The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 3 (Fall 2016)

Berlin: The Big Uneasy

John M. Owen IV

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 3)

Berlin is important in world politics again. It would just as soon not be. Over the centuries, even as it has risen as a city of consequence in culture and learning, Berlin has experienced fluctuations in its geopolitical weight. As its residents know, a weighty Berlin generally has not been good for the world. But crises both within and outside Europe, ones for which Germany is in no way responsible, are forcing the capital to reassume a mantle that makes most Berliners distinctly uneasy.

Berlin began its modern existence in the eighteenth century as the capital of Prussia, which proceeded to expand in fits and starts until, absorbing Bavaria and several other states within or adjacent to its borders, it emerged as the German Empire in 1871. As a unified state, Germany was an industrial powerhouse and an exemplar of science, culture, and urban planning. But growing domestic discontent (attended by the spread of political pathologies), along with fear and resentment of Germany’s neighbors, was responsible in large measure for the outbreak of the two cataclysmic wars of the last century. Subsequently, during the early Cold War, Berlin was the scene of several crises that might have triggered a third world war. The problem ended in 1961 when the Communists partitioned the city, building a hideous wall that cut from Berlin’s north to its southeast like a Prussian dueling scar.

I first visited the city in the summer of 1988 with friends from graduate school. The Wall was still there, with festive and defiant graffiti on its western side and a zone of razor wire, concrete towers, and armed guards on its eastern. West Berlin vibrated with avant-garde music and art that overlay its older, majestic high culture. Overlaying the same high culture in East Berlin, capital of a dour little republic, was a Potemkin showpiece boulevard, the historic Unter den Linden, set amid block after block of neglected old buildings and assorted examples of Brutalist architecture. The Cold War was thawing in 1988, and Berliners were hoping for change, but no one anticipated that the Wall would fall the following year.

I returned for short visits in 2000 and 2011, and then in August 2015 for a one-year sabbatical. This most recent stay impressed on me just how brilliantly Germany has succeeded as a liberal democracy since reunification in 1990. Until last year the world’s largest exporter, it has absorbed the old East as smoothly and generously as anyone could have hoped. The new Berlin, capital of the entire nation, has retained some of the pockmarks of May 1945, when Soviet troops fought their way into the city as the Third Reich collapsed. But it also has built anew, as well as restoring or replacing old structures, with the result being jarring but invigorating juxtapositions of past and present. As in other German cities, memorials to Holocaust victims are embedded in the very sidewalks as Stolpersteine, brass “stumbling stones,” each with the name of a Jew who lived in the adjacent building, the date of his or her forced removal, and the place, date, and circumstances of death (e.g., “murdered in Auschwitz”).

Collective memories of the dark past are one reason why Germans are obsessed with European integration. The initial move came in 1950 with the European Coal and Steel Community, which reduced the threat of conflict by making Germany, France, and other states dependent on one another for the raw materials of war. Further economic integration brought growth and stability without empire and war—not only to Germans, but also to the French, Dutch, Belgians, Greeks, and others who remembered the Third Reich and knew that Germany remained Europe’s largest and richest country. West German governments were among integration’s most enthusiastic proponents. The multiplying and tightening web of treaties, extending into law, regulation, and politics at the domestic level, reassured Germans and their neighbors that the old Europe of nationalism and war was gone forever. In the background, seldom acknowledged, was American power, in the form of protection from Soviet aggression and sufficient wealth to underwrite the European abandonment of empire.

The 1990s were the high-water mark for the project of European unification, as the European Union expanded eastward and developed a single currency, the anodyne but reliable euro, regulated by the central bank in Frankfurt. The European Parliament debated whether to establish a common foreign policy, even an EU military force. There was talk of the EU as a global counterweight to the United States—an ally and fellow market democracy, to be sure, but a country that right-thinking Europeans regarded as oafish and unduly bellicose.

