69 years after the end of World War II and 24 years after its reunification, Germany once more stands astride the European continent. Its traditional partner/rival, France, struggles with an unpopular president and failing socialist policies. Britain, probably the most powerful country in Europe, remains focused on sorting out its own affairs and dealing with problems elsewhere in the world. Spain, Italy and other southern countries are mired in high unemployment and economic restructuring. Poland is doing well but can’t match Germany. Russia is stronger but remains a marginal country for now. Meanwhile, Germany boasts Europe’s strongest economy, highest employment rate, and an optimistic outlook. It directs Europe’s recovery from the euro crisis and its soccer team smashes Brazil (and everyone else) on Brazil’s home turf in the World Cup.
What happened? How did a country the rest of the world was supposed to bind down reemerge as the leading power in Europe?
The roots of German strength go deep. In some ways they go all the way back to the Middle Ages, when Germany was a patchwork of mostly autonomous towns and farms with a prosperous agricultural and mercantile economy. The Hanseatic League in the north bound it with other bustling ports in the North and Baltic Seas, while trade routes in the south linked it with Italy, at that time far richer. Its population has also long overshadowed that of other countries in Europe. But while France reunified, Germany remained divided and inwardly focused. French policy even encouraged this, with France always backing whichever side would weaken Germany in the various wars that litter history’s pages.
Another factor, of course, is German military strength. Germany’s huge population and central geographic position makes it a formidable foe. When an east German kingdom called Prussia harnessed German culture’s tendency towards severe discipline, the result was a potent army — even though Prussia’s population was pretty small. Nevertheless, France and Austria (which long ago was a huge multinational empire, not the vestigial country of today) were more important factors in early modern Europe.
That changed in the 1800s. Thanks mostly to coming out on the winning side in the wars against Napoleon, Prussia dominated the rest of Germany. The only powers that stood in its way were Austria and France — and thanks to its superior military tactics, some advanced technology and expert organization they were trounced. Also, the Industrial Revolution had begun, and Germany has important coal deposits. With a customs union in the 1830s, economic activity across Germany’s borders picked up more than ever. Finally, Germany was unified under Prussian overlordship in 1871.
The new German Empire towered over Europe like a colossus. Defeated France was resentful towards it and craved revenge. Britain and Russia were suspicious and afraid. This is the era when Germany was considered Europe’s biggest “problem” — with its superiority, would it try to dominate everyone else, and even conquer them? At first, Otto von Bismarck, the architect of unification, tried to assuage everyone’s fears, and played the part of peacemaker in European conflicts. Then Kaiser Wilhelm II struck a more aggressive tone and freaked everyone out again. World War I has variously been interpreted as a German bid for power and economic dominance of Europe or as a multidimensional clash of angry, suspicious countries thirsty for advantage. This time, France won, and imposed restrictions on Germany after the war to keep its economy tied down and its military inferior to France’s. That failed when Germany ignored the restrictions in the 1930s. Once again Germany went on the warpath, and World War II was pretty obviously a naked act of aggression, a Napoleonic attempt to take over the rest of Europe and keep all the other important powers under its thumb. Once again, it failed.
This time, it failed spectacularly — Germany lay in ruins, since its leadership decided to fight on until it had been suicidally smashed to pieces. France was ready to leave it that way and keep Germany from rising to threaten it again. But as I’m sure is obvious, Germany took a different path. Revived by American and Soviet aid, it rebuilt its bombed-out cities and torn-up infrastructure and restructured its economy. West Germany resumed its status as Europe’s economic engine in the ’50s. The rest of Europe realized that Germany was too valuable an economy to reduce to dependence — its manufacturing, chemical, and iron industries are top-of-the-line. The only problem was Germany’s military might, and that was solved by weakening it once again. This time it worked because the Soviet Union had become much scarier than a divided Germany, and a fervently anti-Communist government in West Germany directed its enmity east instead of west.
… And that’s pretty much where we’re at now. The main kink since then has been in 1990, when Germany reunified. For a brief moment the rest of Europe freaked out when it realized an already large West Germany (with 63 million people) would gain an extra 16 million people and a decent-sized chunk of territory, but it calmed down when it realized that nothing else would really change: reunified Germany remains fixed in NATO, the European military alliance, and the European Union. A move of the capital back to Berlin hasn’t really changed much either, other than granting more impressive urban scenery to the German government and adding an ex-Communist political party to the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament). What changed most in Germany was actually a pronounced economic downturn as West Germany’s capitalist economy absorbed the ex-Communist east and the two different societies ground awkwardly against each other.
