I’m currently working on an academic paper on the concept of “normality” in debates about German foreign policy since reunification. In that context, I’ve been reading a lot about Egon Bahr, who I argue played a crucial role in the late 1990s and early 2000s in redefining “normality” in terms of a foreign policy based on sovereignty and the pursuit of national interests. As Chancellor Willy Brandt’s foreign-policy adviser in the early 1970s, Bahr was the architect of West Germany’s Ostpolitik, a policy that dovetailed with the Nixon’s administration policy of detente towards the Soviet Union. Now in his eighties, he is a kind of éminence grise of German strategy and in particular the guru of German foreign-policy realism. In that sense, it seems to me that Bahr can be thought of Germany’s Henry Kissinger.
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”.
It has long been clear that Curveball – the Iraqi defector who provided much of the basis for the US government’s claims about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003 – was a liar. But he has now finally admitted that he made up his claims about mobile bioweapons laboratories, which US Secretary of State Colin Powell used as a justification of invading Iraq in his famous presentation at the United Nations Security Council in February 2003. Curveball, whose real name is Rafid Ahmed Alwan, had until now refused to speak to the press. But in an interview with the Guardian earlier this month in Karlsruhe in Germany, where he now lives, he said that he lied in order to help topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. “I and my sons are proud of that and we are proud that we were the reason to give Iraq the margin of democracy”, he said. Obviously, this was a huge cock-up with disastrous consequences. The question is: whose fault was it?
I call it moral narcissism: the tendency to think about morality in terms of how your actions make you feel about yourself rather in terms of their consequences for others. I argued in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, that German foreign policy debates, for example about the Kosovo and Iraq wars, tend to be narcissistic in this way – they focused, it seems to me, on German identity rather than on the fate of the people in the places where the crises were happening. So I was interested to see that my colleague José Ignacio Torreblanca made a similar point – but in Weberian terms – about Germany’s response to the euro crisis in an op-ed in the FT recently. He suggested that current German foreign policy was gesinnungsethisch rather than verantwortungsethisch – that is, it is based on Max Weber’s concept of an “ethics of conviction” rather than an “ethics of responsibility”. According to this kind of conscience-centred (rather than consequence-centred) thinking, all that matters is being right – regardless of the effects.
For a while now, I’ve wondered whether there is a shift taking place in Germany’s attitude to the Nazi past. It seems to me, although it is of course diffcult to prove this in a scientific way, that, rightly or wrongly, Germany increasingly sees itself as a “normal” country for which Nazism and in particular the Holocaust is no longer of special relevance. So when I was in Berlin this week, I was interested to see the cover story in the magazine of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit about attitudes to the Nazi past among German teenagers. The headline was: “Was geht das mich noch an?” or “What’s it got to do with me?” The analysis was based on an attitude survey of 14-19 year-olds, most of whom affirmed the importance of ongoing remembrance. But, more worryingly, teachers interviewed for the article also said their students were often uninterested in the Holocaust or even, when shown photos of mass executions, expressed sympathy for the perpetrators rather than the victims.
Over the last few months, Germany has been getting a lot of flak. To many observers, the euro crisis has revealed a more inward-looking and nationalistic Germany that is pursuing its national interests more aggressively than before. For example, a couple of weeks ago the philosopher Jürgen Habermas wrote of a “solipsistic mindset” in Germany. In the new issue of the magazine Cicero, which came out yesterday, another éminence grise, the former chancellor Helmut Schmidt, accused Angela Merkel of “Wilhelmine pomposity”. I agree that there is a profound, and in some ways worrying, shift taking place in German foreign policy. But, as I argue in an essay in the July issue of Prospect, which comes out today, it is a complex shift that actually goes back beyond Merkel to the “red-green” government of Gerhard Schröder. I also think the references to the Kaiserreich are a little misleading. If Germany is becoming more nationalist, it is in a quite different way than in the nineteenth century.
Today, on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, German politicians will once again express contrition for the Holocaust, as they have since Helmut Schmidt became the first German chancellor to visit Auschwitz in 1977. But does “working through the past”, as Theodor Adorno put it in a famous essay in 1959, mean anything in Germany today beyond simply commemorating the past? In particular, should the Nazi past play a role in German foreign policy? If so, it must surely mean that Germany should do everything it can to prevent Iran, the world’s most openly anti-Semitic regime whose president denies the Holocaust and calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, from acquiring nuclear weapons. But is it?
I’ve been in Berlin for a few days now in the run-up to the general election that takes place on Sunday. One of the remarkable things about the campaign, which has been lacklustre even by German standards, is the way that the two leading candidates, the Christian Democrat chancellor Angela Merkel and the Social Democrat foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who have shared power in a grand coalition for the last four years, have carefully avoided discussing the key issues facing Germany. Case in point: the war in Afghanistan.