1989 Germany Re-imagined as a Tale of English-US Unification

Kirsty Hughes | 31 October 2019

Elizabeth Tower, UK Parliament (Jessica Taylor), CC-BY-NC-2.0

This unpublished (until now) tale was written in Berlin in 1990 after I saw the challenges the fall of the wall in 1989 brought to East and West Germans (having arrived in Berlin in September 1989). Some of my Ossi and Wessi friends at the time told me they felt they had more in common with me, a Brit, than with each other, which prompted this story.

Imagine, in a great and precise earthquake, England was torn from the British Isles and tossed up breathless against the coast of the USA, having been lost a while in mid-Atlantic. The rather wet, somewhat shell-shocked English stumbled from their (no longer) coastal villages into the arms of the waiting East coast Americans who greeted them with champagne and barbeques, hailing them as long lost brothers and sisters – always, really, they said, closer to America than to Europe.

It was a great welcome. And while the English were a little unsure – after all – at leaving Wales and Scotland behind, America was clearly a more powerful, wealthier neighbour and spoke the same language, well more or less.

Now the English were on the doorstep, the Americans stopped finding their language so cute and found it straightforwardly funny. It marked the English out. And since many had lost possessions in the earthquake and were anyway poorer than the Americans, the English were, fairly swiftly, if not refugees then certainly second class citizens.

The faster you could develop an American accent the better – though even then clothes, manners, physique everything was such a give away that only a few managed it. Meanwhile, those who had come years earlier moved swiftly to turn their transatlantic accents into full American ones and to laugh the loudest at the poor, funny English.

The arrival of the new country on the doorstep posed a series of political and military questions to which the obvious solution was that England should join the US. There were doubts amongst a few, dismissed by the papers as the chattering classes who always got it wrong. But for most, the idea of open access to a country richer than them, on whom they clearly relied for reconstruction after the earthquake – and for future defence – was a great idea.

To most Americans it was less important – but yes to grow, and most of all to take over the old mother country, was attractive and in the end they shared the same roots.

Returning to the larger US a few years later, I was to find a changed mood. The English – and their country – were in a bad way and the Americans less than thrilled with their newest additions. The English found the Americans – ‘the Yanks’ they called them (being inappropriately, in turn, called ‘the Brits’) – very loud, extrovert, lacking in subtlety. Their culture, they thought, was too violent and driven mostly by money. The Yanks found the Brits diffident, weak and lacking in that get-up-and-go can-do attitude so central to participation in American life. Moreover, the Brits moaned all the time (so did the Yanks about the Brits if we’re honest) and the Yanks thought they should be grateful and then getting on with their great opportunity.

From the English side, there were indeed a litany of complaints and problems. In the process of joining the US, England had joined up with the state it landed next to – this was by far the simplest. It meant England simply had to apply federal laws and its new state’s laws and didn’t have to make any of its own.

The Yanks admitted they bungled some of the changes. Fewer people could have died in the shift to driving on the right, but change always brings casualties. And overall it was swift, efficient, appropriate. The English had, after all, had a great deal with the currency – the old gold standard rate had been used of $4 to £1, so the Brits had mostly changed their small cars for proper American-sized ones (though they kept crashing as a result since many drivers could not, to begin with, judge their size and power – cars with number plates from the state the English had joined were given a wide berth).

English businesses had faced many problems – the earthquake and then the exchange rate meant few could compete on price let alone productivity or quality. So only a third of the firms had survived and unemployment was near 50%, much higher again for women. The Yanks didn’t see the problem. It might take 20 years to sort England out but the earthquake wasn’t their fault and people were in the land of opportunity – they could get jobs if they tried, if they pulled their finger out. Of course, according to the Americans, it didn’t help that the English weren’t used to working hard, expected holidays in their first year of work, thought the state owed them a living.

And, as for women, they weren’t really unemployed – England had had a much higher proportion of women in the workforce – one of the highest. Now they needed to adjust to the norms of their new culture. Similarly on child-care, health, education – all these were now on the American model and would the damn (or worse) English stop moaning because they voted for it didn’t they? Some Yanks were beginning to wish for another earthquake to take England away again.

The English were reeling. If they tried to talk to the Scots or Welsh back home, they’d say ‘oh well the earthquake hit us too, and you’ve got the Americans to help, while here the French seem to think we’re a bit funny and even a bit scary’.

Many of the chattering classes were badly hit. English journalists did not have the skills US papers wanted, and English law or politics were of no use in US universities or their courtrooms for that matter. Signs of crisis were rife – the birth rate plummeted, suicides rose, stress soared as the true individualism and lack of state support in US life became apparent.

Even accommodation wasn’t secure. The Americans had decided that, given their common historical roots, prior claims on property would be allowed and there were many thousands of these as descendants from the Mayflower appeared without warning on doorsteps carrying papers indicating ownership by their several times great great grandparents in 1620 or so.

The English fell foul of US laws too – their new state banned abortion, not only causing problems in the present but leading to prosecutions of those who had assisted in abortions in the past. There was a debate in the US press over the legality of retrospective legislation but the state argued that these were universal moral laws that all should obey.

Americans withdrew quickly from any interest in the English, explaining to those who’d listen they had more in common with the Canadians or the Mexicans than the English. In a generation’s time it might be ok, they said, a long generation.

Meanwhile, some of the English got out from their second class status and made good, became honorary Americans. Some married Americans – mostly English women to American men since American women were not, on the whole, going to marry down (the English now had such low status) while for American men, if an English woman was young and pretty that was ok.

Some English turned to theft, violence even, attacks on other minority groups including blacks – people who the English felt had even lower status than them on whom to vent their anger and insecurity. Others cracked up. Many more shrank in confidence, shrank behind the insecure walls of whatever dwelling they had found and wondered what life would have been like without the earthquake.

Travelling back to Europe, if they could afford it, was a boost to some Brits’ flailing egos. They would stride around with their new American accents and give no indication that they had once known, at least in some cases, how to speak French or German.

The English competed with the blacks for jobs, their higher education and skin colour often meaning they succeeded, so exacerbating existing tensions over racism and discrimination. Added to this were economic and social problems. There were 40 million English, an increase of one sixth in the US population. And even with the minimal levels of social assistance, this population increase cost money, made the statistics look wrong, triggered and exacerbated existing political debates – healthcare reform once more turned upside down.

And there were social effects that the Americans didn’t altogether like. London not only competed with Broadway, being only two hours’ drive away, but new challenging plays and nightlife and cabaret were emerging. These started to indicate the potential for a major shift in ideas, culture so causing all sorts of questions to be raised over America’s own chattering classes.

Other anomalies existed. England was still technically in the EU, so the US now had direct influence there – the French had stopped laughing as this realisation dawned. And the US now had two places on the UN Security Council – one more earthquake and it would have a majority.

Europe tried to play it cool. America would carry on being America – and England, lets face it, was no great loss. In fact, once they could get EEC (as it was then) membership rescinded it would be a big step forward. Scotland and Wales would then be members in their own right – though true the Irish problem had now taken on a whole new dimension.

But there were still concerns. The US had been dominant enough before and England as its lap dog sometimes carried considerable weight. The effect of the two merging with two security council seats was, lets say, disturbing. Still, at least these concerns proved a distraction from other problems the EEC faced – growing xenophobia, institutional ossification, a clueless foreign policy and so on.

These and other problems in the world were more important, but the English chattering classes turned inwards, endlessly discussing their own state, losing such international and more detached perspective as they had once had.

Meanwhile, the world toppled down towards the brink – not as a result of the earthquake and England-US unification but certainly due to neglect that was quite other than benign.


Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.