Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Germany Drifting Again?

Germany seems to be doing remarkably well. Unemployment is down. So is spending. Its economy is the envy of its neighbors. But Roger Cohen in a stimulating op-ed in the New York Times drubs what he calls "Merkel in Miniature"—chancellor Angela Merkel, who is decidedy on the defensive after her Christian Democratic party has lost successive state elections. Cohen sees what amounts to a new version of Deutschland uber alles—putting Germany first and neglecting the idea of a united Europe.

Cohen reminisces about the golden age of Germany when the country plowed ahead with reunification and embedded itself in the European Union. Now things aren't so clear. Germany is wobbling. Merkel has no vision. She's faltered when it comes to shoring up the Euro. And when it comes to Libya, Germany, the strongest country on the continent, has gone AWOL.

Why? One answer is that Germany's pacifist sentiments mean that it shrinks from any conflict. The legacy of World War II has created a culture of repentance that shuns the use of force. There is something to that answer. But perhaps something else is occurring as well: Germany is returning to realist precepts. It's reaching out to Russia as much as to its postwar allies, France and England, not to mention the United States. And why not let the Brits and the French take the lead in Libya—Germany already came to grief there once before.

According to Cohen,

The time for a mea culpa has come. The loss of European idealism is the most shocking change I’ve seen in Germany this past decade. Merkel, who would still be stranded in East Germany if Kohl had wavered as she has, needs to lay out just how Germany, with its three per cent growth and low unemployment, benefits from the EU, the euro and a borderless market of almost half a billion people.

Still, Cohen is putting it a bit strongly. Perhaps realism rather than idealism is what will pull the European Union through its current difficulties. The Germans can hardly be elated about the profligacy of their southern neighbors. It's understandable that they would view the EU with a somewhat more jaundiced eye. The heady days of the 1990s were, in other words, a mirage.

So it's open to debate whether a new German problem is really developing. In the risk-averse culture that Germany has developed, the notion of bailing out on the Euro, or even the European Union, is close to unthinkable. For her part Merkel has shown tremendous staying power. She's managed to absorb a number of blows over the years, but always come out on top. She's a pragmatist, not an idealist. Besides, perverted idealism has gotten Germany into a lot of trouble in the past.