In the world of security and defense, Germany presents an enigma. How can a country that has been re-unified and fully sovereign for almost 30 years, a country possessing a fully globalized economy (the fourth-largest in the world), a country with a few heavy history lessons under its belt, be so completely absent strategically? Why is it that especially in military affairs, Germany seems to be unable to play the role expected of it, given its size, strength, and geographic location?
There once was a good deal of understanding for the historic complexes on Germany’s shoulders, and this understanding had led to a more gentler approach to questions of security by Germany’s friends and allies. But this patience has been running low for a while now, and has recently run dry. Berlin is now regularly being accused of shameless free riding, of naïve pacifism, or of being a perfidious geo-economic power solely interested in its mercantile well-being. Neighbors are worried about Germany’s reliability as an ally. President Donald J. Trump has unloaded on Berlin for its reluctance to spend two percent of GDP on defense.
But Germans are not free-riders by nature, and the reason for their reluctance in military affairs has nothing to do with saving money. Nor are Germans particularly pacifist. The peace movement, a powerful phenomenon on the 1970s and 80s, is practically dead, and the Germans have never revolted against the Bundeswehr’s deployments to Afghanistan or, more recently, Lithuania, Mali and Iraq. Germany is also not, as has been suggested, caught up in an undying 1989 mindset, reluctant to mentally leave the post-modern geopolitical paradise that the fall of the Berlin Wall and national reunification had unexpectedly created for the formerly divided frontline state.
In order to understand Germany’s affliction, one needs to dig deeper. Of course, the real reason does have to do with Germany’s history. Germany’s trauma as the perpetrator of the Holocaust and Word War II runs deep and is nowhere near subsiding 75 years after the end of Nazi reign. But this trauma does not play out in one-dimensional sentiments of guilt and shame as is so often caricatured. To be clear, these tendencies do exist, but they are not what is holding the country back. Rather, within the third and fourth post-war generations, this trauma plays out primarily as a profound lack of trust in one’s own good intentions.
The source of this distrust in one’s self is the historic experience of a people that once fed all its idealism, ingenuity, grit, and aspiration into what turned out to be history’s most monstrous crime. This collective experience of unparalleled moral failure, undiminished by the passing of time, destroyed the nation’s faith in the very possibility of its own good intentions. No German feels sure that such failure cannot happen again, even when checks are in place and motivations are in fact sound. No one can be certain that Germany will not come out on the wrong side of history again.
This ever-present, subconscious fear of failure has created a fundamental difference in mentality between Germans and the citizens of almost all other Western societies. Most Americans, French, Dutch, and British—to name a few—believe by and large that, with all failures accounted for, they are fundamentally on the right side of history. A kind of circular logic underpinned by confidence is at work: Yes we can fail, these countries tell themselves, and we are working very hard to make up for our mistakes; but ultimately we are the good guys.
Such confidence is entirely absent from the German collective mindset. Germany’s Western partners, who have observed Germany’s impressive recovery after 1945 and who have learned to appreciate stable German politics and reliable German politicians, often fail to understand this psychological affliction and its ever-present impact on German politics. They can’t believe that a country that has done so well is still carrying on its shoulders such heavy self-doubt.
This lack of trust in self has a dramatic effect on the way Germans discuss politics and form opinions. It leads to an enormous desire for establishing moral clarity upfront on all issues under dispute. On every single issue publicly debated, Germans need to settle one question first: if we take a decision, will we come out on the right side of the moral equation? Before interests or responsibilities can even become relevant criteria in a decision, every debate is infused with a moral dimension, serving one purpose only: establishing whether Germany can stay morally clean. The historic trauma of complete moral bankruptcy has made “staying morally clean” the overarching German national interest.
In practice, however, this neurotic mechanism very quickly degenerates from honest introspection into shallow moralism. When your agony revolves permanently about your own moral balance sheet, the tendency is to define morality rather narrowly—as something concerning Germany only. A morality that would include responsibilities for others and the defense of higher principles is of course not ignored, but is rather sidelined and trumped by the all-powerful need for self-centered reassurance. This tendency was most prominently on display when German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer had to invoke the moral imperative created by Auschwitz to convince his own Green party to approve German deployments during the 1999 Kosovo war. For Germans, the Kosovo question was not about murdered Kosovars, or genocide, or alliance solidarity; it was about themselves. Not too much has changed since then.
