The newly elected French Socialist president, Francois Hollande, is warning Germany that Mediterranean ideas of “growth,” not Germanic “austerity,” should be the new European creed. No surprise there – reckless debtors often blame their own past imprudence on greedy creditors, especially if the latter are supposed to be guilt-ridden over causing two world wars.
All over Europe, the gospel is that tight-fisted Germans are at the root of the European Union meltdown: They worked too hard, saved too much, bought too little and borrowed not at all. All that may be true, in theory. But, in fact, faulting thrift and industry is a prescription for incurring anger and guaranteeing backlash – especially in the case of the Germans, who are now asked to provide even more capital to help other European economies to recover.
There is one general rule about the history of the modern state of Germany since its inception in 1871: Anytime Germany has been both unified and isolated, armed conflict has inevitably followed.
We often scoff at such quaint historical laws – forgetting that World War I followed from the inability of the French to harness German nationalism after the Franco-Prussian War. World War II was a result of the inability of the victorious allies either to dismantle the unified German state or incorporate a defeated Germany into some sort of continental alliance.
After World War II, the allies swore that they had at last come up with a novel tripartite solution: Germany would be split apart. West Germany was to be a member of both NATO and, eventually, the new European Union. France, Great Britain and the United States would be nuclear powers, but not so Germany, where nuclear physics and rocketry were born.
Seventy years of peace followed – an abnormality in two millennia of Western civilization in Europe. But now, insidiously, the World War II-era constraints are eroding. Germany is united and very rich. The rest of the European Union is quite poor and beginning to crack apart. A ragtag NATO is confused by the new “lead from behind” America.
Yet the catalysts for the German wars were not just Europe’s inability to contain and surround a naturally powerful German state. German fears and emotions counted, too.
There were lots of causes of the First World War. But one was German propaganda that France, Britain and Russia were thwarting a growing imperial Germany’s natural right to expand and colonize.
Who knows all the sick reasons why desperate Germans turned to nutty ex-corporal Adolf Hitler in the 1930s? But among them was that ancient paranoia that the Allies once more had rigged the European system to keep Germany divided, weak, poor and on the defensive.
In other words, serially hurt pride and a loss of deterrence seemed to have been keys to the outbreak of three German wars. And now? The very thought of an armed, powerful – and increasingly exasperated – Germany, furious at its neighbors for a fourth time, seems silly, especially given its success and security.
But Germans certainly think that they have played by all the postwar rules. They paid $2 trillion for their own reunification without asking for handouts. The European Union turned into a Ponzi racket, in which poorer southern members cooked their books to get German cash – only when caught, to blame their indebtedness on German mercantilism and callous, export-driven profit-mongering. Perpetual war guilt decreed that Germans must be apologetic about their own success and discreet about the reasons for others’ failures.
Beneath the recent election of a Socialist president in France and the rise of various extremists in southern Europe is a common theme. After four years of austerity, no poor European country still thinks that it can – or should – sacrifice to pay back much of what it borrowed from a far wealthier Germany, which supposedly undermined the European Union by not spending and borrowing more.
Of course, the EU always claims it will survive. Of course, all 21st-century Europeans know that nationalism and military preparedness are the fossilized notions of more primitive peoples.
But let’s wait and see what happens when Europeans not only default on lots of German-backed loans, but also defiantly announce that they should not have been given them in the first place – and thus should not have to pay them back at all. Injury for Germany is one thing; insult on top of it might be quite another.
History is quietly whispering to us in our age of amnesia: “I would not keep poking the Germans unless you are able to deal with them when they wake up.”
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.