A few weeks ago I attended a conference in Berlin, organised by the European Council Foreign Relations (where I worked for five years), on relations between Europe and Japan. What particularly struck me as I listened to the discussions during the course of the day was the lack of common ground between the German and Japanese participants. There are striking parallels in the histories of the two countries – one in Europe, the other in Asia – that go back a century and a half. As a result, policymakers in the two countries now face similar challenges. But instead of creating a sense of empathy between participants from Germany and Japan, the history they share seemed to create tension between them. I wondered whether, because the history that the two countries share is such a difficult one, it may separate them rather than bringing them together. In other words, perhaps Germany and Japan are divided by their parallel pasts.
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?
Over the last few weeks, as Greece has edged closer to leaving the European single currency, there has been much speculation about the different positions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Schäuble, who is generally thought to be more “pro-European” than Merkel but has paradoxically taken a tougher line towards Greece, is usually said to believe the single currency can only succeed if everyone abides by the rules. Merkel, on the hand, is said to worry about more the geopolitical costs of “Grexit”, particularly in the context of Russian revisionism since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Others speculate that the difference between the positions of Merkel and Schäuble is merely tactical: a good cop/bad cop routine in order to extract concessions from Greece.
In a recent article on relations between China and India by the historian Srinath Raghavan, I was struck by the following line: “Not since the late 19th century has infrastructure been so prominent an issue in great power relations.” Raghavan had in mind the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China’s new alternative to the Asian Development Bank, which will be used to fund projects such as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt. China presents them as futuristic projects that exemplify a “win-win” logic in international relations. But perhaps, as Raghavan’s reference to the late nineteenth century suggests, they are more old-fashioned and zero-sum than China’s liberal rhetoric suggests. In particular, the Silk Road Economic Belt – which will run from China through Central Asia to Europe – reminds me of nothing so much as the Berlin-Baghdad railway.
At a discussion I had with Stephen Green and Quentin Peel at Chatham House recently, a member of the audience put it to me that German policy in Europe was normal for a creditor country in a debt crisis. In particular, he suggested that it was playing in a similar role in the euro crisis as the United States did in the Latin American debt crisis in the 1980s. “The thinking in Berlin is no different from the thinking in Washington during the Latin American debt crisis”, he said. It was an interesting point, which prompted me to think more about the similarities and differences between the two crises and between the role of Germany in Europe and creditor countries in other debt crises. It is also relevant to the question of the relationship between ordoliberalism and neo-liberalism, which I discussed in my previous post.
One of the things that has persistently puzzled me over the last few years is the disconnect between the Anglo-Saxon and German debates about the euro crisis. The mainstream view among Anglo-Saxon economists is broadly Keynesian: they see surpluses as a problem as well as deficits and therefore argue it is not only debtor countries that need to adjust. But the only German economists you hear making such arguments are those such as Heiner Flassbeck who are perceived as being on the far left. (Flassbeck was the state secretary in the German finance ministry during the short-lived tenure of Oskar Lafontaine at the beginning of the Schröder government. Lafontaine subsequently left the German Social Democrat party and became one of the leaders of the Linke, or Left party.) It seems as if, in this respect, Germans are to the right of the Anglo-Saxons.
In If This is a Man, Primo Levi writes that he and the 650 other Italian Jews who were sent with him to Auschwitz in February 1944 were relieved to hear the name of their destination. What is now a metonym for the Holocaust was at that time still “a name without significance”, he writes, “but at least it implied some place on this earth”. That extraordinary line resonated with me when I first visited what remains of the camp near Krakow in Poland. Nearly 70 years after Levi was sent there, it seemed strange that Auschwitz is still actually “some place on this earth” – that is, not just a metaphysical break, as Adorno saw it, a uniquely terrible historical event, but also simply a physical location. As you approach the camp by car and see the signs for Oświęcim, the Polish name for the place, it seems incongruous – and even somehow obscene? – that normal life goes on here.
Since taking part in a study trip to Tokyo (which prompted me to write another post on Japan and the concept of “civilian power”) over the summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of collective memory in international relations in Asia. In Tokyo, where we spent a week in discussions with policymakers and analysts from all over Asia, we talked a lot about history and the role it plays in tensions between Asian countries. In particular, there is an ongoing dispute between China and Japan over the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and the Nanking massacre in 1937. This is particularly important because it plays into the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu. There are also acrimonious disputes between Japan and Korea over issues such as the “comfort women” the Japanese forced into sexual slavery during World War II.
At a recent discussion with Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform about my new book, The Paradox of German Power, I was asked about the role of ordoliberalism in Germany’s response to the euro crisis. A couple of years ago, my colleagues Sebastian Dullien and Ulrike Guérot wrote an excellent brief for ECFR in which they argued that ordoliberalism – an economic theory that goes back to the so-called Freiburg School in the 1930s but is little known outside Germany – cast a “long shadow” over current German economic thinking. I think they’re right, but I wasn’t really able to give a good answer about exactly what role ordoliberalism plays in the German economic policy process. The more I thought about it after the discussion, however, the more it struck me that there is a parallel with the role of Ostpolitik in the German foreign policy process.
This summer in Berlin, I finally got around to reading Christian Kracht’s “pop” novel Faserland, which was originally published in 1995 – nearly 20 years ago. The novel – Kracht’s first – has been compared to Brett Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero. In some ways world that the unnamed narrator describes – one of rich kids obsessed with designer labels who lead empty lives – is one that could be in LA or almost anywhere. But Faserland is also apparently an attempt to say something specific about Germany. The title, which literally means “threadland”, is obviously a play on “Vaterland”, or fatherland. In the novel, the narrator travels, apparently aimlessly, from one end of Germany to the other – from Sylt in the north to Bodensee in the far south (and then, in the final chapter, to Switzerland). He frequently comments on Germany and the Germans. So what, if anything, does Faserland tell us about Germany?