This is Not Your Grandfather's Germany


Kevin Kennedy is PhD student at the University of Potsdam, where he is writing a history of Prussian-Pietist orphanages in the eighteenth century. He received his M.A. from the University of New Hampshire in 1995, where he wrote his thesis on Nietzsche's political thought.

Victor Davis Hanson has ambivalent thoughts about the Germans. On the one hand, he admires the characteristically “German” traits of hard work, thrift, and sound financial management, which, according to him, have made Germany the most productive and prosperous economy in the European Union. But he also believes that other E.U. nations, especially those bordering the Mediterranean, resent German success. They don’t appreciate Germany’s demands that they abandon their profligate ways and adopt more Teutonic attitudes to money, work, and efficiency. Irresponsible nations like France (which has just elected a” socialist” president), as well as Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland now threaten to infect the rest of the E.U. with anti-German sentiment. Hanson warns us that this is a dangerous scenario. For as admirable as many German traits may be, there is another one that always appears whenever Germany has been “united and isolated”: bellicosity. Therefore, as Hanson concludes, all members of the E.U. must either adopt German fiscal policies (meaning they must put severe austerity measures into place), or Germany will unleash another blitzkrieg upon them.

With all due respect: this is utter nonsense. First off, it might be helpful to point out that the causes of the euro crisis are not as straightforward as Hanson would have us believe. When the euro currency was introduced, Germany did impose stringent regulations concerning each E.U. member’s debt to G.D.P. ratio. This was in fact a way of disciplining spendthrift countries such as Italy and Greece. But Germany was also one of the first E.U. members to violate those rules. Yes, the Federal Republic of Germany is a model of fiscal probity -- but only when it’s convenient for the German government. For instance, the conservative-liberal coalition of Helmut Kohl chose to finance German unification by plundering the social security funds. Raising a special “reunification tax” would have been more fiscally responsible, but not as politically expedient. While such a tax was indeed later imposed, it came much too late. Kohl’s promises of “blooming landscapes” in East Germany failed to materialize quickly, leaving behind them gaping holes in federal, state, and local budgets, as well as millions of disappointed voters both East and West. But Hanson’s failure to see German hypocrisy is not the main problem with his argument. The larger problem lies with his inability to see not only continuity but also change within the history of nations.

A "Buddy Bear" sculpture in Berlin. This is not your grandfather's Germany. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Credible historians have cast aside the antiquated theory of historic determinism by national character. If it’s true that, given certain conditions, past German bellicosity has forever damned it to start new wars in the future, then other nations would be condemned to so as well. Consider the history of the United States: it could be argued that, every time the U.S. was presented with the opportunity to seize land through violent means, it has done so. The long sad history of the Native Americans and the theft of their ancestral lands would testify to American “bellicosity.” The War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Spanish-American War would also provide evidence for militant American imperialism. (Some would even argue that the two Gulf Wars, among others, would fit into this pattern as well.) Be that as it may, no serious scholar believes today that the United States will automatically attack another country for territorial conquest, no matter what the circumstances. Not only has the nature of war changed radically, but the nature of the American people has changed as well. The era of big land wars is over, as is the era of popular acclaim for them. At present, some segments of the American population may clamor for a war with Iran, but even larger ones oppose such a policy. Problematic American military actions will no doubt continue in the future, but large-scale, imperialistic wars will not.

And so it is with Germany. The German generations who fought the two world wars have taken their leave from the stage of history. More important, the social and cultural structures which enabled Germany’s war efforts in 1914 and 1939 have also vanished.

The vaunted German officer corps is no more. While the Bundeswehr, the Federal German Army, certainly has officers, they enjoy no privileged social status. German officers no longer constitute a state within the state. They cannot pressure the civilian political leadership into starting a war (as they did in August 1914) and then supplant the government when the war doesn’t proceed as they would wish (as they did in 1916). Bundeswehr officers also lack the political influence to help subvert the liberal-democratic order and replace it with an authoritarian regime (which is how Adolf Hitler came to power). Even if German officers wielded such power today, however, there is no evidence they would use it in anti-democratic ways. Despite occasional problems with radical right-wing elements in certain units, the Bundeswehr has become a pillar of German democracy. All German officers receive thorough instruction in German military and political history. They all swear to uphold and defend the Grundgesetz or “Basic Law,” the most stable and successful liberal-democratic constitution in Germany’s history.

To wage war, a nation also requires popular support. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young men (and now women) must believe in the legitimacy of armed force as a means of settling national grievances. While many former generations of Germans (as well as Americans, Britons, French, Russians, etc) did support the wars begun by their states, they would not do so now. A soldier’s uniform is no longer a status symbol in German society. That’s why, since the end of compulsory military service last year, the Bundeswehr has had enormous difficulty keeping its troop strength at sufficient levels. Volunteers can now participate in a “trial period” lasting six months; and more than 25 percent of all recruits choose to leave the army within that period. Considering the fact that Germany can barely maintain its small military commitments in Kosovo, the Horn of Africa, and Afghanistan, the notion that Germany would ever again begin a large-scale military conflict appears ludicrous. Moreover, the entrenched national hatreds which fanned the flames of Germany’s past wars have also vanished. German-French friendship, which was established in the 1960s, remains strong (no matter what political differences may arise); even the ancient hatred between the Germans and the Poles rarely raises its ugly head anymore.

Germany is no longer the nation it was in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. While it could be argued that certain national characteristics remain, the differences are far more important. It’s been said that Adolf Hitler has three great ironic legacies to his name. First, Hitler’s attempt to destroy communism led to the creation of a Soviet superpower. Second, his attempt to wipe out the “Jewish race” led to the founding of a Jewish state. And third, Hitler’s attempt to create a totalitarian, racially pure German society only served to create a solid liberal-democratic German republic with a multi-cultural population.

The Germans Victor Davis Hanson fears, the ones who may one day wake up to start a war, are not sleeping. They are dead.

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