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The New German Question - What Happens When Europe Comes Apart?


Many have been lamenting the dark path that Europe and the transatlantic relationship are currently on, but there hasn’t been much discussion of where that path leads. European weakness and division, a strategic “decoupling” from the United States, the fraying of the European Union, “after Europe,” “the end of Europe”—these are the grim scenarios, but there is a comforting vagueness to them. They suggest failed dreams, not nightmares. Yet the failure of the European project, if it occurs, could be a nightmare, and not only for Europe. It will, among other things, bring back what used to be known as “the German question.”


The German question produced the Europe of today, as well as the transatlantic relationship of the past seven-plus decades. Germany’s unification in 1871 created a new nation in the heart of Europe that was too large, too populous, too rich, and too powerful to be effectively balanced by the other European powers, including the United Kingdom. The breakdown of the European balance of power helped produce two world wars and brought more than ten million U.S. soldiers across the Atlantic to fight and die in those wars. Americans and Europeans established NATO after World War II at least as much to settle the German problem as to meet the Soviet challenge, a fact now forgotten by today’s realists—to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” as Lord Ismay, the alliance’s first secretary-general, put it. This was also the purpose of the series of integrative European institutions, beginning with the European Steel and Coal Community, that eventually became the European Union. As the diplomat George Kennan put it, some form of European unification was “the only conceivable solution for the problem of Germany’s relation to the rest of Europe,” and that unification could occur only under the umbrella of a U.S. security commitment.




As a historical matter, Germany, in its relatively brief time as a nation, has been one of the most unpredictable and inconsistent players on the international scene. It achieved unification through a series of wars in the 1860s and 1870s. Otto von Bismarck then forged it into a nation, by “blood and iron,” as he put it, turning it into the peaceful “satiated power” of the next two decades. Then, from the 1890s through World War I, under Kaiser Wilhelm II, it became the ambitious German empire, with dreams of Mitteleuropa, a Germanized sphere of influence stretching all the way to Russia—and visions, in the words of Bernhard von Bülow, who was then Germany’s foreign minister, of a “place in the sun.” After the war, Germany became the cautious revisionist power of the Weimar years, only to emerge as the conqueror of Europe under Hitler in the 1930s, and then collapse into a defeated, divided state. Even during the Cold War, West Germany vacillated between the pro-Western idealism of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the realist Ostpolitik of Chancellor Willy Brandt. The country’s domestic politics were no less turbulent and unpredictable, at least until the late 1940s. Scholars have long mused about Germany’s Sonderweg, the unique and troubled path the nation took to modern democracy, by way of failed liberal revolution, hereditary monarchy, authoritarianism, frail democracy, and, finally, totalitarianism, all in the first seven decades of its existence.

作为一个历史问题,德国,作为一个国家,在其相对较短的时间内,一直是国际舞台上最不可预测和最不稳定的参与者之一。它在1860年代和1870年代通过一系列战争实现了统一。奥托•冯•俾斯麦接着用他所说的“血与铁”把它打造成一个国家,在接下来的20年里,把它变成了一个和平的“满足的大国”。然后,从1890年代到第一次世界大战, 在威廉二世的统治下,它变成了雄心勃勃的德意志帝国,带着中欧的梦想,带着将日耳曼的势力范围延伸到俄罗斯的愿景,用当时的德国外交部长伯纳德•冯•布劳的话说,就是“阳光下的土地”。战后,德国成为魏玛时期持重的修正主义大国,却在1930年代成为希特勒统治下的欧洲征服者,然后崩溃为一个战败的分裂国家。即使在冷战期间,西德也在亲西方的理想主义和现实主义之间摇摆不定。至少在1940年代末,德国的国内政治动荡不定,变幻莫测。长期以来,学者们一直在思考德国的“特殊道路论”,这个国家走向现代民主的独特而坎坷的道路,经历了失败的自由革命、世袭君主制、威权主义、脆弱的民主,最后是极权主义,这一切都发生在其存在的前70年。

This turbulent history was a product not just of the German character, however. Circumstances played a big part, including simple geography. Germany was a powerful nation in the center of a contested continent, flanked on the east and the west by large and fearful powers and therefore always at risk of a two-front war. Germany rarely felt secure, and when it did seek security by increasing its power, it only hastened its own encirclement. Germany’s internal politics were also continually affected by the waves of autocracy, democracy, fascism, and communism that swept back and forth across Europe. The novelist Thomas Mann once suggested that the question was not so much one of national character but one of external events. “There are not two Germanys, a good one and a bad one,” he wrote. “Wicked Germany is merely good Germany gone astray, good Germany in misfortune, in guilt, and ruin.”


