Germany: Beyond Its History, Again

19 July 2014, 1525 EDT


Germany won the World Cup in soccer, demonstrating to all that its team truly is the best in the world. The German players and coaches were dominant, dispatching a succession of opponents with near masterly strategy and skill—including a historic drubbing of the overwhelming local favorite Brazil, expected by many to emerge with a symbolic victory for the host country. Instead, the Germans beat them handily at home, before going on to prevent Argentina from denying them from an even more symbolic victory of their own.

A massive celebration immediately ensued across Germany, among Germans the world over, and vast throngs that were cheering them on for the World Cup victory they achieved in grand style. Strangely however, not all Germans were among the jubilant. In fact, a sizable minority of Germans remain uncomfortable with such a widespread and vibrant display of patriotism. The weight of history remains staunch, so much so that some of this ilk have publicly called for banning the display of German flags in public. It is an odd phenomenon, to say the least.

For don’t Germans deserve at long last to be proud, and unreservedly so; in fact, doesn’t Germany deserve to be treated like—and become again—a normal country? After all, the horrors of World War II took place more than half a century ago. Successive German generations have grown up in a culture of collective guilt, in which the vestiges of pride and patriotism were purposely kept out of reach. But Germany long ago has paid its debts, with memorials to the holocaust strewn across the country and decade after decade of responsibility displayed on the European and world stages by every Chancellor since Konrad Adenauer in the name of everyone that elected them.

This continued through the end of the Cold War and the reunification of East and West Germany, which some thought would mark the return of normalcy for German nationhood. And for some time it seemed to, particularly after Gerhard Schroeder became Chancellor in the 1990s. For at one point President Clinton pretty much declared it to be so in Schroeder’s presence. Alas, in the end Germany did not quite manage to get fully and undeniably beyond its history at that juncture. There simply were too many Germans of the generation that had looked the other way still alive, and not enough other countries were willing to allow it in full.

Yet it did seem to happen, finally, with the election of Germany’s current Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The catalysts appeared to be the symbolism of Merkel becoming the first Chancellor—who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet-dominated East Germany—along with the advent of Germany becoming the most powerful country in Europe yet continuing to display restraint in its leading role. Moreover, in the 2000s the modern German military quietly took part in several multilateral military operations around the world, most notably in the NATO’s ISAF in Afghanistan. This was not without local controversy, but overall it became accepted at home and abroad.

It seemed as if Germany had finally done it:  it had gotten beyond its history (at last being, and being treated like, a normal country). All in all, it seemed to be going pretty well. The capital had moved from artificial Bonn to the country’s true heart, the formerly divided Berlin. And completely normal things were taking place in the country, such as eastern Germans being far less ostracized by their western countrymen—and westerners even finally growing weary, even resentful, of the sizable tax they were paying for the government’s attempt to bring life in eastern Germany on par with life in the western part of the country. But flashes of its historical strictures would flare up now and then.

For example, in 2009 during the special celebration in Berlin of the 20-year anniversary of the Wall coming down and the end of Soviet-led communism, well over two-thirds of the people gathered in Berlin, including the likes of Lech Walesa, were foreigners. I was one of them, part of the jubilant thousands celebrating near the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate doing such things as knocking down a series of giant painted dominoes that had been placed where the Berlin Wall had stood. We were all happily drinking fine German beer and eating sausages. But it dawned on us there weren’t very many actual Germans among us. As it turned out, they weren’t really in much of a mood to celebrate.

Indeed, it was not to be. At the time Germany did not quite manage to get fully beyond its history, or at least not for long. For something surprising took place. Germany grew irresponsible in its regional, even partially global, leadership. A common view in foreign policy and government circles around the world began to view Germany as unwilling to take up the full mantle of geopolitical responsibility commensurate with its accumulated power and influence. Germany had become an outsized economic success, fully dominant in regional terms and substantially influential also in wider terms. But it did not merely shy away from strong political leadership in Europe, it also began to violate the expectations norm that Germany would continue to act in the wider interests of its European and global partners.

To the surprise of many Germany began to act “too normal” as it were:  it began to pursue policies that were in its own interests but directly contrary to the interests of most all of its European partner countries in the European Union. This is an ironic statement, because isn’t that what all normal countries do? True enough, but clearly Germany needed to not just establish but in fact maintain a longer period of responsible leadership as defined by looking out for the interests of others, particularly its EU partners. In fact, while still not taking on a full share of global political leadership burdens, Germany began pursuing policies that were highly costly to its partners and allies.

This phenomenon was particularly evident in the form of pursuing economic policies and wielding economic influence that may have made sense from a narrow German perspective, but in fact meted out harm to others going through the Euro crisis and sharing their currency with Germany. With the full support of average German citizens, Merkel and her powerful finance minister Wolfgang Schauble insisted on harsh austerity terms for the EU countries that experienced such severity during the crisis that they required being bailed out economically. Defying evidence from economic history, it essentially forced these governments to swallow harsh fiscal austerity, a sizable pairing back of the social safety net, and a large spike in unemployment.

Because this approach did not work, leading to significant and widespread social dislocation across southern Europe, understandable resentment of Germany grew. It also grew around the western alliance and across the Atlantic, because of such episodes like Germany’s 2011 abstention from the UN Security Council Resolution that called for any means necessary to remove Gaddafi and his government from power in Libya and prevent further widespread killing of Libyans who opposed it. I was one of numerous U.S. officials irate at Germany for this. We all wanted Germany to pay for this widely perceived mistake by bankrolling and leading an EU post-crisis stabilization mission in Libya, which could have prevented not only the Mali crisis but also the current problems in Libya.

