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The Germany that can say ‘no’

Washington is fuming at Germany’s opposition to a possible war against Iraq. Yet it was the United States that demanded a more “assertive” Germany in the first place. Brave New World.

After more than four decades of schooling the German nation in the joys of democracy (1945-89), followed by another decade spent goading the united Germany into being more “assertive” on the world stage, the United States stands face-to-face today with its greatest achievement and worst nightmare: a peaceful, democratic Germany that won’t be guilt-tripped, cowed or led by the nose onto a battlefield. How ever did this happen?

It should be pointed out early that the vocal opposition of Germany’s newly re-elected Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to any new conflict in Iraq stinks of electoral pandering. Schroeder, one of the most enthusiastic bombers of Belgrade during the Kosovo war just three years ago, found himself trailing in polls leading up to Sunday’s vote and hit upon a winning formula for closing the gap - tapping into the well of pacifism created by the murderous course of Germany history. The same peaceniks he chided in 1999 voted for him this time around. His justice minister’s alleged comparison of American policy to Hitler’s rape of humanity was outrageous but it got the desired reaction. As a German journalist friend remarked to me several years ago, “ever since the Berlin Wall fell, the only thing that gets Germany any coverage in America these days is Claudia Schiffer and Hitler.” Point well taken. And it is not like Hitler’s name hasn’t been tossed around in Washington lately either, is it?

Yet Germany is a nation redesigned, rebuilt, reunified and reprogrammed by American foreign policy. To write off the unpopularity of America’s Iraq intentions in such a country as just a load of election-year politicking is extremely shallow. Taking Schroeder’s campaign at face value would be ridiculous, too, but it is equally foolish to ignore why a majority of the German electorate would be wooed by a candidate flirting with outright anti-Americanism. Regardless of your position on taking out Saddam Hussein, the problem cannot be ignored. If America can’t win hearts and minds in Cologne, what hope is there in Cairo?


For much of the past decade, American policymakers took for granted that Germany would fall in line behind Britain and form the core of European support for Washington’s major foreign policy priorities.

This held true through the 1990s, during the first Gulf War, in the Balkans and through the difficult absorption of former communist states into NATO.

In all these difficult undertakings, Germany’s government stood firmly behind Washington, often against German public opinion, largely out of gratitude for the role the United States played in smoothing the way for Germany’s reunification.

No one knows this better than the current National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, whose 1995 book, ”Germany Unified and Europe Transformed,” co-authored with Harvard’s Robert Zelikow, details the U.S.-German campaign to overcome the opposition of Britain, France and the Soviet Union to reunification. Rice spent that period as the National Security Council’s top European expert and she and Zelikow exhaustively document the basic deal struck by the elder George Bush with Germany’s then-chancellor, Helmut Kohl.

Put simply, America agreed to throw its full weight behind Kohl’s dream, ignoring British and French fears of a “Teutonic juggernaut,” if Kohl agreed to reject an earlier offer from Mikhail Gorbachev, who had promised the same kind of superpower support on condition that Germany declared Swiss-style neutrality.


The idea of a neutral Germany long figured in the nightmares of Western European democracies. Germany was (and remains) the primary overseas base of the U.S. Army, and from its forward bases in those days one could quite literally watch Soviet tanks and troops in their posts across the East-West divide.

In such a world, the German Army - hastily “re-educated” and rearmed after Hitler’s defeat as a NATO force - formed a key component to the defense of the West.

As the Cold Warriors saw it, nothing as important as Germany’s foreign policy could be left to so fickle a body as the German people with the defense of Europe at stake. (And, it must be said, if any electorate earned such disdain in the 20th century, it was the German one, having eventually delivered Adolf Hitler and his Nazis enough votes to seize power in 1933).

With all that in mind, as the United States worked to reorder Europe in the absence of communism in 1990, Kohl had to pledge his nation would remain in NATO, would remain a pillar of the West and, generally, would not go around making waves unless such behavior was requested by its allies.


What no one seems to have factored into any of this was Die Deutschen Leute - the German people. Nowhere in my travels throughout the world have I encountered a group less amenable to the idea that armed conflict solves problems than the Germans. Having lived among them for three years (1990-93), I feel safe saying that they are, by and large, the perfect expression of post-war American hopes and dreams for them: pacifists whose taste for prosperity by now is so deeply ingrained that they would rather be occupied by French troops than die for their flag. Ironically, they have become precisely what Hitler dismissed the English as in 1939: a nation of shopkeepers. *

But shopkeepers with the right to vote. And therein lies the dilemma for the United States. Having successfully taught the Germans not to follow their Fuehrer blindly, we now bristle when they question the orders of them to follow the uber-Fuehrer — the United States.

Germans also are genuinely committed — again, for good historical reasons — to the idea that peace and security is best kept by coalitions of nations acting within the boundaries of international law. From the alliance that defeated Hitler to the one they joined to hold off Soviet communism, this resonates deeply with them. Some 10,000 German troops currently are serving abroad in peacekeeping missions, largely after goading from the United States in the early 1990s that they should “do their share.” Should it really surprise us that Germans, indoctrinated and shamed by their own past, should be alarmed when a single dominant power thinks its own interests suddenly outweigh those of all other nations combined?

On Monday, George W. Bush decided not to make the traditional congratulatory phone call to Schroeder when his coalition’s re-election became clear. Rightfully so. No American president should have to lick the boots of a foreign leader, democratically elected or not, out of sheer protocol. But the opposite also holds true. No foreign leader elected by his own people should have to lick the American president’s boot. Germany may pay some small price measured in influence or tourism. Right or wrong, Germans have the right to oppose America’s war plans in Iraq. Indeed, Americans fought and died to give it to them.

*Eds Note: Hitler's quip about the British was stolen from Napoleon Bonaparte, who had his own reasons for deriding the English. Thanks to several readers for weighing in with that fact.