Never has the outside world paid so much attention to what is happening in this country. During longer periods I lived abroad in the past I got used to people not knowing anything about us, and if they did, WWII would figure prominently. I certainly was not the only German living abroad who didn’t have a problem with everybody’s ignorance about my country as long as they didn’t call me a Nazi. But now all these things are being written about us – how we are popular the world over, how we, or rather Ms Merkel, determine the fate of Europe, including ruining the lives of Greeks and other Europeans. But most remarkably, just about a year ago, commentators were not happy with the fact that international affairs and the question of Germany’s place in the world were not being debated during the last election campaign.
Here is one reason for this: We are not used to being the center of attention. It confuses us. Yes, I know, the Berlin Wall coming down was pretty spectacular, but putting the two countries together afterwards was hard work which kept us busy for most of the Nineties, and some argue on days like this that it will continue to do so for some time to come. Questions about Germany’s place in the world are an afterthought to the end of the Cold War and the re-making not only of Germany, but of all of Europe.
It all started with a joke that went round in 2003, just after then chancellor Gerhard Schröder had refused to send troops to Iraq:
“How can you tell the world has changed? The best rapper is white, the best golfer is black, the Swiss have won the America’s Cup, and the Germans don’t want to go to war.”
At the time, my comment to that joke was, “oh thanks for noticing, my dear Anglo-Saxon friends, it’s only been two generations since 1945 …” I also remember finding it grossly unfair how Schröder was attacked in the pro-American media for his blunt refusal. It was widely interpreted as a populist stance intended to help him win the election due in 2004.
Yes, joining the war effort against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would have been very unpopular in Germany, but that was not my point at the time – what I found so odd was that the same Western Allies who had re-educated us after WWII to become democrats and to get that chip off our shoulder about our own importance, now seemed dissatisfied that we had indeed learned our lesson and were “not convinced” of their war plans, as Schröder’s foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, famously put it at the Munich Security Conference in Febraury of 2003. Plus, the Schröder government was only opposed to the Iraq invasion; Germany had been among the first to invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty after September 11, 2001.
And besides, it hadn’t been that long ago that Margaret Thatcher had said a few very unfriendly things about German unification and François Mitterand said he liked Germany so much he was happy there were two of them. No wonder we preferred to keep a low profile.
A lot has happened since then and Germans were involved in a few more NATO campaigns and in several peacekeeping missions under UN mandates. None of them were that significant. On the military front we were happily following the accounts of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. That had been a true first in our history since WWII: Our troops fought and some of then came back in zipper bags. We are glad the whole thing is drawing to a close.
Our present government – remember, the one whose protagonists didn’t discuss Germany’s place in the world during the election campaign – had hardly been sworn in when they started talking about just that. And what is more, singing with them from the same hymn sheet of “taking on more responsibility in the world” was the President, Joachim Gauck. Now our president’s role is supposed to be very similar to that of a king or queen in a constitutional monarchy – imagine the uproar if Queen Elizabeth II would say anything like that. Surprisingly, there have been some critical voices, but by and large they were a lot less loud than could be expected.
Maybe that’s because people were too busy following what happened with our troops, or rather the lady in charge of them, Ursula von der Leyen, who had been the loudest voice in the chorus calling for more responsibility. Our media are no less inventive than their British colleagues when it comes to nicknaming and up and down-sizing politicians, but these things don’t translate very well, so suffice it to say that she was first hyped as something like “Top Gun Lady” and now she is down to “Breakdown Ursel” because of rusting Sea King helicopters and other defunct materiel.
What had happened?
Schröder and his government were voted out in 2005, and the big challenge of their successors under Angela Merkel has remained the same over the years: Managing financial crises and bringing down the deficit. That constant austerity has not only resulted in a crumbling infrastructure in desperate need of repairs, now it has turned out that it also caused our army to be reduced to a giant bureaucracy in charge of a giant scrap heap. Ursula von der Leyen was quick to point out, of course that none of this was her fault and that it was due to the accumulated neglect of a long row of predecessors, but she will have to take some blame for not having paid attention to it in the great stock-taking effort she announced when taking office.
So who is afraid of the warmongering Germans? The world has changed indeed: Not only are the Germans no longer willing to go to war, they are no longer capable of it.
And here unfortunately we are coming full circle: one of the underlying psychological reasons for the catastrophic behavior of Germany on the world stage since 1871 was our hubris and a gross delusion about our own capabilities. Good thing our present government was stopped in its tracks by its own austerity measures.
Here are a few other comments I made here about German politics:
RIP Margaret Thatcher and how Angela Merkel is different
German Civics for Beginners