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Germany über Alles? June 11, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

According to many paranoid British and French scholars the history of the last century and a half has been the story of Germany’s attempt to dominate continental Europe. It began with Napoleon III giving up his sword to Bismarck in 1870 and has continued down to the present day with Germany’s EU plotting.  Is there anything to be said for this view of history at all?

Well, there are three facts about the German-speakers that have made them uncomfortable neighbours in the last hundred and fifty years. First, there are, to slightly adapt A.J.P. Taylors’s phrase, ‘too many Germans’. In simple population terms German-speakers outweigh French-speakers and English-speakers and they came tolerably close, at certain moments, to outweighing both together. It seems profoundly unfair to blame German-speakers for this freak of demographics, but it has been, along with Germany’s incredible productivity, the key to European politics for more than a century.

Second, unlike Spain, Britain and France Germany had to make itself in the nineteenth century. Italy went through the same process, of course, but Italy had an obvious Mazzini-style boundary at the watershed of the Alps. The makers of Germany had forests, mountains (though not mountain ranges) and rivers all about. But none of these spelt the limits of Germany. Those limits were rather suggested by the German diaspora throughout eastern Europe and over the Rhine ‘in France’, and the diaspora created a kind of a shopping list for German nationalists. Super-patriotic Italians were muttering, in 1900, about Dalmatia, Malta and Corsica. Their German coevals were discussing Odessa and picnics in the Urals…

The third point, Germany’s sense of national destiny, is always played up as the reason for its terrifying twentieth-century history. But really it was just another tedious excrescence of nineteenth-century western nationalism: ‘La France’, Manifest Destiny, ‘over palm and pine’ etc etc. It was only when it combined with the two factors above that it dictated the serious rearrangement of national borders. And when Germany got involved with border changes that meant world wars. Germany, perhaps as a result, held onto its sense of national destiny longer than its neighbours: you have only to think of the anemic western democracies preparing for war against ein-volk-ein-reich-ein-fuhrer in the 1930s to see this clearly.

There are a generation of liberal historians – the very talented Timothy Garton Ash among them – who claim that Germany changed after the Second World War. (Follow this links for a fascinating TGA video with which Beach almost entirely disagrees.) Its population remained huge (though this was ‘ameliorated’ [sic] by the division between east and west). But WWII had, for good, defined the limits of a Kleindeutschland. And nationalism drained out of Germany at the end of the war with the Allies’ occupation. The European Union became a way to control the fear of German nationalism – the reality was gone –  and Germany was grafted onto the European project. According to this view of history then Mitterrand’s jibe at the end of the Cold War that ‘France loves Germany so much that it wants two of them’ was misplaced. Germany had become a force for good and tedium in the world and didn’t need Europe to reign its ambitions in. It simply didn’t have any ambitions other than the prosperity of its talented and deserving burghers.

Beach grew up in a country where paranoia against ‘the German project’ runs particularly high. And something atavistic inside him revolts against the liberal explanation for Germany’s post-war transformation. But recent events have borne that liberal explanation out almost entirely, while underlying the disastrous and associated miscalculations over European Unity. Germany is presently being begged, on hands and knees by France, Spain, Italy, Greece and about fifteen other countries, including, perhaps surprisingly, the UK to accept full fiscal union for Europe. If Germany accepted those terms then Bismarck’s dream would be completed. Continental Europe would become a space dominated by Germany in which the weaker southern economies would be annexed to the extraordinary might of German industry and German entrepreneurship. As George Soros has put it in a blood-curdling essay on the future of Europe ‘that would result in a eurozone dominated by Germany in which the divergence between the creditor and debtor countries would continue to widen and the periphery would turn into permanently depressed areas in need of constant transfer of payments… It would be a German empire with the periphery as the hinterland.’

And yet Germany is refusing the challenge ‘on its knees’. And if it is eventually bullied into domination then it will be a reluctant imperialist. In fact, like George Soros, Beach can’t help but feeling ‘a great deal of sympathy with Germany in its present predicament’. Other thoughts: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

There are though a couple of gilded ironies in here that are worth enjoying. Germans fought two world wars to dominate continental Europe and failed,  seeing millions of young Germans die in the killing fields. In the end that domination has been handed to them, instead, by the very system that was supposed to neuter, European federalism. And yet Germany has been so damaged/improved by the experiences of the last century that it is trying to escape from its ‘obligations’! If you want to add another layer of irony to this: it is, of course, that, in 2012, who controls Europe is a matter of only local concern. Want to feel the pulse of history? Then go to the Indian-Chinese border and listen to the artillery practise there.

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22 June 2012: Chris Hale, author of Hitler’s Foreign Executioners writes in:. I have often contemplated composing something on what Bismarck, the Kaisers, Hitler and Merkel have in common – a question that needs to be addressed, however provocative that cast list may sound – or Germanophobic, a sentiment I despise. A Hitler had a perfectly coherent view of a European strategy based I believe on abrogating the consequences of the Peace of Westphalia (discuss).  I would question to what extent is the current German leadership a reluctant hegemon, or content to let the ongoing economic drama play out – have we at last reached the final act, or the act before the last act? One point I would make as a temporary resident of Germany, is that since the ascent of Merkel nationalism in Germany has become as it were unembarrassed by history. They’ve done the memorials, become rich – what’s to feel guilty about? We now have millions of people reading Thilo Sarrazin’s new book which claims that Germany has been blackmailed into supporting other less successful nations because of its past read Holocaust. Your point about Germany having to make itself is very important – we Brits did not have that advantage, nor did we have to remake our nation twice in the 20th Century. Remaking is a useful process! I wonder if an additional point is that Germany was ‘made’ by Bismarck in the long shadow of Napoleon – that is to say, the French humiliation of the German Holy Roman Empire? And I wonder too is that is some explanation – here I head into unexplored waters perhaps – of the fatal mix of German nationalism and anti-Semitism: Napoleon had emancipated Jews. As to German productivity – it’s not mysterious, or the consequence of national genius as many Germans and Germanophobes and -philes seem to believe. Bismarck and his administrators fixed on industrialisation – and strategically set in place what was needed to achieve that goal. Britain had an accidental industrial revolution – and failed to invest in its continuous evolution. Bismarck cleverly fought socialism with socialism – introducing welfare and health insurance. Hey presto – a working class happy to work, and die, for the greater good. (Most of the time). And as someone said — education, education, education — Germany meaning the old HRE) had 400 universities in 1750 – compared to a miserable handful in the new United Kingdom.  BUT nothing stays the same – in the 1980s and ’90s everyone feared THE JAPANESE – they would take over the world etc etc. They didn’t. Look forward a decade – will Germany be running the show? As you say – probably not, unless we think outrageously of a CHERMAN EMPIRE that yokes China together with Europe. Thanks Chris!