Germany: The Illusionary Giant

It is a mistake to depict Germany as a hegemonic power; in fact, Germany is a illusionary giant.  It yields much less power within the EU than many believe and its influence is actually decreasing.

[dropcap]“M[/dropcap]r. Tur Tur, the illusionary giant, is a gentle and modest person, and tragically alone because everybody is afraid of him when he seems to be a giant from the distance.” Increasingly, Germany’s stance in Europe looks like Mr. Tur Tur from Michael Ende’s fairy tale: Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver. While I write these words, protesters are crowding the streets of Athens to protest the austerity measures that Greece has been subjected to. They blame the European giant: Germany. Clearly, when people make a national past-time out of burning your flag you have reached a special status as a country. This privilege is reserved for powerful and despised states (such as the US or Israel). For Germans this sight is new and understandably uncomfortable. They ask what they have done to deserve such treatment. The complexities of the financial entanglement escape the normal citizen and they perceive the behavior of Greek protesters as ungrateful at best; after all Germany has bailed out Greece with their tax money. The current German government has avoided explaining the benefits of the Euro and a stable Greece to its population leaving a lot of frustration on both sides; Greeks affected by the austerity measures and Germans mistreated for their charitableness. Germans have forgotten what happened when the former social democratic and green government reformed the social and unemployment system (in Germany the reforms are known as Hartz IV and Agenda 2010). The reforms brought down the government. And while it is those reforms that many today say are responsible for German stability and good performance, it is nothing compared to the revolution in Greek society that has been taken place over the past months.

This mismatch between public perception and reality extends further. Germany is really not the giant that many believe it to be. In addition to a lack of strategic visionGermany is losing political clout in Europe; it has lost key European allies and its ability to dominate the direction of anti-crisis policies in Europe. The Paris-Berlin axis was destroyed by the election of Francois Hollande, and other traditional allies have either withdrawn from rescue mechanisms or have increased the demand for regulation of recipient countries. In contrast to smaller countries, Germany cannot veto policies when such a veto might cause chaos on the financial markets. A German exit from the Euro is not a credible threat: it has long been noted that such a maneuver would lead to a rise of the new currency’s value and a disaster for the export-dependent German economy.

Domestically, Germany might be less stable than the mainstream perception currently suggests. Instability related to currency has high impacts on the German economy and a renewed crisis in the US economy would have a severe impact on German exports. For the past years Chancellor Merkel has dragged her feet on several important issues. The demographic development in Germany is dramatic, and dwindling immigration will soon have an impact on the country’s economy. When it comes to education Germany ranks far bellow the level that would be necessary for a major industrial nation today. Merkel’s government has taken any steps to address those issues and in general has proven to be rather inefficient when it comes to policy-making.

I have said before that it is a mistake to depict Germany as a hegemonic power; in fact Germany is a illusionary giant, it yields much less power within the EU than many believe and its influence is actually decreasing. With necessary reform left unattended, the economic success the perception is based on might also be a straw fire.

This post was originally published on on 09 October 2012.


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The Fourth Reich Rises?

No one seems to understand what Germany wants. Does Germany have big plans? A European strategy of hegemony?

Amid the international finance crisis the role of Germany has become central to the fate of the continent and for many appears to be the only hope for solving this quagmire. At the same time many seem to fear the creation of a German empire built on the shoulders of the other European countries and infiltrating EU institutions. Italian newspapers speak of the Fourth Reich, while Italian politicians on live TV ask their German colleagues if they think a United States of Europe would be blond and blue eyed. The sentiment among many seems to follow the lines of: “What they did not achieve with tanks in 1940, they are now doing with the Euro”. Many see it as a foregone conclusion that Germany wants to lead. In last week’s issue of Germany’s biggest quality weekly Die Zeit, the newspaper asked literates from all over Europe to describe their countries’ view on Germany. One of them first asserted that Germany wants to lead Europe and than goes on to denote what the country had to do and not to do as the European hegemon.

