Living in the United States, it amuses and befuddles me how much Germany seems as a shining beacon in the world to many Americans. Now, while I do have affection for my home country, and take my civic duties seriously, a more realistic and necessarily critical attitude would be helpful. So here goes. You may file this under “polemic” if it helps.
Modern Germany claims to be several things, at least in theory. A leader in environmental policy, a partner for peace, a model for a functioning social welfare state, a fiscally and organizationally functioning state, leader in the EU and the World, an immigration-friendly and diverse country, a country that has faced its own history and learned its lessons, and which now can be a moral leader.
All of this is to be met with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Let’s look at some details, and they are quite interrelated:
- Fiscal policy: Germany proclaims to be concerned about fiscal soundness, yet both Germany and France were first to break the Eurogroup’s Stability and Growth Pact – which did not, and still does not, stop it from lashing out in rhetoric and policy against countries like Greece and Italy.
- Immigration: While in rhetoric being welcoming to immigration, Germany’s support of the Dublin agreement meant that in practice, no refugees could ever really reach Germany. The willingness to accept a stream of refugees in 2015 was a response to a momentary crisis, but has not really translated into any meaningful immigration policy. This has also led to an unwillingness to take in any of the refugees at the Belarussian border. Now, countries have the right to manage their own immigration policy – just don’t act like the world’s humanitarian if you are not. Somehow, the construction of the border fences at the Polish-Belarussian border has met with much less – hardly any – official criticism than the US-Mexico border fence/wall constructed under both (!) Obama and Trump.
- Racism/Colonialism/Dictatorship: Germany of course has spent quite some energy on confronting its brutal history during World War II and the Holocaust. It has been less willing to seriously interrogate the terrors of East Germany, and the terrors inflicted by East German politicking against Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. Even less willingness has existed until recently about confronting colonial crimes – that situation has improved somewhat, but only due to foreign and popular pressure….
- Diversity: Most European countries have a rather underdeveloped understanding of diversity and an over-hyped normalization of the nation state. Germany is not really doing much worse in that category, but seems to pretend to be.
- Environment: Germany’s track record with the protection of its natural world is predictably horrifying, due to its dense population, but specifically also due to its agricultural policies which have directly contributed to species decline. Currently, in the (necessary!) fight against climate change, many of the remaining protections will be even further endangered. Some of the environmental measures taken – like recycling – are oftentimes scams: Quite a bit of German recyclables magically appear to find themselves in Pacific Island nations…
- Climate Change: You cannot seriously believe that getting out of nuclear power and natural gas is as much of a priority right now as getting out of coal and oil, nor that wind and water are completely neutral, or solar is a realistic possibility in a country like Germany, which is not necessarily blessed with eternal sunshine. If fighting climate change is really a priority, and if this is connected to protecting and increasing (!!!) biodiversity and natural habitats, we have to have a serious conversation about modern nuclear power, about natural gas, about hydrogen, which are all better than coal and oil. Germany is seriously considering not to want to talk about how in a few years, the backup energy solution is importing nuclear power from France and coal power from Poland, while outsourcing its industry to coal-heavy China. I guess as long as Germany does not do it itself, it is not happening. Speaking about climate change: We need to stop talking about bitcoin and other heavy energy users as somehow the way of the future.
- Climate Change and Foreign Policy: I understand we need natural gas, but why make it easy for a brutal dictatorship like Putin’s Russia to have such a hold on us? Germany directly finances his regime, and has put itself into a position of energy dependency. Criticize Russia? You want to freeze in Winter? Why put yourself into such a situation? It is easy: Somehow, public opinion, fanned by parts of the media and politics, sees the United States somehow as the bigger evil, and importing natural gas from the US somehow is out of the question.
- Human Rights: Germany says nothing of substance about the soccer world cup in Qatar or the Winter Olympics in Beijing. German businesses like Volkswagen are just as happy to produce in Xingjian province as they were in other dictatorships. Democratic Israel is criticized and demonized almost every day, and autocratic terror regimes like Gaza and the West Bank – which regularly deny their citizens human rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, free speech, democratic elections, etc. – are somehow coddled and their records on these questions ignored. Does Germany believe Palestinians do not deserve democracy? At least in the case of Afghanistan, Germany and the US are on the same page by not caring about the Afghan people and their human rights either. If you have not embraced sarcasm yet at this point, I don’t know what keeps you going.
- Ukraine: Germany finds every reason in the book to excuse Putin’s policies. Somehow this is – as we are told by the current government – not really related to our energy needs. North Stream II? Let’s not talk about it. And also, no weapons deliveries to Ukraine as it stares down, again, or rather, still, into the abyss as Russia continues to menace it even after the theft of Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk (I am not against Russia, by the way, but against its government!).
- NATO: Germany accused Donald Trump of being anti-NATO, but it refuses to pay its contractually agreed-upon (!) NATO dues, and fails to maintain a real military. I have served in the Bundeswehr, I know. At least here is the good news: Germany will – in its current form – never again be able to invade either Belgium or Poland; that is at least something. Trump is Trump, but Obama asked the same, and Biden will too. German politicians like to say that pacta sunt servanda, that contracts are to be honored. It does not act like it.
- Europe: Germany pretends to care about European Unity, but does everything it can, seemingly, to work against making it a reality. This is done in two ways: first, by demanding further integration – an unrealistic task which will only make Europeans detest Brussels even more – and second, by treating especially Central and Eastern European countries as EU members second class. There is a reason for Poland and Hungary having hyper-nationalistic governments: If Germany would have spent as much energy in reconciling with its former victims in the East as it did with France, specifically Polish-German relations would be a bit easier.
Again, this is a polemic. You criticize those which you expect can do much better. You also criticize hypocrisy, and have to. And I understand some parts of this. Especially with regards to foreign policy, the shadow of two World Wars and the Holocaust is real. But it cannot be used as an excuse to not take responsibility in Europe and the world, and to essentially behave as a well-spoken but hypocritical freeloader.
We are seeing now – and maybe, perversely, we need to thank Putin and Xi for this – that a middle path is increasingly becoming the immoral choice. War is wrong, and diplomacy is always preferred. But the West is not waging war, it is Russia and China who are behaving aggressively. Shall we give in and give up on human rights and democracy? Or shall we rather at least come to the defense of those (such as Ukraine and Taiwan) who are threatened? Shall we stay silent about genocide and concentration camps and the killing of dissidents? If Germany truly believes it has learnt its lessons from its own past, its political answer cannot be merely rhetorical.