The second element of the new order was the liberal, free-trading international economic system that the United States established. The German economy had always relied heavily on exports, and in the nineteenth century, the competition for foreign markets was a driving force behind German expansionism. In the new global economy, a nonmilitaristic West Germany could flourish without threatening others. To the contrary, West Germany’s export-driven economic miracle of the 1950s made the country both an engine of global economic growth and an anchor of prosperity and democratic stability in Europe.


The United States not only tolerated the economic success of West Germany and the rest of Western Europe but welcomed it, even when it came at the expense of American industry. From 1950 to 1970, industrial production in Western Europe expanded at an average rate of 7.1 percent per year, overall GDP rose by 5.5 percent per year, and per capita GDP rose by 4.4 percent per year, exceeding U.S. growth in the same period. By the mid-1960s, both West Germany and Japan had pulled ahead of the United States in a number of key industries, from automobiles to steel to consumer electronics. Americans accepted this competition not because they were unusually selfless but because they regarded healthy European and Japanese economies as vital pillars of the stable world they sought to uphold. The great lesson of the first half of the twentieth century was that economic nationalism was destabilizing. Both the global free-trade system and such institutions as the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community were designed to check it.


One effect of this favorable environment was that West Germany remained rooted in the liberal West. Although some leading Germans advocated adopting a more independent posture during the Cold War, either as a bridge between the East and the West or as a neutral country, the benefits that West Germans gained from integration in the American-dominated order kept them firmly planted in it. Temptations to pursue a normal, independent foreign policy were tempered not only by economic interest but also by the relatively benign environment in which West Germans could live their lives, so different from what they had known in the past.


It helped that West Germany lived in a Europe and a world where democracy seemed to be the way of the future, especially from the mid-1970s onward. This was the third key factor that helped anchor Germany in the liberal order. The European and global environment was very different from the one in which Weimar democracy had failed, Nazism had thrived, and Germany had embarked on a course of aggression. In the 1930s, European democracy was an endangered species; fascism was ascendant everywhere and seemed to be a more efficient and effective model of government and society. In the postwar era, by contrast, the increasing strength and prosperity of the democracies not only provided mutual reinforcement but also produced a sense of shared European and transatlantic values—something that had not existed prior to 1945. This feeling came into full bloom after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the founding of the European Union in 1993. The explosion of democracy across the continent, the idea of a Europe “whole and free,” as U.S. President George H. W. Bush put it, helped create a new European identity that Germans could embrace. And they did, at significant sacrifice to their independence. The pooling of sovereignty that membership in the new pan-European institution entailed, especially the replacement of the deutsche mark with the euro, and the further constraint that NATO membership imposed on German independence, would hardly have been possible had the Germans not felt bound by common ideals to the rest of Europe and the United States.

这让西德生活在一个民主似乎是未来之路的欧洲和世界中,尤其是从70年代中期开始。这是帮助德国在自由秩序中站稳脚跟的第三个关键因素。欧洲和全球的环境已经与魏玛民主失败、纳粹主义兴盛、德国开始侵略时期的环境大不相同。在1930年代,欧洲民主是一个濒临灭绝的物种;法西斯主义在世界各地盛行,似乎是一种更有效的政府和社会模式。然而,在战后时期,民主国家日益增强的实力和繁荣不仅提供了相互强化,而且产生了一种大西洋两岸共有的价值观——这是1945年以前从未存在过的。这种感觉在1989年柏林墙倒塌和1993年欧盟成立后达到顶峰。正如美国总统乔治H. W.布什所说,欧洲大陆民主的爆炸式发展,以及欧洲“完整和自由”的理念,帮助德国人建立了一种新的欧洲身份认同。他们确实这样做了,为他们的独立做出了重大牺牲。如果不是新泛欧体系成员国的主权共享,特别是用欧元取代德国马克,以及北约成员国对德国独立的进一步限制,德国就几乎不可能拥有与欧洲其他国家和美国共同的理念。

This new Europe was, among other things, an answer to the nationalism and tribalism that had contributed so much to the wars and atrocities of the continent’s past. The fourth element of the new order that made it possible for Germany both to escape its past and to contribute to the peace and stability of Europe was the suppression of nationalist passions and ambitions by transnational institutions such as NATO and the EU. These prevented a return of the old competitions in which Germany had invariably been a leading player. German nationalism was hardly the only European nationalism that seemed historically inseparable from anti-Semitism and other forms of tribal hatred, but no other nationalism had played such a destructive role in Europe’s bloody past. A Europe in which nationalism was suppressed was a Europe in which German nationalism was suppressed. Germany’s leading role in fostering this common European, antinationalist vision played a big role in creating mutual trust on the continent.