Instead, Germany insisted on forging its own path, and the resentment abroad grew. In fact it grew to the point that foreigners stopped treating Germany as a normal country, and began to criticize it in such a nasty manner that it quickly became evident by 2012 that people around the world were not willing to allow normalcy to remain in place. One needed no more evidence than the spike in anti-German slurs that tended to include the Nazi accusation, seen for example in the editorial cartoons of newspapers around Europe. This was unfortunate in and of itself, but what was furthermore highly unfortunate was how German public opinion continued in spite of this to insist that its leaders keep the harsh policies in place. All the while a large swathe of Germans claimed not to understand this foreign resentment, claiming unfair victimization at the hands of all the nastiness expressed—which in turn sparked additional resentment.

At last this has begun to ebb, as the Euro crisis has taken a turn for the better, even if each country that was in debt at the outset of the crisis is even in greater debt after the supposedly necessary austerity. But while Keynes has been vindicated, Germany has not. And although the harsh criticism of Germany has now largely subsided, the resentment remains merely in a quieter form. Germany has yet to redeem itself in terms of its widely perceived selfishness and tone-deaf leadership that has been so costly to European society.

Until now, that is. Believe it or not, as a consequence of the German soccer team’s triumph there has been a widespread outpouring of goodwill toward Germany. This seemed to stem particularly from the restraint showed by the German players during their all-out rout of the Brazilians; instead of gloating like most teams would have been expected to when being so dominant, the German players were almost wincing each time they scored another goal on their way to a resounding 7 to 1 victory. They were rightfully viewed as showing a great deal of sportsmanship. As a consequence, somewhat remarkably a new window of opportunity has opened up for the country as a whole.

Perhaps Germany can maintain this goodwill and seize the opportunity its soccer team has presented it with. It is as if Germany is again beyond its history. Let us hope it can begin to act in a geopolitical manner befitting this newfound willingness to treat Germany again as a normal country. The signs are good. In fact, even before the World Cup the German government had begun in foreign policy terms to take greater responsibility in sync with its outsized geopolitical power. This had not yet resonated with average people in the street, but foreign policy officials in the U.S. and around Europe had welcomed the long overdue shift.

It has principally taken the form of Germany stepping up to make a greater contribution to several key EU stability operations, for example in Mali, as well Chancellor Merkel’s taking an increasingly hard line against Russian incursions in Ukraine. These actions, while not massive in size or results, are certainly indicative of a strategic change in the foreign policy thinking in the German government. German officials as well as a significant number of prominent politicians have expressed a desire to play a more prominent foreign policy role alongside the U.S., France, and the UK. These views were first articulated in a keynote speech given last January by President Joachim Gauck at the yearly Munich Security Conference. And they have been backed up by consistent statements by Foreign Minister Steinmeier, Defense Minister von der Leyen, and Merkel herself.

Of course, all of this at the moment is being colored by the strained U.S.-German relations over the U.S. intelligence miscues. Members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment had not taken seriously enough the degree to which their German counterparts needed assuaging after revelations that U.S. intelligence operatives had intercepted Chancellor Merkel’s private phone messages for years, and the two sides failed to come to a new agreement committing each to stop targeting the other’s government and officials. Now things are even worse, with two more flare ups in which German officials perceive that the CIA continues to try to spy on them.

Ironically, while these episodes are unfortunate and unhelpful, in the medium term they will spur Germany to take even greater geopolitical responsibility. This was one of the widely unpredicted but positive fallout effects of the Snowden revelations. The U.S. spying on Germany that they revealed has actually been a major factor in spurring Germany to take up greater responsibility, along with the perception—perhaps misperception—that the U.S. is retreating from the global stage.

What is inarguable is how positive this development is from the U.S. and other allies’ perspectives. In an ongoing era of economic austerity yet growing global instability, the U.S. needs all the help it can get in shouldering geopolitical responsibility for dealing with crises like Syria and Iraq all over again. Germany is one of a very small number of countries with the military, diplomatic, and intelligence capabilities, not to mention strategic outlook, to play a demonstrable and positive role in terms for foreign policy burden-sharing among western allies. All that has been missing is German political will, the newfound provision of which is a very good thing for the rest of the West.

In a wider sense let’s all hope that the historic World Cup soccer victory for Germany will keep the goodwill toward Germany flowing. A culture more accepting of German patriotism at home will be a further boon to the German government’s shift in favor of taking on greater geopolitical responsibility. With luck it will also help average German people to be more confident in nationhood terms, and therefore more sensitive about providing support for their government’s strategic shift—as well as less support for pursuing Germany-first economic policies. This is critically needed for the country’s overall ability to take advantage of this unique window of opportunity.

The rest of us at the same time need to lay off of Germany and continue to accept is as a country just as legitimate as any of the rest of our countries. We need to treat it as the normal country that it is, and allow it to stay beyond its history for good. Its government and people deserve this, and all the more so for its stepping up to be a greater force for global good. The German people no longer deserve to have their country’s dark period—soon to be an entire century in the past—hung over their heads.

Let’s hope the World Cup victory will help. Germany not only deserved to win and then some, but due to a remarkable set of circumstances at this particular historical juncture this great sporting victory can have some important spillover effects:  first that Germany will be a stronger geopolitical ally and second that this time it will be beyond its history for good.

[I will post more about Ukraine in a matter of days]