150 YEARS AGO – TRAVELLING UNDERGROUND
This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first underground railway. Known as the Metropolitan, it was built in London over a three-and-a-half mile stretch connecting the City financial and trading centre to the urban commuter area around the mainline rail terminus at Paddington, to the west of the capital.
It is hard now to imagine the enormous challenges of what was then a highly speculative project. The engineering skills for building railways, let alone railways under heavily populated districts, were still in their infancy. Doom merchants were quick to prophesy that the weight of traffic on the streets above the tunnel would lead to a collapse, that houses would shake with the vibrations of the locomotives and that thousands of passengers and nearby residents would be overwhelmed by poisonous fumes.
These fears were not entirely fanciful. In the three years it took to construct the Metropolitan, there were several occasions when it looked as if tunnelling would have to be abandoned. The most serious incident occurred when the Fleet sewer was breached. The weight of the flood brought wall supports crashing down while submerging the rails under ten feet of water. Amazingly, the sewer was soon repaired and excess water diverted into the Thames allowing work to be resumed. Less than two months later a successful trial run over the whole route led to glowing press reports. The tunnels, declared the Illustrated London News, 'are wide, spacious, clean and luminous, more like a well-kept street at night than a subterranean passage through the very heart of the metropolis.' But that was on the experience of just one train.
The formal opening of the Metropolitan took place on 9 Jan. 1863. The following day, the line carried 30,000 passengers, many attracted by the novelty but the majority simply grateful to escape the congestion of horse-drawn carts, carriages, omnibuses and hackney cabs on the streets above. Over 9m. tickets were sold in the first twelve months. The figure increased to 12m. the following year.
Though judged to be a success on nearly all counts, the weight of traffic and foul air caused by steam escaping in the tunnels remained a problem until electric trains were introduced thirty years later. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan had extended its route at both ends. Today, it is part of the Circle, Hammersmith and City and Metropolitan lines.
In all, the modern London Underground—or, as it is better known, the Tube—serves 270 stations over 402 km of track. It is the third largest metro system in terms of route length, after the Beijing Subway and Shanghai Metro.
China leads the way in building subways. A century and a half after the Met was opened, two new underground systems are off to a flying start in Kunming and Suzhou with speeds on the longer stretches of up to 120 km/h. Adventurous though they were, the Victorians could never have contemplated anything quite like that.
Further reading: Christian Wolmar, The Subterranean Railway. Atlantic Books, 2004For more information on the world 150 years ago see The Statesman's Yearbook Archive
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75 YEARS AGO – SLEEPWALKERS OF PARIS
The Paris World Exposition of 1937 was an opportunity for the European democracies to stand up to the dictators. They failed the test.
For those with eyes to see, the World Fair held in Paris 75 years ago gave clear signs of where Europe was heading. It was not in the direction favoured by the organizers. Adopting the theme of art and technology in modern life, their aim was to encourage international cooperation and peaceful coexistence. But the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had other ideas. Both nations chose to demonstrate raw power. Fronting the Soviet pavilion was a massive concrete tower topped by a monumental statue of a muscular worker and a peasant girl, one brandishing a hammer the other a sickle. Americans nicknamed it Big Joe. Directly opposite was the even more grandiose German tower holding aloft the imperial eagle cloaked in a swastika. In the background and between the two statements of aggressive ideology stood the Eiffel Tower, a hangover from the 1889 Exposition and now the symbol of French culture and technological achievement. Viewed from a distance, it was as if France was the arbitrator and peacemaker for a continent at risk of self-destruction.
But the impression was misleading. When it came to the point, the host government knuckled under to the bullies by awarding gold medals to Albert Speer and Boris Iofan, respectively architects of the German and Soviet pavilions. There was even a special award for Hitler. A further act of subservience was to damn with faint praise the Spanish pavilion with its central display of Pablo Picasso's depiction of the German and Italian bombing of the Basque city of Guernica, an aggression that sealed victory for the fascist military in the Spanish Civil War.
And where was France's chief ally in all this? As if in denial of political reality, the British entry focussed on tradition and rural tranquillity by giving prominence to a cardboard cut-out of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain fishing in rubber waders alongside a frieze of sports equipment and samples of pottery and textiles. With such feeble competition it must have seemed to Hitler and Stalin that their ultimate victory was assured. It took a World War and a long drawn out Cold War to prove them wrong.
