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Economic giant, political dwarf

Karl Heinz Bohrer despairs of Germany's conscious provincialism and radical pacificism

When asked in the spring by a journalist of a major daily German newspaper about the European response to the revolts in the Arab world, a Syrian intellectual had nothing but praise and thanks for the military and political support. But, as to be expected, with the exception of one country: Germany. Without further elaborating on the strained, awkward attitude of German diplomacy regarding the UN vote, and instead of identifying with the derogatory opinion expressed on Germany's position in most western countries, he gave an unusual explanation for Germany’s behaviour on the sidelines. In contrast to almost all other European nations and also to the tradition of a number of Muslim and Arab states, Germany had never had an empire. This explains its clumsy, slow reaction to everything that takes place beyond its own borders. Although the Germans are clever, inventive tinkerers in matters of detail, they lack real ambition on a grand scale, let alone having any experience in world events. The chancellor and her foreign minister are the stolid, hausfräulich or fiscal expression of this incapacity.

There has certainly been German criticism of this isolationism. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Spiegel addressed the problem early on. The former Social Democratic Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier lambasted this isolation in parliament. Above all, however, one should not forget that Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere both indirectly criticised the chancellor and foreign minister's stance on Libya in the Bundestag, stating that German military involvement in exotic places was not only likely but also politically and morally necessary – a stance supported by all parties with the exception of Die Linke.

To what extent this signals a true change in political position remains to be seen. Voting for such military missions and then effectively not taking part in them is also not convincing in the long term. Meanwhile, apprehensions about being somehow second-rate and having suffered a major loss of confidence among European and American allies have again died down in the staid routine of domestic politics. De Maiziere's words constituted a theoretical, future-oriented statement. In practice, German policy is something entirely different. This kind of mentality does not change overnight, as exemplified by the repeatedly contradictory pronouncements by the foreign and defence ministers.

This tendency to sit things out, so it appeared, was not only typical of the chancellor famous for this trait but also of his protege, Frau Merkel, the majority of German politicians and their voters. And when speaking with younger, by all means informed and intelligent Berlin diplomats in the wake of the Libya decision, those who did not necessarily support the reactions of their ministers gave the impression that they were far from taking this isolation and the reasons for it truly seriously. At most, it was argued in the jargon of a diplomatic pro and contra whether Germany might not actually be right in the end. The setbacks experienced by the Western coalition on Libya were described with a certain gloating satisfaction. And in terms of Syria, the foreign minister's solicitous explanations once again bordered on embarrassment: a matter of preaching to the converted, on the one hand, without being able to say anything substantial on the other. Evidently, German stakeholders had tried to ignore something that was immediately apparent to a number of critical observers: German foreign policy had been in the midst of a worst case scenario of sorts ever since it had begun to feel comfortable being in the same boat with Russia, India and China.

Alone the cantankerousness expressed once the damage had already been done supports the opinion that an incredible lack of world experience is the source of the dilemma. But the situation becomes truly dubious, when one adds the estimation that the majority of Germans from all walks of life would actually pride themselves in separation from world events indicated by the initially mentioned remark, namely in having no real colonial experience to speak of.

What does this say? Apart from a brief period prior to World War I, Germany had no colonial aspirations, because there had been no German state to assert such power interests. When a German state finally did for a short time in Africa, it was not by chance that these ambitions resulted in a moral catastrophe on the civilisation front. Inexperienced in exerting power and instead characterised by singularly provincial racial arrogance, the colonial armed forces such as those lead by Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha perpetrated a massacre of the insurgent Hereros. Despite the protests in German parliament, this grim affair was later ascribed to European colonial rule, instead of being recognised as having a specifically German cause, which was based on a lack of experience in the exercise of power combined with notions of racial identity.

Falsely imputed, colonial rule, above all that of the British, was judged to be pre-politically and morally, i.e. in terms of civilisation and history, negative. The exercise of power was quickly subjected to an abstract moralism, a principle of purity asserting "They say God and mean cotton" – a saying that still echoes in current German opinions about the British involvement in the Near East.