On the other side of the fence, some deplore German inactivity. In late 2011 Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski stated: “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity”. This is a little surprising from a politician from a country that suffered tremendously from German occupation during the Second World War and whose press has not abstained from playing the Nazi card when the two countries were involved in a conflict.

This very well illustrates the ambiguity surrounding the perception of German foreign policy in Europe. No one seems to understand what Germany wants. Does Germany have big plans? A European strategy of hegemony?

The problem is, Germany does not know itself. Important is the insight of Germany’s profound lack of a foreign policy strategy and a lack of interest within the general population and political elites beyond situational attention driven by the media cycle. A sophisticated foreign policy elite that would gain wider attention is lacking; the most important foreign policy intellectuals are two old men. While journalist Peter Scholl-Latour has been explaining the “Orient” to the German audience for the better half of the last century, former Chancellor, proverbial chain smoker and 90 years old statesman Helmut Schmidt basically covers the rest of the world (… and economy).

Their influence can be easily deduced by the metres of bookshelf space the two inhabit in Germany’s bookshops. Younger protagonists are hard to come by (which does not mean that they do not exist here & here). As a result German foreign policy often is erratic and uncoordinated despite the fact that Germany is covering large parts of the EU budget (highest absolute contributor) and makes substantial contributions to other international organisations such as the UN (third largest contributor in 2011). Germany is often said to hold nowhere as many senior positions within these organisation as would be suggested by the contributions. Further, while Germany diplomats in New York are lobbying for, and even sponsoring, UN resolutions against weapons trafficking, the German government is selling large quantities of Leopard 2 tanks to countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) amid the Arab Spring.

The lack of a sophisticated strategy is often deplored by foreign policy professionals in Germany (the reasons for such lackings are so plentiful that they deserve their own article). This however, does not mean that Germany lacks strategic paradigms all together. There used to be crucial interests of German foreign policy making: reunification was central but became obsolete after the Cold War. Reunification was prepared by the “East policies” and détente was the vehicle for that. Another central paradigm is the special relationship with Israel: in 2008 Angela Merkel elevated Israel’s security to the level of “raison d’Etat” of Germany.

Other paradigms continue to shape foreign policy making: for Germany the suggestion of integration into supranational organisation is not an attempt to fix its own power into place. Rather, it is a logical consequence of another main line of German foreign politics. After the Second World War – and under occupation – integration into a supranational organisation was the only way for Germany to ensure the other European states that it would not become a revenge power again and opened the way to regain lost sovereignty from the occupation powers. This was a major purpose of “Westintegration”. Multilateralism is in general highly valued by many decision makers. Hegemonic thinking rarely exists. The core tenet of German foreign policy has been the “culture of restrained”. This for a very long time meant that Germany would not aggressively formulate and push for national interests. This is not to say that Germany is following any foreign interests: professionals that have interacted with German embassies can confirm that the country’s diplomats will often help companies to get a foot into the door. However, in the German tradition supporting its own economy has always meant creating economic welfare through cooperation and integration. During the financial crisis the culture of restrained has arguably suffered to a certain degree. However, reviewing German suggestions for how to tackle the problem fits German post-1945 tradition. It aims for further integration, not hegemony.

Arguing that Germany is bound on a course of recreating a Nazi like European hegemony is the wrong conclusion. When dealing with the democratic republic that Germany has been for almost 70 years now, Europeans should keep in mind this quote from Anika Leithner’s 2009 book Shaping German Foreign Policy: “ I often hear foreigners say what they would do if they had Germany’s wealth, its size or its population. I never hear them say what they would do if they had Germany’s past”. They should get used to Germany formulating national interests more obviously than it she has done in the past. However, the lessons of the past are well learned, becoming a hegemony is not one them.

The news from the Fourth Reich? It does not exist.

Originally published on (22 August 2012)

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German Newspapers on Crimea Crisis

Russia has sent troops to the Crimea Peninsula in southern Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has said that he wanted to defend Russian-speaking people there.

