- The German Predicament: Memory and Power in the New Europe
Who’s (still) afraid of Germany? Will this nation, economic giant yet political weakling, eventually bring its political and economic clout into balance—as in the past—to the detriment of Europe? What will be the consequences for Germany’s neighbors and partners in the European Union? In short, whither Germany’s foreign policy?
Markovits and Reich tackle these issues and try to answer the puzzling question of why the evolution of German power after 1990 has not been accompanied by a return to the normal practices of great powers and sovereign states, as predicted by the realist school. Realists expected Germany to translate the structural power it gained since reunification into a more aggressive foreign policy. As Markovits and Reich point out, however, domestic factors act as constraints on the exercise of foreign policy. In Germany’s case, cultural factors within the country have limited its exercise of political power abroad, even as its economic strength has grown. Germany’s failure to assume a hegemonic position, despite its capability, is the result of an internal culture of restraint and reticence conditioned by the German people’s collective memory. Moreover, this attitude is motivated by Germany’s desire not to incite the distrust of its European neighbors, and in turn is shaped by their collective memories of the Germans. The authors conclude that as long as memories, both in Germany, and on the part of its neighbors, define political discourse, Germany will neither assume a position of malevolent dominance nor one of hegemonic leadership in Europe. This is a well-taken and sophisticated, albeit hardly novel, argument. What would be more interesting in the current context is an assessment of the relative strengths of competing memories. To say only that the Auschwitz memory explains Germany’s foreign policy is to tell an incomplete story. For example, the Schröder government’s revitalization of the rhetoric of national interests through in the context of the European Union points to a generational change with memories different from those dominant during the Kohl era emerging.
Also, the authors never quite explain how German responsibilities in the international arena and its alliance obligations are to be determined, how power relates to those responsibilities, and most importantly, what behavior would have been normal for a state like Germany. Hence, the responsible exercise of power recommended by Markovits and Reich remains elusive to the reader. This book clearly restates the German predicament, that the country “is damned if it acts in a way commensurate with its structural power, and it is damned if it stays aloof and acts small,” and the authors offer many insights and innovative categories. But their recommendations on how to resolve the question remain ambiguous. Notwithstanding these shortcomings, anyone interested in why Germany only reluctantly uses its increased political and economic power should take a look at this recommendable book.
Ralf J. Leiteritz received an MA in international relations from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University—SAIS in May 1999.