These four elements—the U.S. security guarantee, the international free-trade regime, the democratic wave, and the suppression of nationalism—have together kept the old German question buried deep under the soil. There was nothing inevitable about them, however, and they are not necessarily permanent. They reflect a certain configuration of power in the world, a global balance in which the liberal democracies have been ascendant and the strategic competitions of the past have been suppressed by the dominant liberal superpower. It has been an unusual set of circumstances, abnormal and ahistorical. And so has Germany’s part in it.




But shackles that are voluntarily accepted can also be thrown off. As generations pass, demons are forgotten and constraints chafe. How long before new generations of Germans seek nothing more than a return to normalcy?


Over the past quarter century, Germany’s neighbors, and Germans themselves, have watched attentively for any signs of such a shift in German attitudes. The anxiety with which the British and the French greeted German reunification in 1990 showed that, at least in their eyes, even 45 years after World War II, the German question had not been entirely put to rest. That anxiety was eased when the United States reconfirmed its commitment to European security, even with the Soviet threat gone, and when a reunified Germany agreed to remain part of NATO. It was further dampened when Germany committed to being part of the new European Union and the eurozone.


Even in that benign setting, however, there was no escaping a return to the German question, at least in its economic dimension. As the scholar Hans Kundnani observed in his fine 2015 analysis, The Paradox of German Power, the old imbalance that destabilized Europe after the unification of Germany in 1871 returned after Germany’s reunification and the establishment of the eurozone. Germany once again became the dominant force in Europe. Central Europe became Germany’s supply chain and effectively part of “the greater German economy,” a twenty-first-century realization of Mitteleuropa. The rest of Europe became Germany’s export market.


When the eurozone crisis hit in 2009, a new vicious cycle set in. Germany’s economic dominance allowed it to impose its preferred anti-debt policies on the rest of Europe, making Berlin the target of anger among Greeks, Italians, and others who had once blamed the EU bureaucracy in Brussels for their hardships. Germans were angry, too, resentful at bankrolling other people’s profligate ways. Outside Germany, there was talk of an anti-German “common front,” and inside Germany, there was a sense of victimhood and a revival of old fears of encirclement by the “weak economies.” It was, as Kundnani suggested, a “geo-economic version of the conflicts within Europe that followed unification in 1871.”


But at least it was only economic. The disputes were among allies and partners, all democracies, all part of the common European project. As a geopolitical matter, therefore, the situation was “benign”—or so it could still seem in January 2015, when Kundnani published his book.


Four years on, there is less cause for reassurance. Things have again changed. Each of the four elements of the postwar order that have contained the German question is now up in the air. Nationalism is on the rise across Europe; democracy is receding in some parts of the continent and is under pressure everywhere; the international free-trade regime is under attack, chiefly by the United States; and the American security guarantee has been cast in doubt by the U.S president himself. Given Europe’s history, and Germany’s, might not these changing circumstances once again bring about a change in the behavior of Europeans, including the Germans?

四年过去了,让人安心的理由越来越少。事情又发生了变化。战后秩序中抑制德国问题的四个要素现在都悬而未决。整个欧洲的民族主义正在抬头; 在大陆的一些地区,民主正在衰退,各地都面临压力; 国际自由贸易体系正受到攻击,主要是美国; 美国总统本人也对美国的安全保障表示怀疑。鉴于欧洲的历史和德国的历史,这些不断变化的环境是否会再次改变包括德国在内的欧洲人的态度?



In the coming years, Germans may find themselves living in a largely renationalized Europe, with blood-and-soil parties of one type or another in charge of all the major powers. Could the Germans under those circumstances resist a return to a nationalism of their own? Would German politicians not face pressures, even more than they already do, to look out for German interests in a Europe and a world where all the others were surely looking out for their own? Even today, a right-wing nationalist party, Alternative for Germany, holds the third-largest number of seats in the Bundestag. The party is guided by ideologues who are tired of the Schuldkult (cult of guilt) and blame the influx of foreigners on German politicians they call, as one party leader did, “puppets of the victor powers of the Second World War.” There is no reason why a party espousing a more mainstream, less offensive version of such sentiments might not find its way into power at some point. As the historian Timothy Garton Ash has observed, a “cultural struggle for Germany’s future” is already under way.

