by: Robert Zaller
Victor David Hanson, one of the right-wing ideologues the Philadelphia Inquirer lards its editorial pages with, began a column late last year (“It’s uber alles all over again,” December 15) with a striking assertion:
The rise of a German Europe began in 1914, failed twice, and has now ended with the victory of German power almost a century later. The Europe that Kaiser Wilhelm lost in 1918, and that Adolf Hitler destroyed in 1945, has at last been won by German Chancellor Angela Merkel without the firing of a shot.
Let us leave to one side the idea that “Europe” was something for Imperial or Nazi Germany to win or lose, like a prize at a fair. Let’s also leave to the side the conflation of German war aims in 1914 and 1939, as if the statesmen of pre-World War I Germany had the same goals and proceeded on the same premises as Adolf Hitler. There is this much kernel of truth in what Hanson says: That Germany saw its rightful place as the dominant power in Europe before 1914, revived its claims in the 1930s, and is vigorously asserting them now.
From this perspective, the entire history of Europe from Germany’s unification under Bismarck in 1870 can be seen in terms of the effort to contain German power on the Continent. Whether Germany should be regarded as the aggressor or the aggrieved party in this is a matter for debate. The weakness of a Germany divided into many hundreds of nominally sovereign jurisdictions under the Holy Roman Empire was the decisive geopolitical fact of the Continent for several centuries. Unification—a process that involved the military defeat of the two then-strongest Continental powers, Austria and France—made it the de facto strongman of Europe, a position Bismarck sought to consolidate by alliance with Austria and Italy. From Bismarck’s point of view, these alliances were defensive as well as extensive. France, Britain, and Russia thought otherwise. World War I was the result.
In 1912, as Europe was on its way to war, the German industrialist Hugo Stinnes observed that Germany did not need war to dominate the Continent, but only an expanding economy that had already outstripped every rival but the United States. This sage advice was not taken. After World War I, the victorious allies sought to contain Germany by crippling it economically and isolating it politically. Hitler was the result of that. After World War II, the United States rebuilt the German cities it had destroyed, and taking the fledgling Federal Republic of West Germany under its wing, facilitated its emergence as the powerhouse of Western Europe. The political problem of Germany was settled for what appeared to be the indefinite future by Germany’s postwar division into a democratic West Germany integrated into NATO and the Common Market and a satellite East Germany controlled by Russia. It was no accident that both the U.S. and the USSR maintained troops on German soil for decades; America still does. Whatever the superpowers may have differed on, they both agreed—official propaganda aside—that a divided Germany was conducive to their de facto condominium in Europe. This arrangement was not without its strains. The German border was a flashpoint that dragged both powers to the brink of confrontation in 1948-49, and again in 1961. But the arrangement held, and West Germany, anxious to play the role of good European citizen and dependent on the American military shield, professed itself comfortable with it.
All this suddenly changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the jury-rigged East European states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia dissolved, the two Germanies, thrown into each other’s arms by the sudden vacuum of power, reunited. There was an awkward period of adjustment, but Germany stands again today where Hugo Stinnes said it was a hundred years ago: on the brink of a ‘peaceful’ domination of Europe through economic power alone. The circumstances of such domination are, moreover, far more propitious in 2012 than in 1912. There are no rival alliance systems poised to clash, and no General Staffs (and general populations) salivating for war. Europe is no longer, at least for now, a military theater. It is, however, economically unified by the European Union and its common currency, the euro. As the current crisis of the euro has made clear, Germany calls the tune in the EU, with France as a junior partner for political cover.
The EU may not have been designed with German domination in mind, but that has been its consequence. No arrangement could suit German interests better, and the manipulation of a common currency gives it the whip hand. This has a lot of Europeans worried, and some of them, in Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Spain, actively suffering from austerity policies devised in Brussels but mandated by Berlin. Britain’s recent veto of the latest EU treaty, as well as its abstention from the eurozone, should be seen in this context.
Victor Hanson is perfectly content with this outcome. As he says, “German character—so admired and feared over some 500 years of European literature and history—[has]led to the present Germanization of Europe.” The Germans are thrifty, hard-working, and disciplined. Lazy Spaniards and Greeks are not. In the long run, character prevails. The Germans have won, with an almost Darwinian inevitability, because they deserve to.
Talk about air-brushing poor Uncle Adolf out of the picture.
You don’t have to be a Greek or a Spaniard (the Greeks work some of the longest hours in Europe) to find “Germanization” a less than beguiling prospect. There’s the matter of the war that killed upwards of sixty million people little more than sixty years ago. And the Holocaust wasn’t invented in Denmark.
Of course, it would be grossly unfair to stigmatize all Germans on the basis of past history, just as it is absurd to see Germany’s current position as the result of some natural selection based on “character.” But the history is there, and when Germans throw their weight around it looks uncomfortable, even from a distance. A few facts of history should be remembered, too. Germany was saved from a pulverizing Russian conquest only by a countervailing American presence. The postwar history of Europe, and of Germany in particular, would have looked a lot different in the absence of American might. East Germany certainly did. West German recovery was promoted and speeded by American aid, and assisted by foreign labor. And, from the late Middle Ages to the late nineteenth century, Germany’s image was not one of strength but of political weakness and division. I don’t know where Hanson got his 500-year surge from, but Mother Courage tells a different story.
The world is different from what it was before 1945, and a German domination of Europe has less global significance than it would have had before the rise of China and India. But some ghosts are not so easily laid, and some memories should be indelible. It would at the least, one would think, behoove Germany to comport itself with a good deal of restraint. Up until now, it has largely done so. But there was always a certain swagger along with its repentance, a Helmut Kohl who lurked behind a Willi Brandt. Now the Germans are brandishing their power openly, and lecturing the spendthrift breeds of Southern Europe about their shortcomings. The euro is in trouble, to be sure, and so is the European Union. But the specter of German arrogance may undo a united Europe more quickly than anything else.