All Roads Lead to Berlin

All Roads Lead to Berlin

Mini Teaser: Germany is no longer Europe’s most troublesome player. It’s now an indispensable nation. The power of this transformation is personified by Chancellor Angela Merkel and her delicate political and diplomatic balancing act.

by Author(s): Jacob Heilbrunn

It should not be surprising, then, that Merkel is attempting to create a Europe in Germany’s image, not America’s. A consummate political survivor, Merkel is completing the process of a return to realist political principles, both in domestic and foreign policy, that began with the country’s refusal to participate in the Iraq War. But now the new Teutonic colossus that is emerging in the heart of Europe will affect events as much by what it does as by what it does not do.

THIS NEW German self-confidence first began to emerge during the government of Gerhard Schroeder, who served as chancellor from 1998 to 2005. Although Schroeder sent two thousand troops to Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, he pronounced a decisive “no” in response to America’s call for help in pursuing the Iraq War—an unthinkable position for a German chancellor during the Cold War. A self-made man, the brash and confident Schroeder was anti-American from the outset. In the 1980s, he protested against the Reagan administration’s rearmament policies toward the Soviet Union. Later, when this sentiment manifested itself in his refusal to support the Iraq War, he was not punished for his stance by the German electorate but was rewarded with a second term. Thus, he proved the popularity of asserting German superiority over what Germans widely considered the benighted Bush administration. And Schroeder was vindicated by his position in historical terms as well as politically, as the war in Iraq ultimately proved to be a disaster. That bolstered Germany’s new realpolitik view, which asserted its national interests in the country’s political arena. With the election of Obama and the departure of the reviled George W. Bush, Germans hoped for a U-turn in American foreign policy. It did not quite turn out that way. The most notable German complaint was with Western participation in the Libyan war, opposed by Chancellor Merkel and her foreign minister Guido Westerwelle. To the incredulity of the Obama administration, Germany abstained from voting on the UN Security Council resolution when it came to endorsing intervention in Libya. Westerwelle told the Guardian, “The military solution seems so simple but is not so simple. It’s risky and dangerous.” He added, “We are concerned about the effects on freedom movements in north Africa and the Arab world. We admired the jasmine revolution in Tunisia . . . but we want these freedom movements to be strengthened, not weakened.” He was ridiculed in Washington at the time, but was he so wrong?

A fresh assertiveness can also be detected in Germany’s relations with Russia. Once more, it was Schroeder who led the way. Schroeder’s stance on Iraq endeared him to Putin, who had served in Dresden as a KGB officer and speaks German well. Schroeder’s relations with Russia became sufficiently close that he was invited to join the board of Gazprom, the Russian global energy company, after his tenure as chancellor ended in 2005. Now Merkel is once more following in Schroeder’s footsteps. In June 2012, at a joint press conference with Putin in Berlin, the two leaders stressed that military force from outside powers could not achieve a lasting peace in war-torn Syria. As Merkel expressed it, “We both made clear that we are pushing for a political solution, that the Annan plan can be a starting point but everything must be done in the United Nations Security Council to implement this plan.” Since then, Germany’s foreign-policy outlook has not changed. Regarding Syria, Berlin believes, as with Libya, that the costs of intervention are higher than those of staying aloof, a stark contrast with France, which is urging Washington to engage militarily in what is turning into a protracted civil war between a secular regime and a largely Islamist opposition.

The ties between Russia and Germany should not be surprising. Historically, Germany has had close ties with Russia dating back to Peter the Great, when German advisers helped revive the czar’s country economically. There was always, however, some resentment toward the efficient Germans. In Ivan Goncharov’s satirical novel Oblomov, the industrious German character is named Stolz, meaning “pride,” and he attempts to rouse the protagonist from his congenital languor. After World War II, relations between Germany and Russia did not really begin to thaw until the 1970s, when Berlin started to pursue détente with the East. Today, Merkel, who speaks Russian fluently, pursues close relations with Moscow based on mutual interests.

