A Test of Maturity Germany Must Abandon Its Military Reluctance and Lead

Germany enjoys high regard around the world. But with American power weakening and authoritarian powers rising, the country needs to abandon its military reluctance and finally lead in Europe.

Philipp Schmidt + Andreas Eschme/DER SPIEGEL

An Essay By Anne Applebaum

We wanted to leave as soon as we heard the news. But back in that now impossibly distant era of fuel shortages, pointless regulations and bad roads, it was not so easy to drive a car from Warsaw to Berlin. By the time we arrived, it was the night of Nov. 10, 1989 -- or rather, very early on the morning of the 11th. East Berlin was dark, lit only by eerie, orangey streetlights, and mostly silent. Without a map, we drove straight to the city center, through Checkpoint Charlie -- the guard let us through, against the rules, after we shouted at him: "The Wall's open, who cares about the rules?" -- and arrived at the Brandenburg Gate.

We were late to the party. The champagne corks had stopped popping; instead of cheering, the crowd was taunting the East German guards, still dressed in riot gear, who were still standing along the border. One man suddenly stood and jumped off the Wall, from the west to the east. Immediately, the guards rushed over, picked him up and threw him back over. The crowd hissed. This wasn't a cheerful game: The established order had broken down, men with guns -- and without clear orders -- were facing a hostile crowd.

This was the moment when something violent could have happened -- and it almost did. Years later, a German historian told me what he had read in Party documents: The men of the East German Politburo had debated whether to shoot at the crowd along the Wall.

They did not shoot. Nor did they shoot in Leipzig, although the hospitals were told to prepare for casualties. There was no violence at all in Germany in 1989. Instead, the East German state just gave up. It did so in part because the regime had lost confidence, and was no longer willing to use violence to stay in power. But it also gave up because it was inexorably drawn to West Germany. The attractions were clear: West Germany was peaceful and rich, open and generous, an integral part of a great Western, democratic alliance. Even from the very first days, unification seemed obvious: Why would anyone want anything else? And with amazing speed, it happened.

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That midnight trip was the beginning of my relationship with Berlin, a city whose archives I've since worked in and whose politicians I've since interviewed, a city where my son chose to spend this past summer, studying German. A lot has changed over the past three decades. The city I saw in November 1989, with that surreal empty space at its center, looks nothing like the city that I know today. Bureaucrats and politicians now jostle with the hipsters -- and even the hipsters seem a lot busier and better dressed than they used to be.

Now Is the Time for German Leadership

But some things have not changed. The country I saw that night -- the Germany that avoided violence; the Germany that immediately embraced reunification; the Germany that remains skeptical of all forms of extremism, the Germany that is firmly anchored in the trans-Atlantic democratic community -- that Germany is still there. You can still hear it in German political debate; you can still see it in the German press. The question, now, is whether that Germany can survive.

I realize that might sound like an odd thing to say right now. If anything, Germany's claim to be an integrated member of the Western alliance has never been stronger. Some even speak of Germany as the West's new leader. As Donald Trump's America turns inward, possibly abandoning its free trade agenda and its longstanding commitment to democracy, Germany seems like a possible replacement. A poll taken in 2013 showed Germany to be the most admired country in the world; Chancellor Merkel is one of the most trusted public figures in Europe. Germany's public commitment to environmentalism, multilateralism and human rights give Germany moral standing; Germany's industrial strength and export clout have given Germany economic power as well.

About Anne Applebaum
    Anne Applebaum, 53, is an historian and respected expert on Russian affairs. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for her book "Gulag," about Soviet labor camps. She writes regularly for The Washington Post and Foreign Policy and is married to former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski.

