A German or European question?

Since the euro crisis began five years ago, there has been much discussion of a return of the “German question” – though few of the commentators or analysts who have used the term have explicitly defined the new version of “German question” or clearly explained what it has to do with the original (that is, pre-1945) “German question”. The argument in my book, The Paradox of German Power, is that what defined the “German question” between 1871 and 1945 was Germany’s position of “semi-hegemony” in Europe. It seems to me that since reunification in 1990 Germany has returned to something this position of “semi-hegemony” – as some German historians such as Dominik Geppert have also argued. At the same time, there is no danger of war as there was between 1871 and 1945. So does it even make sense to speak of a “German question” in the current context?

In an essay in the current issue of the Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, the journal of the Institut for Zeitgeschichte in Munich, the historian Heinrich August Winkler reiterates his argument that it makes more sense to speak of a “European question” than a “German question”. He describes how, against the background of reunification, France agreed to go ahead with the creation of a single currency as a way to constrain the new, enlarged Germany, but without a political union – which Germans had always believed must precede a currency union. Thus the German question was resolved – but the “European question” remained open. It is unfinished European integration rather than German power that led to the euro crisis and the inability of the eurozone to respond to it effectively.

However, the assumption of Winkler’s argument seems to be that the “German question” is a security question and in particular a Grenzfrage, or border question. I agree with Winkler that this version of the “German question” was indeed resolved with reunification. As Winkler wrote in an essay for the magazine Cicero five years ago: “On the 3 October 1990, the German question ceased to be a European security problem.” But it seems to me that this does not exclude the possibility that there could now be a different version of the “German question” – not a security policy question but an economic policy question. My argument is that what was originally a geopolitical question has now re-emerged as a geo-economic question – a kind of dialectic of the “German question”.

Thus the argument seems to come down to the definition of the “German question”. Whereas Winkler defines it more tightly as a security policy question, I define it more broadly as a structural question of German power at the centre of Europe. I agree with Winkler that there is a “European question” – and that further integration is needed in the eurozone to resolve it. But it seems to me that, since the euro crisis began, it does also make sense to speak of a “German question” because so long as there is no political union, the distribution of power between EU member states matters. To reject the idea that there is a “German question” implies that the current role of Germany in Europe is unproblematic – even though many see Germany not as a “semi-hegemon” but as a fully-fledged hegemon.

The British historian Brendan Simms defines the “German question” even more broadly: as the question of “how to order the European centre in such a way that it was robust enough to master domestic and external challenges without at the same time developing hegemonic tendencies”. In his book, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present, Simms goes back even further into the history of the “German question” than I do and shows that it was sometimes a question of German weakness rather than German power – for example during the Thirty Years’ War. Simms’s definition also illustrates how closely related the “German question” and Winkler’s “European question” are. In the end, it is one question – and it may not matter what one calls it.


One thought on “A German or European question?

  1. Pingback: History and policy | Hans Kundnani

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