Kann Deutschland Europa führen?

9 mins read
Kann Deutschland Europa führen?

In the article published on the NTV.de website under the signature of Prof. Dr. Hartmut Kaelble; Germany’s leadership in solving the crisis that started in Europe with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is discussed. The title of the article is; “Kann Deutschland Europa führen?” in German.

Kann Deutschland Europa führen?

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there has been talk of German leadership in Europe – again. Important reasons suggest that the idea is not a good one, including the experience of the Merkel years.

People are talking about German leadership in Europe again. Sometimes there are calls for Germany to take the lead in Europe and not let the continent continue to drift along without leadership. Sometimes there are warnings of a dangerous German domination that would repeat in a new form the Nazi occupation of Europe.

One should not be under the illusion that this discussion is new. Since the founding of the Bismarck Empire some 150 years ago, Germans as well as other Europeans have repeatedly debated, tried to assert, and fought over Germany’s leadership in Europe. On this long history of a leadership debate, one can draw four conclusions.

Germany is too small

The first conclusion has already been drawn by the historian Ludwig Dehio right after the Second World War: Germany is too small demographically, economically, militarily, and culturally to lead Europe. It is easily overlooked that Germany represents only barely one fifth of the population of the present European Union and also only one quarter of the social product of the European Union. The population share of North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany is larger than the population share of Germany in the EU.

Real leadership roles in history were based on quite different demographic and economic weights. Prussia’s leadership in Bismarck’s time was based on the fact that about two-thirds of the population of the German Empire was Prussian and about two-thirds of the economy of the German Empire was generated in Prussia – not to mention the military strength of the Prussian army. The leadership of the United States in NATO after 1945 was also demographically and economically, besides being primarily military, but also culturally effective. The U.S. population comprised about half the population of NATO in the 1950s and produced well over half the economic output of NATO at that time.

Measured against these two hegemonies, Germany is demographically and economically too small to claim leadership in Europe. There is no need to discuss Germany’s military and cultural weight in today’s Europe. A leadership role can certainly not be derived from this.

Germany’s elites do not want to lead

Second, there is no evidence that the German elites, if they want to at all, are developing the capacity for such a leadership role. To be sure, concepts have been developed for decades that German governments have used internationally. These include the ordoliberal concept of the thrifty, social state, alongside the concept of the decentralized federal state with great independence of the Supreme Court, the central bank and the Court of Auditors, and finally the concept of international peacekeeping through trade.

But these concepts are tailored to the German situation. They do not find such broad understanding and support in other European countries that a German leadership role can be built on them. The Ukraine war also devalues at least the concept of securing peace through trade. In any case, the chances of success of these concepts are far lower than the concept of the U.S. after World War II, which was more likely to succeed with clever economic supports such as the Marshall Plan and the combination of prosperity and democracy.

Germany’s leadership is not ordered

Third, it is also not apparent that Germany’s sole leadership would be desired, demanded, or supported in other European countries. The proposals or ideas of Germany’s sole leadership in Europe come primarily from the U.S., which wants to simplify its European policy and, in the best case, concentrate it on one interlocutor. In contrast, such proposals come very rarely from the member countries of the European Union. Of course, many would like to see a clear, energetic, well thought-out, far-sighted German European policy. But that is something different from Germany’s sole European leadership.

Germany did not pass the test well

Fourth, and finally, the long years of Angela Merkel’s government until 2017 can be seen as a kind of testing time for German leadership in Europe, because for most of those years, the other major countries of Europe were unusually weak politically. Britain was internally saying goodbye to the European Union. French presidents before Emmanuel Macron were internationally insignificant. Italy was rocked by severe crises. Poland took refuge in a kind of self-isolation.

During this period, the German government actually found itself in a leadership role that had not been planned before. But one can ill claim that the years of this unwanted German leadership were particularly good years for the European Union. It was rather a time of severe crises for which the German government could do nothing. But the major crises, the financial crisis, the Ukraine crisis, the Brexit and the refugee crisis were not permanently solved. During this period, moreover, the European Union became weaker on a global scale demographically, economically and militarily. One cannot blame the Merkel governments for this either. But Germany cannot claim that this era, when Europe was still most likely to be led by Germany, was a German golden age of the European Union and that Germany proved itself in this leadership role.

History does not encourage us to see Germany as the leading power in Europe again. There is much more to be said for Germany leading Europe together with a group of other countries, making sure that the interests of the smaller countries are also taken into account. The leadership of Europe by several countries has been the guiding principle of all German governments from Konrad Adenauer to Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Angela Merkel to Olaf Scholz. This joint leadership of Europe in the European Union is an important achievement of European history. For good reasons, European integration is directed against the domination of Europe by a single country. There is no reason to give up this achievement and try once again a sole leadership role of Germany in Europe, which failed extremely bloody in two world wars.

  • Prof. Dr. Hartmut Kaelble held a chair in social history at the Humboldt University in Berlin until 2008. He is one of the most renowned German social historians.


Salih Demir

Salih Demir lives in Germany. He is interested in politics and economy. Germany editor of -ancient idea- fikrikadim.com

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