Germans’ attitudes about their own predicament make it all the more difficult for outsiders to be sympathetic. Being anguished about their every move, Germans in turn take a lot of pride in their exertions. Their moral insecurity leads to a lot of self-centered moralizing in compensation, which in turn produces a sense of moral superiority. Nothing is more irritating to friends and allies than the figure of the lecturing German—the European who sees himself as the most profound and far-seeing moral thinker in the room.
In practice, all these neuroses add up to the pervasive reluctance that has become emblematic of German security and defense policy. Real-life policymaking does not lend itself to the binary choices required by Germany’s collective psychological needs. Instead it demands the very things Germans finds so threatening: painful decisions involving moral compromise. Rarely is there a foreign policy issue, let alone a crisis, that invites a clear-cut moral decision. Almost never is there an easily recognizable clean option on the one hand and an equally obvious contaminated one on the other. If you decide to deploy troops, you will most likely be responsible for casualties. If you enter into an alliance, some of your partners might not live up to the highest democratic or human rights standards.
In other words, making difficult foreign policy decisions requires taking moral risks. But when your self-image is wobbly and your primary goal is to stay clean, such decisions are the last ones you want to take. For Germany’s brittle psyche, these kinds of compromises constitute a grave danger. They are not just reminders of historic failure, they also threaten to damage the carefully constructed and hard-won sense of post-war righteousness. They basically threaten to destroy what little confidence there is on hand. The kind of small and not-so-small moral compromises that keep a country handlungsfähig (capable of acting), especially in military affairs, need decision-makers and a wider public that has sufficient trust in its own good intentions. With that being absent, political paralysis follows.
This paralysis comes in many guises. Germany still has no real sense of agency in questions pertaining to Europe’s security architecture, including credible conventional and nuclear deterrence, missile threats, air defense, and geopolitical rivalry. It is also unable to see its role in wider global questions of order, despite that fact that its fully-globalized economy makes it a primary stakeholder in world affairs. Germany deploys troops to Afghanistan, but it agreed to do so with caveats that sought to keep the Bundeswehr out of actual fighting, a position that was given up only very late in the game. Unable to recognize the bigger geopolitical and moral context, Germany abstained in the UN Security Council on the question of military intervention in Libya in 2011.
Germany’s armed forces are worn out and depleted by decades of half-hearted reform, the cashing-in of the peace dividend, procurement freezes, budget cuts, and bureaucratic stasis. And the abject political failure of consecutive governments to do anything about this sad state of affairs is not even considered scandalous. Germany today has the armed forces it wants and deserves: ones that cannot be used. German politicians excel at issuing ambitious statements on European defense (“strategic autonomy”, “European sovereignty”) but are unwilling to turn this into meaningful action—and to pay for it. When diplomats at NATO and politicians in neighboring states politely complain, they trumpet how reliable and respected a military partner Germany has been.
For post-war West Germany—an only partially sovereign country under the tutelage of its allies—the attitude of restraint and passivity was useful, and even imperative. It helped re-establish the reputation of a morally bankrupt nation that needed to prove to the world that it no longer harbored aggressive, militaristic ambitions. But for the reunited, economically strong Germany, this mentality is wholly insufficient, and it actually produces the very suspicions that Germans fear the most: that there is a need to hide something, that Germany can’t be fully trusted, that it is concealing its real motives behind a façade of faux righteousness.
This miasma of trauma, moralism, paralysis, and suspicion makes the famous speech by German President Joachim Gauck, given at the Munich security conference 2014, so important. Gauck did not just remind Germans of their responsibilities in security matters. Much more importantly, he reassured them that they could trust themselves, that they would not fail again, that their democracy was stable, and that no disastrous moral meltdown was to be expected anytime soon. Gauck, with his unique ability to read the public mind and to sense the inner needs of the people he represented, took their dark psychological toy away from them. He told them not just that more things were expected of them, but that they were legitimately expected of them. He no longer accepted the collective shirking of responsibility as an answer, precisely because the Germans could actually trust themselves.