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin (c)

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin (c)

While Ukraine is calling up its reserve, puts its military on high alert and we are on the brink of a war in Eastern Europe many are interested in what the continent’s reluctant hegemon (Germany) is going to do. While I obviously don’t have insight into deliberations of our government I want to offer a quick write-up of newspaper reporting and op-eds in Germany on Sunday.

While German TV last night did not bother to switch to the emergency session of the UN Security Council or to otherwise change its program, newspapers today report widely on the developments. The public information station Phoenix recently left their normal program and started reporting on the current events in Ukraine.

The Tageszeitung (Taz) notes that the session of the Russian federal council “was spooky. It was a reminiscence of a CPSU event. Not a single speaker deviated from the official line. Rather, the public was informed why the intervention was necessary […] Officially Putin’s request was preceded by the new Crimera head of government Sergej Axjonow, who was elected only on Thursday. He has reportedly asked Moscow for help with securing peace and order. This practice also reminds of old Moscow ways of doing things”. The Taz notes that Moscow’s behaviour looks a lot like the Soviet Union’s behaviour towards Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1979). It also criticises that Russian TV also has only shown people on the Crimea that are happy about the “liberation” by Russian forces. Thomas Gerlach comments for Taz: “His 50-Billion-Dollar-Party in Sotschi has apparently turned Vladimir Putin’s head. That is the only explanation that he is currently blowing all his fuses.”

Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger writes for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “What is happening on the Crimea and in the east of Ukraine could precede a division of the country […] Apart from warnings and appeals there is not much NATO can do. No sane western politician will argue for a military conflict over Crimea.” Frankenberger calls the reason given for intervention – a threat to Russian citizens after the fall of the regime in Kiev – bogus. He argues that Moscow in fact wants to destabilize the new Ukrainian government.

“Putin takes what he wants”, writes Stefan Kornelius for Süddeutsche Zeitung. Kornelius argues that Putin wants the counterrevolution in Ukraine, “and apparently willing to take greatest possible risk: war”. He points to the irony that Putin over months has obstructed any humanitarian intervention by referring to sovereignty.

Steffen Dobbert writes for die Zeit: “Putin threatens war and tries to justify the invasion of the Crimea with untrue reasons.” He points to strategic reasons as the most likely motivation. Putin might fear loosing the Black sea fleet and Ukraine joining NATO.

For Spiegel Online Sebastian Fischer says Obama is making empty threats against Russia. He argues that the President’s options are limited because he needs Putin for managing international crises.

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Europol’s TE-SAT: Disappointing Analysis On Terrorism

In the 21st century decision makers are confronted with an increasingly complex environment and subsequently the demands on institutions such as Europol have grown exponentially: the body must keep up.


Europol publishes an annual report (TE-SAT: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report) on terrorism activity in Europe which has shown that since 2007 there has been a continued decline of terrorist activity in the continent. The 2012 report however suffers from flaws: Firstly, the definition of the Andreas Breivik attack as explicitly not right wing and secondly, the questionable outlook and trends that it provides. This piece will briefly look at both of these aspects in turn.


The report fails to identify the Breivik attack for what it was: a right wing attack. Separating it from other incidents, such as recent right wing attacks in Germany, creates the illusion of continued low levels of right wing violence in line with historical attitudes of governments in Europe that have tended to underestimate this issue. The report is also inconsistent: In its key judgments the report states that right wing extremism has reached new levels in Europe and should not be underestimated. It is assessed to most likely come from lone actors or underground groups making an implicit link to Breivik. This is, however, surprising because when ignoring Breivik, right wing terrorism is only responsible for a single attack in the EU in 2011. When later discussing the case it is explicitly said that Breivik ‘established his own ideology from various influences and without clear affiliation, presenting himself as a “cultural conservative”’. The formulation here is puzzling as well: “His ideology is assessed as opposing multiculturalism and more specifically Islamism”. It can be assumed that Europol does not believe Islamism to be a form of multiculturalism, but this might be another indication for the somewhat disorientated approach that Europol has taken to this specific case. In addition we can be quite sure that for Breivik a difference between Islam and Islamism does not exist; he opposes Islam per se, making him an enemy of a part of society based on its religious believes. Signifying that he is indeed right-wing.

