Perils of ‘The German Way’

What do these recent outbursts mean?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Magazine

The problem with the recent German criticism of President Bush was not Chancellor Schroeder’s willingness to voice unease with the purported American “adventure” in Iraq. Germany is a sovereign nation and can and must do as it sees fit. It has a perfect right to express its forebodings, forcefully. Moreover, no one-here or there-has ever envisioned concrete German help in freeing Iraq from Saddam Hussein.

So the chancellor’s ploy was gratuitously rhetorical rather than substantive or of any import to our military efforts in the Gulf. The absence of a canteen or a handful of obsolete tanks is no great loss. That a self-righteous European socialist government trades with, rather than opposes, a Middle Eastern madman with weapons of mass destruction in a post-September 11 world is by now to be expected, rather than shocking.

Instead, American angst has derived from a variety of other considerations. First, the flurry of German anti-Americanism was not confined to Gerhard Schroeder. Fellow Socialist Ludwig Stiegler suggested that our president was akin to Julius Caesar-the firebrand who destroyed centuries of republican government and sought to lay the foundations of Roman imperial rule.

Herta Daubler-Gmelin, the minister of justice, trumped that, declaring, “Bush wants to divert attention from his domestic problems. It’s a classic tactic. It’s one that Hitler also used.” Americans, it seems- who once rid Germany of Hitler, with very little help from the Germans themselves-are now to be properly slandered by Germans for being Hitler-like.

Even that surprising venom was not confined to Socialists in power, trolling for votes in economically depressed times by appealing to nationalism and the fears of a purportedly pacifist populace. Jurgen Mollemann of the Free Democrats spoke of the “intolerant, spiteful style” of some prominent Jews. His remarks echoed the anti-Semitism already voiced by former defense minister Rudolf Scharping when he complained that Mr. Bush was trying to please “a powerful, perhaps overly powerful, Jewish lobby.”

Americans were especially perplexed about such choices of vocabulary. If even Socialists and leftists are reverting to the nomenclature of a half-century past, has the specter of German nationalism and belligerence really vanished? Consider some of the rhetoric. Schroeder promised that Germans would not simply “click their heels.” He talked of the “German way” (deutscher Weg), stressing that Germany was a “modern” country where decisions will “be made in Berlin-and only in Berlin.” A Mel Brooks movie could not have offered a better caricature of repressed nostalgia for the 1930s.

A cynic would see the new German belligerence as particularly opportunistic, coming as it does only after the Soviet threat has gone, after the dream of unification has been achieved, after Berlin has emerged as the capital of a new, “modern” Germany. The still more jaded might see in contemporary German socialism, pacifism, and relativism shades of a weak and decadent Weimar-with the attendant extreme reaction to it looming on the horizon. We sadly are accustomed to residual anti-Semitism in Germany, but when ex-officials there complain of the power of American Jewish constituencies in New York and Miami, the awful subtext is, of course, that there is no such problem now in Germany, because . . .

Finally and most disturbingly, Schroeder’s antics did not, like Le Pen’s nationalism, fail, but may well have won him the election. So it turns out that Minister Daubler-Gmelin was projecting. Which country, in fact, really did turn to nationalism-and anti-Semitism-to deflect domestic concern over a faltering economy and a reduced world influence?

Americans were especially surprised by the German invective because our history and relationships with Germany have always reflected our own goodwill. We have respected the postwar German people, whom we found confident, competent, self-reliant, and appreciative. After their horrific losses of civilians and territory in World War II, they did not turn to terrorism, but instead embraced democracy and sought to atone for the evil Hitler wrought. So to learn that the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, NATO, the American nuclear shield that protected free Germans from 400 Soviet divisions, and the recent near-automatic American support for German unification are apparently ancient history, came as another post-9/11 wake-up call. In turn, we must wonder whether Germans are really aware that the over 70,000 American troops on German soil alone allow Schroeder’s government to continue to spend no more than 2 percent of GNP on defense, with the assurance that no hostile country would dare enter German air space.

In Europe these sudden outbursts have put neighbors east and west on notice. Indeed France, Holland, Italy, and the Eastern Europeans are more likely to strengthen, not weaken, their American ties. Astute politicians there may sense that there is something nasty brewing in Germany that trumps socialism, the EU, and all the other utopian pretensions that were supposed to have supplanted those silly 19th- century ideas like nationalism, status, and honor across the Rhine. If I were a Frenchman, Pole, Greek, or Czech, I would reexamine very carefully the fashionable anti-Americanism of the Continent, dissect it, and determine what, in fact, are its real undercurrents and repercussions-before the spooky German rhetoric is turned on them and we, in our disgust, are long gone from the scene.

Schroeder made a terrible mistake in the manner in which he launched his campaign of anti-Americanism. Had his ploy failed with the electorate, had he not unleashed his venom at mass rallies, had he not chosen such historic vocabulary, had friends and opponents denounced rather than echoed his attacks, Americans could pass it all off as election-style pyrotechnics. But given the opposite circumstances, we won’t. Instead, in our pique and pride, we will remember past lax policies on Middle East terrorism (think the Munich Olympics) and realize that a number of the September 11 murderers refined their final plans on German soil, and that much of Saddam Hussein’s purchases of the last decade have come from Germany. We grumble that the Germans- given their history-should have been the last to line up to fight fascists and the first to voice cheap anti-Americanism and anti- Semitism.

What will be the result of all this? Our elites and theirs claim that they will huddle together and quickly fix the problem. But I am not so sure. In the short term, I would imagine that the American military will be very wary of placing key military assets in Germany, lest, in the manner of France during the Libyan crisis, we are told that we cannot fly through German air space. Far more importantly, without fanfare we should probably gradually-say at the rate of 5,000 to 10,000 soldiers a year-either bring home or transfer Americans from Germany. Such a move is vital to restore clarity and health to our relationship and bring maturity to the Germans, who must understand that their nastiness in part derives from their very sense of inferiority to and dependence on us. Let them be grown-ups, rather than teenagers who loudly assert their independence from their parents as they drive to the mall-only to call fretting at midnight that the battery is dead.

It is their decision, not ours, whether they choose to adopt a policy akin to those of Sweden and Switzerland in line with their present defense expenditures, or wish to take a more active and muscular role in world affairs, as we would hope. For our own part, even if we choose not to reduce our overseas European commitments, we will find a number of neighboring countries eager to open replacement bases.

In a sense, Mr. Schroeder and other German leaders may have achieved their traditional aspirations: a unified country, with the largest population and economy in Europe, without enemies on the horizon, and now free to chart its own course. Fine, and more power to them. Moreover we should ensure that the German government does not feel it has to click its heels to anyone, simply accept that long-overdue reality, remain friends-but, most of all, begin to come home. It will be healthier for all parties involved. And that fact may well usher in a slow return, after a half-century, to an inevitable bilateralism with particular European states-with all its attendant dangers that we have seen in that part of the world over the last 130 years.

Gerhard Schroeder has no idea of the repressed historic forces he has unleashed both at home and abroad-but unleashed them he most certainly has.


©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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