But in a world where American power is weakening and authoritarian powers are rising, how long can this last? From 1945 to 1989, the American army gave West Germany the safety and security to develop its unique political culture. But now there are many, many countries, including some right on Europe's borders, that don't share reunified Germany's national commitment to pacifism and non-violence. And there are many, many reasons to doubt that America will confront them. Trump may be an aberration, but he does reflect a very real American exhaustion, and real American doubt about the worth of the trans-Atlantic alliance. Germans should have a plan to deal with threats in America's absence. Right now, you don't.

Pretending They Don't Exist

At the very least Germany, by itself, lacks the military power and therefore the foreign policy clout to keep Europe safe from future Russian aggression; to help bring peace -- and thus an end to the refugee crisis -- to the Middle East; to do anything about the reconstruction of Libya except talk about it. Germans once confronted the problem of unification, and they spent time and resources on solving it. But when it comes to problems in the wider region, Germany has been absent.

Instead, Germans sometimes seem determined to pretend they don't exist. President Trump has been rightly criticized for his verbal attacks on NATO, but German politicians have also helped undermine the West's defenses. In 2013, Russian jets simulated an attack on Stockholm; in 2016, Russia transferred nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, in range of Germany. Yet when NATO announced a series of military exercises in Europe in that same year -- designed to deter Russian intervention -- Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier denounced them as "warmongering." More recently, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has made Germany's defense budget into an electoral issue. Given the poor condition of Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, this seems extraordinarily irresponsible.

Nor is the problem merely one of military defense. Today's authoritarian powers, whether in Islamic State (IS) or the Kremlin, are more sophisticated than the Soviet state that once occupied the eastern half of Germany and that built the Berlin Wall. They seek to recruit supporters or impact politics through social media. Wealthy foreigners, Russians as well as others, seek to shape German policy and opinion through money and corruption. You are rightly proud that rule of law is so strong in Germany -- but of course it can be undermined here, just like anywhere else, if you are not vigilant in defending it. But vigilance requires knowledge: Before you can defend against a challenge, you need to realize that it is under attack, and I am not sure that Germans do.

I can understand the historical reasons for Germany's reluctance to think about confrontation. And I respect them: As I've said, the postwar Federal Republic's belief in the non-violent resolution of conflicts, its conviction that problems can be resolved through institutions is the most admirable thing about it. But that is no excuse for naivete. If Germany does not want a powerful army, it should still, as a matter of urgency, work with the institutions it has built, most notably the European Union, and especially with France and even Britain (this might be a way to give Britain a future European role) to create a multinational European force that can be deployed in defense of Europe's borders, and in Europe's name, at any time. It could be part of NATO, and should work with NATO. But the era of total dependence on the U.S. military is over.

The same is true in the sphere of cyberdefense and information warfare. Germans worry a great deal about American cyberspying, even though there is no evidence that the United States, even under President Trump, seeks to undermine the German political system. By contrast, there was very little outcry when Russian hackers stole thousands of documents from Germany's parliament, the Bundestag. The purpose of that theft could only have been political: The Russian government wanted information on the German political system precisely in order to try to help shape it. We know about Russian efforts to corrupt and manipulate political life in Poland, in the Czech Republic and Ukraine -- and now, of course, the United States.

Here too, Germany does not have to tackle these issues alone: in Scandinavia, in central Europe and, particularly since the recent election, in France, Germany will find partners, both in online counterterrorism and in counterdisinformation. But while it's true that the best responses will be European responses, it's also true that they require Germany, Europe's richest country -- and its most admired country -- to lead them. Or at least to co-lead them. And this, I know, will require an effort of imagination on the part of many Germans. But this is not the moment to become complacent: As in 1989, if you want to keep what you have achieved, you will have to change.

