Random thoughts from Old Europe

Random thoughts from Old Europe

I’ve just come back from a day in the heart of what Don Rumsfeld patronisingly called “old Europe”. Following on my column last Sunday about the surge of interest in Open Source software in Germany, I went to Berlin (courtesy of IBM) to talk to some people who are determined advocates for non-proprietary standards in the public sector. Arriving this morning off the early flight from Stansted, I was struck by how nice it was to escape (temporarily) from the Anglo-Saxon world. The Blair-Bush axis has given me a very jaded feeling about the US. And anti-European feeling runs very high in the UK — and not just among Xenophobes either. Britain is really a very insular society, and insofar as it looks outside itself at all, it looks to the US. We’ve moved imperceptibly to an acceptance of a US worldview — towards a subconscious acceptance of the idea that there is really only one way to organise a society: the American Way.

The truth is, of course, that there are many ways of organising societies, and the German way is very persuasive. This after all is a country which is remarkably prosperous, peaceful (and peace-loving) and civilised. Sure, the economy is going through a rough patch (the right-wing Economist is consistently scathing about German economic policy), but the overwhelming impression one gets from the new Berlin is of prosperity and stability. This, remember, is a country that only recently re-absorbed its severed, looted, impoverished other half.

There’s still an incredible amount of new building going on, plus a lot of restoration. But what I hadn’t realised — or expected — is how civilised the centre of the city is. There is traffic, sure, but it’s nothing like aas crazy as London or Seattle. The streets are quiet. And — my big test for a capital — it’s a city where I feel I could safely cycle. It also has a nice cafe life. And prices that are eminently reasonable compared with the UK.

As I walked around, I fell to thinking that modern Germany is a perfect illustration of nation rebuilding done right. This was a country that was ruled — and ruined — by a brutal, murderous, genocidal dictator. It was then destroyed by war. Yet look at it now. If the Americans could do something like this in Iraq then one would feel better about it. But in fact their efforts post-Iraq-war are pathetically feeble compared with the effort that went in to rebuilding Germany. That may be partly because the middle East is a far more alien place to Americans than was post-war Germany. (After all, many Americans have their family roots in Germany.) But it’s also partly due to the impoverishment of the Bushies’ vision, and the poor calibre of their people. Just think of comparing anyone in the Bush Administration to General George Marshall or Harry Truman. Or Dean Acheson. Or George Kennan. Or, for that matter, even John Kenneth Galbraith.

One thing I simply had to do. I walked down Friedrichstrasse to Checkpoint Charlie, which was one of the frightening places of my boyhood, because of what it portended for all of us.

This was the flashpoint which could have ignited the war that would have incinerated our planet. For me, growing up in a society without television and hearing about it only on the radio, the place had an eerie, creepy fascination. And now, after walking a few blocks, here it is:

Odd to think that this was once where East met West in a stolid, imbecilic stand-off (much like the one that still exists in Korea). Now I can stand there and look both ways — East…

And West…

Needless to say, the place is now a tourist trap. There are stalls selling Russian officers’ caps and Soviet medals and insignia.

Thus do we make tourist trophies out of emblems for which people once died and were killed. There’s also a Museum of the Wall which I’d like to have visited but couldn’t because I ran out of time.

And here’s a funny thing: it was on this day (June 26) in 1963 that Jack Kennedy went to Checkpoint Charlie and made that famous speech with the phrase “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”. He made the speech at the Brandenburg Gate, but the East Germans had put up huge red banners which blocked his view into East Berlin. At Checkpoint Charlie, however, he was able, like me, to look East.

I want to go back to Berlin again, to spend some proper time there, go to the Opera and museums and churches and sit in cafes. For, whether Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair like it or not, this city is now the heart of the new Europe.