-->

The Duel on Sunflower Island


September 22 1842

On hundred and seventy years ago today, two ambitious young men in their early thirties crossed the Illinois –Missouri border.

The cause for their mysterious journey to Alton was a public dispute between the State Auditor and a former friend and colleague on the Illinois Legislature. And because of their desire to further progress their prestigious careers, both men desperately needed the matter to be settled privately outside the jurisdiction of the State Law.

They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Thirty-three year old country lawyer Abraham Lincoln rose to the White House, and is generally considered the greatest President in the history of the United States. His adversary thirty-two year old James Shields served with distinction in the Mexican-American and US Civil Wars, becoming the only man ever to serve as US Senator in three different states.

But before they could blaze a path through history, they had a score to settle. And in the odd manner in which they did it, we can discern unmistakeable character traits that would shape the curves of their respective destinies.

Since his appointment as State Auditor, Shields had made some early decisions that had generated widespread controversy. Lincoln for one greatly objected. And of course we must remember that this younger man was not yet the historic colossus we admire in stone in Washington.  This was the more head strong, outspoken “flesh and blood” individual who was to earn the derisive label “Spotty Lincoln” for opposing President Polk’s Mexican War Plans with his much ridiculed “Spot Resolutions” in the US Congress.

Using words of biting satire, he published articles in a Illinois newspaper, the Sagamon Journal. In this endeavour he was greatly encouraged by one Mary Todd, the daughter of a wealthy slave-holding family in Lexington, Kentucky. The couple would marry less than two months after the duel on Sunflower Island, which Shields demanded for the purpose of the “satisfaction” of restoring his honour.

By custom, Lincoln had the choice of terms. He selected broadswords in a twelve feet deep pit separated by a piece of plywood where the two adversaries could not cross onto the opponents side. And in so doing he revealed the tactical genius (some would say guile) of the later Lincoln; because of his superior height, it would be impossible for Shields to win such a confrontation. To drive home this obvious point, Lincoln menacingly used the broadsword to sweep brush immediately above Shield’s head.

Sensing his mistake, Shields indicated to his intermediaries that he was prepared to negotiate. In a gentlemanly fashion, Lincoln took full responsibility by acknowledging his authorship of the letters, and apologizing in writing for the offence that had been caused.

In this episode we can learn a great deal about the thought processes of a great man who would be burdened with the biggest public dispute in the history of the Republic. And the stoicism with which he would bear those burdens.

Perhaps also we might take a moment to wonder whether he learned a few lessons on Sunflower Island about himself. Perhaps he applied those lessons in his studied silence during the crisis of 1860-1, or in his careful public utterances that ensured that the Border states remained in the Union.

For had he chosen otherwise, then surely our history would have been written very differently. Let us take the opportunity to reflect about the careful choices of a masterful man on this day in history. A man who repeatedly sought to avoid conflict, but when so confronted, threw himself into the business of war with a breathtaking single-mindedness of purpose.

Die Wende (the Turning Point)


12th September, 1990


Representatives of the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France signed the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany in Moscow on the 12th September, 1990. At the suggestion of West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher the two German Governments were treated as participants, an upgraded status from junior, defeated nations. Instead because of their active involvement, this quadripartite agreement is also known as the “two plus four” treaty. In simple terms, it granted full sovereignty to a unified German state.

However as the victors, these four-power authorities had treated Germany as a defeated nation at the conclusion to the Second World War. Having straddled the continent of Europe, the country was chopped up into smaller bits. The former eastern territories of Silesia, East Brandenburg, Farther Pomerania and East Prussia were absorbed into Poland and the Soviet Union, and due to the forced movement of refugees, a smaller, more ethnically homogenous homeland was to be expected. This demographic change solved a historic sovereignty dispute caused by German town dwellers “uncomfortably” sharing a common living space with Slavic neighbours. The possibility of future governments laying claim to foreign territories populated by ethnic Germans, one of the causes of the Second World War was eliminated. But the human cost was the expulsion of seven million ethnic Germans from the lands that they had been living in for over 900 years. Since East Prussia was a distinct culture with its own dialect, this action, designed to assist the Soviet annexation of Eastern Poland, was tantamount to genocide.

And yet as events were to transpire, the territorial realignment would be even more significant because there would be two Germanies, not one. And not just one volk either, but two, Easterners and Westerns, or “Ossis” and “Wessis”. This partition was not the planned result of agreement at the Potsdam Conference, but the result of friction caused by the Cold War. The division of Germany into two independent states was forced by Josef Stalin.

In 1945 Allied-occupied Germany was divided by the River Elbe with special arrangements for the city-state of Berlin. A Western state known as the Federal Republic of Germany or Bundesrepublic Deutschland was formed from the eleven states in the “trizone”, the American, British and French occupation zones. These were Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, Bremen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Hesse, Bavaria, W├╝rttemberg, W├╝rttemberg-Hohenzollern, Baden and Rheinland-Pfalz. A “small re-unification” was even said to have taken place when the Saar Protectorate joined the Bundesrepublic as Saarland in 1957. The remaining five states in the Soviet occupied zone became the German Democratic Republic or Deutsche Demokratische Republik with an eastern boundary along the Oder-Neisse Line. These were Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia. The two Germanies would operate different political systems and would to some extent be considered the client states of the superpowers.