For more information on the world 75 years ago see The Statesman's Yearbook Archive
50 YEARS AGO – CRISIS IN CUBA
How we nearly ended the world in October 1962
'We'll all go together when we go,' sang Tom Lehrer. His black satires, written in the 1950s, touched on the absurdities of the human condition, including the apparent headlong descent to nuclear obliteration.
For the bomb that drops on you
Gets your friends and neighbours too
There'll be nobody left behind to grieve.
Never was the joke closer to reality than in 1962 when Cuba, of all places, seemed destined to be the flashpoint for a third world war. Cuba was a maverick country. Territorially, it was within the US sphere of influence but under the socialist dictatorship of Fidel Castro it was openly defiant of American supremacy. After the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion when Cuban exiles, under American patronage, made a botched attempt to recover their homeland, Castro turned to what was then the Soviet Union led by Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, a politician who favoured a more flexible approach to relations with the West. But Khrushchev was under pressure from hardliners to get tough with America and, in particular, with its brash young president, John F. Kennedy, who promised that his country would 'pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty'. In asking for economic aid, Castro offered the Kremlin the chance to extend the communist reach while humbling the leader of the Western alliance. Khrushchev was happy to oblige. When Kennedy failed to react-it was hardly an issue that justified a war-Khrushchev made the fatal error of ratcheting up the odds. The deployment of US intermediate-range missiles in Turkey prompted retaliation in the form of an offer to Cuba of military as well as economic protection. In October 1962, US reconnaissance flights over the island provided photographic evidence that the Soviets had installed nuclear missiles.
This was a big step too far. The threat, already partly realized, was of a likely trebling of the number of Soviet warheads directed against the USA. It is to Kennedy's everlasting credit that he did not overreact. Along with a demand that the missiles be removed, Cuba was put into quarantine by a naval blockade. But behind the scenes concessions were offered-most crucially, a nuclear withdrawal from Turkey. There was also a pledge not to mount another invasion of Cuba. After several tense days when there were real fears that trigger-happy generals in the Pentagon or Kremlin would force a pre-emptive strike, a deal was struck clearing Cuba of several thousand Soviet troops along with their missiles and tactical bombers.
How close were we to Armageddon? America's superior weapon power must have given the Soviet Union pause for thought. At the same time, the Cuban missiles, within easy range of Washington, did much to redress the balance. Recent research suggests that both leaders were eager for a settlement and both were strong enough to impose their will on recalcitrant colleagues. But dialogue could easily have turned into a shouting match ending in unprecedented violence. Diplomatic skills of the highest order saved the day-but only just.
It might be thought that having come so close to the brink, the two protagonists would have pulled back. On the contrary, the Cuban rebuff was used by the Soviet Union to justify a nuclear build-up to achieve parity with the USA. Not to be outmatched, America also expanded its nuclear arsenal. But nail-biting experience persuaded Kennedy to soften his rhetoric. It became acceptable to talk about opportunities for disarmament. A hotline between Moscow and Washington helped to ease tensions. A year after the Soviet missiles were spotted in Cuba, the USA and the USSR signed a limited test ban treaty which ended the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Still, Tom Lehrer's apocalyptic warning of 'universal bereavement' was still topical.
We will all bake together when we bake
They'll be nobody present at the wake
After Cuba, it was harder to laugh.For more information on the world 50 years ago see The Statesman's Yearbook Archive
60 YEARS AGO – THE LAST KING OF EGYPT
As Egypt struggles to achieve democracy, the heavy presence of troops on the streets of Cairo is a reminder that the army will have the last word. It has been so for the past six decades, ever since the overthrow of King Farouk in July 1952.
Inheriting the throne on the death of his father, King Faid, in 1936, the twenty-year-old Farouk had made a handsome boy monarch. Playing his romantic image to the full, he kept his authority by seeming to rise above the petty squabbles of rival politicians. He had a harder time coping with his colonial masters. As the self-appointed guardian of the Suez Canal—the gateway to India—Britain was the dominant power in Egypt. In normal times, Farouk might have expected to be left to run the country after his own fashion. But the late 1930s were anything but normal. With the imminence of a European war: Farouk made the mistake of courting German and Italian interests. The reaction from London did not allow for compromise. An ultimatum was delivered; Farouk had to appoint a prime minister loyal to Britain or abdicate. Since the only possible candidate was a former holder of the job whom Farouk had dismissed, the King suffered a double humiliation. His image never recovered its gloss.