The fact that British civilisation did attempt to combine its world hegemony with principles of law and humane conventions is not reflected in this moralism. For all its negative manifestations, European colonial imperialism was an expression of West European civilisation, in which the German regions and subsequently the emerging German empire lagged behind. Tradition and experience belong to the exercise of power. And so it happened that when it actually came to the use of force by the Germans, they were only able to conceive of this as a brutal execution of power, as demonstrated by the invasion of Belgium in World War I or submarine warfare. The de-politicisation of the concept of power and its existentialisation of which this was the expression was the result of a lack of power and experience, which came to a head in the politics of the Nazis, who as a whole had no experience in world politics or global power whatsoever in comparison with British or American politicians.

One should keep this prior history in mind, in the attempt to accurately identify the apolitical moralism of the current abstention. Two unpleasant insights follow as a result.

First, radical pacifism. This still characterises the majority of Germans and also the country's intellectuals. And this pacifism is nothing more than the counterpart to its former militarism. The stance – which could almost be described as conformist – of many intellectuals on this point, whether expressed in the context of academia or cultural journalism, is not improved by the fact that French intellectuals have made themselves laughable through their conceited and self-glorifying pros and contras on the war. German militarism arose from an absolute and inexperienced notion, which is different from the bellicose stance of the British, who asserted and continue to assert their interests by force without becoming militaristic. In this respect, the argument that we have learned from the past, that, in the words of the most popular German foreign minister, no further wars should arise from German soil, remains a lofty, empty statement. Germany's western allies therefore never really took it seriously and even tended to treat it with contempt.

The crucial point is: How plausible is it, if someone who twice set a house on fire declares, when another house is burning, that he will not help put out the fire because he never wants to have anything to do with fire ever again? In any case, the German tenet, which is only now being hesitatingly revised, of not actually being able to engage in military action beyond its own borders, represents just this. The country that initiated two world wars leaves matters of war to the others in the future. This position is not improved, even when the countries waging war make grave military and political mistakes in the process. Invoking such mistakes only makes abstention all the more embarrassing. Things would be somewhat different were a clear and confident justification given for German abstention, in which the country's disastrous military history during the last century was openly discussed and with it the subsequent pacifistic stance of the German public. This might command a certain respect.

The same contradiction structurally underlies the abandonment of nuclear power. On the one hand, Germany lays claim to the grand gesture of spearheading the path to a new technological age. On the other, there is no avoiding the use of neighbouring countries' atomic energy. That is the same method as allowing other people to pull the chestnuts out of the fire, while keeping one's own hands clean. The weakness of Merkel's approach is further demonstrated by how the opposition, the Social Democrats of all parties, is emphasising that the withdrawal from nuclear power must be economically feasible. Moreover, it shows a typical indifference to becoming dependent on others, as scandalously exemplified in being supplied with Russian gas. As long as the most recent decision on nuclear power represents nothing more than a hysterical reaction to the Japanese catastrophe and the associated triumph of the Greens, then it entails nothing innovative that could potentially set an example for other countries. This is precisely what does not make a country, but perhaps a Volksgemeinschaft or ethnic community. The outrageous calls for making the nuclear phase-out irreversible and for a change to the constitution, which no small number of people are demanding, are evidence of what could be mildly described as an unparliamentary tendency.

The specific arguments that have been repeatedly made pro and contra also do not ameliorate such misguided single-mindedness in military issues and matters of nuclear power. When a high-ranking U.S. military general warned of the unforeseeable possibilities of American involvement in Libya, this represented something completely different from the lofty or diffident utterances of German politicians. The reason for restraining from military action lies in a desire to always have an absolute solution for everything, not a relative or pragmatic one – regardless of whether the approach is military or pacifist. Again, this is the current expression of the lack of experience that the Arab author articulated as the factor distinguishing Germany from almost all other European powers and also the tradition of a number of Arab states. Having to learn this must feel like a cold shower to Germans who allow themselves only a modicum of self-confidence and self-respect.