The contradiction here is obvious; When it comes to the political spectrum: “cultural conservatism” can easily be fitted on the right side of the scale. In addition the use of “conservatism” in this context is a stark euphemism. Taking up weapons with the will to smite the perceived “traitor” is clearly outside the realm of classical “conservatism”.

Even worse: the notion that Breivik has constructed his ideology without connection to a wider ideological movement ignores the obvious facts to the contrary. His manifesto is a copy & paste work. It is not an original piece of work, but incooperates the work of Islamophobes “cultural conservatists” from all over Europe. Europol ignores recent developments on the right side of the political spectrum and the fact that Breivik is embedded in a much larger movement.

Trends and outlook

The trends and outlooks that conclude the report concentrate almost exclusively on Jihadist oriented threats despite that fact that Europe has seen only one such attack in 2011 (the shooting of two US airmen in Frankfurt, Germany). Other than that the report registers 110 separatist motivated plots that either failed, were foiled or were completed, and 37 leftwing oriented. Even when it comes to arrests separatist terrorism still beats religious oriented. A possible bias is also showing itself when discussing the Olympics. Despite fears by experts that Irish republican dissident groups might use the event for attacks, the only variant discussed is al-Qaida inspired terrorism.

To improve future reports in this regard is crucial especially when Europol states that: “The TE-SAT aims to provide law enforcement officials, policymakers and the general public with facts and figures regarding terrorism in the EU, while also seeking to identify trends in the development of this phenomenon”. If this report is supposed to inform decision makers than it will have to improve its assessments. In the 21st century decision makers are confronted with an increasingly complex environment and subsequently the demands on institutions such as Europol have grown exponentially: the body must keep up.

Originally published on TheRiskyShift (11 June 2011).

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Germany’s new foreign policy isn’t happening… yet.

According to Germany’s main foreign policy actors the country needs to take more responsibility on the international stage. But the world community needs to understand that their current rhetoric is  aimed at the German public, which needs to be brought on board before any shift into a more assertive foreign policy can take place.

German President Joachim Gauck at the Munich Security Conference 2014. (c) Kleinschmidt / MSC

German President Joachim Gauck at the Munich Security Conference 2014. (c) Kleinschmidt / MSC

At the 50th Munich Security Conference, Germany’s President Joachim Gauck put Germany’s role in the world at the center of his opening remarks. Germany profited from a stable and secure international environment, he said. Hence, it was necessary to take a more active role. Constitutionally, Germany’s President has little influence on actual policy making. Yet, incumbents have traditionally started or stirred debates through keynote addresses.

Joachim Gauck was not the only one reminding Germany that it had remained at the sidelines for too long. Ursula von der Leyen of the Christian Democratic Union, is the country’s first female Defense Minister and heir apparent to Chancellor Angela Merkel. In her speech to the guests of the security conference she said: “If we have the resources and skills we need to take responsibility and get involved”. Von der Leyen also emphasized the importance of European cooperation and coordination. The crises in the Middle East and Africa were affecting Europe as well, she said. In his own speech Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party agreed, saying that Germany was too important to just comment on world politics or criticize the actions of other countries.

Germany has been faced with demands to step up and take more responsibility on the international stage for years. Foreign leaders have complained that the country remains far too reluctant to act. Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski famously said in late 2011, “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.” Allies in Afghanistan have complained that Germany lacked the willingness to fight. Germany abstained during a United Nations Security Council vote that mandated the Libya intervention.  In particular former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was blamed for talking big words but never doing anything significant. But Chancellor Angela Merkel was also conspicuously absent when it came to pressing issues beyond the borders of the European Union.

