“We do not want a reunited Germany,” Britain’s prime minister Margaret Thatcher told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev just two months before the Wall fell. Afterwards, she reportedly snapped: “We beat the Germans twice, and now they are back.” Nor was she alone. The ghost of a resurgent Germany also tortured French president Francois Mitterrand and Italy’s premier Giulio Andreotti, who quipped: “I love Germany so much that I preferred two of them.” Actually, the author of that line was Francois Mauriac, the French novelist and Nobel laureate, who died in 1970.
The point of this excursion into the past is that memories die hard. In the 20th century, the Kaiser’s Second and Hitler’s Third Reich had tried to grab supremacy over Europe, with Der Fuhrer making it all the way to the gates of Moscow and Cairo. A world war and 80 million dead later, Germany was crushed. The country was dismembered, divided and safely chained—the West in the American, the East in the Soviet bloc. But suddenly, the Cold War order collapsed along with the Berlin Wall. Once reunified, Germany would shed its fetters and again reach for domination. No wonder that its neighbors feared for the worst. With Europe’s largest population and economy, Germany might soon be on the march again.
Yet the “Fourth Reich,” a favorite shibboleth of the time, did not materialize. Why not, as so many imagined in the angst-ridden months between the fall of the Wall and reunification on October 3, 1990?
“Three Reichs and you are out,” is the entertaining answer. The serious explanation goes like this: For the first time in German history, the strategic setting was just right. The First Reich—the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” undone by Napoleon in 1806—was too weak to hold off its covetous neighbors. For centuries, Mittleleuropa served as central battleground for the Continent’s major wars. The Second and Third Reich—the Wilhelmine Empire and the Nazi scourge—were too strong for Europe, but never strong enough to turn conquest into lasting gain.
After total defeat in World War II, the torturous “German Question” was no more. Germany was now safely embedded in the Pax Americana. Fully integrated in NATO, its military could not threaten anybody. Nor could others threaten the Federal Republic, a protégé of the United States. After reunification, they had no good reason to go after the new giant in their midst. For in 1990, national unity was not forged in an expansionist war, as waged by Bismarck against France in 1870-71, but with the consent of the powers great and small. Even better, the Soviet Union committed suicide on Christmas Day 1991; soon its former satrapies joined the American-led Alliance. It was a miraculous turn. For the first time in history, Germany was encircled only by friends. No threat, no temptation.
Next, look at the benign nexus between safety and liberal democracy. Wrapped in a security blanket Made in U.S.A., West Germany’s nascent democracy could sink sturdy roots into a previously hostile soil. A country surrounded by enemies, as the Wilhelmine Empire and the Weimar Republic had been, is a god-send for demagogues and chauvinists. Strongmen flourish when they can manipulate national humiliation and the specter of the enemy next door. Facing Britain, France, and Russia helped Kaiser Bill to mobilize the country for war and to suppress democracy in the runup to 1914. “Making Germany great again,” to coin a phrase, propelled the Nazis into power in the aftermath of World War I. The business model of “Deutschland über alles” is bound to fail when security is assured.
In the post-1945 setting, democracy and the liberal state could flourish, and extremist parties, left or right, fell by the wayside one by one. By some measures, present-day Germany may be a more liberal construction than are France or Britain. Individual rights keep trumping the power of the state, and the Bundestag (parliament) has grown into a mighty bulwark against the executive, as has the Constitutional Court. The Berlin Republic has remained a bastion of pacificity. In 2014, an international poll conducted by the BBC anointed Germany as the globe’s “most liked” country. By then, Margaret Thatcher was dead physically as well as figuratively.
So, what’s the problem?
It is a “cultural revolution.” Courtesy of the American security umbrella, Germany “studied war no more,” as Nat King Cole and Pete Seeger sang by cribbing from Isaiah. Sneakers replaced hobnailed boots. Pacifism became Germany’s reigning secular religion. The army of united Germany shrank from 680,000 to 180,000, its panzer force from 2,500 to 250. Defense outlays have dwindled to 1.2 percent of GDP today, down from around 3 in the Cold War. Clausewitz doesn’t live here anymore, the Prussian theoretician of war who famously preached that force must be an integral adjunct of diplomacy. If Germany does act, it is only gingerly and behind allied forces, preferably with a UN mandate. Parliamentary permission is a must, as is its renewal year after year.
Overreach, which once brought untold misery to Europe, has turned into underreach, which does not nourish stability in troubling times. In the west, Donald Trump inflicts trade war on Europe while blackmailing his NATO partners: Pay up, or we pull out. In the east, Vladimir Putin is on an expansionist roll, pressuring the Baltics and Poland and lording it over the Levant. Iran is back in the nuclear weapons business while threatening shipping in the Gulf. Yet mighty Germany, the world’s second-largest exporter, is loath to dispatch a flotilla to safeguard the freedom of the seas. It remains what it has been while up to 300,000 U.S. troops stood guard on this side of the Iron Curtain. Berlin is a net consumer of security, not a producer. “Let George do it,” runs the unspoken message
A shell-shocked nation burned in two world wars and weaned on security at a steep discount will not soon step up to necessity. Why get into harm’s way and risk the domestic tranquility of a nation that has profited so handsomely from abstinence?
Which brings us full circle. This time, the problem is not German imperialism, but the reluctance to shoulder responsibility in line with the country’s ample size and riches. What an irony! Thirty years ago, Germany’s allies feared the “Fourth Reich. Today, in the age of Trump, Putin and Xi, they worry not about excessive, but deficient German clout. If they were movie buffs, they would recite Uncle Ben’s last words to Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”