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Home Opinion Germany in Europe – the unwilling hegemon
Power • Politics • EU Integration

Germany in Europe – the unwilling hegemon

Jürgen Krönig - 07 May 2013

Germany is the pre-eminent power in Europe. But it is constitutionally, historically and mentally ill-equipped to accept the burden of responsibility that follows from its relative economic strength

14 years ago in 1999 I was invited to take part in a conference about a question that was at that time of enormous interest to many nations and governments in Europe. The Federal Republic of Germany was celebrating its fiftieth birthday – and the organisers asked the participants to answer the question – “Germany, mature and poised, or in a midlife crisis?” This question was put to a panel of historians, sociologists and journalists.    

One does not like to claim characteristics like mature and poised for one‘s own nation, even if one might secretly hope they were true. What is undeniably true is that after the military and moral catastrophe of 1945 there was a clear break with the past, a new beginning.

Modern Germany is now 64 years old. For a nation state this does not mean much; historically speaking such a time span is a mere blip, too short a period to come to a valid judgement about a nation. But in answer to the question I suggested that the Federal Republic had just left adolescence behind.

Germany has in the post-war decades, in my opinion rightly so, gone through a period of repentance for the sins of the past, facing its own demons. During this period it was still under probation, in a moral and political sense; it had limited sovereignty and its own constitution ruled out military action abroad.

After unification Germany gained full sovereignty, but it was still shaped by the shock of its actions  and the determined attempt to make good for the crimes of the past. Despite being a powerful middle-sized European state it was all in all timid and nervous, some people preferred to call it slightly neurotic. It was definitely not a “normal” nation state, like Britain or France, even though there were at that time already indications of Germany behaving more like a grown up nation. One element of normalisation was to shed the self-imposed constitutional restriction, or to be more precise, the interpretation of the constitution that German troops should never operate outside its own territory.

It began to live up to the responsibilities of a middle-sized European power – in Bosnia, and during the war in Kosovo, where it joined Britain, led at that time by Tony Blair, and the call for a military intervention. Indeed, it was telling that it was a left-of-centre government, the Social Democratic – Green coalition, led by Gerhard Schröder, which took the decision to join the intervention in Kosovo. This was 14 years ago, nine years after unification.

This begs the question of how to characterise today’s Germany. Has it matured further, has it developed a sense of responsibility, and does it play a role fitting for a nation of 85 Million people with substantial economic strength?

Unwilling hegemon

My opinion about Germany being an adolescent nation has not changed much over the last decade. The circumstances and the political environment though have changed dramatically. The European crisis combined with the relative economic strength Germany regained during the last 12 years has pushed the country into the position that is reflected in the title of this essay: Germany in Europe – the unwilling hegemon.

A hegemon, as I mean and understand the word, is defined not as a power that is able to enforce its will onto other, weaker states in a confederation or a Union. The role of the hegemonic power is not to dictate and force others by brute economic, financial or military power. The role of the hegemon demands knowledge of the world and experience in dealing with it. The role requires understanding the interests of other countries and their specific situation. It requires the ability to define and pursue national interests, while at the same time understanding and taking into account the interest of others, using the hegemon’s greater weight and influence in such a way that it serves the common good.  

I suggest that Germany is neither ready for the role of the hegemon nor willing and able to accept the burden of responsibility that follows from its relative economic strength.

On economic matters, Germany has always been the powerhouse of the EU – and its paymaster. But since the beginning of the eurozone crisis its status has grown – no solution is possible without Germany’s consent.  Not everybody likes this turn of events, as the return of swastikas and Hitler mustaches over the lips of Angela Merkel in caricatures across newspapers, especially of Mediterranean countries, demonstrate. Stereotypes of this kind are on the march again, in parliamentary debates, in the media and on the banners of demonstrators from Spain to Greece and beyond.

