Caution, “concrete utopias” and common threats. Dutch perspectives on German unity
Dutch reactions to the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification were, all in all, more positive than many Germans perceived them at the time. The main point of Dutch concern was the role that a united Germany would play in a (not yet united) Europe. Three decades later, some elements of the “concrete utopia” of a closer union have been realised. Yet, both countries also face massive challenges in the years to come.
“Holland finds it hard to say goodbye,” wrote the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in October 1990 with reference to the division of Germany. This summarised the impression which many Germans had at the time: that the Netherlands were sceptical, or even hostile towards German reunification. However, this impression was – and is – simplistic and misleading, as a closer look will show us. For the Netherlands, a convinced “Atlantic-oriented” country during the Cold War, the reunification of Germany was not primarily a daunting prospect (as it was, for instance, at the beginning for the United Kingdom under Margaret Thatcher). Rather, it was both a challenging and promising development. Before the fall of the wall, for the Dutch foreign policy elite “the area east to the Federal Republic of Germany (had) seemed almost terra incognita.” German reunification and the EU’s Eastern enlargement were thus two sides of the same coin from the Dutch perspective. They were both parts of a learning and development process which concerned, above all, the evolution of European integration.
A slow start
The German question “casts a shadow ahead”, read a report from the Dutch embassy in Bonn to The Hague at the end of May 1989, a few weeks after the Hungarian government had begun to dismantle its part of the Iron Curtain on the border with Austria. Liberalisation in Eastern Europe, the authors assumed, could one day put heavy pressure on Bonn to deal intensively with reforms in Eastern Germany, the GDR. According to them, this was not necessarily negative. On the contrary, close intra-German cooperation or indeed reunification, embedded within pan-European integration, was deemed an “attractive” model.
On the other hand, the report also stated that the development could lead to diminished German interest in European cooperation in favour of an imposing pro-German outlook. This perspective would “force both West and East to reflect”. Rather far away from such reflections was the first public reaction by Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek of the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party. He viewed the reunification of Germany without European and Atlantic integration as “by definition not an issue”. Despite this, keeping Germany integrated and anchored were the central concepts in The Hague, and the status quo ideas that had shaped Dutch politics on this issue since the 1950s set the tone. Just like the West German state, a united Germany would also have to be a member of NATO and the other western communities.
In general, the growing importance of the German question only slowly led to more specific and concrete considerations in The Hague. The only detailed analysis and policy recommendation in this phase came in September 1989 from the Adviesraad Vrede en Veiligheid (Peace and Security Advisory Council). This body was commissioned the year before by van den Broek and Defence Minister Frits Bolkestein to prepare an expert report on the changes in Soviet domestic and foreign policy and their consequences for Europe and western security. These changes, according to the council’s report, offered the prospect of an end to the division of Germany. Even if reunification was not imminent, the German question had to be central both in current policy and in discussions about future European security. In concrete terms, this meant showing understanding for the national interests of the Federal Republic and supporting them where possible: “Without an attitude of understanding, what could be achieved is what must be avoided at all costs: a receptivity of the Federal Republic to ‘special offers’ from the East.”
It was in the well-balanced western interest to prevent German isolation in a changing Europe, and the further embedding of German Ostpolitik in the western community was a demand of the first order. Reunification, in turn, could only come about as a final step of far-reaching political and psychological changes in Europe. If the question of reunification was put on the agenda at an early stage, the authors of the report warned, this would have destabilising consequences.
The report was thus not free of contradictions. On the one hand, it claimed that the reunification question had become topical again. On the other, it warned against dealing with it at an early stage. Pointing out this ambivalence, the foreign policy commentator Jerome L. Heldring, in a commentary in NRC Handelsblad titled “Running Behind the Facts”, noted that such talk suggested “that we (the Netherlands or the West; the authors) have some control over the course of the German question. Well, that is not the case.” This was not an apocalyptic prophecy on Heldring’s part, but a call to prepare for a faster and much less controllable development that would not easily follow the route outlined and desired by the Peace and Security Advisory Council. Heldring was to be proved right. In The Hague, Bonn and other capitals, the idea that reunification could only be the very last step of a new European order still held right until the end of the 1980s. However, developments in the GDR had taken on a different dynamic, including a rapidly growing number of refugees, the Monday demonstrations and Erich Honecker’s forced resignation. On November 9th 1989, the Berlin Wall finally fell.
