The schizophrenic superpower
Germany is the strongman of Europe; yet at home it appears weak and
divided. Rob Knight reports from Frankfurt on Germany's split personality
Germany's international image has become strangely unstable over recent
months, particularly as seen through the eyes of British commentators.
One week, they warn us that Germany is well on the way to dominating Europe.
So Robert Harris, author of the bestselling Fatherland (a novel about
how a victorious Hitler would have run Europe which has been described in
the German press as pornography for the British upper classes), points to
'the similarity between what the Nazis planned for western Europe and what,
in economic terms, has come to pass' (Sunday Times, 10 May). But
the next week, British commentators will be crowing that a strike-ridden
Germany is becoming the new 'sick man of Europe'.
Within Germany, too, there has been a change in the political climate, reflected
most obviously in the declining public status of chancellor Helmut Kohl
and his government. After German reunification in 1990, Kohl appeared strong,
confident and politically unassailable. Now, he is increasingly unpopular
and there is talk of his government not lasting the full term, despite the
fact that it commands a big parliamentary majority.
The reputation of the Kohl administration at home and abroad has been damaged
by a series of resignations of top ministers, especially that of foreign
minister Hans Dietrich Genscher; by a string of bad election results; by
allegations that the costs of reunification have spiralled out of control;
and by a humiliating climbdown in the public sector strike.
So which is the real Germany? Is it the new European superpower? Or is it
now so beset by internal problems that it will be unable to assert itself
abroad? What is the truth about the problems and the opportunities facing
the German authorities today?
The first thing to be clear about is that, despite the recent attempts by
British economists to claim that Germany has sunk to 'our' level of recession,
the German economy has not yet been seriously affected by the world economic
downturn. The extra demand created by reunification has helped German capitalism
to avoid the slump which has afflicted much of the rest of Europe. The German
economy certainly has more problems today than it had a few years ago. But
compared with just about anywhere else in Europe, Germany remains a remarkably
stable and prosperous country. Even the big strikes of recent months were
conducted in a low-key atmosphere and settled through the traditional methods
Politics not economics
The air of crisis that hangs over Germany today is first and foremost political.
The German government has been shown to be weak and indecisive over a range
of issues. As a result, and despite the country's relative prosperity, the
Kohl administration has little political authority left.
The German government's problems have far deeper causes than a few unpopular
policy decisions or ministerial character defects. After all, other European
governments have less support inside and outside parliament (Francois Mitterrand's
French Socialists were down to 18 per cent in the latest local elections),
yet they do not seem to be in quite the same state of permanent crisis and
indecisiveness. Nor does the resignation of a government minister cause
such ructions elsewhere as it does in Germany.
1945 and all that
The particular instability in Germany has its roots in the German authorities'
lack of historical legitimacy, and the crisis of confidence which results.
To understand this lack of legitimacy, it is worth looking briefly at the
way in which the ruling elite of modern Germany emerged from the Second
By the time the Nazi era came to an end in 1945, the German elite had been
utterly discredited through its collaboration with Hitler. After the war,
a power vacuum existed in German society. The American military filled it
temporarily. But in order to re-establish durable stability for German capitalism,
something more was required. Germany urgently needed a new social order,
with a new ideology that could cohere society.
The division of the German nation between East and West, and the advent
of the Cold War, provided a kind of solution. The politics of the Cold War
ensured that modern West Germany was created as a state which defined itself
through its opposition to the Soviet bloc. Anti-communism became the official
state ideology, the unifying cement of West German society.
A new ID
To win its citizens over to the new order, the West German state introduced
a comprehensive social security system. To ensure a degree of social peace,
the new state installed a complex system of arbitration and conciliation
in labour relations. The West German authorities succeeded in cementing
their society together because, with the aid of massive US investment, the
economy grew rapidly in the fifties and sixties. The combination of material
success, the social system and anti-communism gave the new state a degree
of public legitimacy and established a consensus. West Germany was increasingly
seen as the mirror image of East Germany, prosperous where the other was
poor, democratic where the other was repressive.
The main penalty that the German ruling class paid for these postwar arrangements
was that its ability to play any kind of role internationally was severely
constrained. The division of Germany, the Cold War and the US occupation
made Germany largely subservient to American foreign policy.
Against this background, it is possible to see why the collapse of the Soviet
Union and reunification of Germany has created both opportunities and problems
for the Kohl regime. The plus side of reunification is that it enabled Germany
to emerge as the undisputed leader of Europe. Germany moved rapidly from
being a divided country on the edge of Europe to a united power at its centre.
