Germany's mindset has become solipsistic

After the Holocaust, it took decades of concerted efforts – from Adenauer and Heinemann through Brandt and Helmut Schmidt to Weizsäcker and Kohl – to bring the Federal Republic of Germany back into the fold of civilised nations. A tactically astute Genscherism and an opportunistic orientation to the west were not enough. What was needed was an infinitely arduous change in mentality throughout the whole population.

What ultimately won over our European neighbours were, first and foremost, the changed normative convictions and the liberal-minded attitudes of the younger generations. And, of course, the fact that the convictions of the politicians active at that time could be relied upon to play a decisive role in diplomatic relations.

The historically justified distrust of the Germans could not be weakened by their discernible interest in a peaceful European unification alone. West Germans seemed to have come to terms with the partition of the country, in any case. Mindful of their past nationalistic excesses, they could have no trouble in forgoing the recovery of sovereignty rights, in accepting their role as the largest net contributor to Europe and, if need be, in making concessions – which nevertheless paid off for the federal republic. To be convincing, the German commitment had to be normatively anchored.

The new German intransigence has deeper roots. In the wake of reunification, Germany's perspective had already changed in an enlarged country preoccupied with its own problems. But there was a more sweeping change in mentalities after Helmut Kohl. With the exception of a too quickly exhausted Joschka Fischer, since Gerhard Schröder took office an unambitious generation has become preoccupied with the day-to-day problems of an increasingly complex society. Conscious of the diminishing room for political manoeuvre, they shy away from farsighted goals and constructive political projects, let alone an undertaking like European unification.

The current German elites are enjoying the return to normality as a nation-state. Having reached the end of a "long path to the west", they are certified democrats and can once again be "just like the others". What has disappeared is the anxiousness of a people, who were also defeated morally and compelled to engage in self-criticism, to find their bearings in the postnational constellation. The solipsistic mindset of this self-absorbed colossus in the middle of Europe can no longer even guarantee that the unstable status quo in the EU will be preserved.

In and of itself, a change in mentality is no cause for reproach; but the new indifference has wider implications. As regards taming a financial capitalism spinning out of control, there can be no doubt about the preferences of the national majorities. In autumn 2008, for the first time in the history of capitalism, the backbone of the financial market–driven global economic system could be rescued from the brink of collapse only by the guarantees of the taxpayers. And the fact that capitalism is no longer able to reproduce itself under its own steam has now taken root in the consciousness of citizens who, as taxpayers, must bear liability for the "system failure".

But good intentions are thwarted – not so much by the "complexity of the markets" as by the timidity and lack of independence of governments. They are thwarted by the rash renunciation of any international co-operation aimed at constructing the political capacities for joint action that we lack – worldwide, in the EU and, for a start, within the eurozone. When it comes to the bailout for Greece, currency dealers and speculators don't realistically think that the euro countries are capable of working together resolutely. How could it be otherwise in a club that squanders its energies in cockfights over appointments to its most influential posts – only to fill them with the most colourless figures?

In times of crisis even individuals can write history. Our lame political elites, who prefer to read tabloid headlines, must not use as an excuse that the populations are the obstacle to a deeper European unification. They know that popular opinion established by opinion polls is not the same thing as the outcome of a public deliberative process leading to the formation of a democratic will. To date there has not been a single European election or referendum in any country that wasn't ultimately about national issues. We are still waiting for a single political party to undertake a constructive campaign to inform public opinion, to say nothing of the blinkered nationalistic vision of the left.

With a little political backbone, the crisis of the single currency can bring about what some once hoped for from a common European foreign policy, namely promoting a cross-border awareness of a shared European destiny.

Jürgen Habermas, a highly influential German sociologist and philosopher.