Nevertheless, the analysis of the unwelcome and, one might say, arrogant observer in regard to an important country does hit the mark. Isn't it actually true that the origins of the German state in petty princedoms, which were not really dispelled by Bismark's formation of the Reich, still determine this local, provincial consciousness? This seems all the more plausible, given that the domestic politics of the National Socialist adventure largely consisted of trying to subdue this inveterate regionalism under the whip of an utterly levelling dictatorship – hence the Nazi emphasis on the word Staat, or "state".

Second, conscious provincialism. When the "fathers of the constitution" consciously decided to weaken the power of central government in favour of the individual states, this was a direct response to the National Socialist past. But it was more than that, it harked back to before 1806 and the pre-Bismarkian structure of microstates, which were incapable of holding power and had no ambitions for power. To a nation exhausted by guilt and the craze for power, the idyllic figure of the first post-war federal president, the unforgotten Swabian Professor Theodor Heuss, seemed to suddenly resurrect the old model of the German microstate, gleaming with culture and wealth. So foreign to the authoritarian state, this bonhomie – which resurfaced again in another federal president, who said that he loved his wife but not his country – was vaunted as an advantage, the result of a learning process. It was not clear to anyone that this could also be a deficit, namely that it could go to the other extreme.

The absolute historical amnesia that befell Prussia on the one hand and Austria on the other, which ultimately was unable to recall its imperial past and has since become nothing more than a picturesque tourist resort, this final disappearance of the only German powers of European standing stands symbolically for a return of the longing for the small idyll, both in reality and in the German disposition. It can be compared to August von Kotzebue's comedy "Die deutschen Kleinstädter" [the small-town Germans] (1802), in which the protagonists made themselves ridiculous not by imitating the big city but by believing that they themselves were metropolitan.

The fact that this is not explicitly mentioned but savoured in silence points to how far provincialism has overtaken the German consciousness. The issue was extensively discussed years ago in this journal. At any rate, European fears that a Fourth Reich could arise were ahistorical and lacked understanding of the West German psyche. This said, it was not inconceivable to interpret the move of the seat of government from provincial Bonn to the old metropolis – which only succeeded by a hair's breadth – as a new power initiative, with respect to the idea of Europe long cultivated as a sentimental utopia. The internationally applauded acceptance for the German armed forces' first mission in Kosovo under the red-green government seemed to indicate a change in direction, but it remained without consequence. Despite the German involvement in Afghanistan, any potential momentum waned, first under the conservative-social democratic government and then under the conservative-liberal coalition.

By now people have realised that no politicians in Berlin, the chancellor included, have come forward with any ambitions with regard to foreign affairs. Whether any of them would have the stature for it is another matter. So it fits that in Brussels there are no claims to power on the German side and that the key posts there have been occupied by the French and even the English for decades now. Quite apart from the fact that the German language is regarded as second rate. In this context it is also revealing that no German financial politician came into consideration to replace Jean-Claude Trichet, the director of the European Central Bank, or Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the director of the IMF. The Greek crisis, which is now coming to a head, and whose knock-on effects are still very much the stuff of conjecture, has at least shown one thing, that Germany is looked to as a source of money and goods, but its fiscal suggestions are rejected. In other words, political decisions are made, even in economic matters, by the European Central Bank or in Paris, but not in Berlin.

This is one side of the coin, on the other are a mass of provincial dukes who have no interest in a career in Berlin, not to mention becoming chancellor. This is the consummation of a process which  – think of the provincial backgrounds of statesmen like Franz Josef Strauß, Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder – while not expected was always structurally in place: the mental restitution of the small town and its appeal to the majority of the population, academia included. When recently the expectations of the Germans by their West European partners were not fulfilled all of a sudden, it was neither due to one or other good argument nor to the failure of the foreign minister; it was down to this basic a priori on which he could rely.