Last summer the Economist wrote: “Within Germany this debate [on Germany’s international role] is almost wholly absent. Germans are deeply ambivalent about their growing role in Europe, and generally uncomfortable talking about leadership.” Germany’s elections in September 2013 seem to have shaken things up. There was an unusual flare of newspaper articles dealing with the issue and discussions seem to have had an impact on policy makers as well.

Many commentators have applauded the recent statements of Germany’s leading foreign policy actors. They lauded the apparent willingness for a change in policy: Germany was finally stepping up and investing in a system from which it benefits. Think again.

The speeches were aimed at the German public. Steinmeier and von der Leyen have understood that the only way for Germany to become more active on the international stage is to open up the long-dormant strategic debate within Germany. The public is massively skeptical of any engagement with international issues and crises. The majority of the German population dislikes the use of military force. In a national poll on 31st January 62 percent of the respondents opposed an increased international military engagement. Similar numbers are the usual result of such polls in Germany.

A skeptical population has not prevented Germany to take some military role in the past. Yet, the engagement in Kosovo in 1999 was preceded by a fierce debate within the Green party, which was then part of a governing coalition with the Social Democrats. Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer suffered a blown-out eardrum when a party activist attacked him with a paint bomb. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his foreign minister got significantly more applause when they kept their country out of the Iraq war. German politicians have been able to maintain participation in ISAF, ATALANTA and KFOR despite latent public opposition. However, they have mostly tiptoed around explaining them to their constituencies and have only taken on new military engagements on a small scale and with little risk attached to them.

For the past years the expectation among observers in Germany has been that after the withdrawal from Afghanistan the country would shy away from any more big military missions. It is very far from assuming a leading role. No German government can ignore public opposition to such a policy change. Before the country can alter its stance the population must be convinced. The speeches by Gauck, von der Leyen and Steinmeier are aimed on making a first step in that direction. Yet, a few speeches do not make a new foreign policy. Look for changes in German public attitudes before you can expect a change in the country’s international behavior. Before this happens there is no “New German Foreign Policy”.

Photo: Kleinschmidt / MSC

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I am Spain (not quite a review)

Occasionally, I read books that leave a deep impression and readily connect with my own thinking about contemporary issues. I am Spain by David Boyd Haycock is one of those books. I read the 363 in just about two days, hardly able to put it aside. It describes the fairings of the international volunteers (today we would say foreign fighters) fighting in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s through the eyes of renowned personalities such as Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. This is by no means a comprehensive review but while I stormed through the book I marked certain sections that appear to be relevant to current issues as well.

War correspondents

In Germany the view of war correspondents and journalists in conflict areas or countries is arbitrary. Surprisingly especially within left intellectual milieu. The journalists are seen as war tourists that provide war porn to a western audience already saturated with gruesome details of war. A friend once asked me which additional benefit war photographers add when we already have so many pictures of war.

Haycock describes how the story of Germany’s infamous Legion Condor bombing to ashes the Basque town of Guernica hit the news. Five foreign reporters in a nearby city heard about the city being bombed and arrived when the city was still on fire. They were able to interview survivors and even collect bomb parts proving German origin – while German was still claiming non intervention. While another town had recently been treated in a similar fashion, the presence of international correspondents and the fact that the story broke in several major newspapers simultaneously almost turned an international policy of non-intervention around that prevented the Spanish government from acquiring weapons. The name Guernica today is connected with fascist atrocities in Spain and inspired one of Picasso’s most famous paintings (“Guernica”). The reports on the plight of the people of Guernica had only become so widely known because foreign correspondents had been present in the area and knew their way around well enough to react to the rumor they had heard. I hope as an anecdote it will help to convince at least those on the left of the importance that foreign correspondents have (p.222). Sometimes a change of perspective can change opinions.