Post war, Farouk's reputation took another knock when Egypt led a botched attack on the newly created Israel. Arab forces were crushed by a smaller but more efficient army. Thereafter, the despised Farouk was under threat from the Muslim Brotherhood and, more seriously, by the Movement of Free Officers, a military conspiracy which had Major General Nasser as the prime mover.
Realising that Egypt was about to implode, Farouk removed the bulk of his wealth to a Swiss banking haven and told his recently anointed queen to prepare for exile. He was at his summer palace in Alexandria when, in the early hours of 23 July 1952, armoured cars and tanks rolled up at Cairo airport, the national radio station and the central telephone exchange. Farouk was made aware of unusual troop movements but he gave no orders.
At 7.00 a.m. a proclamation was broadcast, announcing that the army had delivered the country from 'one of the darkest periods of its history'. The following day Farouk sailed for Naples.
It was a year later that Farouk's gaudy collection of paraphernalia, described by a newspaper as 'the world's biggest and most expensive accumulation of junk', was put on sale by the military. It included roulette wheels, nude statuettes and pin-ups, a thousand ties and a pile of American comics along with precious jewels.
It was the final signing off for a dynasty that claimed to rule the world's oldest kingdom.For more information on the world 60 years ago see The Statesman's Yearbook Archive
40 YEARS AGO – THE LAUNCH OF THE CLUB OF ROME'S THE LIMITS TO GROWTH
In times of uncertainty pessimism thrives. Human nature dictates that things can only get worse. This was certainly true of the early 1970s when the threat of the Cold War turning hot provided a context in which prophecies of impending doom were part of the daily news diet.
Most of the dire tidings have been relegated to the bin of failed and forgotten predictions. The exception is the combined judgement of the cosily named Club of Rome, a self-appointed group of commercial, economic and scientific experts who had convinced themselves that with exponential population and economic growth we were heading towards a collapse of the world order. Supported by advanced computer modelling, the thesis was set out in detail in The Limits to Growth, a heavyweight report sexed up by a publisher with an eye for marketing. Without dramatic corrective action, the world we were creating for our grandchildren was one where industrial production had sunk to zero, where air, sea and land had been polluted beyond redemption and where civilization was a distant memory. The catastrophe would come 'not gradually, but with awesome suddenness, with no way of stopping it'.
Appearing in 1972, The Limits to Growth was an instant international bestseller. Translated into more than thirty languages, it sold over twelve million copies. Apparent confirmation of the Club's gloomy analysis came a year later when the OPEC oil embargo, imposed in retaliation for US support for Israel, sent oil prices spiralling and the stock market into a spin dive. More books on the theme of 'the end is nigh' soon appeared. The biologist Paul Ehrlich, who had already made his name with The Population Bomb, followed with The End of Affluence, revealing 'the dark age to come'. For the economist Robert Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect abandoned all hope for anything but a 'painful, difficult, perhaps desperate' future for mankind.
But not everyone was swept along in the wake of the doom merchants. While it was agreed that natural resources were finite, projecting forward to their end date was beyond the scope of any computer, however sophisticated. The volume of undiscovered reserves of oil, for example, was beyond calculation as were the advances in farm technology which could, and in the event did, have a huge impact on food production.
Describing The Limits to Growth as 'a brazen, impudent piece of nonsense', the economist Wilfred Beckerman pointed out that the Club had missed a fundamental trick in ignoring the price mechanism of a free economy which compensated for shortages by encouraging technical innovation. Even if this proved not to be so, the alternative proposed by the Club, a combination of global planning and tight control imposed by elitist technocrats of the sort favoured by the Soviet Union, held little appeal for the many who had prospered from the political stability and recent expansion of the Western economy.
With forty years' hindsight, the Club of Rome is not entirely friendless. While its claim to infallible and precise forecasting - never explicit but assumed nonetheless - has proved, at best, misguided, The Limits to Growth gave impetus to the then-emerging environmental lobby with its timely warnings against devil-may-care consumption and heedless waste.
There was one other useful service provided by the Club of Rome. Its fallibility has served as an antidote to other futurologists. Political and economic stargazers who pronounce sweeping generalizations still find a public. But for the most part they are judged warily in the sure knowledge that self-appointed experts are just as likely as the rest of us to get it terribly wrong.
Dan Gardner, Future Babble. Virgin Books, 2010.
10 YEARS AGO – ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE LAUNCH OF THE EURO, COMMENTATORS ARE ASKING WHETHER IT CAN SURVIVE
Just a few weeks after the euro became the lead currency of Europe, a higher editorial authority on one of Britain’s national newspapers declared confidently that it couldn’t last. ‘I give it less than a year,’ he said. That was a decade ago. His view, as I discovered recently, has not changed; only the timing. And he is not alone. The sceptics who forecast the imminent collapse of the euro in 2002 are back to the old refrain. The end is nigh.