As for China, Germany is developing what Merkel calls a “special relationship.” As the Washington Post reported in September, “More than any other foreign-policy effort, Merkel’s growing rapport with the Chinese signals Germany’s willingness to set the European agenda unilaterally.” Germany’s robust trade with China has allowed it to shelter its economy from the commercial troubles plaguing much of Europe. Moreover, it has allowed Germany to develop a balancing partner against America. Yet again, it was Schroeder who set the model for Merkel. But she didn’t take the cue immediately. In 2007, she enraged Beijing by meeting with the Dalai Lama, the claimant to Tibetan leadership, in the federal chancellery in Berlin. Now that is in the past. She has subordinated human-rights concerns to economic interests. Germany expects to reach a trade surplus with China next year, an almost unheard-of feat—total trade between the two countries in 2011 was $190 billion. For German car manufacturers such as Daimler Benz and BMW, China is a vital and lucrative market. As Der Spiegel observed:

The chancellor’s course on China, in fact, has slowly come to resemble the business-first policies pursued by her predecessor Gerhard Schröder. He almost surely approves of the lovely images of her visiting the Airbus plant in Tianjin, where she made a stop just before flying back to Berlin. The factory visit took place a day after a contract was signed for 50 new planes ordered by the Chinese.

Under Merkel, Germany has been no less active in cultivating good relations with Eastern Europe, where it has based numerous factories. This German sphere of influence has been welcomed by the countries that inhabit it, as demonstrated by Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski’s effusive praise for his country’s western neighbor.

IF GERMANY is to become the indispensable nation described by Sikorski, however, it will need an internal cultural shift, given the weight of its Nazi past. But, as the World War II generation disappears and the memory of a divided Germany fades, attitudes also change. Perhaps nowhere can this change be discerned more acutely than in Germany’s relationship to the burden of a history that prompted it, during the Cold War, to adopt a cautious and self-effacing role. The memory of the Holocaust, something that, in stark contrast to Japan, the German government and schools constantly emphasize, has hardly faded away. But it has acquired a more ritualistic quality as its meaning has become more ambiguous for a younger generation of Germans, whose own parents often have no direct connection with the crimes of the past. As the writer Bernd Ulrich asked in a lengthy essay in the August 30 weekly Die Zeit, “When will the past pass away?” After arguing with his son about whether it was a bad idea to sing the first stanza of the German national anthem, “Deutschland uber alles”—his son saw no problem with it—Ulrich concludes, “The entire package of the past that I once received will not be able to be transferred with the same contents and weight.” Many Germans also now are looking more closely at their Prussian past, as reflected in the building boom taking place in Berlin, once the capital of a small Prussian duchy that successively defeated Denmark, Austria and France in expanding itself into a European superpower. This building boom is no mere facelift but major surgery that is centered in important ways on the Prussian past. The former East German Palace of the Republic, which is where the old Volkskammer, or People’s Chamber, met to rubber-stamp Central Committee decisions, has been demolished and is slated to be replaced by a replica of the old Hohenzollern palace. Three facades will emulate the old baroque exterior, while the interior will have a more modern stamp. The approval of the project by the Berlin Senate testifies to a lingering nostalgia for the better side of Prussia and its legendary leader, Frederick the Great. It was Frederick, an exponent of the Enlightenment, who almost singlehandedly created the incorruptible Prussian bureaucracy that remains a guiding example for a number of Germans today.

It is also striking that on the Unter den Linden boulevard, the German History Museum just concluded an exhibition devoted to Frederick the Great’s three hundredth birthday. (There is also an exhibition in nearby Potsdam, where Frederick retired, called “Prussian on Celluloid: Frederick II in Film.”) The Berlin exhibition, which is subtitled “revered, revised, reviled,” focuses on the Prussian king’s shifting image over the centuries. As one walks into the exhibition, it features a tableau that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, one that the Berliner Zeitung called “unbearable”—unbearable because it smacks of reverence for the Prussian past rather than critical detachment.

Image: Pullquote: 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.Essay Types: Essay