The fear or at least unease about the return of the dark side of history is something Germany will have to live with for a long time and it should not complain too much - after all, it is a self-inflicted wound. At the same time, the moral reference to the German past will be used again and again by nations as a useful tool to extract better conditions in the ongoing economic and financial debates about the future of the EU and the eurozone and the role and obligations of its strongest member. The Greek multi-billion demand for compensation for war damages is just the most recent and extreme example.   

Some of the worries about German dominance in Europe being the beginning of something even more unsettling seem to be unfounded if not absurd. Germany has been a stable democracy for more than 60 years; its elections have proved again and again that even in tough economic times national extremists or neo-nazis parties have no chance. Their results in elections have been lower than in most other European countries. The country is also clearly and deliberately unmilitaristic, sometimes to the point of caricature.

The more justifiable worries are around Germany lacking the experience and leadership skills to match its economic strength and position of primacy.  This is especially the case in Europe, where, on one hand, Germany has demonstrated, under Chancellor Angela Merkel’s quiet and unexciting chancellorship, a willingness in the end to help debt-ridden eurozone members who otherwise would have gone bankrupt by now - against the preference of the German electorate, who thinks that this means throwing good money after bad money. Indeed, Merkel’s willingness to give in has now led to the birth of a new party who demands that Germany leave the euro or at least create a smaller, northern eurozone without the profligate Mediterranean nations. 

But, on the other hand, does Germany not primarily seem to be interested in producing and exporting as much as possible. As a CEO of a big German company remarked self critically during a private discussion about Germany’s international outlook or the lack of it: “We Germans are Pfeffersäcke, all we are interested in is selling goods to everybody”. Pfeffersäcke is a derogatory term for narrow-minded merchants. 

Germany is often caught between these two positions and lacks the confidence and hegemonic ability to lead. Some Germans argue that it is not possible to demonstrate leadership because of the sensitivities of other Europeans who are against too much German leadership. They rightly point out that Germany has to be extra cautious not to arouse suspicion. Germany’s politicians worry about antagonism and the fears of other European nations rather too much, certainly more so than they worry about the dangers of too little German leadership.

Peer Steinbrück, the social democrat (SPD) chancellor candidate in the forthcoming German elections in autumn, a few weeks ago was asked, if Germany was the right leader for Europe; he answered that this was not a comfortable or easy question for a German; “We Germans know that there are many in Europe who don’t want German leadership”.

Ill-equipped hegemon

The deeper reason for Germany’s difficulties to live up to the responsibilities that are demanded from it as the strongest member of the EU are rooted in its history. Germany is the late comer of European history, becoming a nation state only in 1871; it never had an empire and its belated push for a slice of the global cake at the end of the nineteenth century ended in failure and the First World War. 

Britain and France in contrast had empires; with that comes an eye for the way of the world, and experience in dealing with other countries and nations. On the contrary, the German nation state has had to evolve out of the cosy idyll of Biedermeier, with its many small kingdoms and dukedoms, all with their own courts, theaters and opera houses – it was a time in which music, philosophy and drama flourished, a time that gave the world Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe and Schiller.

The point is that this Germany was not used to dealing with the world; it was inward looking, which may explain why its reactions to events outside its borders to this day are slow, often clumsy. Germany’s habitus was provincial; it was not versed and experienced in the ways of the world, in diplomacy, in balancing acts and pragmatic compromise. Germany was the nation of “poets and philosophers”, not hard-nosed doers and clever diplomats.

Combined with this there is another strong tradition: love, even worship of nature, a romantic – reactionary rejection of modernity and technological progress quite often aligned with a heavy dose of cultural pessimism. As a consequence of all these historical factors, there is a now a combination of mental and constitutional barriers that make it difficult for modern Germany to play the the role of a European hegemon.

The constitutional set up for the new Germany after the Second World War has strengthened these obstacles further. The allies and the “fathers of the constitution” deliberately designed a federal constitution with a weak central government and enormous influence for the provinces, the Lander, the second chamber of parliament and the constitutional court. This was in principle the right decision but it went too far.