But his specific political language points to the real problems of abstaining from power that many see in a positive light. Minister of Defence Thomas De Maiziere's statements on the subject were only a very first step in changing matters. Because for one thing, the tendency is there to avoid taking any action at all. Not acting is always better than acting, the provincial mindset whispers into the ear of the person appointed to take action. And even some conservative politicians are failing at present to recognise that this is essentially a nonsensical attempt to transform the country that is Europe's economic, business and technology giant into a woodland idyll. This was all too apparent in the panicky withdrawal, which has since reaped criticism, from previously decided nuclear policy. The hysterical folklore surrounding the Stuttgart train station which involved a large number of university professors is another indicator of the feel-good desire for the woodland idyll, which in the meantime has overtaken not only the green sun-worshippers of the eighties but the majority of the population, and is even threatening basic principles of parliamentary democracy, without Berlin seeing fit to intervene.

What results is a conspicuous lack of a sense of responsibility beyond one's own borders. Due to their colonial past the English, the French, even the Italians and Spanish have a responsive interest in what happens in distant and not so distant countries, which in the meantime have become relevant for global politics. No such thing exists here. Instead a cumbersome know-it-all sensibility prevails in our own front garden.

One icon of this small-town mentality is the front page image that graces the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung every day. Has no one told those responsible how ridiculously silly these often are? Their attempts at humour represent precisely this provincial lack of involvement in the world events depicted. The laboured jokes are pure parochialism. Take for example the headline "Uprising against the Talibahn"  ["Tal" being the German for "valley" and "bahn" referring to Deutsche Bahn] which announced with a chuckle the protest in Rhineland Palatinate about the bridge over the Mosel. The item about the devastating suicide bomb by the Pakistani Taliban on the same say followed as a short report on the front page, whereas all the other major European dailies opened with the story as a full page spread. If what is still Germany's most important paper addresses its audience in such a way, this must obviously be the case. And the teary statement issued by the chancellor on the subject summons to mind the desperate question by the English translator Michael Hofmann: "Why couldn't German be witty, dashing, curt, tough?" The only chancellor who even sometimes exhibited such qualities was Helmut Schmidt (more).

The photo fun of the FAZ reflects the enormous incompetence of the foreign reporting in German TV and it reporters lack of experience abroad – compared with the courage, linguistic agility and informativeness of the BBC, these can only be described as despicable. Here it is also worth mentioning that German diplomats in the Middle East are regarded across the board by Western observers as borderline incompetent, and this also applies to their knowledge of Arabic. In the world of political television at the moment there is much talk of responsibility or rather compassion for the Third World. But this has little to do with political responsibility. And a lot to do with the responsibility speak by the Protestant Church Congress, which years ago gave the country the song about "my fears and your fears, large fears and small fears". The recommendations issued at the recent Protestant Church Congress against all forms of military intervention, which were intended to put pressure on politicians, would be unthinkable in any other significant Western European nation. When the head of the Anglican Church expresses similar sentiments, his words are gently ignored as irrelevant for this world. Germany's cultural-protestant milieu today forbids a clear separation of this world and the next, action and piety.

When Merkur magazine spotlighted this refusal to take action in a themed issue titled "No Will To Power" (No. 700, August/September 2007) the reaction in many areas of the media was revealingly aggressive, describing the use of Nietzsche's language as scandalous. Naturally without acknowledging the real meaning of the Nietzsche quote. And there was no understanding or  admitting that this was about a lot more than just military/foreign-political impotence. All that was mentioned were some abstract "morals".

Which brings us to the real crux of the provincial mind which feels no sense of responsibility: the mistaken notion of the law that hovers over politics, a depoliticised interpretation of human rights. Moreover it is a specifically German tradition to regard the law as an authority with quasi metaphysical underpinnings, removed from reality, an internally grasped absolute, rather than something which the law has always been in all Western civilisations with any experience of democracy: a politically tangible and functional relative quantity – in countries, mind you, with a political legal system which has existed for any length of time.