Ambivalences after the fall of the wall
Like other countries, the Netherlands shared the German joy over this development. A wave of sympathy for the East German population swept through the media. Alongside this joy at the freedom of the GDR’s citizens, however, confusion and uncertainty about the future of Germany and Europe were also palpable. The daily De Volkskrant spoke of moving images from Berlin that gave cause for optimism, but at the same time did not rule out the possibility of “an arrogant German unified state”. Another publication, Trouw, expressed both its hopeful expectations and its uncertainty in a commentary titled “Praying in the morning … thanking in the evening?” It asked whether, given the speed of developments, there was still time for reflection.
Concrete political reactions, however, continued to be rather slow in the Netherlands. Even when the first reports about Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s ten-point plan were received on November 28th 1989, the reunification question was not immediately discussed. But soon after his initiative, it was obvious that reunification had become an important international issue that also required a concrete Dutch outlook. Indeed, columnists, editorialists and other experts in the Dutch daily press had already been dealing with the developments in East Germany for weeks. After studying Kohl’s surprising plan, Prime Minister Lubbers spoke in a restrained way about it. There was no mistaking that he, like many others, felt caught off guard by Kohl’s initiative, which had been presented to allies without prior consultation. He did not want to be “too critical” and expressed “some understanding” for the chancellor’s difficult situation. For the Dutch government, said Lubbers, the “aspect of European healing is in the foreground”. This included “the community between peoples who speak the same language”.
While on this occasion, Lubbers had carefully avoided the term “reunification”, two weeks later, the Dutch parliament finally had to acknowledge that this question was very much on the agenda. The parliament debate which took place in December 1989 following the EEC summit in Strasbourg was then almost entirely dominated by the uncertainty surrounding German guarantees regarding a final recognition of Poland’s western border. The chamber reacted uneasily to the confusing signals from Bonn concerning this issue.
In the time following the debate, Prime Minister Lubbers repeatedly expressed strong caution and even mistrust concerning the German stance on the border question. This in turn contributed significantly to the false impression in Bonn that the Netherlands as a whole had a fundamentally negative attitude towards reunification. Overall, the Dutch foreign ministry took a more pragmatic approach. Even before the exact content of Kohl’s plan was known, the planning department noted in a memorandum intended for Minister van den Broek that “The West (the Netherlands) can do little else but agree to Kohl’s initiative. We have always been in favour of reunification in self-determination, while Kohl now also names the right parameters and timetables. Moreover, his plan can have a stabilising effect on the East German situation (and on the internal conditions in the Federal Republic).”
Similarly, in January 1990, the ministry’s first detailed discussion paper on the matter was carried by a spirit of sobriety and realism, which formed the basis for future policy. The pros and cons were dealt with point by point. The line of argument against reunification was that Germany could become too strong, perhaps not militarily, but politically and economically. This could also mean that Germany would either dominate the EEC or lose interest in it. Thirdly, reunification would mean a defeat for Mikhail Gorbachev, with the possible consequence of undermining his reform policy. On the pro side, the fact that self-determination was part of the Netherlands’ “fundamental values” was stressed, as was “the joy over the broken wall”
and the great sympathy for the people’s movement in the GDR.
Another argument in favour of reunification was that the GDR would become part of the western sphere of influence and that any other solution would “probably be temporary and unstable”. Finally, the paper stated, it would be “unwise” to “resist the inevitable”, as this would make it impossible to influence the process to some extent. Although the outlines of a future Europe remained necessarily vague, it was obvious that a united Germany had to be a member of the EEC and NATO.
Towards the EU
In the meantime, steps had already been taken within the EEC since the autumn of 1989 to strengthen its internal cohesion. This would ultimately result in the establishment of the European Union. In view of the importance The Hague attached to the EEC regarding the further integration of Germany and the pleas for a further strengthening of this integration, the Netherlands strongly supported this development. At the beginning of 1990, there had been talk of the parallel nature of German and European unification. In the spring of that year, it became clear that developments in Germany were proceeding too quickly for this. The plans for the EU now ensured that the link between German reunification on the one hand, and the acceleration and deepening of European integration on the other hand, had nevertheless been established.
The Dutch government’s concept of European integration, which was supported by all the major political parties with the exception of the Greens, was focused on the preservation of the achievements and structures of the western community as a basis for a future Europe. Regarding this focus, fears of future German power ambitions did not play a major role. Rather, from the Dutch perspective, it was clear that the “European House”, which was already viewed with scepticism because of its vague framework, would disintegrate if its only actual foundation – the European Economic Community – was undermined. A glance at the map of Europe was enough to establish that Germany was a cornerstone of this foundation. The “house” could not be imagined without Germany.