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Rohland 08/23/2017
Germany cannot lead a EU military because it's not a permanent member of the UN security council , has no veto power, and is not a recognized nuclear state. If there is to be a EU military that will have the ability to operate independent of the USA, it will have to be led by France. I doubt if European countries want to give up their ability to operate independently and have 27 different foreign and defense policies. That is clearly not how this would have to work. You would need one foreign policy and one defense policy with one single budget. The idea that Germany or any other single EU member could say, my soldiers are not going to war, must be made impossible otherwise there is absolutely no value to it. Setting the EU defense budget must be done on a European level as well. Move it away from local politics because it's almost impossible to convince voters that they will need to spend 4-5% of their GDP to create a military that is able to operate independently of the rest of NATO in particular the USA. And 4-5% is modest because I think it will need to be much more certainly in the short term.
bicester55 08/23/2017
2. The last thing Germany needs is to spend more on the military
NATO already spends 20 times as much as Russia on defence. This really ought to be enough. Surely Germany does not want to emulate US+UK's failed interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan etc.. Mind you Germany was pretty good at killing civilians looting the oil tanker there wasn't it? Anyway we need Russia in Syria otherwise the no. of Syrian refugees would have been many more.
Clarity 08/25/2017
"Germany Must Abandon Its Military Reluctance and Lead" – this is the exact mindset of a certain long-dead fascist leader. "Germany's claim to be an integrated member of the Western alliance has never been stronger." – and here is a whole paragraph devoted to Germany's Strength and Power. "Germans should have a plan to deal with threats in America's absence" – the author detests America's perceived weakness, much like another, certain historical figure would detest it. "...to keep Europe safe from future Russian aggression" – this is blatant fear mongering. "Today's authoritarian powers, whether in Islamic State (IS) or the Kremlin, are more sophisticated than the Soviet state..." – here the author tries to manipulate the reader using demagogic techniques. The author attempts to equate a terrorist organization with a constitutional state, which cannot be discussed within the same context. "They seek to recruit supporters or impact politics through social media." – once again, fear mongering. This statement can be applied to anyone voicing their opinion online. Even your grandmother, while posting on Facebook about Trump, seeks to "recruit" supporters and impact politics in her own way. "You are rightly proud that rule of law is so strong in Germany" – a case of misplaced pride. The rule of law should be a given in a healthy democratic society. The author continues to sound like a certain fascist leader throughout the article, addressing national pride, invoking fear, abhorring "weakness" and prioritizing military strength. "you need to realize that [Germany] is under attack" – this is a simple lie. At the end of the article the author becomes more levelheaded, and I must confirm that it is important for Germany to maintain peace and support the European Union through nonviolent methods. Still, I'm surprised to see such an article. Shame on you.
russ_chelak 08/25/2017
4. Germany is Not Fulfilling its Defense Committments
Anne Applebaum is to be commended for bringing this to light. Germany is a very wealthy countryand yet it spends less than 2% in supporting NATO. Many poorer countries such as Poland spend more!
roscoe2 08/26/2017
5. America is going where?
It is apparently a wished for prophecy among Europeans that for some reason the power of the USA is waning; this is simply not the case. As always, America's military is as strong as ever but a new day has indeed dawned. The United States is no longer so willing to have American soldiers die to protect an ungrateful Europe which has failed to shoulder its own responsibilities and defense costs since WW2. It is high time that Germany shed its repentant sack cloth and take on the burden of defending itself against the big, bad Russians. For decades the West Germans benefited not only militarily from the protection provided by US Forces but also economically from the trillions of dollars in everything from housing costs, tourism and even jobs guaranteed by the Status of Forces Agreement to which the US was bound to hire certain numbers of German nationals. With the closing of many US bases in Germany, coupled with the advent of a new and strong president who put American interests before any other, Europeans-and Germans in particular-may have to take on the responsibility for their own protection; after having lived for seventy plus years under an American umbrella of protection it is doubtful that Germans will be able or want to step up to the plate to defend their own interests. I doubt seriously that Germans will be able to overcome their Post War Pacifism to either assume a true leadership role such as the United States previously furnished either militarily or politically. America will remain the dominant force in any bid for world power. It is one thing to wish that the US would lag behind in power and influence; it is quite another to deal with the reality that this is simply not going to be the case under the Trump administration.
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