans responsible. Finally, one must reckon the longer-term price likely to be incurred through fundamental industrial change, whereby economic growth either will be drastically curtailed or will carry with it increased structural unemployment. Economic conditions do not seem to enhance the chances for the roots of democracy to sink deeper.
Likewise, these analyses claim that the postunification social and psychological climate may not be the best for democracy. On 18 March 1990, East Germans voted in an election for the first time since 1933. Only people 78 or more years old could have voted in both 1933 and 1990, A well-tested body of research holds that attachment to a particular political culture is formed early in life, thus justifying pessimism about the prospects for the speedy growth of a democratic civic culture in the former GDR.2 Then too, there is still some popular doubt in many countries about whether the West Germans ever really developed a solidly anchored and resilient civic culture.
Such doubts have drawn strength from recent outbreaks of violence against foreigners, accompanied by skepticism among Germans themselves about their own future well-being. Finally, there is the apparent solidity of the Mauer im Kopf—the "wall in the mind" that is so often cited as a feature of contemporary German life.3
But how congruent with reality are these analyses? A raft of survey data accumulated by social scientists, marketing firms, the news media, and political organizations over the last three years provides some strong clues. The tentative conclusions we draw from them touch on three key topics: 1) The bases for a democratic value system among the citizens of the former East Germany; 2) The sociopsychological sources of right-wing extremism and xenophobia; and...