This false sense of the law was also voiced by German professors of law after the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Presumably these voices believed, in their self-righteousness, to have an unbeatable argument on their side: Immanuel Kant's ideas on law. This does not make them better but proves our thesis about the extent to which metaphysical principles, rather than political experience on the world stage guide so many of our state thinkers.

To illustrate my point with a topical comparison: The political and journalistic world meekly acknowledged the decision of the constitutional court to change the way violent criminals had been dealt with for years, because it was not compatible with human rights. The notion that a decision like this might be a matter for parliament alone to decide was not even raised. English politicians and journalists by contrast permanently cast doubt on decisions by Brussels by pointing to the sovereignty of the British parliament.

One should not bring Max Weber's all too often forced distinction between ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility to bear here. It would be an ill-fitting response to the fatal consequences of the principle of common sense, as understood by its orthodox adherents. If one were to explain to an Englishman, Frenchman or American what "ethics of conviction" are, the response would be ironic or sardonic, according to temperament, asking what, exactly, is so ethical about conviction. If this were indeed to lie in the view that action must remain blameless, guilt-free, then the intellectual naivete of such opinions emerges loud and clear.

Be that as it may, but where's the problem as long as we ourselves, call us small-minded provincials if you like, are well off? And much more well off than the others! Is this sort of criticism not simply aesthetic? And anyway, which is Europe's biggest economic power? Who, after all, is keeping Europe afloat? Isn't the exercise of power today all about having the say over economic and fiscal decisions, which influence other countries? And who has this control? Us, of course, here in the provinces! And if political power has gone hand-in-hand with economic power from the year dot, then our economy is a guarantor of our influence, into the future as well!

But people have always said that the Federal Republic is an economic giant and a political dwarf. So economic potency obviously does not rule out political incompetence. It should be said though that this view was always expressed with the implicit understanding that the giant would pull the dwarf up alongside him and allow him to grow. This has clearly not happened, and the fact that even the economic reactions of German statesmen are regarded by international financial heavyweights to be provincial is one thing. More problematic though is that the Germans' ever present and indeed growing imbalance between economic and political competence is in the long run making the European crisis even worse, and this goes for the crisis of Nato as well. The economic giant has ceased to make any political signals at all. And it is particularly dangerous that this provincial self-contentedness is linked to strains of old anti-Western or anti-political, anti-parliamentarian sentiment.

As regards the objection that this argument is nothing but an aesthetic criticism of the provinces born of an orientation towards past greatness, I would heartily agree. The point though is that the aesthetic judgement recognises the general misery of the provinces by its external symptoms alone.

When the U.S. president on his recent tour of Europe visited Ireland, England, France and Poland but not Germany, this was not simply a gesture towards a country that felt no obligation to cooperate with the West in military matters. It was also a reaction to the state of Germany as outlined above. What would Obama have talked about, and with whom? Will this change in the foreseeable future? Even after the German chancellor's honourable Washington visit the question remains unanswered and indeed has only become more pressing. But perhaps German politics is out of its depth when it comes to such decisions. What was it Heinrich Heine said about the reaction of his compatriots to the dynamics in Paris in his day: "Because the German, out of fear of all reform whose consequences cannot be clearly determined, avoids any political question of import as long as possible, or seeks to achieve a makeshift arrangement by circuitous routes, and the questions mount up and entangle themselves into a formidable mass which in the end, like the Gordian knot, can only be cut by the sword." What better way to describe the causes and effects of Berlin's indecision.


This article was originally published in Merkur on 1 August, 2011.

Karl Heinz Bohrer
is a cultural critic and publisher of the monthly Merkur magazine. He is also visiting professor for German and Comparative Studies at Stanford University.

Translation: lp and ls

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