While reading Romain Hayes’s new book on Indian independence leader Subhas Chandra Bose’s time in Nazi Germany (which I am reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement), I was struck by a quote from Hitler in one of the footnotes. In September 1941 – three months after Operation Barbarossa had begun and five months after Bose had arrived in Berlin – Hitler told his generals that “our role in Russia will be analogous to that of England in India … The Russian space is our India. Like the English, we shall rule this empire with a handful of men”. This idea of Russia as “a Germanic India” (Karl Dietrich Bracher, The German Dictatorship) reminded me of Bismarck’s famous “map of Africa” quote. In 1888, when Eugen Wolf, a proponent of a German empire in Africa, showed him a map of the continent, Bismarck is supposed to have replied: “My map of Africa lies in Europe”.
What makes both quotes so striking is that they imply that both chancellors saw some of the countries of Europe as potential colonies. Conversely, however, it’s also interesting that even such expansionist figures as Bismarck and Hitler rejected the idea of Germany as a global power. Different as they were, they both envisioned Germany as above all a European power: it was in Europe that it would expand. Of course, this ultimately comes down to geography to a large extent. Nevertheless, unlike Britain and France, Germany never really had territorial aspirations in Africa or Asia. Although Germany did of course eventually acquire some colonies (Tanganyika, Namibia, etc.), it is unique among western powers in that it is not generally seen as an imperialist power – a point I owe to Ivan Krastev.
From a western perspective, Germany’s history is often seen as a burden. But it seems to me that, in a post-Western world, its history is also a source of soft power. Like others, I’ve been struck by the positive perceptions of Germany in places like India and the Palestinian territories (and I understand it’s similar in China). These perceptions contrast very much with those of people in the West, which centre on the Holocaust (among some people in the Arab world, the Holocaust may even sometimes be seen as a positive factor – Germans who have been there often have experiences of this). Together with the longstanding business ties that Germany has (e.g. with Iran and Turkey), this puts it in a unique position. For example, as Helen Pidd and I suggested in an article in the Guardian recently, the BND (the German foreign intelligence service) is able to mediate in the Middle East partly because Arabs do not perceive it as a former colonial power.
This German soft power also puts the decision last month to abstain in the United Nations Security Council on a resolution authorising military intervention in Libya in an interesting light. Whether because of imperial aspirations or imperial guilt, it appears that Britain and France still seek to project power beyond Europe, whereas Germany still conceives of itself as a European power. Many reasons have been offered for the abstention, which has been largely blamed on Guido Westerwelle (whom a German political scientist just described as “the most narrow-minded foreign minister since Ribbentrop”). In my opinion, as I argue in an essay that will appear shortly in The Washington Quarterly, the decision was above all a signal of Germany’s opposition to the use of military force as a foreign-policy tool, even in a multilateral context and to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. But was part of the motivation for the decision to abstain Germany’s underlying desire to preserve its image as a non-imperial power in Africa and Asia?