Another problematic area which handicaps German hegemonic leadership is the rejection of the nation state and patriotism borne out of the consequences of Germany’s recent past. Germany saw in European integration a chance to return to the fold of civilized nations and at the same to escape the nation state that was blamed for the catastrophe of national socialism, holocaust and war. Feelings of patriotism were regarded with deep suspicion. The traditions and values of the past got lost, were shunned or forgotten. The result is a sometimes neurotic hypersensitivity, where even enthusiasm for Germany’s football team has been seen as a dangerous nationalistic tendency raising its ugly head  again. It was no coincidence that voices from the British left interpreted the peaceful happy patriotism demonstrated during the world cup 2006 as a welcome sign of the normalisation of German attitudes, while in sharp contrast, influential sections of the German Feuilleton, leading cultural commentators, were deeply worried about the return of flag waving Germans.

Others in Europe, especially the British, never saw the nation state as an inherently dangerous relic of the past. On the contrary, the nation state was the place in which democracy developed; it was the democratic nation state that withstood and defeated totalitarian challenges from the right and the left, and is in fact the only place in which democracy can flourish.

Take for example the difficulties to come to terms with the EU’s democratic deficit. In post-war Germany European integration was never scrutinised, critically questioned or defended. This is one of the problems of European integration - for too long it was taken as a given. Germany’s elites and the political and cultural classes never allowed a cool headed definition of Germany’s own interest or an open debate about the pros and cons. Instead they preferred a “holier than thou” attitude and pompous declarations about the principle of “ever closer union”. Anybody who questioned this stance was out of the loop and at risk of being cast as an outsider by the political and cultural classes.

As a consequence and over time the gap between elites and electorate has grown deeper. But if you never questioned and debated the consequences of the concept of “ever closer union”, you should not be surprised, when citizens eventually rebel against it. This legacy can be felt to this day: Germany political debates often deal with comparatively petty issues. Its politics, its politicians and their debates err on the dull and uninspiring side. (Helmut Schmidt with his sharpness and sardonic wit was a rare exception.)

The lack of cool headed pragmatism is complimented by a preference for grand visions whose practical implications and pitfalls seem obvious but are not analysed and discussed. As well as the dream of a political union in Europe, another example is the belief that renewable energy can provide sufficient and cheap electricity for Germany’s energy intensive industries. The whole chapter of Germany’s climate change and energy policy is not very encouraging. Take the decision after Fukushima to shut down 8 nuclear power stations with immediate effect, out of fear of a Tsunami in the Rhine valley, ignoring the other nuclear power stations in Germany and the French ones a few miles across the border. The fact that a centre-right government took this decision highlights the strange political process that took place in post-war Germany.

Too many policy decisions in foreign affairs too look erratic and are driven by short-termism, a lack of willingness to take one’s share of responsibility or by exaggerated fears. Take the opposition to an intervention in Libya as an example. Germany rejected the intervention initiated by France and Britain, instead lining-up with Russia and China.  Geopolitical power is not something that interests or appeals to Germany’s new political class. Here we may see in contours the new post-crisis Europe developing. An EU, in which only nation states like France and the UK are able to act decisively in military and security matters, without carrying the psychological burden of Germany, whose chancellor could, even if he or she wanted to, never decide to send troops to Mali to fight jihadist, like Francois Holland did, or even send planes and mililitary advisers to Mali without asking the parliament, like David Cameron did.

Both the British and French governments, regardless of their political background, acted in the long-term interest of their nations and of Europe at the same time. The intervention in Libya was another decision, taken by Paris and London alone, underlining that a common EU foreign and security policy will remain an unrealistic proposition. The UK and France, both nuclear powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council, will never allow Belgium, Ireland or Croatia to have a say over their weapons or their strategic decisions. Germany will for quite a while, perhaps for a long time, “punch below its weight”, to paraphrase an expression, coined by British politician Douglas Hurd.