The picture of sobriety and approval on the one hand and some criticism and uncertainty on the other is also mirrored in the results of public opinion polls. The day after Kohl’s ten-point plan was announced, a poll showed that a majority of Dutch people (54 per cent) were in favour of reunification, while 27 per cent were against it and 19 had no opinion. Remarkably, it was mainly younger people who expressed a positive stance. Among older people, support did not exceed 45 per cent, and more than 35 per cent of Dutch citizens over the age of 65 were against German reunification. In surveys conducted in the following weeks, a large majority (up to 76 per cent) were in favour of German unity. The proportion of those opposed varied between nine and 27 per cent and those without an opinion between five and 25 per cent. As awareness spread that reunification was no longer a theoretical issue, the number of supporters dropped to 50 per cent in February 1990. It was precisely in those months of heightened unease that the reunification process accelerated and criticism of Kohl for his stance on the Oder-Neisse question grew. West German dominance in dealing with the GDR also became particularly apparent. The decline in the number of supporters of reunification was also evident in other countries, but was particularly clear in the Netherlands.
Finally, the Dutch media reported very extensively on developments in Germany in 1989-90 – mostly positively, but with certain reservations. They were also largely unanimous in their negative judgement of Kohl’s attitude regarding the Oder-Neisse border. Journalists were also uncertain about the future of Euro-Atlantic cooperation and the role Germany would play in it. From time to time, people made their unease clear by using suggestive German expressions such as rücksichtslos (ruthless) or Heim ins Reich (back home to the Reich). Some even referred to Kohl’s Blitzkrieg. Many political cartoonists gave free rein to their powers of association, resulting in many cartoons with direct allusions to the Third Reich and the Second World War. If one were to focus exclusively on these aspects of image-forming, one would come to the hasty conclusion that the confidence of many commentators in 1989-90 had sunk to the level of the 1960s. However, this was certainly not the case. Rather, it was characteristic that approval dominated, but criticism, unease and uncertainty led to an overall picture that also revealed ambivalence.
Friction and (European) solutions
Some of the worries that had been addressed in the context of German reunification re-emerged in Dutch-German relations in the following years. In 1993, a conflict arose about the question of where the newly founded European Central Bank should be located, with Frankfurt ultimately winning over Amsterdam. One year later, Kohl, together with François Mitterrand, blocked Lubbers’ attempt to succeed Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission. The Dutch media discussed these “defeats” in much detail and portrayed Germany as adopting an arrogant attitude towards its close ally.
Old clichés were revitalised when the German company DASA took over the Dutch aircraft builder Fokker – an important symbol for Dutch industry. Debates took on a bitter and tragic tone after the 1993 attacks on a Turkish family in Solingen. The hosts of the popular Dutch Radio broadcast “Breakfast Club” called for listeners to send a postcard with the text “I am angry” (Ik ben woedend) to Chancellor Helmut Kohl. No less than 1.2 million people followed the call. In the middle of this debate, the Institute for International Relations published a poll among the Dutch youth concerning the image they had of other countries. Many participants considered Germans to be arrogant and aggressive.
Both countries reflected carefully on the results of the study. The lessons learnt led to a new dialogue in order to strengthen bilateral relations. In 1995, during two visits by Chancellor Helmut Kohl and one by President Roman Herzog to The Hague, the question of how to overcome existing misunderstandings took centre stage. The following years saw an increase in productive cooperation. For example, this was seen in the framework of the growth and stability pact agreed in 1997 and the Treaty of Amsterdam. In Dutch politics, questions about a (too) “German Europe” and of the Union’s enlargement have remained issues of some discussion. However, it was the German commitment to a wider Europe that was honoured by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, when on April 21st 2016 he awarded Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel the Four Freedoms Award and attested that “You are acting on the inner conviction that Germany and Europe have to be a beacon of liberty, of stability, and progress for all.” As such, the ceremony testified to “the remarkable improvement in German-Dutch relations since the fall of the Berlin Wall”. The foreign ministers took the lead in intensifying cooperation between regional governments in both Germany and the Netherlands.
Both the Netherlands and Germany have been facing a growing wave of Euroscepticism, closely related to the rise of new populist challengers. In 2005, 61.5 per cent of Dutch voters (turnout 63.3 per cent) voted against the constitutional treaty, causing a “German shock”. Decisive for the nee side were forces from the far left and right. However, effects on the government could be observed immediately. On the very night after the referendum, the decision was made that in all official government documents, the words “European integration” should be changed to “European cooperation”.
