Simple questions do not always dispose themselves to simple answers, so in pondering what it means to say that Germany is (or is not) a normal country twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I turn first to analogies furnished by memory. Two memories, in particular, come to mind.
In the early 1970s, I contributed an essay to a book, edited by Richard Rosecrance, entitled America as an Ordinary Country (1976). I remember having thought at the time that the United States could not really be an ordinary country because it was one of two pillars of the bipolar security system, of which Europe was at the center. Neither, then, could the Soviet Union be a normal country. And the third country that could not be normal was Germany, but for a different reason.
By normal in a security sense, I meant that European countries such as France, Romania, Britain, Italy and others could have their own objectives and follow their own interests, narrowly defined, without changing the nature of the security system. If the United States or the Soviet Union changed their policies or their natures as states in any fundamental way, however, they changed the European system, broadly defined. Germany fit in neither the superpower nor the normal country category. It was not a pillar of the security system, but its behavior nevertheless had systemic implications in a way that French or Romanian behavior did not. As former Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger put it, there was always a danger that Germany might be either too weak or too strong for the stability of Europe.
The underlying reason for this danger, as David Calleo has put it, is that Germany was “born encircled”, yet at the same time never had fixed, universally recognized borders. During the Cold War, that condition took on special form. Postwar Germany was reborn encircled, and was forcibly divided both at the “cellular” level and within its nucleus in Berlin. And its borders, recently redrawn, were neither universally agreed nor universally expected to long endure. The Federal Republic was conceived as a potential revisionist power that not only occupied a central place geographically but was also the richest and most populous country in Europe. It therefore had to be integrated in a broader system to reassure its neighbors that its behavior would be non-threatening. In a system of sovereign states whose choices of balance collectively ensured security, Germany could not have fully sovereign choices. This was not normal.
A second memory comes from about a decade later, during the great debate over the NATO deployment of Pershing-2 and cruise missiles to balance Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range missiles. During that time, a young German pacifist put it to me this way: “We Germans can never satisfy you Frenchmen. You don’t like us when we fight for power, and you don’t like us when we fight for peace.” I answered,
I see your point, but what troubles us is your lurching between brutality and sentimentality. If, for Germans, power politics means claiming to be the master race, and the pursuit of peace means unilateral disarmament, there we have good reason not to be satisfied with you.
These, then, are the two basic reasons why Germany could not be a normal country: its geographical situation, and a national character with an unusually low threshold for the ambiguity reality naturally tends to serve up. Both go back far in history but took on a more dramatic character with the consequences of World War II: the stark division of Germany and the searing memory of the Nazi regime and its unprecedented crimes. The question now is whether, some 64 years after World War II and twenty years after German reunification, these reasons have lost whatever validity they may have had.
If one defines “normalcy” as moderation and balance, the Cold War Federal Republic was already a normal country. Its break with Germany’s totalitarian and racist past was more thorough than was the case, for instance, for Austria or Italy or Japan, let alone for Russia or China, where yesterday’s tyrants are still honored. The break with Nazism had its pathological aspects, as some German youth were driven by reaction against their parents’ generation to the symmetrical derangements of extreme pacifism or terrorism, particularly during the dark years of the Baader-Meinhof gang. But the institutions and the prevailing orientation of the German people have remained quite moderate.
In foreign affairs, too, four remarkable chancellors, two Christian Democrats (Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl) and two Social Democrats (Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt) pursued particularly judicious policies (Atlantic and European integration within the West, later combined with détente and rapprochement with the East). While some Germans and more foreign observers worried that these policies might lead Germany to acquire nuclear weapons or to drag the West into an aggressive policy toward the Soviet bloc or, contrarily, lead to capitulation or neutralization for the sake of reunification, these fears never materialized.
Nevertheless, German moderation during the Cold War did not in itself furnish proof of deep change. Observers reasoned that German behavior might have been due to the geopolitical constraints of the Cold War, of Germany’s division, or of the Bonn Republic’s need to seek a new patina of legitimacy. So perhaps that moderation was indeed too good to be true, implying the possibility that under less constrained conditions Germany would return to a more normal normalcy, so to speak. That might mean a Germany that would retain some features of its exceptional normalcy of the Cold War, or, on the contrary, one that would swing in an opposite, more openly revisionist direction.
Such speculation of course went on within Germany as well as outside of it. For the first three postwar decades, an optimistic view prevailed. After all, the postwar status of the Federal Republic involved legal limitations on sovereignty from its constitution (which banned it from waging any war except in self-defense or as part of a multilateral effort), to its own military organization (which banned anything resembling a general staff and tried to institute a kind of civilianized army). Moreover, few Germans objected to any of this, at least not in public. Germany was also more directly integrated into NATO than other member states. The attempt to build the United States of Europe, too, was explicitly meant to produce attitudes and institutions that were the exact opposite of the nationalist past. Law and economics, the “two pillars” of European integration, seemed to have become the basis of German identity to the exclusion of military and even political ambition. If German society took pride in its achievement, it was in its economic model (the “social market economy”) and in its success (“Modell Deutschland”). The Bonn Republic seemed to cut Germany’s link not only with the Third Reich, but with the whole idea of a “special German way” (a Sonderweg)—and to choose complete Westernization (some would have said “Americanization”) in its stead.
By the mid-1980s, however, optimism gave ground to the “quarrel of the historians” about the German past. A certain unease emerged, raising anew concern about Germany’s direction if it were freed from the shackles of Cold War constraints. For some perfectly democratic and Europeanist leaders like Kohl and Brandt, the defense of democracy did not preclude the search for reconstituting German national unity. Saying so, however, made many people nervous. Similarly, successive governments tested the limits of the prohibition against waging war, in the name of participating in UN and then NATO “peacekeeping” or “stabilization” operations. That could be interpreted as one more sign of unconditional loyalty to the West or as a search for a normal “national defense.” But, again, it made some non-Germans nervous. The German public, for its part, seemed ill at ease with either possibility: of being either so small as to have Germany devoured by a group of acronyms, or so large as to once again have an appetite to devour. Who could blame them?
