Germany’s Identity Crisis

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Germany’s Identity Crisis

The greatest challenge Germany’s leaders face is convincing the public that Germany needs to be more active and aggressive.

Germany announced September 1 that it had decided to supply $90.4 million worth of weapons and munitions to Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State terrorists in Iraq. While most of the world breathed a sigh of relief and wondered what took Berlin so long, two groups of people were far less pleased about Berlin’s decision. The first, obviously, was the Islamic State.

The second was the large majority of the German public. An August 15 poll by Germany’s Forsa Institute showed that nearly two thirds (63 percent) of the German public opposes the decision by its leaders to provide military aid to Iraqi Kurds (a people routinely beheaded, hung and murdered by Islamic State terrorists).

Throughout the West, the general consensus among national leaders and the public alike is that the Islamic State is evil and needs to be confronted. Most people simply cannot identify with the Germans’ reticence—even just to send military aid. (It’s not like they’re asking Berlin to dispatch tanks or soldiers, or send in the Luftwaffe.) It’s easy to criticize them for being callous and selfish.

But this is Germany. It’s rarely that simple.

Nearly two thirds (63 percent) of the German public opposes the decision by its leaders to provide military aid to Iraqi Kurds.
Truth is, the divergence between Germany’s leaders and the German public on the issue of arming the Iraqi Kurds is significant. It is evidence that Germany is currently experiencing a major identity crisis. Significant changes on the world scene—the Islamic State, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Libya, America’s contraction, Europe’s debt crisis, etc. etc.—are forcing German leaders and people to reevaluate some fundamental questions: Who is Germany? What is Germany’s role in Europe? What is Germany’s role in the world in the 21st century?

We must pay close attention as the Germans answer these questions. Their answers will impact us all.

Understanding Modern Germany

The question of Germany’s modern identity and purpose, and its place in Europe and the world, came about because of World War ii. Tasked with rebuilding their nation, the leaders of West Germany first had to define the character and nature of the new German nation. Naturally, the supreme ambition—especially for America and the nations of Western Europe that were influential in defining postwar Germany—was to prevent Germany from causing future regional or world wars. As a result of this defining goal, postwar Germany was designed to prohibit militarism and limit its ability to participate in, let alone assertively lead, foreign conflicts.

The problem Germany faces today is that it is caught between two worlds. The first is the 20th century, post-World War ii world. Here, Germany is an economically strong but non-military state, and a country among equals in the European Union. On the international scene, Germany is stable and strong, but placid and content playing backup. Like Robin is to Batman, 20th-century Germany is a sidekick to America, the leader and defender of the free world, and the nation responsible for carrying the bulk of the burden. This is the world most Germans live in.

The other world is the 21st-century world, or what might accurately be called reality. Here, Batman is in rapid decline, the forces of evil are rising, and Germany and Europe’s national interests are in jeopardy. This world is dangerous, unstable and increasingly unpredictable. Germany, already a bona fide economic powerhouse, is constantly being asked to contribute more, to be more assertive and aggressive politically and financially, but also militarily. This is the world that most of Germany’s leaders dwell in.

The challenge German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Co. face is obvious: They must lead the German public into the 21st-century world.

The challenge Angela Merkel and Co. face is obvious: They must lead the German public into the 21st-century world—reality.
To appreciate the difficulty of this task, one must understand the German public’s aversion to militarism and war. This means considering the impact of World Wars i and ii on postwar Germany. Most of us tend to view wars through the lens of the victim. But to understand modern Germany, we need to consider these wars through the lens of the aggressor. Imagine growing up, especially in the decades immediately following the Second World War, with the knowledge that your country was responsible for the two most destructive wars in human history. Living in postwar Germany meant carrying enormous guilt and shame.

Although the postwar remorse diminishes with each new generation of Germans, an enormous segment of the German public still carry significant postwar guilt, and a resulting aversion to German assertiveness and militancy. In fact, it is wired into the thinking of many Germans, particularly those raised and educated in the ’50s and ’60s. It’s important to understand too that postwar Germany—its government, its legal system, its institutions—is a product of postwar shame and guilt. After the war, West Germany was rebuilt, at least to begin with, by America and the nations of Western Europe, together with a select group of pro-West, pro-democratic German leaders. The goal was to create a nation and people incapable—politically, militarily, morally and culturally—of returning to fascism, subjugating Europe, or even participating in military conflicts. In the years following the war, the intent to prohibit the rise of a militant German state permeated Germany’s postwar construction.

This is important to recognize. In many respects, modern Germany was built to avoid militarism and war. Take Germany’s constitution, or Basic Law as it was then called. It was and still is filled with all sorts of laws and stipulations crafted to limit the size, capability and operation of Germany’s military. As the Economist wrote in 2012, “One way of understanding Germany’s army is that it is a new type of institution, created not so much to wage wars, but to atone for the past and make its repeat impossible.” Germany’s constitution, for example, with a few strict exceptions, prohibits the export of weapons and munitions to active war zones. Part of the reason Germany’s leaders took so long deciding whether to send weapons to Iraq was that they had to determine if it was even legal.

