Would the Germany of today help liberate the Germany of 1944? You don’t need to tap Angela Merkel’s phone to find the answer: It’s no.
Germany is Europe’s unrivaled superpower, its largest economy and its most powerful political force. And yet if its response to recent global crises, and the general attitude of its leaders and citizens, are any indication, there appears to be nothing that will get the German government to consider military intervention: not even a clear legal basis for action, not even an acknowledged security interest, not even an obvious moral duty.
Such adamant antipathy is actually a source of pride in Germany. The departing foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, likes to talk of a “culture of military restraint,” knowing that he describes a mainstream sentiment.
What does this “culture” mean? Has Europe’s strongest nation really chosen to become the world’s biggest Switzerland?
Consider its impressive recent record of inaction. The 2011 conflict in Libya met all the requirements to justify a textbook humanitarian intervention: Civilians striving for freedom were attacked by the air force of a psychotic dictator. The United Nations Security Council approved an intervention, as did the Arab League. Yet even though the military action required, a no-fly zone, was limited and low-risk for the participating states, the Germans not only sent no jets, but they withdrew their personnel from NATO’s Awacs radar planes above the Mediterranean.
Then, during the Islamist takeover in northern Mali, Germany even identified the prevention of an “African Afghanistan” as being in the European interest — and wished the French Army best of luck in its endeavor.
And in Syria, not even President Bashar al-Assad’s gassing his own people provoked a debate in the Parliament of the very country that otherwise (and rightly) never tires of accepting historical responsibility for the Holocaust.
Defense-minded politicians in Berlin rail against this picture, arguing that postwar Germany has participated in major military operations. Take Kosovo! Take Afghanistan! Big missions!
Don’t be fooled. It is perfectly clear by now that these interventions hardly represent the rule; rather, they are two exceptions from a convenient and holier-than-thou foreign policy attitude, one the Germans have cultivated over the past 70 years.
Germany should always remember its catastrophic military history. But the Germany of today is a different country from the one of 1914 or of 1939. Instead, that history has become an excuse for not doing the right things today.
As Germany dwells on that past, the rest of the world has moved on. None of our European neighbors are calling for a militarily constrained Germany anymore. On the contrary: Europeans and Americans would like to see a Germany that lives up to the international standing it has gained in recent years.
I don’t mean to imply that this is an entirely cynical posture on the part of German leaders. It is simply a too deeply ingrained pacifism, one that I blame the Americans for instilling. The re-education efforts worked far too well on the Germans after 1945. Pacifism, sometimes in a self-righteous manner, has become part of the German DNA.
That pacifism was further entrenched by our experience in the Cold War. I was brought up in West Germany close to the Fulda Gap, near the border with what was then East Germany. If World War III began, everyone expected it to start there. Tornado jets rocked the skies all week, rehearsing the release of atomic bombs.
Four things were taught to every schoolchild: War is the worst thing that can happen; we Germans have shown an inclination to start wars; we started the First and Second World Wars; and if it should come to a third we Germans will be the first to die.
Our teachers had been led through the horrors of the concentration camps liberated by American soldiers. Now those teachers were leading us into a worldview where war would never, ever be the solution. For anything. Ever.
That is absolutely understandable. And it is wrong. The fact that the Holocaust was brought to an end by means of war, for instance, was simply forgotten.
A few of our leaders have understood the paradox. “We’ve always said: ‘Never again war!”’ exclaimed the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer in 1999. “But we have also always said: ‘Never again Auschwitz!”’ But most have ignored the comment.
The truth is, even Germans need to make a choice between the two evils. And for a time after the Cold War, they did. In the late 1990s, Germany’s choice was to bomb Serbia, and, in 2002, to send troops to Afghanistan.
These days are long over. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure it took the credibility of Mr. Fischer himself, a foreign minister from the leftist Green Party, to convince the Germans that military action was needed. No one else could have broken the taboo. And even he did it only temporarily.
Today, there is no such mental battering ram in sight. The German president, Joachim Gauck, recently said that he could not conceive of a Germany “that makes itself so small so as to avoid risk and solidarity,” but he remains a soft, lone voice, without formal power.
The way out of the dilemma has reverted to the simple formula of the Cold War: Let others do it. Or let them not do it. For the foreseeable future, don’t count on us Germans. We’ll count on you.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.