Falling for Germany

by Harold James Harold James is Professor of History at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). 05.11.2013

PRINCETON – Germany’s general election in September and the prolonged formation of a new government since then have highlighted a peculiar development. Not only does Germany now seem to be running Europe, but the rest of Europe seems to be falling in love with Germany – not least because, in a time of political confusion and economic instability, Germans are the only Europeans who seem to know what they want.

Germany’s exceptionalism is obvious. Whereas electorates across the European Union have punished their governments for the Great Recession and the euro crisis, Germans reelected Chancellor Angela Merkel and displayed strong support for her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), in the recent election. Indeed, as with postwar Germany’s first leader, Konrad Adenauer, there are jokes about Merkel being Chancellor for life (Germany has no term limits).

Elsewhere, populist anti-European parties of the right have been gaining ground with campaigns directed against immigrants and minorities, especially Muslims. This has fueled concern that the populist bloc will be the largest in the European Parliament after next year’s EU-wide election.

Germany, by contrast, has no anti-European party with any serious support. Even the newly formed Alternative for Germany – which did unexpectedly well in the recent election, finishing just short of the 5% threshold needed to enter the Bundestag – insists that its anti-euro agenda is not anti-Europe. They want to end the common currency, because, in their view, it is undermining the European ideal.

Against this background, Germany’s neighbors have been showing their love – or at least admiration. At the end of 2011, Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski called upon Germany to take a stronger leadership role in Europe. This year, confronted with a revival of nationalist sentiment, former Polish President Lech Wałęsa – the leader of the anti-communist Solidarity movement – suggested that his country should enter into political union with Germany.

Likewise, as France slides into a governance crisis and its leaders’ credibility rapidly erodes, the leading French intellectual Alain Minc has published Vive l’Allemagne (“Long Live Germany”), in which he argues that Germany is Europe’s healthiest and most democratic country.

In Italy, the bourgeoisie of Milan and Rome have made a point of spending winter days dressed in characteristically German Loden overcoats. When Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recently appealed for a Latin empire to assert itself against Germany, his call was widely rejected, with several of his contemporaries asserting that, on the contrary, Germany should serve as a model for Italy as it seeks to overcome its current malaise.

Even in the habitually Euro-skeptical United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron has sought to boost his international credibility by highlighting his close ties with Merkel, rather than by emphasizing the UK’s “special relationship” with the United States. Revealingly, the writer Miranda Seymour’s recently published book Noble Endeavours reminds Britain of the centuries-old love affair between Germany and England. Maybe the royal family will go back to styling itself the House of Hanover?

While this admiration stems partly from Germany’s current economic success, the sentiment runs deeper – and extends beyond Europe. China, for example, considers Germany to be much more than a model of export-led growth; for many Chinese, that success highlights the way Germany’s historical trajectory has been shaped by its struggle with the authoritarian spirit of the past.

Germany’s constitution – first adopted in West Germany in 1949 – lays out a striking vision, stating the country’s “resolve to preserve its national and political unity and to serve the peace of the World as an equal partner in a united Europe.” With the division of Germany considered a microcosm of the broader European split during the Cold War, German reunification seemed possible only in the context of an integrated Europe – a point that Chancellor Helmut Kohl emphasized in the debates of 1990, as reunification beckoned.

The Germany that emerged from this process is uniquely suited to act as a model for Europe, owing to its federal character, which is reflected in strong constitutional guarantees of states’ rights. Germany’s deeply embedded commitment to Europe and insistence on constitutionalism reflect its profound effort to understand what went wrong during the interwar period, the consequences of racism and extreme nationalism, and the legacy of Nazi crimes. Few countries – if any – have so effectively internalized the lessons of their history.

When Merkel’s new government is in place, Germany will assume an even more important role in the pursuit of greater European integration – a process that will demand additional sacrifices, including the ceding of national sovereignty. In a sense, this will be a continuation of Germany’s long history of self-abolition.

Roughly every hundred years since the Lutheran Reformation, the number of independent German political units has fallen by a factor of ten. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia reduced the number of independent units in the Holy Roman Empire from 3,000-4,000 to 300-400. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, the number of German states fell to 39. By 1866, only 34 members of the German confederation remained.

Another round of wars and peace treaties produced the kleindeutsch German Empire of 1871, and there were only three primarily German-speaking states left in Europe – the German Empire, Austria-Hungary (a dynastic unit, otherwise known as the Habsburg Empire), and the Swiss Confederation – none of which was a conventional nation-state. While Germany’s 1949 split into the Federal Republic and the Democratic Republic raised the number to four (along with Austria and Switzerland), the overall trajectory has been clear.

If Germany’s new government leads the charge toward a stronger, more federal Europe, a century from now, there may well be no sovereign German political unit at all. Germany and its lovers die in the end, only to live happily ever after.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.
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