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Europe’s Bogeyman: ’There Is No Doubt Germanophobia Exists’

Sunday 5 May 2013

Germany’s push for austerity during the ongoing euro crisis has prompted Nazi depictions of Chancellor Angela Merkel in many parts of Southern Europe. SPIEGEL speaks with Cambridge University historian Brendan Simms about the "German question" and persistent hatred toward the country.

SPIEGEL: Professor Simms, protesters at demonstrations across Europe hold up signs depicting Angela Merkel with a Hitler mustache. People talk of a Fourth Reich, and the hatred is palpable. Is this just absurd dramatics, or is it a reaction to a true power shift in Germany’s favor?

Simms: It is undeniably ridiculous to compare Merkel with Hitler. There’s no excuse for doing so. But I differentiate between such demonstrations on the one hand, and on the other hand the entirely relevant subject of the German question, which is part of the European question.

SPIEGEL: We thought the German question disappeared from politics after the reunification of East and West Germany.

Simms: Not at all. What we’re seeing today is a resurgence of historical concerns.

SPIEGEL: In an essay in the British magazine New Statesman, you describe Germany’s power as a "specter" that is "once again haunting Europe." You also say "Germanophobia" is on the rise throughout the continent.

Simms: There is no doubt Germanophobia exists. Look at Greece, at Italy, even Ireland, a country that has never before expressed hostility toward Germany, but which is now full of anger over increasingly painful cuts to its standard of living, an anger that comes from people feeling they have been hung out to dry. Then, of course, there is also anti-German sentiment that stems from World War II, for example in Greece.

SPIEGEL: We can’t help finding this idea that the new Germany has become so very powerful a bit absurd. Just ask the US Army what they think of German military might, as it’s played out in Afghanistan, for example.

Simms: Germany’s power isn’t expressed militarily. It’s more of a structural increase in power, which can be clearly seen on an economic level. We also have an entirely new political situation. For the first time in its history, Germany is surrounded only by democratic allies, countries with which it has friendly relations. But this has also blunted Germany’s ability to assess risk. Germany’s refusal to continue with the planned expansion of NATO, to give serious consideration to a Russian threat or to participate in the intervention in Libya — all these are symptomatic of this lessened risk-assessment ability.

SPIEGEL: You mean to say that German politicians simply don’t dare explain to the public, for example, that Ukraine is also part of Europe?

Simms: There is no critical consensus in Germany on the fact that the European Union’s border should indeed lie further east than it does. There is also too little being done for security in the Baltic states and Poland. Things are different in Great Britain. Here, there is an understanding that, in case of a crisis, we are responsible for everyone, and that includes countries such as the Baltic states.

SPIEGEL: You believe military strength is just as important today as it was during the Cold War?

Simms: Of course economic instruments of power have precedence at the moment. But I had an interesting experience recently while giving a talk in Norway. The audience was quite skeptical when I told them Great Britain remains one of the world’s five strongest military powers. But I said: "Imagine you had a problem with an aggressor up in the far north, and a call to Washington for assistance met with the reply: ’We’re not interested; we’re concentrating on the Pacific.’ Who would you call then?" There was a long pause, but the answer was clear. No one would call Berlin, but rather London and Paris.

SPIEGEL: And this is why a militarily strong Great Britain is an indispensible part of the EU?

Simms: Far more important than a European Great Britain is a British Europe. Europe needs to catch up on something England and Scotland did in the early 18th century, and the 13 American colonies a bit after that: The member states must create a common constitution for themselves.

SPIEGEL: Isn’t the current crisis already forcing the euro-zone countries toward greater unity?

Simms: The problem is that, in this crisis, German politicians tend to emphasize almost exclusively the poor conduct of the countries at the periphery of the EU, and they see changing this conduct as a prerequisite for changing the EU’s political structure. By taking this position, they’re failing to recognize that this poor conduct was in part a result of a design flaw in the way the euro was implemented, which led to the countries at Europe’s periphery being flooded with new, cheap money.

SPIEGEL: Yet isn’t Germany’s position understandable? It’s Germany that has to bail out the other countries.

Simms: My fear is that Germany’s policies on this point consist solely of setting the European periphery conditions it can’t fulfill. But perhaps that’s all the political climate at home allows German politicians to do. The only solution here is a political union, and of course the architecture of that union must ensure that Germany doesn’t end up paying for everyone. There need to be strict controls on spending, as the United States has.

SPIEGEL: You claim it would take an external impulse to get the EU to pull together. Isn’t this crisis enough of an impulse?

Simms: In the course of history, nations have always rallied together in the face of matters of life and death, not poverty. A shock from outside could take many shapes — it could be a terrorist act, a Russian threat in the Baltic or a conflict over the supply of energy.

SPIEGEL: In the past, it was the Franco-German engine that drove European integration. Is the weakness of that engine responsible for the EU’s current structural crisis?

Simms: From the start, Germany and France had very different expectations. Germany in the 1950s saw Europe as a vehicle for gradually working its way back into the club of civilized nations. France, on the other hand, wanted to rein in Germany and increase its own power. It would be good, both politically and psychologically, if France would admit that it can’t ride two horses at the same time. France should make a clear and definite decision in favor of Europe. In fact, the same goes for everyone.

SPIEGEL: It sounds as if you’re calling on German politicians to show stronger leadership.

Simms: It’s a matter of using the power that already exists responsibly. The European project has always been going in two directions at once. On the one hand, the existence of common European institutions is meant to prevent Germany’s power from growing unchecked, while at the same time the idea was to mobilize Germany’s strengths. We should not always view Germany only as a dangerous power. We should also ask ourselves how we can best use Germany’s strengths for the good of Europe.

