The Return of the German Problem?

The new Germany

For many decades, Germany has been the engine of European integration. Germany’s unquestioning commitment to an ever-closer Union, its willingness to place European interests above its narrow national aims, and its ability to grease the wheels of integration with its ‘checkbook diplomacy’ have been vital for the European project to prosper.

But Berlin’s foot-dragging during the Euro-crisis and Angela Merkel’s heavy-handedness when dictating the conditions of the financial bail-out have been widely interpreted as a sign that Germany might be turning its back on Europe. These developments have caused consternation amongst Germany’s European partners. In a public spat late last year, Luxembourg’s Jean Claude Juncker accused Germany of “un-European” behavior. Belgium’s Guy Verhofstadt detected a “new Germany” at work, while billionaire-investor George Soros warned that Germany was “endangering the European Union”.

Germans increasingly seem to concur. Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s Interior Minister and a Merkel confidant, sent a blunt message last year: it may be new to Europeans that Germany is defending its interests with vigor, he stated, but others better get used to the idea. And Germany’s tabloid die Bild celebrated Merkel’s bruising victory during the Greek debt crisis with the triumphant headline “Never again Europe’s paymaster!”

What explains this sudden burst of German self-assuredness that appears so threatening to other Europeans? Has the new Germany, twenty years after its reunification, shed its long held European vocation? Is Jürgen Habermas right when he warns that Germany has turned into a “self-absorbed colossus” that is threatening the European status quo? Is Europe, in fact, witnessing the return of the historical ‘German problem’?

The long journey West

Throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the fate of the European state system was dictated by a single geopolitical problem: Germany, once unified, had become too big and dynamic to be accommodated within the European balance of power. Almost inevitably, Germany’s grown ambitions threatened the independence of its neighbors. Germany’s size, moreover, favored the development of an inward-looking political culture and a political, economic and social system that reinforced its expansionist and aggressive tendencies. Europe’s tragic early twentieth century was the result.

It was only during the Cold War that the Germans embarked on what German historian Heinrich August Winkler termed “The long journey West”. From early on, the new West German state sought rehabilitation through European integration and the transatlantic alliance. In the process, it closely integrated its economy with that of its European neighbors and developed a unique set of institutional checks and balances that qualified it as a ‘semi-sovereign’ state. Germany had now become a ‘tamed power’ that pursued its interests through multilateral institutions and willingly accepted external restraints.

In parallel, German public opinion developed a ‘culture of contrition’ that acknowledged the uniqueness of the Holocaust, accepted Germany’s historical guilt for the Nazi crimes, and stressed the importance of public remembrance. German contrition gave rise to a peculiar form of national identification rooted in the West German Constitution. Recalling the constitutive role of Auschwitz for German identity, Habermas warned: “the only patriotism that does not alienate us from the West is a constitutional patriotism […] anyone who wants to recall the Germans to a conventional form of their national identity, is destroying the only reliable basis for our ties to the West.”

With German re-unification, the institutions and culture that had come to define West Germany as a ‘tamed power’ and as the cheerleader of the European project were transferred to the East. To counter worries that a unified Germany would grow tired of its European fetters, Germany threw its support behind the creation of the Euro and the ambition of an ‘ever closer union’. Throughout much of the 1990s and 2000s, Germany continued to pursue these goals – even as others began to doubt their viability.

The self-absorbed colossus

At least initially, the new Berlin Republic looked remarkably like the old West Germany state. But gradually, this changed. Confronted with a quickly evolving domestic and international scene, Germany was forced to adjust. In the process, it has been shedding some of the historical baggage that had made it a “tamed power” in the first place.

Nowhere has this transition been more evident than in the realm of political memory. While it is true that the Holocaust still continues to be one of the most important memory markers in contemporary Germany, it is commonly agreed that the Berlin Republic has developed a more ‘pluralistic memory regime’. Memories of German wartime suffering and the GDR-era have now become important reference points. Novels such as Günter Grass’s Im Krebsgang and Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand triggered an intensive discussion about wartime expulsion and suffering. Others, especially in the popular media, gave greater visibility to the former East German state – sometimes in a nostalgic fashion.

By challenging the Holocaust as the singular reference point of German history, these discussions have given rise to a very different and somewhat more relaxed view of what it means to be German. The results are omnipresent. In 2006, Germany surprised itself and the world with an outflow of patriotism during the football world cup. Since then, German history, art and culture are back in fashion, German music is reclaiming the charts, and books like Matthias Mattusek’s patriotic journey Wir Deutschen have sought to establish a more rounded view of Germany’s history and place in a globalizing world.

But Germany has also changed in other ways. While recent German growth figures have become the envy of Europe, this veils the fact that for the past two decades Germany has been perceived as the ‘sick man’ of the continent. During that time, Germans have become older and poorer and, having been drip-fed news about Germany’s coming fiscal crisis, are now more anxious about their economic future than ever before. Germany’s industry, on the other hand, geared towards producing heavy machine tools and cars, increasingly looks for its future beyond Europe’s service-driven and depressed economies.

Finally, in an ironic twist, the German institutions that have for so long been the guarantors for Germany’s status as a ‘tamed power’ have increasingly become an obstacle to its European vocation. The rigid in-built checks and balances of the German system, especially in form of the Federal Constitutional Court, have made it more difficult for Germany to sign up to ambitious policies at the European level and have been partly responsible for Germany’s response to the financial crises.

Having arrived at the end of its long journey west, Germany has now become a more “normal” European country that is less averse to defend its own interests and that is less reflexive in its commitment to Europe. The results can be seen everywhere: from its campaign for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council to its self-assured promotion of the German economic model and from its deployment of military force in Afghanistan and elsewhere to its development of a special relationship with Russia. As the rest of Europe slumps, Germany seems gripped by a new dynamism. These developments make Germany look inwards and eastwards instead of westwards as Germans are acquiring a perception that the EU is holding back Germany’s economic potential.

The hesitant hegemon

All of this raises the question of whether the new Germany, once again, has become too big and too dynamic for Europe. Already fears are being flaunted that Germany is “going global alone”; that it seeks to grow fat on its export-driven economy while leaving Europe to sort out its own mess. One recent New York Times editorial characterized Germany as a “greater Switzerland”: economically wealthy and politically irresponsible.

These fears are largely exaggerated. Despite everything, German politicians are still unanimous in their backing for the European project and support for Euroskeptic political parties is lower in Germany than elsewhere. Moreover, German reactions to the Euro-crisis have been largely driven by economic anxieties and fear rather than a revival of German nationalism. Reports about Germany’s rediscovered self-confidence and national drive are equally overblown. The truth is that Germany is still unsure about its path and all the talk about German “normality” simply serves to hide its continuing insecurities.

During the Cold War with its certainties, Germany prided itself on its international impotence. Despite over twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany’s political elite is still not accustomed to thinking strategically or taking leadership responsibilities. Neither are other Europeans clear about or comfortable with the idea of more German leadership in the new Europe. They fret about the lack of German initiative, yet they have little taste for German guidance and have been quick to stigmatize German reactions.

What this means is that Germany might still have some growing up to do. Although there are many that would like Germany to return to its Cold War slumber and behave like the tamed, civilian power of old, this is now impossible. Rather than clinging to the image of the old Germany, both Germans and Europeans will have to accept the realities of the new Germany. For Germany this means acknowledging that with its new status come new responsibilities and that it can no longer hide behind its history. For Europeans this means that they will have to show more patience and understanding when they demand German solidarity. To accommodate both of their ambitions and anxieties and prevent a return of the German problem, the European project remains the best alternative.

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