But that didn’t last. In the 2000s, the German economy revived, thanks mostly to a labor market reform program launched by Gerhard Schröder.
Things are not going well for Europe as a whole at the moment. Beginning in 2009, the continent has been faced with the euro crisis: a general depression brought on by high government debt and huge economic disparities between the member states of the EU, exacerbated by the common currency. Most of the EU’s members are faced with high unemployment and austerity, a general belt-tightening that restricts their economic growth until they can pay off their massive debts. Germany is the exception: it has been untouched by the depression and now has a nice surplus.
This, more than anything, is what gives Germany its current prominence. Greece, Spain and Portugal are crawling to Berlin, hands outstretched and fearing for their economic lives. Italy and France worry that they might be next. Germany’s thriving job market is luring desperate job-seekers from these countries. It has also become the EU’s heart. Angela Merkel, Germany’s stodgy chancellor, has become increasingly focused on managing EU politics, and the German public is much more supportive of the “European project” than anyone else.
Germany is also an international power. Germans have long been interested in foreign affairs, perhaps because of Germany’s centrality, and Germans are a familiar sight in many classic tourist haunts. With reunification, Germany is making its presence felt in international conflict resolution, mostly in European ones (Yugoslavia, the current Ukrainian crisis), but also in more distant ones in Afghanistan and Libya. It deserves to be regarded as a Great Power. Yet it’s also come a long way from 1945, and Germans no longer have an appetite for foreign adventures. Germans may be interested in overseas things, but they see them as other people’s problems. America (through NATO) remains the muscle behind European defense, and Germany is much more pacifist in all kinds of international squabbles than the old colonial powers, Britain and France.
The roots of German hegemony are complex. Partially it is simply a matter of size — it outranks Britain, France and Italy by about 20 million people, making it Europe’s biggest country that’s not Russia. Partially it is that heritage of economic strength, built on an old commercial network, coal deposits, and industrial powerhouses. Partially it’s a beneficiary of China’s rise — Germany’s main exports are all things China craves. But mostly it’s the product of German culture, which emphasizes hard work, efficiency, order, discipline, and education. Germans are given to intellectual pursuits and tend towards thriftiness. The German educational system tries to match students with their most appropriate career path early on. Given all this (and the background I gave above), it seems unlikely that Germany’s modern economic prowess is a temporary phenomenon.
German power has provoked a backlash, of course. Germans also have a reputation for being overbearing and aggressive, and nobody’s forgotten the ravages of World War II. Many Europeans see the reemergence of a strong, united Germany bossing them around as a threat. They shouldn’t. Germany is Europe’s economic engine, and has been for generations. A strong German economy is good for Europe; German finances bail out empty-pocketed countries elsewhere. Until the rest of Europe (and especially southern and eastern Europe) gets its act together, Germany will remain a colossus and a force to be reckoned with.
In fact, Germany needs to start using its power more actively. Germans (and Europeans more generally) tend to think of America as providing all the security they need. Germany’s much-vaunted military culture is now a thing of the past. Dealing with Europe’s problems is probably enough for Germany to handle at the moment, but it should start weighing in more on global issues and using its economic power as a tool to project German influence. I also think Germany, as a Great Power, merits a seat on the UN Security Council, but that won’t happen. German integration in the EU and NATO will ensure that it doesn’t act up or threaten the European balance of power.
The Nazi era is a bygone time. Europe in general is fading as a presence on the world stage, and Germany, like many European countries, is beginning to shrink. The nationalism and fanaticism that bred the world wars have now been subsumed; until recent times Germans even felt bad waving the flag and singing the anthem. It’s time to stop cringing before German bossiness and recognize the reality. Germany is a peaceful, prosperous, and reasonable nation; in many ways it’s a model for the rest of Europe. If Germany can bounce back from the psychosis of fascism, the devastation of World War II, and the destitution of Communism, the depressed nations of Europe can recover too. And frankly, German power is a fact. Recognizing German preeminence in Europe isn’t admitting defeat; it’s coping with the reality of power structures.