Getting Our Head Around German National Solipsism
nations have agency
Over atThe Tablet, Jeremy Stern hasa real meaty articleon “our” German problem. I lived in and around Germans for years and still try to get a grasp on what they want and why. As you would expect being that Germans contribute more to America’s DNA than any other group, there is a familiarity to Germans and Germany … but that only get you so far until you find yourself in an “uncanny valley” where you realize that you are not quite in sync with those around you. They are not us, and likewise…and that should be fine and good for everyone.
America’s view of their relationship with Germany and what we think Germany’s relationship with Russia should be is just that – America’s view. People and nations have agency, and what “we” think makes sense for them to do – all clear and logical – may not be what they think makes sense for them to do. It is this paradox that Stern appears to be trying to get his head around.
…the crimes of national solipsism and wishful self-contradiction remain as German as ever. See, for example, the performance of Chancellor Olaf Scholz over the last two weeks, during which he helped lead a pledge for Ukraine’s candidate status as a future member of the European Union, then dispatched his foreign policy adviser to clarify that Ukraine shouldn’t expect EU membership “just because you’re attacked,” then made an obviously unrealistic demand for more German voting weight in the European Council and greater representation in the European Parliament as a condition of Ukrainian membership. In other words, Germany supports Ukrainian accession to the EU, and the reason it probably won’t happen is that Germany will block it—a by-now familiar maneuver that has left many of the states stuck between Germany and Russia rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
When Germans want something to happen, it happens fast and is done well. When they don’t want something to happen, the reaction is equally stark. When they are wallowing in self-doubt, like we have seen with the slow rolling of promised support to Ukraine and self-contradictory statements – that is a signal that the Germans are in a quandary between what they want to do and what they want to be. There are Germans who want their nation to be more involved as the Czechs are, but they are not the Germans in power.
It is more than the fact that Germany is being led by the SDP. We’ve already covered the SDP’s compromised leadership with regard to the Soviets and now Russians – if you are not up to speed then do a bit of reading on the topic. Even though a war wages just a few hours east of Berlin, as we often see here as well, the left has old habits and beliefs it cannot let go of.
Under Merkel, the previous CDU/CSU/SDP coalition government was more Russophilic than the center of the German center-right – and now it is firmly in the left.
Scholz still refuses to say whether he would like Ukraine to win the war, and frequently calls for a “cease-fire” rather than a Russian withdrawal.
There is, moreover, an undeniable Sprockets-like undertone to these policy gyrations, as difficult as they can be to follow day-to-day or month-to-month. On the same day that the strategic Lyman railway hub fell to Russian forces, Scholz tweeted airily from a convention of Catholic pacifists (who were apparently debating whether Jesus was trans), “Can violence be fought with violence? Can you only create peace without weapons?” Indeed, Herr Chancellor.
Don’t forget, Scholz was – not making this up – part of the group of SDP youth in the 80s who danced with their GDR counterparts and played the useful idiots protesting NATO etc. I know these guys; I couldn’t stand them in the 80s and my opinion has not changed that much since.
Even though there are philosophical reasons for their externalized self-loathing, make no mistake, they are very much capitalists. Schroder’s millions for being a toy of Putin is just one example, but there is big money to be made in the east – a common theme for all of Germany history.
There is no sense in pretending that Putin could never afford a gas embargo, German officials have come to believe, given the experience of sanctions. After the imposition of Western sanctions in March, Russian exports increased by 8% in April. The explosion in the value of Russian commodity exports means Putin’s current account surplus this year may double from last year, making the loss of his foreign exchange assets irrelevant. The West’s arrogant miscalculation about the size and importance of Russia’s economy contributed directly to ruinous dynamics that routinely convulse Western democracies: spiraling inflation, cost of living crises, a looming rise in immigration and refugee flows as supplies continue to fall. The consequences of the anti-Russia sanctions have been worse, Germans argue, than if we had imposed no sanctions at all.
While Olaf Scholz may have multiple fraud scandals in his past and all the political charisma of a former mayor of Hamburg, a more credible explanation for the gap between German rhetoric and policy with regard to Ukraine is that Berlin simply believes Moscow was right—right that the sanctions regime was doomed to fail, that Western financial and military support for Ukraine is unsustainable, that trans-Atlantic unity will fray, and that Russia will eventually win, no matter what kinds of weapons Germany provides or where it buys its gas. If Germany has a “special responsibility” to “remember history,” many German officials believe, it probably shouldn’t risk an economic catastrophe for the sake of the Donbas.
