There are several often repeated famous sardonic quotes about Germany’s role in the world. One is Churchill’s 1943 remark after Germany surrendered in North Africa: “The Hun is always either at your throat or your feet.” Another is attributed to Churchill’s wartime aide Lord Ismay, who was later Secretary General of NATO, whose purpose he explained was to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.”
Neither quote is very flattering to Germany, but each recalls Germany’s role in precipitating humanity’s two worst wars and the most notorious genocide. These quotes merit recall after recent turbulence between Trump and Angela Merkel, prompting her later to declare, “The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over.”
There is an understandable inclination to resent wealthy Germany’s low military spending compared to America’s, even as Germany continues across 70 years to live under America’s strategic protection. Under American pressure, Germany is slowly increasing spending but almost certainly will never approach American levels. Germany, like its defeated WWII ally Japan, has long abjured great military strength, mindful of its militarist history, while content as a subordinate partner to America.
This arrangement across eight decades has served American interests, wider European interests, and most of all the interests of Germany, which has consequently enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, democracy, domestic stability, peaceful coexistence with its neighbors, and security against its large historic nemesis to the east. Germany is a relatively young nation, unified by blood and iron only about 150 years ago. The first half of its history was marked by aggressive war and tyranny. The second half has showcased democracy at its best. Which half evinces Germany’s true national character?
Konrad Adenauer, one of the last century’s great statesmen, was the founder of modern democratic Germany. Former mayor of Cologne who was briefly jailed by the Nazis, he was a devout Catholic who firmly attached West Germany to America, NATO, Western Europe, and France particularly. His critics alleged he quietly was content with German division because he was glad to be rid of historically militarist, authoritarian and Protestant Prussia, which hadn’t converted from paganism to Christianity until relatively late. Adenauer identified with old Catholic Germany, whose antecedents dated to the Roman Empire. He placed his capital on the Rhine, and he orchestrated reconciliation with France with a mass in Strasburg’s cathedral alongside fellow Catholic statesman DeGaulle.
Germany’s reunification was orchestrated by another Catholic statesman, Helmut Kohl, Reagan’s stalwart partner in winning the Cold War, which had decisively and controversially included placing American intermediate range nuclear weapons in West Germany, despite massive Soviet-backed demonstrations. Berlin has become once again continental Europe’s most powerful capital, not based on military might but economic strength. Temples of old pre-war Germany are being resurrected, including the rebuilt Berlin City Palace, winter residence of the Kaiser now to be an art gallery, among other utilities. There is controversy over whether the Kaiser’s gilded cross should once again crown the cupola, to which secularists and multiculturalists object.
With or without that cross, would a Germany of the far future, if detached from America and NATO, continue on its remarkable democratic path of the last 70 years, ever mindful of past enormities to be shunned? Or would old demons eventually return to the body from which they had been violently exercised, reanimating malevolent tendencies that are possibly intrinsic to German national personality?
Every nation and people has its own demonic dark side against which it must be on guard. Germany’s character weaknesses, when it stood on its own apart from a wider Western democratic alliance, had unprecedented murderous impact for much of the world, particularly the Jews of Europe. Should Germany again be permitted or encouraged to stand alone as paramount power of continental Europe, possibly even armed with nuclear weapons, no longer in strategic subordination to American hegemony?
Popular Christianity, like humanistic modern secularism, is highly discomfited by frank talk about power and hegemony. It prefers to assume goodwill and trust for nearly all. But a more rigorous regard for traditional Christian understanding about statecraft, which is the concern of this journal, prefers to confront human reality as it lamentably is. That reality may include for Germany the unflattering adages deployed by Churchill and purportedly by Lord Ismay.
Approximate peace and justice in the world are sustained not only by noble intentions but also by power rightly deployed. Stability and relative tranquility in Europe may require continued American senior partnership with and over Germany, whose costs to America may be cheap compared to far more expensive alternatives, as experienced disastrously early in the 20th century.
Neither Christians nor realists should ever assume the stability and relative harmony of recent times are normal or indefinite. Instead, we should always carefully consider the possible adversities of abandoning what has largely worked. Human nature does not change. And sometimes national characteristics, even if ameliorated, are persistent.
Churchill, despite his dark warning about German national character, opposed post-WWII proposals to deindustrialize or otherwise decapitate Germany in a Carthaginian style peace. Instead, he advocated a democratic Germany integrated into a wider European community with America as ultimate guarantor of peace. After 70 years what is today a reliable alternative?
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, and editor of Providence. He is the author, most recently, of The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War.