Maybe this time they have a point. The financial crisis that has preoccupied the western democracies for the best part of three years has undoubtedly damaged the credibility of the euro. As one member country after another – Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy – has struggled to stay afloat, their expectations that the euro, along with the European Bank, would act as a fail safe, a guarantee of sustainability in hard times, have been disappointed. The risk of a break-up of the currency, led by populist agitators who are only too eager to blame others for self-inflicted wounds, is real.
What, if anything, can be done? The short answer is for the euro nations to move closer towards fiscal and political union. What is needed is a United States of Europe modelled on the United States of America where the weakest states are supported by the stronger. So far, this has been unacceptable in Europe where strong national identities mitigate against a pooling of sovereignty.
There is also the question of economic imbalance. As by far the strongest of European economies, Germany is naturally averse to coming to the rescue of neighbours who are less industrious and have failed to exercise the necessary budgetary controls. Greece is a case in point. The reputation of that country for solving any problem by throwing more money at it is well founded. The revelations of profligacy are almost surreal, the latest being that until recently, hairdressers, ticket collectors on public transport and supermarket cashiers were in the list of ‘heavy and arduous’ professions qualifying for early retirement and fat pensions.
Even so, the prophets of euro doom could yet again prove to be over hasty. The latest deal between Germany and France, with support from the other euro countries, aims to tighten budgetary discipline while freeing the European Central Bank to act more aggressively in the markets to keep down the borrowing costs of trouble economies. This is not a solution to the euro crisis but it does put off the day of reckoning so widely prophesized over the past year. It remains to be seen if the EU can keep up the momentum towards creating a set of rules that will ensure the long term future of the common currency.
The alternative, a break-up of the euro with the inevitable disruption of trade and a return to inward looking politics, is too awful to contemplate. We could be in for a long process of muddling through but in the end, a stronger more united Europe may emerge. Critics will continue to point out that this is not the logical way forward, that political union should precede fiscal union. That is how America did it. But it is worth remembering that it took a bloody civil war to forge the United States. Europe, with its heritage of internecine violence, has every reason to avoid that route to the single state.
International Organizations, EU, Major Policy Areas
For more information on the world 10 years ago see The Statesman's Yearbook Archive
10 YEARS AGO – 9/11 AND THE DECADE-LONG SEARCH FOR SECURITY
The first duty of government is to maintain the rule of law. For society to go about its business in an orderly way it needs to be convinced that lives and property are secure from unwarranted attack. The objective is easier to state than to achieve. There is a narrow line between keeping the peace and overreacting to suspicious behaviour or legitimate dissent. After every outrage, the latest being the massacre of young people in Norway, popular opinion is quick to criticise the police for failing to anticipate the event. An extreme right-wing activist with a grudge against immigrants, Anders Breivik was known to the authorities. Why, therefore, it is asked, was he not in a padded cell instead of being out on the rampage with sophisticated weaponry?
But the world is not short on fantasists and psychopaths. If having weird ideas was in itself a crime, the courts would be working round the clock. It is to the credit of the people of Norway and their government that they have responded to the tragedy more with sadness than with anger. Still, it remains to be seen what, if any, additional restrictions and powers of surveillance are imposed to try to prevent a recurrence.
Ten years ago, the emotional trauma of needless carnage was suffered by America in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. It is no way to understate the horror of 9/11 to question the value for money of the billions of dollars spent subsequently to build up a mammoth security industry which seems hell bent on battening down on individual freedom and the right to privacy.
The sad fact is that however many barriers we erect there can be no guarantee against fanatics and lunatics taking the law into their own hands. On the other hand, allowing Big Brother into our lives will mitigate against mutual respect and toleration, two of the basic tenets of genuine democracy. If we are serious about minimizing the risks of social disruption we would do better by tackling the root causes of disaffection, particularly among young people. But in the present political climate, this is a challenge few of our leaders are prepared to take up.