Never underestimate the ability of money to steer nations away from the right thing. This is a German problem. The Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians have even more reasons to use the excuses the Germans are using, but they are not. Though I do not accept this excuse, some do – it has to do with WWII;
The first thing Americans tend to forget about the war and the occupation period is that Germans experienced it very differently than Americans did. When Franklin Roosevelt announced a war policy of “unconditional surrender” in Casablanca in 1943, various U.S. officials opposed it for a number of reasons—but whatever its efficacy, there’s no doubt about how the policy was implemented. Allied strategic bombing campaigns killed approximately 400,000 civilians in Germany, wounded 800,000 more, and rendered 7.5 million homeless. The bombing of Hamburg killed 37,000 people in one week; the firebombing of Dresden killed 25,000 people in three days. Civilians, of course, were not collateral damage, but often deliberate targets of the Allied air raids.
Stern goes in to more details, but yes – this is always in the background and feeds a subtle anti-Americanism amongst Germans that everyone encounters. It is understandable from an objective point of view. Not a majority opinion I don’t think, but not insignificant.
The way the Cold War ended suggests the democracy promotion myth was both effective and justified. From a distance of 75 years, it is also clear how it warped and in some cases deranged Americans’ understanding of a defining moment in their own history. Four generations of Americans have now grown up under the assumption that a primary legacy of “The Good War” is that the United States brought freedom and democracy to people and places where it had never existed before. In the case of Germany (among others) this isn’t exactly true—Germany before 1913 had a parliament, freedom of the press, and intellectual freedom, in some cases more robust than in the United States at the time.
In reality, the eventual West German growth miracle owed more to German corporatist economic principles, and to the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community, than it did to any free-market values introduced by the United States. It would likewise take a special kind of self-deception to mistake Germany’s greatest postwar achievement—one of the world’s most effective and admirable welfare states, which harks back to Bismarck’s social bargain with the German labor parties—for a postwar American import. Yet it was the example of “democracy promotion” in Germany (and also Japan) that U.S. politicians and statesmen repeatedly invoked in their later misadventures, from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Though in part this seems not to be germane to Ukraine, I think it is. Americans see the world through our experience and tend to forget the experience of others. Yes, America and Germany are both free nations in the West, but we see the responsibilities and possibilities of being in that club differently.
Today, the United States is once again putting itself at the center of someone else’s story—invoking Lend Lease and the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift to conjure the happy ending we’ve already determined is required of the Ukrainian nightmare. Rather than aim for a “dirty, contemptible compromise,” Washington has—rightly or wrongly—made support for an unconditional Ukrainian victory a litmus test for the American democratic ethos, even as American voters have started to lose whatever interest they had in helping the heroic Ukrainians. Convinced of their own centrality to the drama, U.S. leaders can’t or won’t understand that many U.S. allies can’t and won’t stake their futures on whatever the American position happens to be at any particular moment—because according to the internal logic of American partisan warfare, that position will be reversed every few years.
No one fears and loathes this toxic U.S. political dynamic more than our allies in Berlin. For them, Donetsk and Luhansk are simply not worth a Lehman-style contagion in Germany’s energy sector. Neither, for that matter, is Odessa, or Kyiv, or Transnistria, or the Suwalki Gap. And why, they ask, should it be otherwise? There is “our relationship with Russia [in the] future” to consider, as Scholz’s foreign policy adviser reminded Germans last week after the chancellor’s trip to Kyiv. “That is at least as exciting and relevant an issue.”
Americans are entitled to wonder what all this means for Germany’s status as a member of the Western alliance. What we’re no longer entitled to is surprise.
America must do what it and like-minded nations feel they must do to support Ukraine, but we should stop asking Germany to do and be something that it is not. We should acknowledge that reality. By doing so, we may actually get more help out of her than if we stubbornly try to make her something she is not at this stage of the game.
She is trying to stay in the middle of the road by doing as little as possible to stay in good standing with her allies and friends, while not completely burning the bridge to business and cheap energy in Russia. The longer the Russo-Ukrainian War goes on, the thinner the supports of her position will grow. At some point she will have to pick a side.