Germany: risking its post WW2 modest image for little gain
When it came to foreign policy, the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, advised his countrymen to “keep a low profile and achieve something” by which he meant concentrate on the economy and avoid getting involved in disputes.
This week has raised the question – should Germany’s leaders heed Deng’s advice?
On Monday, Chancellor Merkel was in Japan and chose to issue her hosts some of her own advice in dealing with the legacy of Tokyo’s conduct in World War 2 which is still souring relations with its neighbours, especially China and South Korea.
Ms Merkel’s speech reminded us how much Germans pride themselves on coming to terms with the Nazis’ wartime record and reconciling with their neighbours.
As speculation grows that Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, may use the 70th anniversary of the end of the war to water down previous Japanese apologies to its neighbours, Ms Merkel took it upon herself to urge the Japanese to follow Germany’s example.
Her hosts were polite and did not give away how they felt about Chancellor Merkel’s comments, but shortly after her speech events back home suggest it may have been wiser to avoid the risk of hubris and keep out of the debate about Japan’s wartime past.
On Wednesday, the very public row between Berlin and Athens over debt escalated with a reminder that perhaps Germany’s reconciliation with the victims of Nazi aggression has not been as successful as it thinks.
The new Greek government is trying to renegotiate the terms of its debt to the rest of the EU and IMF and wants to end the 2010 bailout – largely funded by Berlin – negotiated by its predecessor during the Eurocrisis which mandates economic austerity that Athens says kills any chance for growth.
German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has been using insultingly undiplomatic language to tell his Greek counterpart – with an eye to his own taxpayers – that Berlin has been generous enough already and will not countenance further debt forgiveness.
The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, responded – also with an eye to his political supporters – by reviving claims that Berlin pay reparations for Germany’s harsh wartime occupation.
But instead of trying to emolliate Athens, as German governments of the past might have, the response of Chancellor Merkel’s spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, was dismissive “the question of reparations and compensation is legally and politically closed”.
It is no secret to anyone in Europe that the Eurocrisis means Germany is now the continent’s undisputed political as well as economic leader. Berlin’s traditional policy of hiding its economic strength by letting France take the political lead is no longer viable given current French weakness.
It is also obvious when talking privately to Germans born since 1945 that they are increasingly tired of being reminded of what their grandparents’ generation did and feel others use the Nazi past to justify freeloading on their generosity.
But Germany is now risking undermining its newfound leadership by appearing arrogant and overplaying its hand.
It is not just the Greeks who are beginning to chafe at Berlin’s attitude. There is growing anti-German sentiment in Italy too. Outside the EU, Germany has taken the lead role in pressurising Serbia to accept the secession of Kosovo reviving many Serbs’ historical distrust and resentment of Berlin’s wartime record.
The EU works by consensus and goodwill to build common interests and Germany has prospered since 1945 by pooling sovereignty with its former enemies and appearing unthreatening.
But circumstances change and now demand Berlin take a more active leadership role in Europe because it is the only country economically strong enough to bail out its partners and save the Euro.
However, it is one thing to lead by force majeure and quite another to take people with you.
Germany and the rest of EU face tough enough challenges trying to revive economic growth and ensure the Euro has a future.
If Berlin abandons the modesty that has reassured the rest of the world it no longer harbours the desire to dominate and awakens the ghosts of the past by lecuring others and deliberately reminding its neighbours just how powerful it is, it will make the job of leadership even harder and risk undermining its newfound role before it takes root.