Germany’s Place in the Sun

Ein Platz an der Sonne
Not what Bülow or Hitler meant — the German poster for the 1951 film, A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor

At the turn of the 20th century, the catchphrase of many German nationalists was that their nation deserved its “place in the sun,” its turn in world history to take on a leading role. For example, defending his government’s attempts to expand Germany’s presence in East Asia in 1897, chancellor Bernhard von Bülow vowed that

The days when Germans granted one neighbor the earth, the other the sea, and reserved for themselves the sky, where pure doctrine reigns…. those days are over…. we do not want to put anyone in our shadow, but we also demand our place in the sun.

Two generations later another German chancellor made a dubious defense of Germany’s historic intentions in an April 1939 speech at Wilhelmshaven:

This Germany of peace times has attempted, with unending diligence, with geniality, and with steadiness, to form its life within and to safeguard outwardly — through participation in peaceful competition with the nations — its due place in the sun.

Even though this Germany through the decades was the safest guarantor of peace, and even though she occupied herself with peaceful things, she was unable to prevent other nations, and especially their statesmen, from following this rise with envy and hatred and finally to answer with a war.

Exactly five months later Adolf Hitler took his peace-loving nation to war by invading Poland, much of which had been an unwilling part of the German Empire before 1918. A history that made it remarkable to read this comment by Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski last week:

I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.

Indeed, Polish leaders don’t tend to encourage “activity” by their western neighbors. But given the financial crisis surrounding the eurozone… Well, to Sikorski, extraordinary times demand extraordinary rhetoric. To understand him more fully, here’s the “inactivity” comment again, in the larger context of his speech (published on November 28th in the Financial Times):

Sikorski with Hillary Clinton
Sikorski with Hillary Clinton, 2009 - U.S. Department of State

The break up of the eurozone would be a crisis of apocalyptic proportions, going beyond our financial system. Once the logic of “each man for himself” takes hold, can we really trust everyone to act in a communitarian way and resist the temptation to settle scores in other areas, such as trade? Would you really bet the house on the proposition that if the eurozone breaks up, the single market, the cornerstone of the European Union, will definitely survive? After all, messy divorces are more frequent than amicable ones….

What, as Poland’s foreign minister, do I regard as the biggest threat to the security and prosperity of Poland in the last week of November 2011? It is not terrorism, and it is certainly not German tanks. It is not even Russian missiles, which President Dmitry Medvedev has just threatened to deploy on the EU’s border. The biggest threat to the security of Poland would be the collapse of the eurozone.

I demand of Germany that, for its own sake and for ours, it help the eurozone survive and prosper. Nobody else can do it. I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say this, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear its inactivity. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation. You may not fail to lead: not dominate, but to lead in reform.

There is nothing inevitable about Europe’s decline. But we are standing on the edge of a precipice. This is the scariest moment of my ministerial life. Future generations will judge us by what we do, or fail to do: whether we lay the foundations for a sound future, or shirk our responsibility and acquiesce in decline.

Citing a recent UBS report, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post warned that the financial cost of the eurozone breaking up would be enormous: just in the first year, each member’s GDP could shrink by 20-50% (lower for richer countries like Germany; higher for countries like Greece, and perhaps Poland), with 10-15% more lost in following years. If true, then the collapse of Europe’s common currency (participation in which required huge sacrifice by countries like Poland) probably is a greater threat to the Poles than military attack by their historic tormentors.

And Germany, by common acclamation, is the pillar of the eurozone. It was one of the architects of the common currency, and up until August, its economy had weathered the recession better than most. (This isn’t my field, but observers generally attribute German economic strength to some mix of the following traditional strengths: innovation driven by investment in research and development; well-educated and unusually productive workers — Germany has 1.2% of the world’s population but accounts for 17% of its industry — who have greater job security and more of a voice in corporate decisionmaking than, say, American labor; those workers also being good savers who put their money in banks that are prudent but also willing to invest in industry. Here’s one assessment from last year.)

So one might expect Germany to play a leading role whenever economic problems threaten Europe. But as the euro crisis has accelerated of late, it has been striking to see country after formerly-occupied/invaded-by-Germany country criticize Angela Merkel and her government for not taking up the mantle of European leadership and acting boldly and decisively — four words that few 20th century Europeans wished to see describe Germany.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff
Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff - German Marshall Fund of the United States

To understand why — as European leaders prepare to gather this week in Brussels for a climactic summit — Germany has become both the “reluctant savior” and (in the words of historian/journalist Timothy Garton Ash) the “indispensable power” of Europe, read Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff’s essay from last Friday’s Post.

It’s no surprise that both sides of the Cold War were perfectly content to see both halves of newly divided Germany play subordinate roles in world politics. But Kleine-Brockhoff reminds us that,

After World War II, West Germany wanted nothing more than to shed its pariah status. Followership, not leadership, earned it the respect it coveted. For years, West Germany was an invisible and reliable partner; it simply managed challenges or contributed to collective action. Leading the charge on large-scale solutions for international problems was a concept that died on the battlefields of the war. Continental or global leadership is nothing that postwar Germans have ever learned, aspired to or exercised.

While political leaders like Konrad Adenauer worked to rebuild trust with old enemies, West Germany bound its rapidly recovered and growing economy to those of France, Italy, and other partners in the project of European integration. Then the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt both eased tensions in the Cold War and helped mend fences with Germany’s eastern neighbors. It was a very different kind of German leadership being exercised in December 1970 when Brandt (a former anti-Nazi resistor himself) dropped to his knees at the memorial to the Jewish fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; he won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1971.

And yet, some of his closest allies reacted nervously eighteen years later when Helmut Kohl began to float the idea of West Germany reunifying with its crumbling Communist sibling to the east. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was notoriously suspicious, telling European leaders at the end of 1989, “We beat the Germans twice, and now they’re back.” While she eventually acceded to inevitability of reunification, even in March 1990 she invited scholars and politicians to her country home to consider the question, “How dangerous are the Germans?”

Mitterrand and Kohl at Verdun
François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl in 1984 at Verdun

And the French, under then-president François Mitterrand, agreed to reunification only on the understanding that the Germans would eventually give up their currency — the one national symbol they had permitted themselves to take pride in — and deepen their participation in European integration.

As Kleine-Brockhoff points out, many Germans never warmed to the deutsche mark’s replacement, and even more resent being asked to defend the euro by (as they perceive it) “forever bailing out Greece and Italy and the rest.”

For that matter, those countries (and others) might not welcome German “activity” as eagerly as Sikorski. Kleine-Brockhoff once more:

…the Germans have discovered a contradiction: Europeans may call for German leadership, but they don’t want to be led by Germany. And they certainly don’t like the results of German leadership. When a European Union task force, led by a German, traveled to Athens in October to offer technical assistance with economic reforms, some disgruntled Greeks soon called its members “the Gauleiters,” the term for Nazi-era regional government representatives.

In Ireland and Portugal, the public is torn over whether to regard German help as a modern Marshall Plan or a Versailles Treaty without the war. Such reactions have certainly not been an incentive for Germany to provide even more help.

And yet Kleine-Brockhoff argued that, whatever the reservations of other Europeans or of the Germans themselves, “So grave is the crisis of the common currency that it now represents the third moment in 100 years when Germany has unilaterally determined the fate of Europe — after 1914 and 1939.”

In other words: Germany is getting another shot at taking its place in the sun. I’m sure everyone — the Poles, the French, and the Germans alike — hope that this moment will turn out better than its two predecessors.

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