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Missed opportunities – how to avoid them

Jul 22, 2020

Lesley Yarranton, author of Saving Munich 1945, writes…

What exactly was it that melted Germany’s ‘Iron Chancellor’ into ferrous gloop this week? Political scientists probing the wet, shapeless mass puddling around their feet have barely started to come up with answers.

Read the book – it’s a brilliant read!

No doubt alarm at estimates prediting that covid losses would shrink the Eurozone economy by up to 9 per cent this year, leaving millions facing unemployment at a time when Germany’s export-driven economy was already becoming sluggish, had something to do with it.

But Angela Merkel’s switch from years of staunch resistance to handouts and imposing merciless book-keeping on faltering economies, to suddenly lobbying for a Euro 1.8 trillion spending package, including Euro 390 billion in grants with few restrictions, can be seen as nothing less than a ‘Damascene’ conversion.

Supporters hailed the agreement as a generous gesture of trust that has now broken the taboo of EU shared debt. Detractors bemoaned the turning of the EU into a Geldautomat (cash machine). Whatever the reason, the masked crusader charged turbo-driven at dawn on Monday from behind the other 26 EU leaders to seal the deal, leaving the bleary-eyed frugalists blinking feebly in the blinding glare of her headlights.

“She understood the significance of the moment,” an insider from within her ranks said. “It was clear this could break the EU apart.”

The art of homing in with unfettered clarity on the myriad of outomes that can arise from one, often seemingly insignificant ‘decision of a moment’ – and deciding how to seize it for the best – is perhaps a politician’s most highly-prized skill. Yet since the days of the ancient Greeks, often the outcome is not clear for decades and decisions hailed as heroic at the time are, with hindsight, assessed as woeful failures as the eye-gouging despair of Sophocles’ Oedipus attests.

The nineteenth-century German philosopher and poet Friedrich Schlegel seized a ‘moment’ to declare historians to be “prophets looking backwards”, elevating historical novelists to the position of soothsayers we should all revere.

But even with hindsight, ‘seized’ and ‘missed’ moments are at the very heart of the interplay between ‘what-might-have-been’ and what actually took place in any history narrative; their outcomes are nearly always nuanced and ambiguous – rarely black and white.

This tortured ambiguity is demonstrated in my book Saving Munich 1945, the story of Rupprecht Gerngross, (a true story, published yesterday) where crucial moments are repeatedly missed, seized, recaptured and lost forever in equal, terrifying measure as events unfold. The result was hailed as “the only successful military putsch against the Third Reich” – yet it led to the loss of an estimated 200 lives.

Gerngross, a former student at the London School of Economics, was a Munich solicitor conscripted into Hitler’s army but with a secret plot to challenge the Nazis and achieve his dream of democracy and freedom and save his city (Munich) from destruction.

He seized an opportunity to secretly transform his unit of army translators into a fearsome fighting force. Then he and his conspirators miss an opportunity to save more of Germany because Claus von Stauffenberg seized an opportunity to attempt to assassinate Hitler with his briefcase in a bomb.

Gerngross’ later decision to seize the right moment to stage a coup against the Nazis in Munich using a radio station to trigger mass rebellion becomes a missed opportunity when US troops divert from their push on Munich to save the lives of dying prisoners at Dachau concentration camp.

And, for all his courage, Gerngross missed an opportunity to save more lives because he did not reckon with the possibility of betrayal, or the ferocity of SS troops sworn to fight to the death.

BBC interviewer Noel Newsome, who travelled to Germany to talk to Gerngross after the coup also found himself pondering the ‘missed opportunity’ Europe had to unite after the Second World War instead of dividing into the conflict that became the Cold War. Pondering what he described as “the haunting spectre of the might-have-been,” he wrote: “There could have been a determined effort by the victorious Allies to establish an effective world authority, with a united Europe, as one of its main supports… It was not to be.”

In the end we can never know how history will asses events and can only act in blind faith. Newsome, like Gerngross and today’s Chancellor Merkel believed simply in doing the ‘right’ thing. People will often be divided by the result, as Mark Twain pointed out, saying: “It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Saving Munich 1945: the story of Rupprecht Gerngross by Lesley Yarranton was published yesterday.

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