How Adolf Hitler Haunts Angela Merkel
By KLAUS LARRES and PETER ELTSOV
And the United States needs Merkel, and Germany, beside it on the global stage. Following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and saddled with the continuing (drone-and-special-operations) war against fundamentalist terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere, the United States is less keen than ever on the role of the world’s policeman. British Prime Minister David Cameron appears to have largely excused himself from dealing with global affairs and the French president has decided to be happy with a supporting role while leaving the senior role to Merkel. In terms of economic and social outlook, Germany seems a natural partner. Germany is the EU’s largest nation, with a population of 80 million and by far Europe’s most productive, efficient and successful economy. Conveniently, the country’s political leadership apparently didn’t mind spying on their European partners on behalf of the U.S. National Security Agency.
And yet in important ways—in large part because Germany continues to be haunted by the terrible crimes of that earlier chancellor, Hitler—Merkel has failed to become a true “partner in leadership” for the United States, to deploy a term that George H.W. Bush once used to describe (hopefully but very prematurely) German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
The tensions between Germany’s not-so-distant past and its putatively powerful future are thus growing harder to reconcile. A significant number of Germans still regard their country as a kind of larger Switzerland: rich and prosperous but rather passive in global affairs. Yet the mood is changing–both within the population at large and among the country’s political elite. The tone was set in early 2014, when during a speech at the Munich Security conference, German President Joachim Gauck admonished his nation to become more active in international relations and more ready to use military force in UN- supported initiatives. Germany’s defense minister and the chancellor herself quickly supported Gauck’s advice.
But there are simply too many ghosts haunting the idea of a German-led Europe. The memory and legacy of German imperialism under the Kaiser that led to World War I, and the long-lingering evil legacy of Hitler and World War II, still are powerfully constraining factors. While Germany is widely recognized as the EU’s leading voice in economic and financial affairs, this is not the same as the acceptance of the country as the EU’s de facto political leader. In fact, the EU was founded to prevent the development of such a hegemonic position precisely because of the long history of German aggression. In particular, since the enlargement of the EU in 2004 that led to admission of the formerly communist states in Eastern Europe, a coalition of states has proved necessary to bring any legislation proposed by the EU Commission in Brussels to fruition.
Traditionally, at least Franco-German cooperation was vital. Now the inclusion of at least Poland and one or two other larger nations is necessary for obtaining the required votes. Thus building up Germany as the leader of the EU runs counter to everything the EU stands for, not least the careful balancing of nations within Europe. Turning Germany into Europe’s hegemonic power may well have disastrous consequences for the well-being of the EU and the carefully nourished stability and balance of power in Europe. The risks are too great.
Secondly, French and British sensitivities and Polish, Czech and Greek suspicions about German predominance within Europe persist. At present London and Paris are too occupied with their own economic and identity problems to make much of a fuss about Merkel’s new geopolitical role. Moreover, the chancellor is well-respected for being keen on mediation and cooperation, and no one suspects her of harboring global power political ambitions. But Britain and France, remembering their own hegemonic desires and the glories of their past imperial leadership roles, look with envy upon any notion that Germany is America’s—and the world’s—preferred European partner. Building up Germany’s leadership role further is bound to increase tension and competition and animosities within Europe. This would be an unwise development. Matters within the EU about national identities, economic problems and domestic social problems are bad enough as they are.
A good point in case is the financial survival of Greece. Here Merkel and German Finance Minster Wolfgang Schauble have shown real leadership. Together with the equally hard-line European Central Bank, and in contrast to many wavering politicians in Paris and elsewhere, Germany has pursued a no-nonsense policy. Despite all attempts by the new left-wing Greek government to loosen the conditions imposed on the country for obtaining more bail-out money, Merkel stood in the way. She refused to being pushed about by Greece’s new finance minister, whom she personally regards as a joke, and shrugged off as rather silly all demands for Germany to pay Nazi war crimes compensation to Greece. She adamantly refused to allow the reversal of the firm austerity measures imposed on Greece by the country’s creditors–the EU, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. The most influential voice with the EU and the ECB is of course Germany’s (with Greece owning Germany more than 54 billion euros, a huge sum).
Klaus Larres is the Richard M Krasno Distinguished Professor of History and International Affairs at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Peter Eltsov is senior research fellow and associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U. S. government.