Conflicted Hegemon The Reluctant Giant

Germany is again one of the most powerful countries on earth but has yet to come to terms with its own strength.
The weight of the world on its shoulders. A statue of Atlas in Potsdam, a city south-west of Berlin.

In the heady, optimistic days of German reunification, Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister of Britain at the time, was a lone voice of caution. A reunited, strengthened Germany would, she said, once more dominate Europe and pull the continent in the direction it wanted to go.

At the time she was seen as anachronistic and alarmist. Today, many of Germany’s neighbors may well agree with her. The country is of course still committed to democracy and reluctant to become militarily active on the world stage, but there is no denying that Germans has once more morphed into a hegemonic power in the middle of the continent.

In the decades prior to unification it was easy for the Germans, divided as they were, to hide their strength. Even after unification in 1990 they managed to look smaller than they were for a while by being cautious, and hiding their policy objectives deep within the European Union.

Germany’s supremacy only became evident a few years ago, with the financial crisis, when the country had to show its true stature. Lehman Brothers went broke in 2008, Germany became stronger. Europe fell into a debt crisis, Germany became even stronger. Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in March this year, Germany took over the political leadership of the West.

Since the financial crisis, Berlin has enforced an economic policy for Europe that has not always made sense. It has ordered southern European countries to balance their books at all costs, even if that means implementing cuts that prolong the economic downturn and trigger mass unemployment.

For people in the south these measures don’t look like rational economic policy, but an example of German hegemony. But the euro zone is so dependent on Germany they have no choice but to accept these demands.

When the French and Italians suggest that more fiscal leeway would lead to a better economic recovery, Germany dismisses them as lazy. Mario Monti, Italy’s former prime minister, said Germany does not assess economic policy rationally here but morally, with a philosophy of: “Good behavior is rewarded with growth.”

This would surprise Germans, who are convinced that they are particularly rational, sensible and sober-minded, that they are diplomatic and co-operative, and generally well-meaning towards other euro countries. That is true, but only in some ways.

Germany pushes its economic agenda without bombastic political language, through a chancellor who behaves as unassumingly as possible. Very few countries wield so much power in such a colorless way. It is worth taking a few moments to understand what is going on.

Germany is never open about its allegiances. The fallout from the Iraq War and revelations that U.S. spy agencies had eavesdropped on emails and on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conversations have damaged relations with the United States. It has seen itself as somehow apart from most of its European neighbors, but has also become more hostile towards Russia.

Germany appears sometimes to be a strange island, tethered to the heart of Europe, but too powerful and intertwined with its neighbors to exist in isolation.

Some critics fear Germany is once again seeing itself as somehow “special.” In Poland, Germany’s diplomatic efforts towards Russia are seen as much too soft and its unwillingness to consider military intervention is irresponsible. Britain and France too are no longer willing to excuse Germany’s obligatory “no” to military involvement as a historical idiosyncrasy. They accept it for now but disapprove.

And finally, there is Germany’s Energiewende, an energy program designed to take the country away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy and towards an energy supply sourced almost exclusively by renewables.

Countries that rely on coal (Poland) or atomic energy (France) marvel at the ethical fervor with which this energy transition is being implemented. Germany appears sometimes to be a strange island, tethered to the heart of Europe, but too powerful and intertwined with its neighbors to exist in splendid isolation.

Germans tend to think it completely odd and downright absurd to believe their country has any kind of  hegemonic power. Its economic dominance is not seen as a result of any kind of power play, rather the natural result of secondary virtues such as diligence, orderliness and disciplined economic activity. But for the many Europeans who experience the German export surplus as a national deficit, this newest German economic miracle looks very much like power politics on four wheels: German cars being exported to poorer neighbors who get into debt to buy these shiny German products.

Germans are also reluctant to believe the argument that their economic supremacy is due to a monetary union, the euro zone, which subordinates many different economies to German economic order. While the euro zone was meant to weaken a unified Germany, it achieved the opposite. The movement that was meant to anchor Germany within Europe has anchored Europe in Germany.

That is of course not the way most Germans view their  country. Most will believe they are part of the most harmless, sensible and modern nation on earth. Cold Realpolitik and megalomania belong to the past. Look at the cheerful patriotism of World Cup victories, where the unfurling of the German flag signaled not terror but an invitation to join in the party. And don’t the world’s hipsters want to come Berlin? Even the British Museum has an exhibition about German culture.

It is true. In surveys, Germany comes up as one of the most popular countries in the world, something that may be hard to believe if you listen to vehement criticism from economists and politicians in economically-stricken euro zone countries.

This could ultimately be Germany’s biggest success, to have managed to dominate Europe in such a matter of fact, unexciting and non-bombastic way that many never saw it happening.

Germany is powerful because of its economy. It is isolated because of its disjointed foreign policy. And it is popular because it holds itself back.

There is no need to speak of a “Sonderweg” or special path for Germany again. But Germany is now doing something new, something unpracticed and untried. It is a large country that appears harmless, acts eccentrically and seems unaware of its power.

It may be a good idea for the Germans who think of themselves as being totally normal to start talking to those others who think differently. This country is too big to be quirky.


Adam Soboczynski and Bernd Ulrich are both feature writers for Die Zeit, where this article was first published.  To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]