New York, City Profile
United States of America Past Leaders - George W. Bush
For more information on the world 10 years ago see The Statesman's Yearbook Archive
50 YEARS AGO – THE BUILDING OF THE BERLIN WALL
The Berlin Wall was built on fear. A divided city in a divided country was on the front line of the Cold War, a flash point of confrontation between the communist world directed from Moscow and western democracy led by Washington. The fear was two sided. As Stalin’s heir, the Soviet Leader, Nikita Krushchev wanted above all else to contain what he imagined to be a revival of German militarism. In this he was misguided. But he could see, along with everyone else, that the rapid recovery of West Germany after the war stood in contrast to the basket case that was East Germany, a combination of straightjacket bureaucracy, corruption and fatalism in hock to the Soviet Union. Faced with the loss of nearly three million citizens seeking a better life across the border, the East German economy in 1961 was in danger of collapse. What that might mean for the future of the rest of communist Eastern Europe was too terrifying for Moscow to contemplate.
Across the Atlantic, Germany was also a worry for the recently elected John F. Kennedy. More than twenty years younger than Krushchev, the inexperienced president was clumsily groping his way towards some sort of accommodation with the Soviet Union that would deter aggression while slowing the nuclear arms race. His big fear, as irrational as it turned out as Krushchev’s fear of another German-led war, was that Russia would be tempted towards a pre-emptive strike. Germany was the likeliest trigger.
So it was the Berlin Wall gave comfort to both sides. Shoring up the teetering East German regime calmed nerves in Moscow and Washington. As Kennedy famously declared, he preferred a wall to a war. So too did Krushchev, though the two leaders were at odds over their interpretation of events. Critically Krushchev convinced himself that the absence of an American response to the building of the wall, in defiance of international agreements, was a sign of weakness. A year later he put this theory to the test by trying to sneak nuclear missiles into Cuba. But Kennedy had learned his lesson. He was not to be browbeaten again. This time it was Krushchev who backed away from the final reckoning.
Outlasting Kennedy and Krushchev the Berlin Wall remained in place for twenty-eight years, a monument to political mistrust and misjudgement.
Frederick Kempe, Berlin 1961. Putnam Adult, 2011.
60 YEARS AGO – AMERICA EMBARKED UPON A PLAN TO SAVE THE EUROPEAN ECONOMY
A new museum opened recently in Paris. It is dedicated to the Marshall Plan, the American inspired economic programme of the late 1940s that did more than anything to put a war torn Western Europe back on its feet. Sited, appropriately enough, in the former Rothschild palace on the Place de la Concorde which served as the headquarters of the Marshall Plan, the museum houses a permanent exhibition recalling the collective effort to rebuild the continent after World War II. It was an awesome achievement and one that deserves more recognition on both sides of the Atlantic.
Europe was in a parlous state in 1947. The euphoria of victory had soon given way to despair. Mass bombing had devastated Germany while of the victors, Britain was virtually bankrupt while France was close to civil war. Short-term American loans to aid reconstruction had been quickly exhausted. In Moscow, Stalin saw no limit to the reach of Soviet communism. On June 5th, George C. Marshall, former army chief of staff and latterly secretary of state in the Truman administration, spoke at a Harvard degree ceremony. The European economy was on the edge of collapse, he told his audience. The time had come for action. The United States would provide a financial bridge to European sustainability. How the money was spent was up to the Europeans. The US would serve as a constructive partner but did not seek to dictate terms.
The Plan had an element of self interest. It would support US security and economic growth. But idealism was the stronger motive. Having for many years favoured a policy of unilateral non-involvement, many Americans had come round to the belief that their country should use its power to promote international peace. In Europe, the only countries to dissent were those under Soviet control.
On March 14th, 1948 after a hard fight in Congress, the Senate approved $5.3 billion for the first year of a four-year programme for European recovery. Life magazine called it the ‘most important decision of the 20th century’. President Truman said it was ‘America’s answer to the free world … perhaps the greatest venture in constructive statesmanship that any nation has undertaken’. He was not far wrong.
The final commitment was $13 billion, say the equivalent of $117 billion in today’s currency.
By mid-1949, Western Europe was well on the way to recovery. A year on, industrial production was 28 per cent up from the first quarter of 1948 and 24 per cent higher than the pre-war average. In the wake of economic reconstruction came NATO and the birth of the European Union.
The inauguration of the Hôtel de Talleyrand in Paris as the Marshall Plan museum marks the 60th anniversary of the official end to Marshall aid. The displays are a timely reminder if, in 1942, America had not joined the fight against Nazism, the European democracies might well have lost the war, five years later, in the absence of any American economic rescue, they would most certainly have lost the peace.
