“Normal” tends not to be an adjective that individuals or nations cherish for themselves. Who wants to be merely normal, average or typical when one can be exceptional or superior? Germans do, and it is not hard to understand why. As a united polity only since 1870, Germany’s bloody odyssey from the Franco-Prussian War to World War I, revolution, depression, Hitler, World War II, the Holocaust, and a country divided into two diametrically opposed political systems defines its historic “normalcy.” At least for Germans born after World War II, normal meant being deviant, subject to a kind of metaphysical disfigurement, symbolized in concrete by the hideous wall sprawled across Berlin. Thus to be genuinely normal meant Germany must divorce itself from its own history, an abnormal enterprise—and so a problem of another sort. To what extent has Germany achieved this divorce and solved this problem?
After reunification, some Germans began to describe their country and themselves as “normal” in a positive sense. They saw the post-Cold War 1990s as a ladder ascending to normalcy. Helmut Kohl, the man who oversaw Germany’s unification as Chancellor, declared in the spring of 1990 that his greatest ambition was “that we become a wholly normal country”—able once again to employ all policy instruments, including the use of military force, in legitimate defense of German and allied interests.1
The ambition was realized, but the ascent was by no means automatic. Germans worked at it, as time healed old anxieties. The flag was no longer shunned. Germans took pride in their cultural achievements. Tourism into and out of Germany lost most of its former edge. But the real conditions for becoming “normal” emerged against the mirror of others’ perceptions, whether in Israel, France or Poland. Germany had still to come to terms with and atone for its past, something it could freely do only once liberated from the constraints of division and lingering occupation. Most Germans understood that reunification represented a platform to achieve normalcy, nothing more. Thus, West and East Germany managed a peaceful merger, but one that proved mostly unsettling to its neighbors. United Germany underscored its commitment to European integration, most dramatically by relinquishing the near-sacred German mark in exchange for the untested euro.
Above all, Germany overcame its reluctance to use military force by joining the NATO mission in the Balkans. Upon doing so Germany seemed little different from France or the United Kingdom. Becoming “normal” seemed a natural process of evolution, aided by the fact that, with the enlargement of both NATO and the European Union, Germany was surrounded by democratic allies for the first time in its history. But instead of becoming “boring” as a normal country, as some Germans believed was happening, Germany became anything but to others. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat, confounded both stereotypes and expectations by being far less reflexively pro-European than his Christian Democratic Union (CDU) predecessor Helmut Kohl. He openly expressed frustration that Germany was regarded as the European Union’s paymaster. His government warned its EU allies that Germany was no longer willing to pay a disproportionate share of the budget and lobbied for greater voting power within the European Union. Germany’s willingness to define its national interest as being distinct from the goal of furthering European integration was a new and disconcerting development for the new Berlin Republic’s neighbors.
Germany’s evolution in the 1990s also changed its relationship to the United States. A Germany that was “normal” in terms of its willingness to deploy the Bundeswehr quickly became attractive to U.S. policymakers, who could now ask Germany to contribute non-financial resources, including armed forces, to solve mounting global problems. However, Germans also felt that being “normal” freed them from a constraining obligation to follow an American lead. On the one hand, Germany had become a country that could say “no”; on the other, when it said “yes”, it could offer the full range of support, and that support, now freely given, would be more politically meaningful than earlier extractions. This transformation offered Schröder a rare opportunity to reshape a crucial relationship, but ultimately the Iraq war stood in the way of a fundamentally changed U.S.-German relationship.
In short, much that the Germans did to become normal raised the specter that its success would only resurrect the old abnormality. Nowhere has this paradox been clearer than in the German struggle with the idea of using force as an element of statecraft. Indeed, its relationship to the use of military force remains deeply conflicted. Deployments in the Balkans and Somalia in the 1990s and in Afghanistan after 9/11 were all accompanied by intense soul-searching and extensive political debate. But Germany today seems little different from the Germany of the early 1990s in its misgivings about military force. Here the planned road to normalcy appears to have followed the path of a boomerang. Why?
A key reason lies in the origin of the contemporary German military. The basis for reconstituting an army in 1955, ten years after the Nazi surrender, was the conception of “citizens in uniform”, a model intended to guarantee democratic control of the army and inoculate against political extremism in the armed forces. Germany is among a very small number of NATO member states that still relies on conscription because German politicians and intellectuals are frankly afraid of what a professional volunteer force might mean in the far future of German democracy. This is why Germany needs itself to be a Friedensmacht, a peace power, with “civilians in uniform” comprising a defensive army that is dedicated to keeping the peace and to using only restrained means to fulfill that mission.