An exemplary case in the Netherlands regarding the populist anti-European turn is Geert Wilders, whose main focus has shifted from demonising Islam to Euroscepticism as his primary mobilisation topic. When in spring 2012 Wilders refused to give his approbation to a new government budget plan that was to meet more restrictive EU requirements, he declared Brussels as the new number one threat to Dutch sovereignty. Wilders, himself married to a Hungarian national, also campaigned against “Eastern Europeans” in the Netherlands and promoted a racist “registration website” regarding “disturbances” and other “problems” caused by them, stirring up outrage and provoking ten Eastern European countries to denounce the website. Wilders’ thoughts on Germany are ambivalent. Being fluent in German and born in Venlo (close to the border with Germany), he has given speeches in Germany on several occasions, such as in October 2010 in a Berlin hotel under police protection, and in 2015 for the anti-Islamic Pegida movement in Dresden. While responses to Wilders were mostly sceptical to negative, Germany did respond to the Dutch example in 2013, with the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) starting out as a predominantly Eurosceptic project. With anti-migrant rhetoric, the party quickly gained popularity during the “migrant crisis” in 2015-16 and has been present in all the country’s state parliaments and the Bundestag since 2017. Similar to the Netherlands, concerns, fear and prejudice could mobilise many voters. The AfD’s initial stance towards Wilders, however, remained ambivalent apart from their common Eurosceptic and anti-migrant agendas. Shortly after the Pegida event in 2015, the AfD’s leader Alexander Gauland stated in a debate that he would not have invited Wilders.
Having developed a more radical nativist outlook over the last few years, today’s AfD is considerably more successful in Eastern Germany than in the West. It has subsequently mobilised frustrations related to the ongoing results of the German reunification process. AfD campaigns even attempted to make direct reference to the GDR’s civil rights movement by copying the most prominent slogan of the 1989 peaceful revolution: “We are the people” (Wir sind das Volk). Today, the AfD and Wilders’ PVV are part of the European far-right “Identity and Democracy” (ID) party and share a growing number of radical views. At the AfD’s convention in the spring of 2021, a majority of AfD delegates voted that Germany should leave the European Union (“Dexit”).
While Eurobarometer polls clearly show that neither “Nexit” or “Dexit” are realistic perspectives and that the overall pro-European consensus is not at risk, classical consensual models of representative systems are being challenged in both the Netherlands and Germany. The decline of the so-called people’s parties (Volksparteien) is also causing debate about the future of liberal democracy. In this context, Dutch developments – towards a fragmentation into more and smaller parties, and towards support for soft and hard Euroscepticism that currently exceeds 25 per cent – might serve as a warning to Germany. However, the AfD’s current support is “only” around ten per cent. Lately, violent protests and demonstrations in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed further cracks in both Dutch and German consensus societies. From these perspectives, while the topic of integration – both on the national and the European levels – is more virulent than ever, the continuing threats to liberal democracy appear to be more substantial than many had expected in the early 1990s. In this regard, the way that the current Russian invasion of Ukraine might influence and shake up these threats remains to be seen. The most recent cooperation between Germany and the Netherlands in this context – joint artillery weapon deliveries to Ukraine and plans to jointly drill for a new gas field in the North Sea – are representative of the EU at large, both with regards to the EU’s short and mid-term concerns and the big open questions about its long-term future in the face of a fundamentally changing geopolitical situation.
Quest for the future
While the Dutch reactions to the fall of the wall and German reunification were, all in all, more positive than many Germans perceived them at the time, the main point of Dutch concern was the role that a united Germany would play in a (not yet united) Europe. Three decades later, after a phase of friction in the 1990s, some parts of the “concrete utopia” of a closer union have been realised. The Hague and Berlin are now playing important roles and acting in agreement concerning many main lines in European policies.
Yet, both countries also face massive challenges: right-wing populist parties and populist impulses in government policies, Euroscepticism, xenophobia, deepening ideological rifts within the populations, and most recently the Russian war on Ukraine. While the memory of German reunification is mostly addressed in the context of European integration and inclusion, it is occasionally also hijacked and misused for nationalist and populist purposes, as are other former idea(l)s of European inclusion.
German debates about the equality of East and West are as ongoing as the pan-European quest for a unified future. The complex and often surprising history of German-Dutch relations since German reunification can be seen as a key example of the complexities of this goal. More importantly, they show that yesterday’s symbols and reservations cannot be a substitute for bold policies for tomorrow.
Florian Hartleb is a lecturer at the Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt and a political scientist and consultant on political radicalism and populism.
Florian Lippert is an associate Professor of European Culture and Literature at University of Groningen.
Friso Wielenga was the director of the Centre for Dutch Studies at the Westphalian Wilhelms-University in Münster, Germany. His books on Dutch and German history as well as German-Dutch relations have been published both in Dutch and German.