Getting home

What I found very interesting was the phenomenon of reverted cultural shock. Not so much because it would be unknown today. Everyone who has lived for some time outside the “Western” bubble will know how hard it is to return to what appears to be an utterly meaningless life with people talking and complaining about meaningless and little things. This is even truer for people that have experienced most extreme situations such as soldiers, aid workers or journalists. They often have huge problems reintegrating back into their societies and keep returning to what they now consider to be “real life”. It is interesting to listen to one of Haycock’s protagonists Kitty Bowler voicing similar sentiments. She writes to her British boyfriend Tom Wintringham: “This different world, continent, of which you know nothing makes me afraid sometimes it was just a dream… There is so much life in Spain and so much life here. I sit in luxury in a grand cool apartment and think of a funny tiny room with no window that was home”. In another letter she describes a party as “agony – all they did was talk of drunken exploits, gold and wall paper…” (p. 264).

Books about wars

A process which you could very well observe in the context of the Arab Spring but that I would not necessarily limit to journalists Georg Orwell describes as follows: “The trouble is that as soon as something like the Spanish civil war happens hundreds of journalists immediately produce rubbish books which they put together with scissors and paste, and later when the serious books come along people are sick of the subject” (p.298).


Georg Orwell wrote that: “ […] If someone drops a bomb on your mother, go and drop two bombs on his mother. The only apparent alternative are to smash dwelling houses to powder, blow out hum entrails and burn holes in children with lumps of thermite, or to be enslaved by people who are more ready to do these things than you are yourself; as yet no one has suggested a practicable way out” (p.300). For Orwell the way out initially was pacifism. I have always found pacifism an idealistic but also somewhat troubling concept.  Renouncing ones willingness of self-preservation and freedom. If we don’t protect freedom it will be taken away. In exceptional times violence might be necessary. Orwell himself later on realized that when he scolded the British left for its defeatism in the face of Germany’s rise in Europe (“pacifism is objectively pro-facism”) (p.358).

For Foreign Fighters nothing changes

When the conflict in Spain ended some volunteers from Germany, Italy and Austria could not return due to the nature of the regimes in those countries. Democracies were often skeptic of the idea to grant asylum to them asking themselves if it was smart to invite seasoned revolutionaries (p.336). I can’t help but see the parallels with the situation after Afghanistan. Many of those that went to fight there couldn’t return to their countries of origin and ended up in Europe.

Spain and Syria

There is more parallel between Syria and Spain. While Germany and Italy supplied weapons and even directly intervened the democratic states of the time stood by a non-intervention policy meaning that they wouldn’t even supply weapons. The democracies kept to that policy even when it became clear that the fascist state violated it. Iran, Russia and Hizb’allah have directly intervened and supplied weapons to Syria. Only the Arab Gulf states have supplied weapons and equipment to the rebels. Their support has elevated sectarian rebel groups. Something similar happened in Spain when Stalin supported the republic. His followers became increasingly powerful.

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Sammlung meiner Artikel aus dem vergangenen Jahr

Einige Artikel, die im vergangenen Jahr verfasst habe:

The Fourth Reich Rises? – I discuss the fact that Germany does not want to be a hegemonic power.

Germany: The Illusionary Giant – I argued that Germany hold much less power in the EU than it was generally believed as well as the possibility that Germany’s current strength might just be a straw fire.

Revolution Is A Messy Business – Thoughts on the diverse outcomes of revolutions.

The consequence of Non-intervention – I asked whether an early intervention in Syria could have prevented some of the subsequent developments.

Germany Won’t Fight – Brief comment on Germany’s role in Mali.

The Life & Significance of a Cautious Jihadi – A Review of Joas Wagemakers splendid book (Thanks Jenny for the help)

Bye Bye Merkel? – I noted the dwindling support for Merkel’s CDU on the federal state level.

Europe Needs Modern Journeymen – I argued that Europe needs more exchange programs for blue collar workers.

What Germany should to about its Salafist problem – I suggested what Germany should do about the Salafist movement.

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