SPIEGEL: It’s a double bind for German politicians. They’re always doing either too little or too much.

Simms: We have a saying: "Damned if they do, damned if they don’t." Sometimes they can’t seem to do anything right.

SPIEGEL: In your recent book "Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present," you not only write that the German question continues to play a role today; you also seek to prove that this question has dominated European history since the mid-15th century. Is that scientifically sound scholarship, or does it cross the line into obsession?

Simms: It’s verifiable, and the reasons behind it are predominantly structural. First of all, there was the sheer size of the German lands, their abundance and high population. These factors made it practically inevitable that Germany’s neighbors would want to get their hands on large swaths of that land. Then there was the central location. Germany is at the heart of Europe, which means foreign armies have often used the country as a battlefield, or marched through it on their way to somewhere else. Major European powers have often seen Germany as a buffer state between them and their rivals for domination. The Holy Roman Empire was seen as the source of political legitimation— the kings of England and France all tried to win the crown of the German emperor. Even Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, tried to claim this imperial legacy for himself.

SPIEGEL: In other words, the attempts by other European powers to thwart Germany’s hegemonic ambitions have been a constant throughout the history of European politics?

Simms: No, you couldn’t really say that. Most of the time, for example in the Thirty Years’ War, the cabinet wars of the 18th century or the Napoleonic Wars, other Europeans didn’t so much fear Germany as a power in its own right, but rather were concerned with German resources, and keeping these from falling into an opponent’s hands.

SPIEGEL: At what point did European powers begin to fear Germany could come to dominate the Continent?

Simms: As far back as the 17th century, a Swedish diplomat argued that Germany possessed all the conditions it needed to "establish absolute dominance over all of Europe." At the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815, the Continent’s major powers saw to it that Germany was strong enough to fend off attacks, yet not strong enough to pose a threat to peace in Europe. As the drive toward national unification made inroads across Europe in 1848, there were concerns that a unified Germany could destroy the Continent’s balance. Worries over Germany’s ambitions, though, didn’t emerge until the late 19th century. The empire’s newly acquired power and willful foreign policies contributed significantly to the outbreak of World War I.

’I Admire Merkel’s Equanimity’

SPIEGEL: Not just German strength, but also German weakness or inaction posed a danger to Europe?

Simms: Germany’s weakness was always a provocation. It invited invasions, for example by the Ottomans or the French. And a weak Germany also weakened the ability of Europe as a whole to react to dangers from outside. In the 15th and 16th centuries, for example, the Holy Roman Empire failed to protect Hungary and Croatia from Ottoman attacks. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century, following rearmament, that Germany made an effective contribution to containing the Soviet Union.

SPIEGEL: Wouldn’t you say that Germany, in its current role as Europe’s leading economy, pursues a national policy while also engaging when necessary in shifting coalitions, in the style of Bismarck?

Simms: Certainly neither the Prussian spiked helmet nor the mustache is a valued attribute for German politicians these days. And although I take a critical view of Germany’s foreign policy, I admire Angela Merkel’s equanimity when faced with people vilifying her as a dictator. But if Germans feel that a sovereign German state must continue to exist in Europe, then there are strong arguments in favor of a strategy for maintaining power that resembles the strategy pursued by Otto von Bismarck’s empire: finding allies and preventing enemy alliances from forming.

SPIEGEL: After World War II, the Allies created institutions designed to contain Germany and to keep it small. Are those institutions no longer working?

Simms: I don’t believe this is because Germany has changed so greatly. Yes, reunification was a change, but it’s far more the case that the world has changed around Germany. The Soviet Union no longer exists, and Germany is doing extremely well economically. But with some countries in Southern Europe experiencing serious problems, the architecture of the common currency forces Germany to lead and the other states to follow the German model. I am not accusing Germany here of having bad intentions.

SPIEGEL: You write that Germany has far too often been wrapped up in legalistic considerations instead of engaging in politics. What exactly is objectionable about that?

Simms: I was primarily referring to the Holy Roman Empire, which focused on its own institutions intensively and at great length. The Holy Roman Empire reflects a very German penchant for legal solutions produced through long negotiating sessions. This is an admirable quality, but it has a serious drawback: too much time spent debating instead of taking action. It’s not a coincidence that that empire served as a negative example in the debates that led to the creation of the US Constitution in the 1780s, while the union between England and Scotland served as a positive example.

SPIEGEL: Why, then, is Great Britain pulling back from Europe?

Simms: That’s unavoidable and, in fact, can be beneficial for both sides. If Europe is to become a single federal state, then the remaining nation-states — Switzerland, Great Britain and a few others — won’t be part of it because they don’t want to be. I don’t see any imperative to participate. The greatest gifts Great Britain can give to Europe are the English language and its political structure.

SPIEGEL: The British are hardly even taken seriously anymore in Europe.

Simms: That is lamentable. But this insistence that it is essential that Great Britain be part of the union has repeatedly led to frustrations. Smaller European countries see us as a counterbalance to France and Germany, which doesn’t help to advance the union. Besides, it’s self-deception because we are never going to introduce the euro. It also makes it more difficult for the British mainstream to support the EU wholeheartedly.

SPIEGEL: We haven’t seen much evidence that they wish to do so.

Simms: Whether you believe it or not, the number of people in Great Britain who hope the euro will collapse is actually very low.

SPIEGEL: Professor Simms, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by editors Hans Hoyng and Christoph Scheuermann.

See online: Europe’s Bogeyman: ’There Is No Doubt Germanophobia Exists’