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German Reunification: A Job Still Unfinished

After a quarter century, Germany has settled into a stable and respectable role in Europe and the world writes John Kornblum. In recent months, Europe’s weakness has amplified the image of Germany’s strength. When the Federal Republic assumes a central role, its leaders are often praised for their foresight and sense of responsibility.

But, when they find it hard to contribute to military operations or be tough on the Russians, admiration quickly turns to criticism. Such schizophrenic treatment recently led German Chancellor Angela Merkel to point out to voters that Germany was rapidly becoming the America of Europe.

Trying to figure out where Germany is going has become one of the most popular pastimes of analysts across the globe. So far, the results of this attention have been mixed at best. Given that the final steps toward reunfication in 1990 seemed so dramatic and spontaneous, many find it hard to understand why Germany has not continued to evolve at the same pace. Others discern traditional German behavior that bodes ill for the country’s future trustworthiness as a leader and a partner.Such analyses short-circuit the decades of hard and often courageous decisions by Germany and its allies that made it possible for Germany to come as far as it has. Certainly, Germany was neither psychologically nor politically ready to be reunited in the 1960s or the 1970s. And the country today is still burdened by many of the same internal conflicts that affected its behavior in the past. Close cooperation, especially with the United States, will be a precondition for continued evolution toward a role that satisfies both Germans and their partners.Former U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke suggested in Foreign Affairs in 1995 that an active American role in Europe remained the essential foundation for Europe’s future. His words were echoed in 2003 by the late eminent German sociologist Ulrich Beck:

The birth of the non-belligerent Europe after World War II [was] made possible [by] the organizing power and the continental presence of America. [The] historic amalgamation of the Atlantic community, EU and NATO . . . becomes especially apparent at the historical moment in which it is threatening to fall apart. The extent to which a merely European Europe . . . is possible is highly questionable.

Focusing on some of the milestones along the road to reunification can help clarify the point. At several critical junctures during the past seventy years, a defeated and broken Germany was able to count on Western—especially U.S.—support to pull itself out of the ditch and begin the painful readjustment to the realities of power in postwar Europe. In so doing, Germany made itself ready not just for formal reunification but also for the respect it now enjoys in Europe and the world.

In other words, the collapse of the Soviet Union would not in itself have been enough to justify Western support for reunification. Anyone who spent time in Germany before 1973 knows what I am talking about. Even after the Berlin Wall seemed to seal the postwar borders of Europe, weather maps on television and in newspapers were based on Germany’s pre-1937 frontiers. Diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Bonn were regularly chastised if they wrote in their speeches or dispatches the abbreviation GDR (German Democratic Republic) for the East German state without qualifying quotation marks to highlight its unacceptability as a partner.

One of the first realities to be faced by leaders in postwar Europe was the need for German rearmament to ensure defense against the Soviet threat. The failure of the European Defense Community project in 1954, which foresaw a common European army with German participation, required the arming of German soldiers to be controlled not by a European institution but by the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Equally important is a forty-fifth anniversary that will be celebrated on December 7, 2015. That was the date in 1970 when former German chancellor Willy Brandt fell to his knees in prayer at a memorial to the victims of fascism in Warsaw.

Brandt’s act of humility was the counterpart to rearmament in NATO. Joining the defense alliance committed Germany to the physical security of Europe. Brandt’s acceptance of the moral consequences of World War II helped ensure Germany’s commitment to a Western, democratic future.

German political life was torn apart for most of the 1970s and early 1980s by the refusal of both Left and Right to accept the logic of Brandt’s courageous act. But ultimately, the willingness to abandon long-held illusions gave Germany an active purpose clearly distinct from its aggressive past and helped make reunification palatable to skeptical Europeans.

Twenty-five years on, Brandt’s commitment has come to define German postwar identity more sharply than ever. The fact that some of today’s commentators placed Merkel’s welcoming words to refugees in the same category as Brandt’s gesture in Warsaw highlights Germany’s continuing need to put current events into a correct historical context. It also helps observers understand that the process of dealing with a horrible past is far from complete.

Even before the Nazi period, Germany suffered from a long period of division and subjugation after the tragedies of the 1618–1648 Thirty Years’ War. Not having a stable national consciousness is actually the norm for German political culture.

Still today, Germans project onto others their own feeling of being somewhat damaged goods. Outsiders are expected to understand that their behavior will be judged by Germans’ own sense of inadequacy. When issues of morals and principle enter the equation, Germans’ inability to make clear statements of right or wrong becomes the operating principle.

Ironically, such restraint, while sometimes frustrating to non-Germans, is also an important key to the respect Germany now enjoys. Germany has for centuries been faced with the task of integrating across a complex cultural and political geography. And it has learned with great sorrow the lessons of overreaching.

Understanding this background makes it easier to appreciate why a stable U.S. leadership role in Europe continues to be essential to Germany’s further evolution. As the tragedies of the conflict in Ukraine and the refugee crisis have demonstrated, the end of the Cold War was just the beginning of a long period of painful readjustment to the realities of a new millennium. But even some highly respected experts seem to find it difficult to understand the U.S. stake in helping manage the Atlantic world as the deeper conflicts of the past rise to the surface.

But the job will not be America’s alone. As the current crises in Russia and the Middle East demonstrate, neither Germany’s global economic reach nor its moral authority can be sustained if the country does not also share responsbility for building a new sort of Western community based on global rather than only Atlantic considerations.

One of Germany’s biggest tasks will be to enlist Europeans in an ongoing effort to help the United States understand the continuing relevance for U.S. interests of America’s role as a European and even a Eurasian power. The success of this effort will be the squaring of the circle from over half a century ago. It is now Germany’s turn to help the United States appreciate the realities of power in post–Cold War Europe, rather than the other way around.

John Kornblum is a senior counselor at Noerr LLP and former U.S. ambassador to Germany.

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