For some Germans, this was a liberation, and some genuine enthusiasm over “a more active Germany” emerged domestically. Gauck’s speech was followed by speeches by the German foreign and defense ministers, both of whom sang from the same hymnal. An extensive policy review conducted by the foreign ministry concluded that Germany could no longer stand by the wayside. Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea sent shockwaves through Germany, and the country, at long last, reversed the downward trend on defense spending. For a moment it looked as if Berlin would exercise unheard-of leadership inside NATO (re-assuring the eastern flank) and the EU (firmly standing behind sanctions against the Kremlin).
But over time what was soon dubbed the “Munich Consensus” withered away. A trauma is not fixed by a speech or two, and recalcitrant parts of the German political and media classes managed to slowly turn the tide. In the 2017 general election campaign, what was left of the Munich energy finally disappeared. The Social Democrats, in their cynicism, decided to use Donald Trump’s great unpopularity among Germans to play to Germany’s complexes, discrediting the more-than-justified calls for increased defense spending as “saber-rattling” and “war-mongering”.
Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats chose not pick a fight over this, and the old reflexes of the neurotic nation were fed to the fullest. Ultimately, it did not score the SPD too many points in the election (which produced the SPD’s worst showing ever), but the campaign fatally poisoned the two-percent defense spending issue for the foreseeable future. As a result, neither will Germany reach its pledged two percent goal, nor will it reach the chancellor’s minimum of 1.5 percent by 2024.
Neither Gauck through preaching, nor Trump through yelling, nor the so-called European moment that has called for a level of “strategic autonomy” for the continent were powerful enough forces to break the German spell. So what will?
Germany’s failure to live up to the strategic expectations of its allies and partners (and its own small community of defense specialists) is ultimately a psychological problem. This means that it cannot be resolved by political means alone. Yes, continued pleas, demands, arm twisting, and even outright threats will still be needed. But pressure alone will not do the trick. In fact, if overdone it will probably backfire, as Trump’s endless tirades against Germany have shown. (They have only triggered anti-Americanism, not a bigger defense budget.)
To move Germany, the trust problem needs to be addressed. Partners and allies need to re-assure the Germans that they do not fear them but want them as more engaged partners. German audiences need to hear that the German neurosis is understandable but no longer warranted. Most importantly, Germany’s allies need to keep on encouraging further contributions to common defense, so that Germans can learn through doing that they can trust themselves. The country needs to heal itself by regaining confidence, step by step.
Germany’s friends need to play a constructive psychological role not least because the West’s geopolitical competitors are addressing the country’s deep-seated complexes as well, only with much more sinister motives. Russia under President Vladimir Putin understands the German psyche all too well. In the Soviet era, Moscow supported the German peace movement to reinforce the country’s moralistic outrage against NATO deterrence and the Alliance’s dual-track decision. Russia’s activities today follow this historical precedent. The myth of Russian victimhood—of a country humiliated, encircled and downgraded by the West—is perpetually repeated to trigger sentiments of German moral failure vis-à-vis Moscow and the Russian people. Fringe parties with their pseudo-pacifist and anti-Western messaging are financially and ideologically supported for the same reasons. The goal is to drive a wedge between Germany and the West—specifically the U.S.—and to give Russia much more leverage over European political and security affairs.
But Germany also needs the help to bolster its own efforts at healing. Germany tries, at times frantically, but progress comes in small steps. People in Germany, for the most part, do understand that the status quo is not viable. In its 2020 budget, the German government foresees defense spending 45 percent higher than that of 2014. This is neither sufficient nor anywhere near the two-percent mark, but it is a significant increase nonetheless. Germany leads a NATO battle unit in Lithuania, a step that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Similarly, in a notable breach of custom, Berlin has been arming and training Peshmerga fighters in Iraq for their battle against the Islamic State. A host of new armaments projects has been earmarked or is on the way.
And so, with some justification, policymakers in Berlin point to Germany’s additional efforts. They reject the criticism that Germany is too passive and too restrained. They are right on the specifics, even as they are wrong on the bigger picture. Germany is moving, but the strategic situation in Europe is moving much faster. And so, even as Germany does more, it is still falling behind. Germany’s supply-side develops slower than the world’s demand side.
Asking for even more is a hard to sell to German politicians who feel that they are already going out of their way to accommodate allies. And yet they can’t be spared the message: Germany does great things, but it needs to adapt faster. To achieve this, the country will need leaders who takes risks and deal in trust, not fear. And it will need allies that understand what the real problem is so they can send the right message.