But the German reliance on conscription and the Friedensmacht self-image have created a problem. Conscription no longer suits a force that is primarily expeditionary rather than defensive. The current German Defense Minister, Franz Josef Jung, describes the Bundeswehr as having become an “expeditionary force committed to the cause of peace”, a formulation that captures nicely the German desire to serve as peacekeepers, to be the good guys, to stop others from killing. But this doesn’t change two limiting facts: that conscripts do not have to serve in military missions abroad unless they volunteer; and that the Bundestag must approve every deployment of German troops to participate in operations abroad. So while the German elite has adopted a more normal view of the use of force, both the general population and the legal structure concerning the military lag some decades behind. In a 2007 survey conducted by the Social Science Institute of the Bundeswehr, only 58 percent of Germans agreed that national armed forces are an “entirely normal” part of society (82 percent of Americans agreed), and only 42 percent are proud of their armed forces based on their achievements domestically and abroad (compared to 87 percent of Americans).2
There is another reason, too: Most Germans don’t see any role for military force beyond peacekeeping. In the postwar period, Germany by necessity developed as a civilian power—using non-military means of diplomacy, development aid, and economic instruments to secure its national interests. Over the ensuing forty years this necessity became a choice. Much of the German public believes that “soft” power is the only effective means of acting on the international stage. The painful lessons of history have joined with the successful postwar experience to convince Germans that “hard” power does not work. Robert Kagan has written about this phenomenon in Europe, and while his paradigm does not always befit the diverse countries of the European Union, it fits Germany like a glove. Germans desire a 21st century Germany that transcends power politics and builds an order based on law and transnational institutions.3 This is precisely the form of normalcy Germans strive for; it is the only form that aligns with the psychological complex that Germany’s complicated history has produced. This requires a bit of explanation.
Only in German could there be such a term as “Schuldstolz”, which translates best (if still imperfectly) as pride in guilt. The upshot is that most Germans younger than seventy years of age, rather than being ashamed of the legacy of Auschwitz and two world wars, are proud of how well they have worked through the emotional and historical baggage they inherited. The generation led by Schröder and his Green Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer—the ’68ers—saw themselves as the vanguard of redemption, advancing democracy in Germany and forcing the country to face up to its Nazi past. Germans had become, on the issue of war, a nation of “Besserwisser”, ones who “know better.” It is only by understanding this self-image that one can appreciate how Abu Ghraib and similar episodes so completely delegitimized the Iraq war in German eyes, and why Chancellor Schröder was so tempted to manipulate it for political purposes from the start. In the wake of reunification, the Americans encouraged the Germans to seize the day to advance toward a “normal” foreign and security policy. The Germans did seize the day, leading to a close embrace of their American allies in the Balkans and Afghanistan and a striking distancing in Iraq.
At the end of the day, perhaps no country is truly “normal.” Every country is indelibly marked by the idiosyncrasies of history and geography. During the Cold War, West Germany was routinely described as an economic giant and a military dwarf. Today, Germany is the third largest contributor (after the United States and United Kingdom) to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and can no longer be described as a military dwarf. At the same time, Germany is hardly just like us. One of the many lessons Washington has learned in Afghanistan is that it cannot expect Germany to make the same proportionate contributions as the United States. That is still a bridge much too far, given that the Afghanistan deployment was Germany’s first combat mission outside of Europe since World War II. Going from peacekeeping to war-fighting is more than Chancellor Angela Merkel has been able to manage in an environment in which Germany has used force only to prevent genocide and to safeguard alliance solidarity—circumstances described by its politicians as exceptional. This makes it very difficult for the Bundeswehr to engage in an open-ended deployment, which is precisely what Afghanistan looks to be. If the United States needs Germany to play a larger role there, we need to look to the civilian side of the equation, as Secretary Gates has well understood.
We need to understand something else as well. No single event—not reunification, not engaging in combat in the Balkans, not deploying troops as far away as Afghanistan—will transform deeply ingrained German attitudes about the use of force, especially when those views have so recently been reinforced by something like the Iraq war. The lack of support in Germany for NATO war-fighting in any form is sui generis. It will take time to change, if it ever does. New deployments—and we can add Congo and Lebanon to the list—will force German politicians to spell out Germany’s national interests. As the exceptional becomes more common, these and other deployments will become “normal” insofar as a public consensus in support of them develops. Germany will be normal when Germans act not because the United States or the United Nations or NATO or the European Union expect it of Germany, but when Germans expect it of themselves.
2Ansgar Graw, “Deutsche sind nicht stolz auf die Bundeswehr”, Die Welt, May 19, 2007.
3See Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (Knopf, 2003).