Counterpoint: Germany’s Exit from History?

Is Germany burying its head in the sand when confronted with the headwinds of the real world?

June 14, 2011

Is Germany burying its head in the sand when confronted with the headwinds of the real world?

When President Barack Obama invited Chancellor Angela Merkel for dinner at the Georgetown restaurant 1789, pundits in the U.S. capital rushed to explain that no symbolism was involved, as the name of this restaurant refers to the founding year of Georgetown University — and not to the notorious French Revolution.

Yet one could not help to think Ms. Merkel’s state visit in early June 2011 was more about history than about the future. The German Chancellor was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her outstanding contribution to freedom in Europe. In the end, it seemed as if her visit was a good opportunity for the U.S. administration to celebrate itself.

For once, President Obama could bask in the memory of the great days of 1989 — to which neither he nor Angela Merkel had really contributed. Hence, it was a state visit of nostalgia. Merkel and Obama celebrated the good old days of German-American friendship, but did not give answers to the leadership questions of today and tomorrow for which they were elected in the first place. They did not judge the effects of 1989 on the German-American partnership.

Some German newspapers remained realistic enough and asked when and how Mr. Obama might present the political bill. Demanding more burden-sharing for the ongoing military campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya, demanding more support for reconstructing Iraq and other Arab countries or demanding more support for Greece and other countries with sovereign debt in the interest of the fledgling U.S. economic recovery — the sky is the limit.

It would have been interesting to compare how Obama and Merkel reported the state visit back to their staff, aides and cabinets. Is the U.S. president saying that Germany would remain relevant but had become less relevant than in the past? And is the German chancellor reporting that the glamorous reception in Washington was but proof that no scars were left after the German abstention from the United Nations Security Council decision to intervene in Libya?

Germany, indeed, has become an issue of nostalgia and is only a secondary concern in forward strategic thinking. German government officials themselves try to portray this uncomfortable fact as a blessing by arguing that in the future Germany would lead from the second row. It remains difficult to explain, and even more difficult to understand, what that actually may mean.

For the United States — as for most other countries — leadership means leading from the front seat. The Libya issue is representative of a much deeper structural transformation underway in today’s Germany.

During the latter half of the 19th century and much of the first half of the 20th century, Germans were inclined to think that the world was there for them: to provide them with their legitimate nation-state, to grant them their rightful place under the sun, to let them dominate it militarily or, worst, racially.

After the catastrophe of 1945, the notion of Germany’s global centrality did not disappear: Now, it was up to the world to protect the Germans — from themselves and from Soviet aggression.

Then came 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. With Germans united in one state all of a sudden, they became nothing but citizens of an ordinary sovereign country, ready to share this sovereignty out of enlightened self-interest with their European partners.

They also continued to share the strategic alliance with the United States, but a tacit divorce began to unfold. While the United States began to project NATO as a global military instrument, the Germans promoted a global future without violence. They had learned their lesson from history — and wanted the world to do so as well.

An exit from history? This could also be said about the abrupt u-turn of the German government on nuclear energy. While 443 nuclear power plants are operating around the planet in 43 countries, 65 more are in planning or under construction.

The German government, however, declared an exit from nuclear power as the morally sound way to cope with the future. Not only to cope with its country’s future energy demand, but to cope with the future of mankind. In that view, the German exit from nuclear energy should, and surely would, serve as a model for others around the world. Germany had found again its language of (morally, others would say self-righteously) leading the way for the world.

The nuclear exit strategy is a logical expression of this trend. In bits and pieces, the contemporary German mindset has penetrated most issues of relevance for the future of mankind. This is about an exit from history in order to live a peaceful and green life. Neither the freedom fighters in Libya nor the nuclear construction planners in Poland or Brazil were impressed. But Germany, with about 1% of mankind’s population, has come to find its restful soul.

Since the days of Goethe and his Faust, the world has been accustomed to the fact that two souls are dwelling in those German chests. The biggest struggle over the current state of mind is still to be fought out: continuously committing the country to European solidarity and its implications — or giving way to those who suggest retrenching from the benefits and costs of true, solid and lasting political EU integration.

The debate about the bailout necessities for indebted EU partner countries and, more generally, on the future of the euro, has taken a highly uncomfortable turn in Germany. The issue is no longer Greece and convergence criteria which, of course, must be adhered to strictly by every EU member state (including Germany).

The unspoken issue for many Germans is unfortunately this: Shouldn’t one think of ways to exit from the EU to escape the evil history others produce and impose on Germany?

So far, it is, and was, consensus in Germany that the historical fear of being encircled should never return into the public sphere of a country and society that has been blessed with the enormous luck of a second chance by history after 1945. The alternative is as bad: to bury one’s head into the sand when confronted with the headwinds of the real world.

Political wisdom at home and good partnerships abroad may prevent such a drama from unfolding in Germany. But for the time being, nothing seems to be predictable and certain any more in German politics — except for two things: The Germans want protection from the realities of this world, and they want change only on the basis of an overly consensual political culture.

Some call this dreamland a big Switzerland, which, its critics say, is a mountain in search of a purpose. Germany has always acted best when it is a reliable and proactive partner in Europe and of the United States without letting the mountains cloud its vision.

Only as an engine of further European integration, as a partner of the United States in global affairs and, most importantly, as a defender of universal human rights can Germany engineer a good future for its people.

Takeaways

The unspoken issue for many Germans is this: Shouldn't one think of ways to exit from the EU to escape the evil history others produce?

Some call this German dreamland a big Switzerland, which, its critics say, is a mountain in search of a purpose.

Germany must remain an engine of further European integration, a partner of the United States and a defender of universal human rights.

After 1989, as the United States began to project NATO as a global military instrument, the Germans promoted a future without violence. They had learned their lesson from history.