Germany’s conspicuous silence
Germany is the world’s most popular country, according to a BBC World Service survey this year, not bad for a nation that has probably fretted more over its self-image than any other. It is also an enigma, a powerful state wary of power, a lusterless leader. Angst is a German word but not a German condition.
As world leaders debate the Syrian crisis, Europe’s dominant power is conspicuous for its silence. It murmurs that the regime must be punished if use of chemical weapons is proved, and it contributes intelligence, but it wants no part of any riposte. Britain’s rejection of military involvement gives comfort to Berlin’s reticence. Gassing in Syria, shamefully, is scarcely a German concern. Germany is the ghost of international relations.
Federal elections are to being held this month. The fate of the European Union is in Germany’s hands. Yet when I ask people what the major electoral theme is, I am met with a blank stare.
Success sedates. Unemployment, at 5.3 percent, is a fraction of the European average. Growth is robust by European standards. The budget is balanced. Consensus binds and inequality, while increasing, is less conspicuous than elsewhere in the West.
No wonder the opposition Social Democrats, whose candidate is Peer Steinbrück, have been unable to provoke substantive policy debate. “Germany is strong — and must remain so,” screams a slogan of Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democrats, whose victory Sept. 22 is almost assured.
But remain strong for what? The United States wants Germany to assume a global role commensurate with its power. Nobody sees a resolution of the euro crisis without a decisive German role. Even Poland, which paid the highest price for German might, has called Germany Europe’s “indispensable nation.”
Time then for a reality check: Germany will not lead. The very word for leadership — “führung” — is problematic through historical association. The nation’s institutional architecture — a sprawl of counterbalancing federal bodies — is insurance against assertive leadership. Conventional symbols of national power, like flags or the military, leave modern Germans cold.
The postwar giants — Adenauer, Brandt, Schmidt and Kohl — were fine when Germany was weak, but Germany’s current strength needs offsetting rather than underscoring. If it flexes its newfound muscle, as in giving austerity lessons to shipwrecked Southern European economies, it finds Hitler images resurfacing. Contemporary German psychology is in sync with the steady Merkel style (a frequent criticism of Steinbrück is that he is a “loose cannon”).
“The scars of history are really very, very serious, and so we made the decision to bid farewell to the concept of a state based on power and become a merchant state,” Joschka Fischer, the former foreign minister, told me.
In the age of the borderless online world where the nation-state feels like a curious hangover, and at a time when the post-9/11 wars have tired Europeans and Americans of militarism, this rejection of what Fischer called the “machtstaat” (the power state) explains much of Germany’s global popularity. No European nation is less hung-up about sovereignty.
The economy also stirs admiration. German husbandry, suspicion of debt and social consciousness were learned from bitter inflationary history. Germany resisted the profligacy and contempt for risk that produced the meltdown of 2008.
The danger of German success combined with reticence is inward-looking complacency. But it would be illusory to expect major change after the election. People clamor for a German “vision” for Europe. Been there, done that — and lost about one-third of German territory in the catastrophic, brutal process. No, what Germany can offer Europe is nothing more nor less than its own example.
In Germany, solidarity counts. Rich regions support the poor regions at great expense — on condition that the poorer regions do not cheat and budgetary discipline is respected. In an age of rampant distrust of the powerful, Germans still trust the government (the former president, who had to quit, is being charged with accepting less than $950 toward payment of a Munich hotel bill).
Merkel says that Europe has 7 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of its output and 50 percent of its social spending. Without fiscal discipline the euro will fail; and without the surrender of some sovereignty to European institutions, fiscal cohesion won’t be achieved.
I do not know if Europeans are ready to follow German examples. I am sure Germany will not change. Outside the Wittenbergplatz subway, 80 years after Hitler’s assumption of power, I stumbled on a large sign naming a dozen places that “must never be forgotten.” Among them were Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
This is the history that precludes leadership. Germany is popular. It is admired. But it is doubtful any other nation can emulate it because the price of its immense achievements was purgatory.
Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times.