It may have come as a surprise to many people that Germany—the lynchpin of the NATO alliance on the European continent and a close ally of the United States since 1949—voted to abstain from the U.N. resolution authorizing force against Muammar Qaddafi. The country was a staunch advocate of humanitarian intervention in the Balkans, and it is most definitely not led by a government of leftists who are given to denunciations of American imperialism. Indeed, Chancellor Merkel’s affinity for American values is so pronounced that President Obama recently awarded her our highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Why, then, has Germany been so adamant in its opposition to the Libya intervention?
The answer begins with the fact that two competing narratives of history are currently jostling for supremacy in German politics—each of which presents a dramatically different approach to the memories of World War II and the Cold War. One important thing to note about these narratives is that they are not simple matters of left and right: They cross both ideological and party lines.
The first narrative downplays the connection between force and freedom. It deemphasizes the fact that only Allied arms defeated the Nazi regime, while tending to accentuate the role of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, the West German and West European peace movements, and Mikhael Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost as the causes of the end of the Cold War. In some accounts, the hard line taken by the Western alliance before and during the 1980s and the role of Eastern European dissidents who delegitimized Communist ideology get less attention or are mentioned only as factors that endangered peace.
In the 1980s, the University of Bonn political scientist Hans-Peter Schwarz captured the essence of this political culture when he spoke of the shift from the “obsession with power” in Nazi Germany to a “forgetting of power” in the West German peace movements and in the political language of détente articulated by Brandt. Since the bitter disputes over nuclear weapons in the 1980s, elements of the mood that Schwarz described on the West German left have become part of a much broader consensus in the German foreign policy establishment. For its adherents, this mood is a civilized and decent response to the aggression and crimes of the Nazi regime. It means the replacement of primitive nationalisms of the past with multilateral principles of an integrated Europe. And it assumes that webs of interdependence created by the global economy will make problems solvable through negotiations and dialogue.
These views have dominated German politics since at least summer 2002, when Gerhard Schröder emphatically opposed the coming Iraq war—but the ascension of this worldview went beyond just Iraq. As Andrei Markovits has convincingly demonstrated in his book Uncouth Nation, Schröder’s opposition to Bush’s policies stoked anti-American sentiments in German society. While Germany did send 7,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, their rules of engagement are far more restricted than are those of American and other coalition forces, and their presence remains unpopular in Germany. The massive support for Obama in the summer of 2008—when 200,000 people turned out to cheer him in Berlin—rested partly on the belief that, as the “anti-Bush,” he would turn away from American military intervention, especially in the Middle East. Moreover, in the long and drawn-out negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program, there has been a powerful establishment current opposing tougher economic sanctions and certainly any hint of a military option. Indeed, in a 2009 book about Germany and Iran, the German political scientist Matthias Küntzel referred to the emergence of a “new constellation. On the one side, the Western powers, the USA, France and Great Britain and on the other side, Russia, China and the Federal Republic of Germany.”
The current government of Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is steeped in this intellectual consensus. The government is a center-right coalition of the conservative Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union, along with the market-oriented liberal Free Democratic Party. On March 18, Westerwelle (who has spent his entire career in the Free Democratic Party, a small but influential party whose base lies in the country’s professional, economic, and academic elite) laid out the government’s position on Libya before the German parliament in Berlin. On the one hand, he said, “We condemn the crimes of the dictator Qaddafi. One can no longer work with this man. He must go.” But, on the other hand, he argued that there are “no such things as surgical strikes. Every military engagement will also produce civilian casualties. We know that from painful experience. We have often talked about this regarding operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Hence, German soldiers would not be participating. He did not explain why or how Qaddafi could be compelled to “go” in the absence of military intervention.
The government’s position has awakened many critics, who can be said to represent the opposing narrative in German politics. Their responses hearken back to the interventionism of the 1990s, when—as described by Paul Berman in this magazine and in his book Power and the Idealists—then-German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and other left-wing members of the 1968 generation, such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Peter Schneider, made common cause with conservative advocates of armed intervention in the Balkans. At the time, Fischer argued that only armed intervention could prevent ethnic cleansing. “Never again Auschwitz” had to trump “never again war” if Germany was to play a role in defending human rights. This time around, critics of Germany’s non-interventionist stance have included one of the CDU’s leading foreign policy experts, Ruprecht Polenz; a former Social Democratic cabinet minister for economic development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul; the leader of the Green Party, Cem Ozdemir; and Fischer himself.
The government’s approach has also met with sharp criticism in the German press. In Die Welt, Richard Herzinger—for years the most articulate critic of the foreign policy consensus represented by Westerwelle—criticized “the shameful way that Germany emerged as the party seeking to delay action” on the part of the Americans, British, and French. Daniel Brossler declared that the decision had eliminated Germany as a serious candidate for permanent Security Council membership, in a piece for the liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung titled “On the side of the dictators.” In the mass circulation tabloid Bild Zeitung, Michael Backhaus referred to the West’s military action as a “just military intervention against Colonel Qaddafi, who has terrorized his own people and the whole world for far too long.” Backhaus offered a remarkable historical comparison: “Just as the resistance against Hitler and his band of murderers hoped for the Allied landing in Normandy, so the rebels in Benghazi hope for fighter jets from the democracies.”
German public opinion, meanwhile, seems to have settled into an awkward place somewhere between these two competing narratives. According to a poll conducted by the mass circulation Bild Zeitung, while 62 percent of Germans supported the use of military force against Qaddafi, only 29 percent supported participation by German troops. Germans, in other words, seem to accept that force can be necessary to avert catastrophe; but they don’t want to use it themselves.
For many decades, the world feared a Germany that forgot its Nazi past or had visions of reviving old dreams of empire. But as Berlin’s current stance makes clear, the true problem—at least for those of us who believe that overseas intervention is sometimes necessary—is not that Germans fail to remember the past; it’s that a particular interpretation of the past (and present) has led one side in this debate to entertain illusions about the diminished role of force in international affairs and thus to rigidly oppose its use for humanitarian ends.
Jeffrey Herf, a professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland in College Park, has published extensively on memory and politics in postwar Germany. He is the author most recently of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.