Fast facts about Germany before you stop reading!
It is not still run by Hitler. It also does not like war anymore. In fact, you could say Germany today downright loathes war. Today Berlin is a top spot for Israelis looking to escape their country’s nasty rising costs of living. So it’s bad at both anti-Semitism and war.
That all needs to be said because, even today, the popular image of Germany in the American mind is still inextricably linked with World War II. You can’t even get through a Family Guy episode about Germany without at least one Nazi reference. If and when you can get an American through that, you end up in a stereotype of sausages, beer, and ultra-hardcore pornography.
Both are equally inaccurate, but both are equally revealing. The first reveals a common mistrust of Germany as a great power; the second shows the edges of the non-confrontational culture German elites have been trying to build since World War II.
But first, the cliff notes!
Now, the beginning of the long stuff, and why Germany is such a fine (but still difficult) place to rule.
Germany’s resource base and climate make it a great place to rule. It’s relatively mild climate allows a good growing season; its storied forests provide plenty of timber; its hills and valleys provide coal, uranium, natural gas, and iron. It has all the resources necessary to industrialize on the cheap and build a huge manufacturing base that outclasses most of its neighbors.
On three sides, Germany has defensible borders. To the north is the Baltic Sea, a tough proposition to cross, especially in winter. To the west is the Rhine, an easily-fortified river system that also gives German businesses quick access to the ocean. And to the south are the mighty Alps. Few conquerors have ever come from those three sides.
Germany as a historical concept goes all the way back to the Classical Age. When the Romans decided where to draw their military frontier, they followed Germany’s natural frontiers: the Rhine and the Alps. Even though Roman power could have conquered Germany as we know it today, they didn’t. Why?
Because of the (applause, please!) Great Northern European Plain
Had the Romans decided to occupy Germania, they would have faced an open sea of grass and forest that stretches all the way to Mongolia. Teeming with nomadic tribes, many of them well-armed, the Romans would have found themselves in an endless and exhausting series of campaigns pushing that frontier further and further east, trying to find a frontier that could be held long-term. The Romans knew better; they drew the line at the Rhine and the Alps and preferred to contain Germany rather than take on the liability of its eastern, open frontier.
That’s more or less German history. When Germany has been conquered by forces from the west, south, or north, the occupations tend not to last very long; each invader realizes they cannot control both Germany’s teeming masses and secure its eastern frontier at an acceptable cost. Meanwhile, the eastern flank is where Germany’s most permanent overlords have come from.
The Goths, Huns, and other barbarian tribes during the dying days of the Roman Empire all emerged from the Great Northern European Plain and permanently altered Germany. The Prussians, who would eventually united Germany into a nation-state in 1871, also came from the east. For German strategic planners, security in the east is the biggest problem.
Then throw in its central location, which is great in peace and terrible in war.
Germany’s centrality makes it the beating heart of Europe’s economic engine. It can trade at lower costs along the Danube and Rhine. East-West trade must cross it. While Spain, France, and Britain all have easier access to the Atlantic and all the accompanying benefits, Germany has the continent’s most favorable trading position as the geographic center of Europe.
But that sucks come a war, when two and three front wars are probable. While it’s difficult for invaders coming from the north, west, or south to attack Germany, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Germany’s many borders with many states have always made Germany liable to invasion or interference from its neighbors; once Germany secured one peace treaty, another could come unraveled. This was the plague of running the Holy Roman Empire, which no Emperor could ever really organize fully because to do so would invite attack from paranoid neighbors.
The formation of the nation-state of Germany in 1871 was a geopolitical upset of Europe’s applecart, and was only settled when America invaded to impose a peace.
From 1815-1871, Europe enjoyed a general peace following the defeat of Napoleon. Careful diplomacy and balances of power prevented the continent from embarking on another mad series of wars; key to that was a weak Germany. But when the Prussians defeated the French in 1871, they threw the whole careful balance out of whack. A united Germany was on par with imperial Britain and France and superior to its neighbors to the east.
German elites were well aware that Europe’s peace had been kept at their expense. They sought to rebalance the continent’s power system into one that permanently favored Germany. So you got the two World Wars; Hitler may have been mad, but he was also following in Bismarck’s and the Kaiser’s footsteps. His foolhardy invasion of the Soviet Union can mostly be criticized on timing rather than substance; for Germany to remain independent and strong, it must have a secure eastern frontier.
German power was great enough to overcome most of the continent – twice. But the threat of a united Europe awoke the sleeping giant in the United States. By 1900, the U.S. had global power, and didn’t want to see Europe united by anyone. That Germany became the enemy was incidental; it was the threat of European political and military unity that stirred the U.S. to action.
And twice the United States intervened to break Europe up once more. Following World War II, American elites recognized they could not let the continent decide its own fate, or else it would fall under some native European hegemony that would threaten the United States. In 1945, that native European power was the Soviet Union.
The problem of Germany was temporarily fixed by breaking it up once more.