In addition, Germany now has to its east a group of client states which
provide it with markets, cheap labour and diplomatic support on international
policy bodies. Creating such a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe was
a traditional foreign policy goal for generations of German statesmen before
Hitler. The fact that Germany now wields neo-colonial influence in the east
could have far-reaching consequences for the global balance of power.
The downside of reunification for the authorities is the way that it has
upset the pattern of internal German politics. With the collapse of the
Soviet Union, the ideological cement which bound West Germany together has
gone. Anti-communism can no longer play the same role in cohering German
society that it did in the past. As a consequence, the ruling elite is now
experiencing a loss of direction and a crisis of authority. Robbed of the
certainties of the Cold War era, Germany's rulers no longer feel secure.
The Kohl government has tried to regain its grip by asserting the importance
of the basic values of capitalism and nationalism. This explains the administration's
attempted offensive against immigrants and the trade unions, and its attempts
to reform the social state.
The problem for the German authorities is that a more robust assertion of
capitalist values means breaking with the dominant liberal and corporatist
consensus. Such a shift to the right will tend to polarise society, with
potentially destabilising consequences. It is here that the insecurity of
the authorities becomes an important factor. As soon as it looks as if things
are polarising and the cracks in society are widening, the government starts
to panic and tries to revert to the traditions of consensus. The only effect
is to create the appearance of weakness and indecisiveness, further undermining
the government's authority.
A good example of how this works is the current discussions over Germany's
asylum laws for refugees. The government deliberately started a debate about
tightening up these laws, as a way of raising the nationalist stakes. This
provoked a wave of violence against foreigners and increased support for
far-right parties in elections. Instead of then raising the racist stakes
again to head off the far right, as for example Margaret Thatcher did in
Britain to marginalise the National Front in the seventies, the Kohl government
panicked, backtracked, and called for an all-party alliance against the
Faced with the choice of breaking with the past or withdrawing into the
familiar politics of consensus, the German government took the soft option.
As a result, it has been left with the worst of all worlds. It has damaged
the social consensus by raising the temperature on the race issue, and then
allowed the far right to reap the electoral benefits.
A similar process could be seen at work during the recent major strikes.
First the Kohl government challenged the trade unions and tried to act tough,
then as soon as there was a confrontation it backed down. This time it was
the union leaders who were made to look good, although in reality they were
even less keen to fight it out than the government.
Reunification has not only robbed the German authorities of the ideological
coherence provided by anti-communism. It has also brought a further problem
for them to grapple with: how to incorporate East Germany into the new nation.
East Germans have less attachment to the German state than the people in
the west. The 'Ossies' supported unification with the West for one
reason above all else: prosperity. After decades of misery under Stalinism,
East Germans were desperate for a share of the hi-tech consumer culture
they saw in the West. Two years after reunification, the vast majority of
them are still waiting for their share. The failure of the West to bring
them prosperity means that there is little to attach most easterners to
the German state - especially as many of those running the 'new' Germany
in the east are the same people who ran the old Stalinist regime.
Eastern support for the traditional political parties is tenuous. The Social
Democratic Party, for example, has 930 000 members in the west but only
30 000 in the east. Politics in eastern Germany seems likely to follow the
unstable pattern of Eastern Europe, with voters switching from one party
to another and supporting minor and fringe groups. All of this means that
the German government's problems of legitimacy have been compounded by the
inclusion of East Germany.
End of an era
The crisis of legitimacy in German politics is having a corrosive effect
on the old political structures. Conflicts within the ruling coalition have
become more open. The drifting apart of the coalition partners further reduces
the authority of central government. The government is now so insecure that
some of its own members have been calling for a grand coalition of Kohl's
Christian Democrats with the opposition Social Democrats, to deal with the
current political crisis.
It is also possible to discern within Germany a trend towards regionalisation,
similar to that which is growing across Europe. The regional councils, or
Länder, are pressing for more power and control over the terms and
implementation of the Maastricht treaty, and Kohl has had to make significant
concessions on this. Recent local elections in west Germany brought setbacks
for both the CDU and the SPD, and the growth of fringe parties reflecting
regional and parochial concerns. With the ideological glue provided by anti-communism
removed, German society is becoming unstuck in a variety of ways.
The insecurity of the ruling elite means that in the short term, at least,
Germany is likely to present something of an anomaly. Externally, its superior
economic strength enables it to be the dominant power in European affairs.
Yet, at the same time, internally it is set to stumble from one political
crisis to the next, while the authorities seek desperately to establish
a new legitimacy among their own people.
Society of sand
The situation in Germany bears powerful testimony to the post-Cold War political
crisis facing the rulers of the Western world. It shows that, even in the
most dynamic European economy, modern capitalism is haunted by the problem
of how to hold a society together under the control of a minority ruling
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992