Germany and the future of Europe

Have I been too critical with my country? Perhaps. I do not mean to suggest that Germany is not a peaceful democratic country, that it cannot be trusted or that it has not repented its sins and admitted its crimes. But there are still signs of a lack of maturity and an unwillingness to accept the responsibility that comes with the position of being the per-eminent power in Europe.

Nobody can foresee how the present European crisis will play out or what the consequences of Germany’s leadership deficit are for the future shape of the EU. The eurozone might muddle through in its present form for quite a period, on the other hand it might be forced to become smaller or we even might witness the partition into northern and southern eurozones.

But one thing is certain: the utopian dream of many European intellectuals like Habermas, Sennett and Derrida will not come true. They, as true elitists, never gave much credence to the principle of democracy, ignoring the wishes of the masses to instead promote their “cosmopolitan” vision.

That should have been clear already eight years ago when the French and Dutch rejected the European Treaty and any further integration. That is more than unlikely to change. To ask, as some politicians and intellectuals suggest, for even “more Europe”, for more integration is not only unrealistic, it could prove to be outright dangerous, increasing the trend of “renationalisation” that is visible all over the European Union today. Indeed, it has to be said that the British input of a dose of pragmatism, common sense and healthy skepticism towards unrealistic concepts is needed more than ever before in Europe.

If forced to predict the European future, I would suggest that the EU will develop into a something in-between the Gaullist version of a “Europe of fatherlands” and the project of “ever closer Union”, with different groups of nations pooling more sovereignty than others – but the inevitability of the integration project will dissipate. And it would be highly surprising, if the eurozone will survive in its present composition.

In the end, nobody in Europe really knows how things will turn-out; but it can be said that the “German dilemma” – the unwilling and ill-equipped hegemon with its adolescent constitutional, historical and mental structures  – further complicates the picture and capacity for setting a clear direction. Maybe the reluctant, uninspiring and quiet style of leadership by Angela Merkel is at the moment better than any other option and, at the same time, is a fitting statement of Germany’s present collective state of mind, not really knowing where to go and what to do. But it will be a more German Europe anyhow. 

Jürgen Krönig is a broadcaster, author and commentator for the German weekly Die Zeit and various other publications in Germany, Switzerland and Britain

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on The Future of the EU.

Tags: Germany , hegemony , Europe , EU , Integration , Politics , Constitution , Power , Economics , Creditor , Debtor , History , Angela Merkel , Eurozone , Peer Steinbrück , German Europe


11 May 2013 11:05

I see no reluctance in leadership on Germany's part when it insists that all EU Member States adhere to its version of free market economics. So, while I'm glad Germany is gaining in confidence, I'm also sad it adheres to such a flawed dogma. Not least because, when it realises its error, it will lose some of its confidence in leadership. And Germany certainly will eventually realise its error. Whether this will be due to British "pragmatism, common sense and healthy skepticism" I am entirely unsure, since current UK policy on Europe is justified by the same neo-liberal dogma as Germany - not by pragmatism or common sense. As for British scepticism... this is a misnomer since dogma is incompatible with scepticism. British eurosceptics are, in reality, British eurodogmatists. Krönig makes some doubtful assertions about democracy: 1. "Democracy arose in the nation state". False. It arose in a city state in a slave society. Life is, it seems, not so simple. 2. "The democratic nation state ... withstood and defeated totalitarian challenges from the right and the left". Half-truth. Democratic nation states also succumbed to totalitarianism in the 1920s (Italy) and 1930s (Germany). And democratic citizens (not states) defeated totalitarian regimes in 1989. Life is, it seems, not so simple. 3. The democratic nation state is "in fact the only place in which democracy can flourish". False. e.g. the United Nations, the Commonwealth.... both of which have had their rocky patches - just like the EU. Life is, it seems, not so simple.

St. A.
08 May 2013 08:33

Same view in French political review last fall http://www.contreligne.eu/2012/09/question-allemande-economie-euro-histoire-diplomatie/

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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