The German Dilemma

German society values peace more than anything, as opinion polls show. The Germans have been overwhelmingly rejecting the sending of Bundeswehr troops to Afghanistan since 2001. In 2002 the German voters reelected Chancellor Schröder, against all forecasts, because he was strictly against Germany’s participation in a new war against Iraq. And the Social Democratic candidate this time (general elections will take place next September), German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, who happens to be Schröder’s former closest advisor, is trying to repeat Schröder’s tactics by pleading, a few weeks after Barack Obama’s speech in Prag, for Germany’s denuclearization. Steinmeier may gain a few points in opinion polls by doing so because this would be one of the few areas where the voters would notice a real difference between  the two currently ruling parties (Social and Christian Democrats). But even if Mr. Steinmeier reiterated Schröder’s success thanks to his plea for disarmament — a very unlikely perspective — would it change anything after the election? After all, Germany’s opposition to the Iraq war did not fundamentally change the course of German foreign policy, which does not take much in account the views of German society.  

Germany’s reunification brought in 18 million new citizens who were still more pacifistic than their West-German cousins — a result of the former GDR’s peace propaganda. But Berlin’s policy went in the opposite direction after 1990 — against the will of its own people. German troops participated in most conflicts which were led by NATO or an American-led coalition since 1990:  in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan etc…If you have a look at the excellent website, you will see that German military advisers are today active in Mongolia, in Central Asia and in Africa. Germany is leading in trying to destabilize the Sudanese government in order to get access to Sudan’s energy resources. The German Luftwaffe played a key-role in recent military exercises in Abu Dhabi (a preparation of a possible war against Iran?).  

This is a very paradoxical evolution. Germany rejected militarism after 1945 through "westernizing" itself. But the German role in NATO is bringing militarism back into the core of that nation’s politics and economics. Without its integration into NATO structures, the German government would not be able to develop its current military strategy. First, the German voters would not allow huge military expenses; secondly, the German economic model (Wilhelm Röpke’s conservatism) is strictly against huge government spending. This is the reason why today’s Germany is developing a kind of political schizophrenia. Officially the military service is still at the core of the Bundeswehr’s spirit, contributing in an essential way to the rejection of militarism, through the teaching of "Innere Führung" (the soldier’s freedom to disobey an order he would disagree with); but the government cares only about the modernization of the professional troops which are taking part in wars in which Western countries are betraying their own ideals. Officially, Germany did not take part in the Iraq war; but the German secret services were cooperating with the Americans during the war’s preparation; and American war planes were allowed to fly over Germany during the invasion of Iraq. Officially (due to 1990’s reunification treaty) Germany has to remain a non-nuclear military power; but some German Tornados would be equipped  with nuclear bombs if NATO decided to launch a nuclear attack. And Mr. Steinmeier, if elected Chancellor, would not challenge this reality since he would never dare have Germany leaving NATO.  

German politicians are overwhelmingly NATO-orientated, in a perfect symmetry to the society’s overwhelming pacifism. My question is: can a democracy afford to live for a long time in such a contradiction? Germany runs no risk of backsliding into militarism. But the country could become in coming years the best example of a democracy losing its substance because of a double standard, an essential contradiction between the values of the ruling elite and those of the common man. You will never lead ordinary Germans to supporting a large-scale conflict. But the nation’s vulnerability lies in its economy. Germany has been proud of its prosperity for decades. The totally destroyed country of 1945 had become an economic giant as early as 1970; and it has been resisting the gradual disintegration of the global economy (I have in mind the terrible effects of the destruction of the Bretton Woods monetary system from 1971 on) through a policy which remained much more authentically market-orientated than in most other Western countries. But the country is nearing the end of its capacity to resist, in this regard. It is much more severely weakened by today’s global crisis than expected. And a country which already ranks in third place internationally, as far as arms sales are concerned, could be tempted to increase its contribution to the Western military-industrial complex.  If the global crisis sworsens and the international community remains unable to agree on new rules for the global economy, German business would certainly be glad to take advantage of State contracts — following a trend of the last 15 years — and ordinary people would be grateful to escape unemployment. Such a perspective does not concern Germany alone, but the contrast between the values on which the country has been resting since the 1950’s and today’s consensus among political rulers is very striking. It means that Germany is a kind  of laboratory’s of Western democracy’s future. 

This future is still very open. Hartmut Mehdorn’s fate is one  of the best examples of what is at stake. The CEO of the Deutsche Bahn (German railway system) was forced to resign a few weeks ago after it had been discovered that he had organized a sophisticated global spying system of the company’s own employees. Mrs Merkel has been defending Mr. Mehdorn as long as she could. Like her predecessor  Gerhard Schröder, she was impressed by the former Luftwaffe officer style of leadership. After leaving the Bundeswehr and before taking charge of the German railway, Mr. Mehdorn had been one of the executive officers of Daimler’s arms production sector. He brought to civilian industry a pronounced taste for hierarchy at any cost and saw the conquest of foreign markets as a priority — reducing the company’s investments in Germany to the point of disorganizing the whole railway system. As a result trains are always late in today’s Germany — against the society’s love for punctuality. While rejecting Mr. Mehdorn’s methods so loudly that the Chancellor had to abandon him, German public opinion expressed its distaste for every remnant of "Prussianism" and what could recall Germany’s authoritarian past. But what will happen on the long run? In a democracy, the ruling elites are being recruited — theoretically — from the entire society. What if the ruling classes’ fascination for Western Kriegsspiele gets anchored more and more deeply, bringing a majority of the voters to a passive acceptance of what they disapprove? This is no typically German dilemma but, maybe; what is going on in Germany is of particular importance for all of us.

Author: Edouard Husson

Edouard Husson is a specialist in 20th-century German and European history at the Sorbonne.