What Does Germany Want?

PRINCETON – By now, everyone knows that Germany is calling the shots not just in the eurozone, but across all of Europe. Inside Germany, there used be endless debates about German identity – what one historian called “the continual dispute about what being German might mean.” But, in foreign-policy terms, post-war West Germany – and, later, reunified Germany – was utterly predictable: never against the West; always for more Europe. Now, the “Berlin Republic” is very secure about its identity – and seemingly at sea in its dealings with the world. 

There are structural reasons for this change. Germany is too small to be a global player, but too big to be merely first among equals in Europe. While Germans generally see no legitimacy in a global role, even in alliance with the country’s old partners, Germany’s neighbors do not find a German-led Europe legitimate.

Contrary to the fears of many of these neighbors in 1990 (and contrary to what many analysts claim now), the Berlin Republic is not more nationalistic than the old West Germany. True, the left-liberal pacifist milieu that in the old Federal Republic disproportionately influenced published opinion with its political pieties disappeared during the 1990’s; but today’s more “normal” Germany did not begin forgetting the Nazi past and reasserting itself as a Great Power.

To the extent that there is a new German patriotism, it is ironic; if there is pride, it is pride in how thoroughly the country has dealt with the double legacy of Nazism and East German state socialism (in addition to pride in the economy and the constitution). Germans – for once not so ironically – often present themselves as world champions at “coming to terms with the past”; and their new capital’s architecture – derided by some as “antiquarian masochism” – literally gives this ethos concrete expression.