The same goes for Germany’s postwar education system and media. These two institutions were infused with strong pacifist tendencies to suppress nationalist feelings and emotions. Both were influential in creating a postwar populace that even today convulses at the notion of active German involvement in foreign affairs. Of course, this is not to say Germany hasn’t been active militarily, especially in the last two decades. The Bundeswehr is more active than most people know. Germany has participated in conflicts in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name just three. But within Germany, participation in these conflicts was controversial.

Germany’s constitution, with a few strict exceptions, prohibits the export of weapons and munitions to active war zones.
Only a decade or so ago, even the slightest invocation of military language landed German leaders in hot water. Recall President Horst Köhler in 2010 publicly discussing the need for potential military deployments to protect trade routes and other German interests. His remarks were far from a call to arms. “A country of our size,” he said, “with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade, must be aware that … military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests.” In any other nation such comments would be entirely unremarkable. In Germany, the public uproar was so powerful, Köhler was forced to resign.

Convincing the Public

Today Chancellor Merkel and Germany’s leaders find themselves in an increasingly tough position. On one side, major crises are destabilizing the world and threatening Germany’s and Europe’s interests. These crises are compounded by the fact that America’s presence is shrinking, creating a leadership vacuum that many want Germany to fill. On the other side, a significant chunk of the German public lives in the 20th-century world. There, deep reluctance of German involvement in foreign crises remains, especially in a military capacity.

These are the increasingly dangerous waters that Germany’s leaders must navigate.

It’s hard to see how Angela Merkel can survive this. One of her greatest talents, indeed the key to her longevity, has been her ability to appease both the German public and the international community. The Merkel doctrine is one of measured intervention. Whatever the crisis, Merkel has always sought to ensure that Germany contributed significant support and leadership—just enough to satisfy those demanding Germany do more—but never in a manner or to an extent that would overly upset the German public. For Merkel, this approach has been politically expedient. But as far as the crises are concerned, the results have been disappointing. In most instances (for example, Europe’s debt crisis and the belligerent actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin), Merkel’s approach has soothed the crisis temporarily or provided a short-term fix. Yet in both of these cases, Germany has yet to provide any real, lasting solution. In both instances, the trouble not only continues but is intensifying.

Whether it’s Ukraine, the Islamic State or Europe’s political and financial crises, the moment is fast approaching when Germany will be required to finally act: not halfheartedly; not with half measures; not slowly and cautiously—but decisively, dramatically and even forcefully!

Whether it’s Ukraine, the Islamic State or Europe’s political and financial crises, the moment is fast approaching when Germany will be required to finally act.
The challenge Germany’s leaders face today is explaining this to their people (those who elect them) and showing them that Germany no longer has the option of doing little or nothing. Germany’s leaders must somehow rewire the psyche of the German people and help them see that in order for Germany to survive—for the economy to remain stable, for Germany and Europe to remain safe, for energy supplies to remain secure—it must get involved in meaningful ways politically, financially and even militarily.

For Germany’s leaders, this is a tough and risky task. But events increasingly vindicate their message. Consider the dramatic change that would take place if the threats suddenly become more personal. What if a radical Islamist terrorist exploded a bomb in Berlin or Munich? What if Putin turns off the gas this winter and Germans’ energy bills spike? What if Europe’s financial crisis grows worse (which many expect to happen) and begins to really affect the average German? What if Germany’s large Muslim population becomes angry and violent? Any one of these things would undoubtedly help many Germans shake their pacifist tendencies and get behind a stronger, more aggressive policies.

The only way Germans can go on living in the 20th-century world is if the regional and global threats against them significantly diminish and the world returns to the way it was. There is no sign of this happening any time soon. If anything, Germany’s domestic and global environment will continue to change, and in ways that will impair and hurt Germany unless it acts. The danger and instability of the 21st-century world will only intensify, and so will the pressure on Germany to be more aggressive and assertive.

Germany is experiencing an identity crisis. The Germans are being forced to realize that meekness and passivity are ill-advised and dangerous in a world that is increasingly unstable, violent and falling into anarchy. Many of Germany’s leaders already recognize this reality and want to respond. For now, however, their ability to forge Germany into an assertive, aggressive and dominant world power is being limited by the reticence and caution of the German public. But this is changing.

Moreover, as the crises intensify and begin to impact the Germans more personally, their attitudes will change more rapidly and dramatically.

We need to keep an eye on Germany as it comes through this identity crisis. It is producing a new German nation: a nation far more active and aggressive than what we are accustomed to seeing; a nation that is an aggressive political and military powerhouse; a German nation the world hasn’t seen since World War ii—a German nation that historically has been a threat to regional and world peace.