在未来的几年里,德国人可能会发现自己生活在一个很大程度上被重新国有化的欧洲,所有主要大国都由这样或那样的“血与土【纳粹口号】”的政党掌控。在这种情况下,德国人能否抵制民族主义的回归? 德国政治家们会不会面临更大的压力——甚至比他们已经面临的压力还要大——在一个其他国家肯定都在为自己谋利益的欧洲和世界中,去寻找德国的利益?即使在如今,一个右翼民族主义政党——德国选择党——仍在联邦议院占据着第三大席位。该党由理论家领导,他们厌倦了“罪恶崇拜”,他们把外国人的涌入归咎于德国政治家,就像一位政党领导人所做的那样,他们称这些政治家是“二战胜利者的傀儡”。一个支持更为主流、更不具攻击性的观点的政党没有理由找不到上台的路。正如历史学家蒂莫西加顿阿什所言,一场“为德国未来而进行的文化斗争”已经开始。

Nor can one assume that in a world of increasing political and economic nationalism, European countries will continue to disavow military power as a tool of international influence. Even today, Europeans acknowledge that their postmodern experiment of moving beyond military power has left them disarmed in a world that never shared their optimistic, Kantian perspective. Europeans still cling to the hope that global security will be preserved largely without them and that they can avoid the painful spending choices they would have to make if they became responsible for their own defense. It is fanciful to imagine that they will never be forced in that direction, however. Fifteen years ago, most Europeans were comfortable playing Venus to the United States’ Mars and criticized Americans for their archaic reliance on hard power. But Europe was able to become Venus thanks to historical circumstances—not least the relatively peaceful liberal order created and sustained by the United States. With Russia more willing to use force to accomplish its objectives and the United States retreating from its foreign commitments, that world is vanishing. Setting aside the possibility that human nature can be permanently transformed, there is nothing to stop Europeans from returning to the power politics that dominated their continent for millennia. And if the rest of Europe ends up following that path, it will be hard for even the most liberal Germany not to join it—if only in self-defense.


There has always been something ironic about the American complaint that Europeans don’t spend enough on defense. They don’t because the world seems relatively peaceful and secure to them. When the world is no longer peaceful and secure, they probably will rearm, but not in ways that will benefit Americans.




If one were devising a formula to drive Europe and Germany back to some new version of their past, one could hardly do a better job than what U.S. President Donald Trump is doing now. Overtly hostile to the EU, the Trump administration is encouraging the renationalization of Europe, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did in Brussels at the end of 2018, when he gave a speech touting the virtues of the nation-state. In the European struggle that has pitted liberals against illiberals and internationalists against nationalists, the Trump administration has placed its thumb on the scales in favor of the two latter groups. It has criticized the leaders of the European center-right and center-left, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to French President Emmanuel Macron to British Prime Minister Theresa May, while embracing the leaders of the populist illiberal right, from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Marine Le Pen in France to Matteo Salvini in Italy to Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland. It was in Germany, of all places, where the U.S. ambassador, Richard Grenell, expressed in an interview the desire to “empower” Europe’s “conservatives,” by which he did not mean the traditional German right-of-center party of Merkel.

Whether this storm will descend in five years or ten or 20, who can say? But things change quickly. In 1925, Germany was disarmed, a functioning, if unstable, democracy, working with its neighbors to establish a stable peace. French and German leaders reached a historic pact in Locarno, Switzerland. The U.S. economy was roaring, and the world economy was in relatively good health, or so it seemed. A decade later, Europe and the world were descending into hell.

这场风暴五年后、十年后、二十年后会不会降临,谁知道呢? 但事情变化很快。1925年,德国被解除了武装,这是一个正常运转的民主国家,尽管不稳定,但它与邻国合作建立了稳定的和平。法国和德国领导人在瑞士洛卡诺达成了历史性的协议。当时美国经济正在蓬勃发展,世界经济也相对健康,至少看起来是这样。然而十年后,欧洲和世界却滑向地狱。

Today, it may well be that the German people and their neighbors in Europe can be counted on to save the world from this fate. Perhaps the Germans have been transformed forever and nothing can undo or alter this transformation, not even the breakdown of Europe all around them. But perhaps even these liberal and pacific Germans are not immune to the larger forces that shape history and over which they have little control. And so one can’t help but wonder how long the calm will last if the United States and the world continue along their present course.


Across Germany, there are still thousands of unexploded bombs dropped by the Allies during World War II. One blew up in Göttingen a few years ago, killing the three men trying to defuse it. Think of Europe today as an unexploded bomb, its detonator intact and functional, its explosives still live. If this is an apt analogy, then Trump is a child with a hammer, gleefully and heedlessly pounding away. What could go wrong?