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The German question -- be it unresolved

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An angry Greek protester holds a poster with a picture of Angela Merkel in a Nazi uniform during demonstrations against Germany's recovery plan.

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An angry Greek protester holds a poster with a picture of Angela Merkel in a Nazi uniform during demonstrations against Germany's recovery plan.

I wrote here four years ago that the German Question, which refers to the strategic issues related to Germany's relative strength and weakness during the last 1,000 years, had been resolved. A European Germany, as opposed to a German Europe, had put to rest the old anxieties, or so I thought.

Judging by anti-German attitudes in Europe today, however, you'd think the year was 1913, and not 2013. The Hun is back, at least in terms of the virulent rhetoric that is sweeping Europe, from Ireland to Greece and beyond.

The friction is linked to the financial crisis that threatened to destroy the European Union unless individual countries agreed to German plans for restructuring debt and reducing spending to an extent that threatened social programs, pensions, jobs and personal savings.

Germany calls the shots because it dominates Europe in political and economic terms.

German politicians meant well -- tough times demand tough action, they said, which to some sensitive ears sounded like orders are orders -- and they occasionally used inflammatory language, such as calling Greece "a bottomless pit," which offended Greek pride and led critics to compare German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Adolph Hitler.

Protests across Europe have reached into history to compare Germany's conduct today to the bullying of Imperial Germany and the Third Reich, including biting references to Germany's self-image as a "superior race."

The president of the European Council, Jean Claude Juncker, who is also prime minister of Luxembourg, has even warned that Germanophobia "could lead to war" and he compared the situation in Europe today to the one that existed on the eve of the First World War.

"The demons haven't been banished; they are merely sleeping," he said in an interview with the British Mail Online.

"Anyone who believes the eternal issue of war and peace in Europe has been permanently laid to rest could be making a monumental error."

On this side of the pond, it all sounds preposterous, since Germany did not create the problem and has even contributed the most to bailing out the sick men of Europe.

Anti-German sentiment, however, is real and clearly informed and fuelled by modern European history.

The association of Germany with aggression was so strong, in fact, that even the reunification of East and West Germany 25 years ago was not universally welcomed in Europe.

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and French president Francois Mitterand were opposed to a bigger, stronger Germany because they feared it could threaten the peace in Europe.

Thatcher even suggested an alliance between France, Britain and Russia to deal with "the German danger."

Germany today, of course, is a military weakling, not because it doesn't own a potent military force, but because it abhors war and violence. The Americans would have loved to see more German muscle applied in Afghanistan, Libya and other places, but the Germans just don't have the stomach for it.

German history, in other words, has not only left a deep imprint on its victims, but on Germans, too.

Another factor in German pacifism, according to Cambridge University's Brendan Simms, is that for the first time in German history, both before and after unification of the various Germanic states in 1870, the country is not surrounded by enemies.

"This has blunted Germany's ability to assess risk," Simms told Germany's Spiegel Online International in an interview about the latest strain of anti-German hysteria. "Germany's refusal to continue with the planned expansion of NATO, to give serious consideration to a Russian threat or to participate in the intervention in Libya -- all these are symptomatic of this lessened risk-assessment ability."

Simms suggested the purpose of the European Union wasn't just to restrict German power, but to actually harness it for the good of every member state, and the world.

He seemed to be saying Germany is Europe's natural leader, which, of course, is how Germans themselves have felt since at least the late 19th century.

In fact, it's interesting to speculate on how history might have unfolded if Germany had won the First World War, or if Britain had cleared the way for a quick Germany victory by staying out of the conflict, as British historian Niall Ferguson has said it should have done, since in his view Great Britain had no stake in the war that broke out in 1914.

It's possible history would still have produced Hitler and the Third Reich, but it's also conceivable Europe under German leadership would have discovered the benefits of co-operation much earlier.

In any event, for the moment, consider the question of Germany's proper place in Europe and the world unresolved.

 

dave.obrien@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 A15

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