United States of America Key Historical Facts
United States of America Past Leaders – Harry S. Truman
For more information on the world 60 years ago see The Statesman's Yearbook Archive
Greg Berhman, The Most Noble Adventure. The Marshall Plan and the Reconstruction of Europe. Simon and Schuster, 2007.
25 YEARS AGO – THE END OF SWEDISH INNOCENCE
As a citadel of political freedom and the international arbiter of good causes, Sweden went into traumatic shock when its prime minister, Olof Palme, was shot down and killed in a street in central Stockholm.
It happened twenty-five years ago and though there has been an exhaustive investigation (‘the largest in global police history’), numerous public inquiries and a trial of a roving dysfunctional who was convicted then acquitted on appeal, the case remains unsolved.
It was to the enduring credit of Ingvar Carlsson, Palme’s deputy and successor, that his social democrat government held the line against the panic mongers who were only too eager to sacrifice liberty to an illusory security. Carlsson himself, a savvy but relaxed politician, refused the sort of imperial guard favoured by other national leaders. It was typical of the man that, in private life, he drove the then deeply unfashionable Skoda because it was cheap on petrol. As a football fan he would make unannounced appearances at big matches in London and elsewhere, much to the surprise and consternation of those responsible for his safety.
But while the Swedish open society survived, there could be no doubt that with Palme’s death it lost much of its proselytizing ardour. Palme was a world stage player, one who spoke out against American involvement in Vietnam as loudly as he condemned the apartheid regime in South Africa. Picking up on questionable leads, the conspiracy theorists let rip with accusations of complicity to murder against every country Palme had ever offended.
Whatever credence was given to the supposed plots and counter plots, the fact that Palme, the fearless pursuer of truth and justice, had come to a violent end was taken by many as a warning against a small state, however morally secure, punching above its diplomatic weight. The security against terrorism sought elsewhere by restraints on freedom of information and opinion was less heavy handed in Sweden where a behind the scenes benevolent neutrality seemed to promise that nothing like the Palme outrage would happen ever again. But then it did.
In September 2003, foreign minister Anna Lindh died from stab wounds after she was attacked in NK, Stockholm’s premier department store. This time there was a successful prosecution. A young Swede born to Serbian parents was sentenced to life imprisonment. Once again, the political response was measured. Coming as it did shortly before a referendum on Sweden joining the Euro, the attack brought all campaigning to a halt. But only for the time it took to decide that the democratic process could not be disrupted by mindless violence. The referendum went ahead and the Euro was rejected. This vindication of the open society went hand-in-hand with the belated realization that no democracy can be risk free.
If any reminder of this fundamental truth was needed, it came last December when a suicide bomber targeted Stockholm’s Christmas shoppers. In the event, the only casualty was the terrorist himself who died when his bombs exploded prematurely. But contemplating what could have happened was made all the more terrifying by the discovery that the terrorist was home grown, one of an Iraqi family that had escaped the clutches of Saddam Hussein. In denouncing the attack, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt rejected panic measures and called for Sweden to ‘stand up for toleration’. But this time, the decent, civilized values may not pass unchallenged. After years of quiescence, the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim far right is making advances in the polls. The inviolability of the open society can no longer be taken for granted.
20 YEARS AGO – GERMAN REUNIFICATION
Few believed it would ever happen. Many did not want it to happen. Though, with hindsight, the coming together of East and West Germany twenty years ago followed naturally on the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe, at the time there seemed to be too many irreconcilables for reunification to be achieved.
Germany had been divided close on half a century. In the west, a booming capitalist but essentially social democratic economy had brought prosperity and renewed confidence. The contrast to the east, where deference to the Soviet Union and the weight of ill-conceived economic planning and social engineering had stifled growth and initiative, could not have been more apparent. Commentators who like to think of themselves as realists asserted that the sheer cost of a merger put it beyond the reach of practical politics. Understandable fears of an older generation who had been scarred by the Hitler regime added to the weight of argument against reunification.
President Mitterrand and prime minister Thatcher were initially opposed to reunification. Both underestimated the strength of will of Chancellor Kohl and his administration in Bonn to find an accommodation. French fears were stilled by a deal on European monetary union, a move that Germany with its revered deutschmark had hitherto resisted.
The momentum gathered pace with Germans on both sides of the divide convinced that they were walking with destiny. The economic disaster so widely predicted did not happen though citizens of the former German Democratic Republic still have a long way to go before they reach equality with their western neighbours. The upside for us all is a vibrant democracy at the heart of Europe. A few unreconstructed Marxists may look back with sadness to what might have been. But who now listens to them?