During the forty-five years between the two agreements in Potsdam and Moscow, the former allies was sworn enemies. And although Germany recovered, it was still a proxy battleground in the East-West struggle, potentially the battlefield where a Third World War would be fought. This became increasingly likely with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. John F. Kennedy made an unambiguous commitment to the city by declaring “ich bin ein berliner”. But twenty-five years later, President Reagan said “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall” and only now at the end of the Cold War could the situation finally move forward. With the relinquishing of occupation rights the way was now clear for German re-unification. Celebrations for Deutsche Einheit would occur every 3rd October a date marked as German Unity Day.

Although the division of Germany was the result of actions initiated by political leaders, re-unification was very much the result of the popular movement in the East that acted as a driver for political development. Ethnolinguistic nationalism is of course to be expected as the norm, and yet the aspiration for “one Germany” had cultural, patriotic and nationalistic aspects. There was no desire for expansionism or a resurgence of German militarism. And it was the revolution of 1989 that actually brought the turning point, even if at the time civil rights activists rejected that label because it originated from East German Secretary General Egon Krentz.

Although individual events often took political leaders by surprise, It would be safe to say that the broad developments in Eastern Europe were correctly anticipated by President Bush and his team of advisors. But they were something of a shock to Gorbachev whose expectation was that the East German state would evolve over time outside of Soviet orbit. Even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told Gorbachev “We do not want a unified Germany” instead advocating a democratic East German state. Although she privately feared this would undermine Gorbachev, her position was clear from her declaration “We defeated the Germans twice! And now they’re back!”. She later admitted this was an “unambiguous failure” And from Paris, President Francois Mitterrand declared “France by no means wants German reunification, although it realises that in the end, it is inevitable”. Perhaps the truth was that by 1990, Western Governments were more concerned by developments in the Soviet Union and the Middle East.

But the truth was that the DDR was an artificial creation, weighed down by Soviet-style bureaucracy with no popular support. In hindsight, we might easily speculate that Western democracies should have been expected to have a better reading of popular sentiment, but nevertheless it is generally recognized that Bush and his team skilfully guided the political leaders through a relatively graceful period of uncertainty and tension. It is easy to forget the spectre of foreign opposition that was feared at the time. Chancellor Kohl recognized this contribution in his remark “George Bush was for me the most important ally on the road to German unity”. Kohl later recounted how he took Gorbachev into the garden of the Chancellor's bungalow overlooking the Rhine and how he told him that, like the river, German unity was unstoppable.

It was the iconic dismantling of the Wall, and the Westward movement of citizens was the catalyst for what would become the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. Although in fact the crisis was triggered by the opening of a hole in the Iron Curtain, caused by the removal of Hungary’s border fence.

Ironically, Germany was a crucible of communism, being the home of Karl Marx, Frederich Engels, Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht. And it was the Imperial German Government that supported the Bolsheviks by sending Lenin in an unmarked train from Switzerland. But ultimately Germans had not chosen to walk down the Communist path, it was imposed by the Soviet force of arms. In this context, we might perhaps consider East German a failed government, rather than a failed state. Certainly, for the one hundred and twenty years from German Unification under Bismarck the nation had yo-yo’ed between systems of almost every complexion.

If the rejection of totalitarianism was significant then the desire for stability in a “final status” political system was also evident. And perhaps re-unification was a misnomer being at least in a narrowly defined constitutional sense, more a takeover than a merger. The eastern states were simply incorporated into a successor state that maintained the same legal personality as the Bundesrepublic. The Federal Republic’s basic law was amended to absorb the five eastern states, and the new country was essentially an expanded West Germany. But in a larger sense, it was a merger because Ossis had driven events by forcing the border. And of course the choice of Berlin as the Bundeshaupstadt, instead of the continuation of Bonn as the capital was significant. Also the rise of the Ossi politician, Chancellor Angela Merkel are perhaps to be taken as indications of centrifugal balance being restored.  Also hugely significant was the abolition of the Deutschmark in favour of the Euro currency, currently the only major step forward in the creation of a “Common European Home” imagined by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990.

Because of the huge rebuilding costs of infrastructure and pension inheritance, it has been suggested that re-unification set back the organic development of the Federal Republic by twenty years. But of course Germans never chose to live in two states, and they seized the earliest opportunity to re-unify. Although fascinating to speculate, it is hard to imagine a post-Communist East German state inside the Eurozone. Because when the “two-plus-four” agreement was being signed in Moscow, East Germany was on the verge of near-total collapse. Although the DDR was relatively well off by  Warsaw Pact standards, the Ossis were fully aware of their deprivation because of the broadcasting of West German TV Channels into the East.

Of course later integration problems caused by “inner re-unification” soon raised question marks over the wisdom of a unified state. There are even some who wish the Berlin Wall was rebuilt, bigger than before. Perhaps the process of re-unification will only be considered to be finished when Ossis enjoy the same standard of living as Wessis and regional differences have finally disappeared. Or maybe it will be just a matter of time through generational change.

Regardless, destiny will not be shaped purely by the concern for European security. Today Germany is the economically dominant power in Europe. Of course we do not yet have a Common European Home. But instead, for these many reasons, the long road to German Nationhood has been tortuous process, often beset by ethnic violence and tragedy, but now finally guided by democratic processes even if after all we have not witnessed “the end of history” that was predicted back in 1989.