BACK IN November 2011, as Europe struggled with its ongoing financial crisis, Poland’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, gave a speech in Berlin that beckoned toward his country’s western neighbor and pleaded with it to save the euro. “You know full well that nobody else can do it,” said Sikorski. “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation.”
Indispensable? This was an extraordinary statement from a top official of a nation that was ravaged by Germany during World War II. And it reflects a profound shift taking place throughout Germany and Europe about Berlin’s position at the center of the Continent. The past view that what was good for Germany was bad for the European Union is being supplanted by a new attitude that what is good for Germany is even better for its neighbors.
And Germans, who since 1945 had accepted the subservient European role forced upon them by their victorious World War II adversaries, are now cinching up their collective lederhosen and adopting a more assertive posture. The country is shedding its status as junior partner to America and embarking upon its own path. All this is evident in five important ways:
• Germany is forging a new national identity that is less influenced by the Nazi past and that looks to the broader sweep of the country’s place in European history dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Germany is increasingly looking back at its Prussian ideals, which it sees as having been betrayed, not represented, by Nazism.
• The trend toward German independence began with the socialist chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who denounced the George W. Bush administration for going to war in Iraq—a change from Germany’s Cold War role as submissive ally. Additionally, in 2003 Schroeder, in a Nixon-goes-to-China move, courageously backed “Agenda 2010”—a set of sweeping economic reforms and social-welfare cuts that slashed government spending.
• This surge of self-confidence is bolstered by Germany’s new status as Europe’s economic powerhouse. As Sikorski’s pleading suggests, only Germany possesses the economic muscle to push through and support a European recovery program, and this is a development that Germans, habituated to shunning the spotlight, are grudgingly beginning to accept.
• Germany increasingly is pursuing a self-confident foreign policy set apart from the wishes and demands of its erstwhile American patron. Following on its refusal to participate in the Iraq War, it shunned the West’s intervention in Libya and has pursued independent ties with Russia and China, raising eyebrows in Washington, DC.
• And yet this new German emergence is accompanied by intense birth pains. Powerful political issues and forces have been unleashed, both within Germany and throughout Europe, as Berlin takes the lead in guiding the EU through its economic crisis.
All of these developments and issues are personified by Germany’s controversial but politically adroit chancellor, Angela Merkel. No European leader is being attacked more virulently than Merkel as she seeks to lead the seventeen-nation currency zone through its sovereign-debt crisis. In demanding fiscal discipline from the southern European states, she has incurred the wrath of Greeks and Spaniards, who routinely depict her as a reincarnation of Otto von Bismarck and Adolf Hitler. And at home, German socialists and conservatives are apoplectic at what they see as either Merkel’s foot-dragging or her folly in acceding to any bailout measures which would transfer more German wealth to the country’s profligate southern neighbors.
As Germans tremble at the prospect of their retirement pensions and savings flowing to these spendthrift states, the recent decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court sanctioning Germany’s participation in the decision of the European Central Bank (ECB) to buy up bonds is being treated as tantamount to a sellout of German national interests. The idea is that Merkel is being squeezed by Europe in general and Italy in particular—by Prime Minister Mario Monti and a fortiori by ECB president Mario Draghi. These apprehensions recently were captured in a column by the prominent German commentator Josef Joffe in the September 4 Financial Times: “Instead of ‘Germanising’ Europe, the Germans are about to be ‘Europeanised,’ or even ‘Club Med-ified.’”
But are they? Are these fears justified? Is Merkel a bungler? Is Germany doomed to suffer a repetition of high inflation? Or are the naysayers transfixed by a bogeyman from the past that has little practical relevance for the present?
THE TRUTH is that, as Germany reclaims the economic dominance it enjoyed on the Continent during the late nineteenth century, Merkel is proving herself to be one of the most farsighted chancellors in German history. With a personal popularity rating near 70 percent, she is favored to win a new course as federal chancellor in 2013 against Social Democratic candidate Peer Steinbrück. Unlike President Obama—who is regarded in mainstream German economic and policy circles as anathema for his insistence on fiscally loose Keynesian measures—Merkel has not simply opened the economic spigot. The average German voter fears that if a Social Democratic-Green coalition were currently in power, the keys to their financial security would be blithely handed over to their European brethren.