Geneva on the Rhine

PARIS – Twenty years ago, in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s reunification, French magazines were full of caricatures of Chancellor Helmut Kohl wearing the traditional pointed Prussian helmet. The new Germany was perceived as a threat to the European balance. Germany was simply “too much” again.

German geopolitical ambitions, it was believed, would invariably seek greater proportionality with the size of the country’s population and the dynamism of its economy. It was only a matter of time, people thought, before the “German Question” would return to haunt Europe, as it did between 1871 and 1945.

To a large extent, Helmut Kohl held up the same picture, which he used to persuade his European counterparts that they should rush to bind Germany to a more integrated Europe. Indeed, this reasoning led to the creation of the euro. For the sake of its European vocation, Germany proclaimed itself ready to abandon its cherished deutschmark, the currency that had accompanied and symbolized its spectacular economic rebirth and post-war social stability.

Today, it is not an excess of German ambition, but rather a lack of it, that is threatening Europe. Germany may remain “too big” for other Europeans, but the “new German problem” is that the country wants too little. Its dream is neither to dominate Europe, nor even to lead it by the exemplary quality of its policies. Germany’s not-so-secret ambition is to become a Magna Helvetia, a Big Switzerland – prosperous, stable, neutral, and ultimately irrelevant.