From a German train

[Written offline a few days ago]

I’m on the train from Frankfurt to Dresden, a long journey. This morning’s train whipped out of Brussels on the high speed line, and then whipped on down through Aachen and Cologne to Frankfurt. I passed a couple of hours in Frankfurt wandering disorientedly around the seedy district around the station, looking for somewhere to eat and forgetting how alienating it can feel to be in a country and understand virtually nothing of the language.

Leaving Frankfurt, the train was the same – the slick, comfortable ICE – but the line was a winding, climbing path up through the hills through Fulda, Eisenach, Erfurt and Leipzig, places we crawled through on the way to our eventual destination, Dresden.

As we have gone east the rural landscape has remained relatively similar, with large open fields, tidy stands of trees, and rolling hills, particularly in the first half of the journey. The urban landscape is a different matter, though. There are the marks of old industries, possibly decayed: semi-lit factory buildings, their chimneys clear, and low buildings covered in graffiti surrounding courtyards where plants are pushing up through the concrete. The ICE is not the only intruder into what feels the quintessential post-Communist landscape; here and there, in the gloom of a misty dusk, the bright colours of a floodlit petrol station can be seen, and the public buildings – schools, hospitals, the town hall – are looking spick and span.

My only previous experience of eastern Germany was a brief visit to Berlin, but its Cold War history, and the investment that came in the wake of it being restored as the capital of reunified Germany makes it unique. From the factories and bustle of Cologne, to the smart bank towers and windy avenues of Frankfurt, to the broken windows and derelict factories of Erfurt and Eisenbach: from the window of a train, you can’t help but notice the differences between the economies of the two halves of Germany, on either side of the old Iron Curtain.

For the West to have agreed to take on the cost of unification with the formerly Communist East shows how strong the emotional and historical ties of nationality can be. I don’t know much about the history of reunification, and the political and economic calculations that went into it.

But the thought of reunification, and the commitment by the richer West to build and nurture ties with people with whom they must have felt some sense of connection, or community, got me thinking. One group of people sometimes look at an economically inconvenient other group of people, and decide that they wish to take joint responsibility, with that group, for their future. The same group of people can look at another group, and decide that they are a burden and a threat to be controlled and managed, rather than a responsibility to be accepted.

I suspect that the political and ideological justifications come later, after this sense of cultural connection. So the West Germans might have looked at the broken political institutions and rustbelt economy of the East, and decided: “It’s not their fault. They have been oppressed and downtrodden by an incompetent, evil regime. They are part of our community, and we are each other’s responsibility.” And yet, in other circumstances, the same may be true of another group – those fleeing economic and political injustice in sub-Saharan Africa, for example – and the same group of people tend to feel a far lesser sense of responsibility. I think the main difference is that the less we – I mean citizens, the media, and our politicians – choose to understand about the circumstances, the more needy, excluded, and ‘other’ the person in need becomes.

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