Today such talk has vanished, replaced by anxiety that the grand project is unraveling. In doubt as never before is Berlin’s status as a normal European capital, sharing political leadership with Paris, London, and, most of all, Brussels, the EU capital. The specter of European disintegration has a number of sources. First is the looming danger of insolvency in the Mediterranean economies, a threat that did not disappear with the latest bailout of Greece in 2015. As of mid-2016, Italian banks held as much as $400 billion in bad loans. Many Germans believe that the long-term solution is a single fiscal or taxation policy across the EU, but of course that would require still more political integration, at a time when all the trends point to disintegration.

The second impetus to disintegration is the rise of anti-EU parties in Germany and elsewhere. The 2008 economic downturn, an unwelcome import from America, started the problem. It has lingered, combining lately with a sharp rise in immigration. In 2015 Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced that all refugees who could reach the German border would be admitted. The world was impressed; Time magazine named Merkel its Person of the Year. The country ended up taking in 1.1 million immigrants, the majority from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. (The proportional figure for the United States would have been nearly 4.4 million.) The influx generated resistance within Merkel’s own center-right Christian Democratic coalition. A new party, the Alternative for Germany, has fashioned itself as forthrightly anti-Muslim. Berliners look abroad and see anti-immigration parties rising in Austria, France, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, Poland, and Hungary.

A third source of disintegration pressure, the renewal of jihadist terrorism, exacerbates the second. The terror of the 2000s seemed to have been contained until horrific attacks occurred in France and Belgium in 2015 and 2016, credited to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The evident inability of European governments to stop terrorism leads many Germans to doubt the wisdom of open borders among most EU member states.

Fourth is Russia. European integration relies on at least implicit cooperation from the east, and Germany in particular has bet on a close economic partnership with Russia. However, with Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and Vladimir Putin’s growing tendency toward dictatorial rule, it could be that Germany had lost the bet.

Brexit is the fifth factor. The British public’s vote in late June to leave the EU stunned Germans. Prior to the referendum, they had trouble grasping why any country would want to exit. Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading newsmagazine, published a helpful guide for the perplexed. Most poignant were pleas from the German center-right for Britain to stay and fight for reforms in the EU. The vote was so disappointing that many Germans are now urging the EU to drive a hard bargain as Britain negotiates the terms of its departure.

The final challenge is the rise of Donald Trump. Declared by Der Spiegel as “the most dangerous man in the world,” the Republican presidential nominee has made clear that he cares little for NATO and regards American pledges to defend European allies as expendable. Germans, ever sensitive to signs of fascism in democracies, also see in Trump a possible replay of the 1930s. Daily lunch conversations with colleagues in Berlin made it clear to me that Trump’s surprising political success in America has dealt a sharp psychological blow to many Germans.

The blow is hard not only because Germans are eyeing a possibly revanchist Russia. Notwithstanding its size and heft within Europe, Germany has until now been able to evade the burden of leadership because of two factors: America’s liberal hegemony and the presence of several other large economies—notably, those of France, Italy, and Britain—to offset Germany’s own weight. But now France is economically weak and preoccupied with terrorism. Italy’s economy is even weaker than France’s. Britain is poised to leave the EU altogether. And a large cohort of Americans (with counterparts in Europe) believe, not unreasonably, that they have been neglected by mainstream parties, and have mobilized behind a champion who promises that foreigners are not going to rip them off anymore.

If the EU fails, Germany has no Plan B. So the EU must succeed, and Germany’s neighbors reluctantly turn to it for leadership. Berlin responds to their appeals even more reluctantly. Germans know how lonely it is at the top, having themselves enjoyed for decades the luxury of relying on American hegemony while simultaneously feeling free to criticize and even defy the United States when it was convenient or necessary.

A conference in Oslo in 2012 gave me a glimpse of the future that is now arriving. Berlin at the time was driving a hard bargain with Athens over the Greek fiscal crisis. Several Norwegians told me that they agreed with Germany on substance—the Greeks were profligate and needed discipline—but they didn’t like the way Germany was bullying the smaller country. When I related that anecdote to German colleagues this year, they nodded, with no trace of resentment. They understood. And it made them uneasy.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.3 (Fall 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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