This was the state of German political psychology when reunification descended, largely unbidden and unexpected, in 1989. Reunification has changed the Federal Republic’s political life in many ways, not least through the inclusion of the East German population. This is a population cadre more nationalistic and far more suspicious of “American imperialism”, and one that that did not imbibe the legalist/multilateralist brew of the Cold War-era Federal Republic. In a tight political campaign in 2002, there is no doubt that the specter of this cadre’s vote at the very least influenced the tone of Gerhard Schröder’s opposition to the Iraq war.
Even more importantly, however, reunification removed from German perception the idea of Russia as a threat. While former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact satellites fear Russia and crave American protection, German public opinion shows no compunction about getting friendlier with Russia and risking American displeasure. Then the Iraq war specifically, and more generally the posture of the Bush Administration, produced a qualitative jump in German alienation from the United States. Favorable opinions of the United States dropped more in Germany than in most other European countries. This reaction has been reversed in spectacular fashion by the election of Barack Obama, but the two prior trends of the post-unification era—the pacifism of German public opinion and the widespread equanimity over Russia—persist.
The first trend explains why German participation in the Afghan war continues to be very unpopular despite Obama’s embrace of it. It has little to do with anti-Americanism, plenty to do with a visceral reaction against German casualties in far-off lands. Sympathy for Russia, too, has little to do with any search for a counterweight to American leadership, plenty to do with the mixture of a vague feeling of guilt for the 1941 invasion and the treatment of the Russian population, and concrete calculations of economic interest.
Economic interests have also had a decisive influence on Germany’s policy concerning the European Union and the international response to the economic crisis. At the time of reunification, Germany agreed to the creation of the euro largely in order to prove that it remained committed to the progress of European integration. Now, the decision of its Constitutional Court on June 30, 2009, approving the Lisbon Treaty but declaring that any further abandonment of sovereignty would necessitate significant constitutional change, is all the legitimation it needs to head in a very different direction. Germany belongs to, if not leads, the general European movement toward the reassertion of states versus supranational organs like the European Commission.
The reassertion of the status of the state seems to go hand-in-hand with a new economic statism. Germany’s undoubted economic problems, partly linked to the age of its population and partly to the rigidity of its labor market, had led it for a time in the direction of the American model of political economy. It even led Chancellor Schröder, of all people, to implement important and unpopular liberalizing reforms. The present crisis has restored confidence in the German “social market economy” and in balanced budgets. The Bundestag has even made the latter a legal obligation that justifies Germany’s reluctance either to help weaker European states or to follow the Anglo-American policy of massive economic stimulation.
The economic policy focus has also affected foreign policy through the back door. Without losing sight of the crucial importance of the intra-European and Atlantic market, German foreign economic policy is based above all on the search for energy security and foreign markets. Hence the importance given to China and to Russia, even at the expense of solidarity with Poland or Ukraine, when it comes to choosing between alternative gas pipelines.
This more self-assured and self-centered attitude, although focused on economics, does not stop there. Germany used to be the best advocate of enlarging the European Union to include Central and Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, and one of the members most open to Turkish entry. Now it is wary of accepting new members that would increase its economic burden and of hosting new workers who, while useful to its economy, would create problems for domestic identity and security. As is the case elsewhere in Western Europe (the Dutch case being the most obvious), distrust of Muslims in particular tends to reaffirm a German identity based on national history and the Christian religion in important parts of the population. That very much includes the ruling CDU party.
Does all this make Germany a normal state or an exceptional one? That depends on what normalcy means today for any European nation. If it means being tolerably at peace with itself, following its own interests without provoking or attacking other countries but without necessarily giving priority to their expectations or concerns, then Germany has certainly become a normal nation. The old geopolitical reason for Germany’s abnormality has become largely obsolete, only natural at a time when Germany is surrounded by other democracies and formal allies.
And national character? If a nation with the past, the position and the population of Germany should normally have an aspiration to leadership, a sense of mission or a special role, one may find that, having abandoned both imperial ambitions and the European federal project, it is in danger of becoming a big Switzerland—in other words, a country with a mild form of nationalism combined rather harmoniously with a mild form of pacifism. Indeed, it is striking that the same writer, Martin Walser, who has called for Germany to stop being obsessed with its guilty past, has also called for its immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some may fear that such an outcome might one day lead to a reaction, that of a future Germany in which nostalgia for a more glorious, more romantic conception of itself would emerge. For the time being, almost nothing confirms these fears.
Europe and the world could, I suspect, get used to a large “Swiss” Germany without a great deal of emotional exertion. Some, including myself, may wish Germans to be more attached to the European project, to recognize that fruitful cooperation with Russia requires not letting it get away with bullying behavior, and to be more engaged in the defense of democracy and world order. But Germans are certainly not shirking responsibility in the struggle against terrorism. They stand in the forefront of managing global causes like climate change. And their governments try as best they can to find compromises between satisfying public opinion and alliance obligations. Certainly Chancellor Merkel and, even more, the new rising star of German politics, her economic minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, can be trusted to resist unreasonable temptation.
If, nevertheless, one desired a reason to worry about the “normal” character of Germany, an example does leap to mind: Gerhard Schröder. For a former Chancellor who, during his term, was not without intelligence and some courage, to accept a job in the service of Gazprom and to declare that Vladimir Putin is an absolutely impeccable democrat is certainly not normal. But then, he is not the first to have looked Mr. Putin in the eye and experienced a strange revelation about his soul.