Germany’s fears were realized as it was divvied up by the Allies in 1945. In truth, it could have been worse; the Morgenthau Plan proposed handing over Germany’s best industrial territories to its neighbors in addition to breaking it up into different states.
The result was an East/West division where each state’s foreign policy was controlled by the superpowers. Neither could rearm; both relied upon either Washington or Moscow for security; both had diametrically different ideologies that were imposed from the outside. It was a time of puppets, and only unimportant decisions could be made by native Germans.
In the Cold War confrontation, it became obvious to both sides that Germany’s strength was an asset to be used rather than plundered. Both used their power to rebuild Germany economically, though not militarily. German elites on both sides were promoted, applauded, and supported when they achieved great things economically and chided or punished if they tried to do anything else.
German elites had also learned the hard way that Germany alone could not use its military power – great as that might be – to reorder Europe in its favor. Since German power was so obvious, any attempt to militarily alter the balance of Europe would result in an alliance to destroy it. German elites in the East and the West – growing up with plenty of foreign soldiers to remind them of their nation-state’s vulnerabilities – absorbed the lesson fully.
Until unity was rather suddenly thrust upon Germany, which has spent the past 25 years trying to find a moral way to use their great power.
The collapse of the Eastern Bloc caught East Germany with its pants down; the Berlin Wall almost fell by accident. Germany spent twenty five years coming to grips with the suddenness of 1989; it is now finally emerging from the shadow of the Cold War.
Germans are aware more than other countries about slippery slopes. Family stories of World War II and the Holocaust tend to do that. So German political culture has a generation of leaders that see war as almost never the answer. But what hasn’t changed is the fundamental German thinking that a united Europe is the only place where Germany will be safe.
Now German elites have thrown themselves into the European Union instead of Panzer tank production. For 25 years, it’s been possible to see the demilitarized Germany as the model state, but the financial crisis required bailouts, and only Germany had the cash on hand. Now German creditors are slandered as proto-Nazis in Athens.
Alas, it was only a matter of time until German geopolitics reasserted itself.
The Cold War froze German geopolitics; Germany was subsumed by Soviet and American interests. Hastings Ismay’s remark that NATO was meant to keep “the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down” pretty much summed up Germany’s relationship with the West back then. But NATO has embraced German military power as an agile component of its wars and a united Germany dominates the Continent economically.
Markedly since 2003, Germany has been finding its own voice. It has tried to do this in the guise of the EU, or, failing that, in tandem with other great European powers. In 2003, France and Germany were vocally anti-Iraq War. Since 2008’s financial crisis, Paris and Berlin have tried to appear as united as possible. Now the two are trying to stop the Ukraine war using the diplomatic means so cherished by the German elites who grew up in the ruins of Hitler’s Third Reich.
All this means the post-Cold War era is over, and regional powers are starting to act like themselves again.
The Cold War froze the world into two poles that dominated everything else; the post-Cold War is best characterized as a world in shock, unable to really organize itself against American interests. That time has ended. Regional interests are standing up to the United States. Not all these challenges are military.
Germany still needs a secure eastern flank. But it cannot act in a way that will arouse yet another alliance to stop it. So it must use diplomatic and economic means to gain security.
It can still use NATO to shield itself, though that means giving up German power to act on its own. Germany, after all, wasn’t thrilled the alliance went into Afghanistan, which doesn’t much serve German interests but American ones.
It can try to shore up the European Union, and specifically its partnership with France, but the EU is tottering economically. A shrunken EU may serve Germany better, but such an act could unravel the entire project. Germany as a trade center must have access to Europe’s markets, and the EU has done a bang-up job of dropping trade barriers to German goods. The argument has been leveled that Germany prosperity has been built largely on the EU project.
Finally, it can plot its own, quiet path outside these two institutions. That’s what Merkel is slowly doing with Russia. Russia needs German technology and industry to shore up its own economy; Germany needs Russian energy and a guarantee that Russia will never storm Berlin again. The match may ruffle feathers, but Merkel’s opposition to arming Ukraine makes more sense in light of it.
Enter Germany the wildcard.
Having spent 45 years with the Soviet army on its soil, Germans have no interest in becoming a Russian satrap. But they’re increasingly breaking ranks with their former American overlords, as well. Germany has all the power to do so, but is well-aware that its power is obvious. That obvious power has too often aroused coalitions to destroy it. So Germany will work to find a middle ground between the Russians and the Americans and will play the two off against one another. With America being the more valuable strategic partner, Berlin will still lean towards the Atlantic. But as they did with Iraq, they won’t blindly follow American policy anymore.
A sea-change of generations is also at work. Merkel and her contemporaries grew up in the literal ruins of Nazi Germany; that’ll leave a mark. But a surging generation of youth have no memory of the war and feel, quite reasonably, less and less responsibility for it. An assertive Germany is not a return of Hitler but of Bismarck, the consummate Prussian strategist who helped midwife Germany into being.
And that marks a challenge for American power in Europe. Germany itself may permanently keep to its path of diplomacy and economics, but its example of standing up to the United States will inspire others to blaze a trail outside of NATO.