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?
Alongside the debate among foreign-policy analysts about a “post-Western world” that I discussed in a recent post, there has also been another, oddly disconnected debate about the future of the West as a normative project that, particularly since 9/11, has been dominated by two opposing groups. On one side of the argument are anti-imperialists, who see the relationship between the West and the rest of the world predominantly in terms of the concept of empire and are therefore critical of Western policy and even of the concept of the West. On the other side of the argument are what might be called “Enlightenment fundamentalists” (the term comes from Timothy Garton Ash, who, in an article in the New York Review of Books in 2006, described the Dutch-Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a “brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist”), who attempt to defend the values of the West, which they see as being under threat.
These days foreign-policy analysts – including my colleagues at the European Council on Foreign Relations – talk a lot about the prospect of a “post-Western” world. The idea is that, as rising powers like China and India emerge, the West is losing its dominance in global affairs. In some ways, this de-centering of the West may be no bad thing – in particular, it may lead to a more equal world. But because countries like China and India will also inevitably have different ideas than the West about how the international system should be run, the transition to a post-Western world will be more than just a redistribution of power from west to east. So what will happen to the idea of the West – the normative project about which Heinrich August Winkler writes? In other words, as the economic and political power of the West declines relatively, will the ideas that have emerged from it – and which inform the values for which it stands – also lose their traction? Does it matter if they do?
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.
Germany, I think it’s fair to say, is the most anti-nuclear country on earth. I just returned from a few days in Berlin, where the news was dominated by protests over the weekend against the transportation of nuclear waste from German nuclear power stations to Gorleben in Lower Saxony. The protests were seen as a triumph for the German anti-nuclear movement, which opposes the current centre-right government’s recent decision to extend the life of the remaining nuclear power plants in Germany. Germans are of course also passionately opposed to nuclear weapons, as illustrated by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle’s attempt to remove the remaining US nuclear weapons from the country (see my essay in Prospect last year on this). But one thing puzzles me about this anti-nuclear attitude. If the Germans are so opposed to nuclear power and weapons, why, as I suggested in a previous post, are they apparently so relaxed about the prospect of a nuclear Iran?
My colleague Justin Vaïsse has just published an illuminating new history (it was published in French a few years ago but just came out in English) of the American neoconservative movement , which, he argues, can be divided into three distinct phases. First, between 1967 and the mid-seventies, it was a movement of left-wing New York intellectuals who were preoccupied with domestic issues and in particular critical of liberal social policy. Second, from the mid-seventies through to the end of the eighties, it was a movement of centrist Democrat activists who opposed the isolationist turn of the party on foreign policy under McGovern and Carter but also rejected Kissinger’s policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Finally, from the mid-nineties onwards, it was a movement of right-wing Republicans who believed in a “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy and in particular in the use of American power to promote democracy in the post-Cold War world – including, of course, in Iraq.
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?