Jeffrey Herf: Why Germany was Against the Libya Intervention





[Jeffrey Herf, a professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland in College Park, has published extensively on memory and politics in postwar Germany. He is the author most recently of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.]

It may have come as a surprise to many people that Germany—the lynchpin of the NATO alliance on the European continent and a close ally of the United States since 1949—voted to abstain from the U.N. resolution authorizing force against Muammar Qaddafi. The country was a staunch advocate of humanitarian intervention in the Balkans, and it is most definitely not led by a government of leftists who are given to denunciations of American imperialism. Indeed, Chancellor Merkel’s affinity for American values is so pronounced that President Obama recently awarded her our highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Why, then, has Germany been so adamant in its opposition to the Libya intervention?

The answer begins with the fact that two competing narratives of history are currently jostling for supremacy in German politics—each of which presents a dramatically different approach to the memories of World War II and the Cold War. One important thing to note about these narratives is that they are not simple matters of left and right: They cross both ideological and party lines.

The first narrative downplays the connection between force and freedom. It deemphasizes the fact that only Allied arms defeated the Nazi regime, while tending to accentuate the role of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, the West German and West European peace movements, and Mikhael Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost as the causes of the end of the Cold War. In some accounts, the hard line taken by the Western alliance before and during the 1980s and the role of Eastern European dissidents who delegitimized Communist ideology get less attention or are mentioned only as factors that endangered peace....

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