Past Is Not Prologue

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The French president observed with some fore-boding that "in history the Germans were a people in constant movement and flux." The British Prime Minister then produced "a map showing the various configurations of Germany in the past, which were not altogether reassuring about the future." After the meeting, the British leader felt heartened that "we both had the will to check the German juggernaut." Later, they agreed to "examine the scope for closer Franco-British defense cooperation."

No, that wasn't Poincare and Asquith before the apocalypse of 1914. It was François Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher in 1989, a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as recorded in Thatcher's memoirs. Despite four decades of postwar good behavior by the Federal Republic, Mitterrand and the Iron Lady stared into Germany's soul and saw Bismarck's iron and blood — or worse — and came away convinced that German reunification could threaten the peace of Europe. Germany's commitment to democracy couldn't be guaranteed, and the nations of Europe feared a Teutonic behemoth. The German Question, the rack of Europe, was set to shake off the ashes of 1945.

How could they have got it so wrong? Thatcher and Mitterrand proved that history's lessons can be overlearned — and that they did not know their Germans. George Bush thought differently: democracy had remade Germany. Unified within nato and the European Union, a bigger Germany would present not a threat but an opportunity to strengthen the alliance of democracies. Germany, Bush felt, could grow to be the partner America needed to shoulder the increasing burdens of global leadership.

Bush, of course, had it right. He understood and trusted the Germans and instinctively recognized that relations between modern democracies are governed by a logic fundamentally different from the harsh physics of great-power rivalries. The result is a Europe more free, less divided and more hopeful than ever. Yet for all the grand successes of the new Europe, one piece is missing: the "partner in leadership" — Bush's oft-intoned phrase — remains a chimera. Ten years after the vestigial constraints on its sovereignty were removed, Germany hovers in the wings of the world stage, strangely unengaged and passive.

To be fair, Germany is the global citizen par excellence — bulwark of the international economy, leading donor for Third World development and supporter of multilateral organizations. But on the hot-button issues of the day, Germany's profile is low. Whether the subject is containing Iraq or reform in Iran, attacking the morass of disease and war consuming Africa or coping with the explosion of international crime, Germany seldom has much to say. Under Gerhard Schröder, it has even less to say than usual. Building "Europe" has been a paramount goal for every postwar German government, but Berlin hardly seems to be shaping the debate on the future of the E.U. or the next round of nato enlargement. At a time when Europe's foremost task is creating a credible military force, Germany has let defense spending slip to a meager 1.5% of gdp, one of the E.U.'s lowest figures and a serious threat to the entire project.

Perhaps some understanding is due. Germany has been burdened with the costs of reunification and the challenge of restructuring its economy. But the deeper reason for reticence is the German sensibility of which Thatcher and Mitterrand were so oblivious. In their bones, Germans today are comfortable with checkbook diplomacy. They want little to do with an activist foreign policy or deploying troops abroad, even in league with allies in a just cause. Others can risk their lives. Germans think that history requires them to take a more modest role. Total defeat is not overcome in a few generations.

Yet the defensive crouch is no more a historic inevitability than the old aggressive German "national character" that made Mrs. Thatcher fret — as Berlin showed so recently. In the face of the slaughter in Kosovo, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer saw that Germans could not allow potential genocide in Europe. He was right, and in Washington and elsewhere that brave moment launched a thousand expectations.

Berlin has stuck by its commitments in Kosovo, but broader hopes for a German "partner in leadership" have faded. American leaders fear that if the issue isn't a matter of the starkest black and white, Germany won't stir. They want their German friends to realize that after 55 years, atonement for World War II doesn't mean doing nothing. It means doing the right thing — even when the path there is not ablaze with the light of moral certitude.