A German Lesson for Remaking Iraq

Yesterday Germans celebrated the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Or, to put it differently, yesterday Germans marked 15 years of what has been the most peaceful, most comfortable, most orderly transition from totalitarianism to democracy ever — the polar opposite of the transition now taking place (if it is taking place) in Iraq. There was no violence, no unrest. There was no looting or pillaging.

There wasn’t even much shouting. In fact, the odd thing about Berlin, 15 years ago this evening, was how quiet it was. When I arrived in the city, after driving all day and much of the night, the champagne corks had all been popped. There was a big, tipsy crowd of West Germans sitting on a small section of the Wall near the Brandenburg Gate, occasionally taunting the guards, but not doing much else. There were East Germans milling around McDonald’s in West Berlin, looking scared. The eastern half of the city was eerily dark.

I was not the only one who found it odd. At a dinner given in her honor this week, Marianne Birthler, a former East German dissident who runs the archives of the Stasi, the East German secret police, agreed that, in retrospect, the peace that followed the fall of the Wall seems almost incomprehensible. By way of illustration, she told the story of a woman in Mecklenburg who learned, after the Wall fell, that the citizens of other East German towns had occupied their local Stasi headquarters. Since everyone else in Mecklenburg was otherwise occupied — people still had to go to work, take care of children, clean the house — the woman walked up to her local Stasi headquarters alone, knocked on the door, and said she would like to occupy the building. The guard solemnly handed over his pistol, gave her the keys and let her in.

In the years afterward, the West German government built on the peaceful revolution with an unprecedented transfer of wealth. The East Germans received roads, infrastructure, welfare benefits and investment. While the rest of Eastern Europe struggled with new constitutions, amateurish bureaucrats and fly-by-night political parties, East Germans were simply handed the West German legal system, the West German political system and the West German civil service on a plate.

And yet despite all of that, there are those who feel, more strongly than ever, that the transition has been disastrous. As Birthler put it, the “honeymoon” is long over — if it ever started. Fifteen years later, not only do easterners feel disenfranchised, nearly one in five tells pollsters that they wish the Wall had never come down. East Germany remains poorer, unhealthier and unhappier than the western half of the country. East Germans remain more prone to political extremism. The neo-communist political party has recently made a stunning comeback in regional elections, and neo-Nazi parties do well in the East too.

The lesson of the East German transition after 15 years should, in other words, be phrased as a warning: Even if it is possible to get every political and economic element right, even if it is possible to avoid violence entirely, the psychological transition to liberal democracy from a regime ruled by fear is one that takes at least one generation, if not two. Few people are able to walk from a closed society into an open one without self-doubt and discomfort. Few people find it easy to readjust their thinking overnight, even if they want to. Few people are able to look at themselves in the mirror, tell themselves that the first few decades of their lives were all a bad mistake, and go out and start living new lives according to new rules. It was no accident, a wise teacher once told me, that God made the Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years before bringing them to the promised land: That was how long it would take them to unlearn the mental habits of Egyptian slavery.

In a week in which U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are fighting one of the bloodiest and most difficult battles of the whole Iraqi conflict, it doesn’t sound terribly comforting to write that “these things take a long time.” But they do, and for Americans accustomed to fast results, it can’t be repeated often enough: East Germany is proof that it is possible to do everything right and still leave millions of people feeling cheated by liberation many years later. I don’t know whether Iraq will ever be a “success,” but even if it is, we may not know for several decades. If it was a grave misjudgment to ignore that fact before the Iraqi war began, it would be no less catastrophic to do so now.

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