My take on the German Question

Photo credit: Wolfram Huke at

Photo credit: Wolfram Huke at

Jürgen Habermas, Germany’s best-known living philosopher, sees a “historical failure of the political elites in Germany” because in the current election campaign they talk about every possible banality except the big questions for Europe and Germany.

Actually, those questions are only a new form of a centuries-old bundle of geo-strategic dilemmas called “the German Question”. I wrote an essay about that Question for Juncture, the journal of a British think tank called IPPR, the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Here is the full essay, which they have kindly allowed me to reblog below.

Also, as some of you have already noticed, I am currently keeping a “German Election Diary” on our Charlemagne blog at The Economist. That’s in addition to my “regular” coverage in the magazine. Stop by if you’re interested.

The dilemma at the heart of Europe: Germany and the German question

Andreas Kluth is Berlin bureau chief for the Economist.

03 Sep 2013

Andreas Kluth highlights the issue that has been conspicuous by its absence from Germany’s parliamentary campaign: the relationship between Europe and the economic powerhouse that is too small to lead, too large simply to fall into line.

The biggest surprise about Germany’s parliamentary election – the results of which are not yet known as I write – is what has not been discussed. The omission is glaring, and it raises fundamental questions about the future not only of Germany but of all Europe.

Let us begin with a very partial list of what was debated, in some cases ad nauseam. Whether or how much the Americans spy on Germans. Whether mothers should use subsidised childcare or keep their toddlers at home. Whether Germans should be discouraged from eating meat on Thursdays. To what extent paedophiles once held sway in the Green party; whether foreigners driving on German motorways should pay toll; whether mothers should get higher pensions. And always, always, that German evergreen: whether the rich are too rich and should forfeit part of their wealth (not just their income) in the name of ‘social justice’.

These matters become campaign issues because they are easy to have opinions about. In some cases (spying), they tap into peculiarly German phobias about the invasion of privacy and endemic strains of anti-Americanism. In other cases (childcare), they mobilise reliable legions from old culture wars. Some (meat on Thursdays) reflect the Germanic tendency, best embodied in the Green party, to mix do-goodiness with school-masterly paternalism. And an entire bloc of issues (‘social justice’) is based on a perennial obsession, one that the Teutons share with the Puritans, which was best defined by the late American journalist HL Mencken as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time’. (The nuance, by the way, is that Teutons worry about other people having money, Puritans about other people having sex.)

So what was not discussed? In a phrase: the German question. This is not in fact one question but a complex of geostrategic dilemmas that have haunted Europe for centuries. For decades, until reunification, the German question was considered temporarily solved, or at least no longer pressing. But now it is back, rephrased by what is called the ‘euro crisis’. It is a question that the eurozone – and really the entire EU – must answer. In this election campaign, then, one would have expected Germany’s politicians, above all chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger Peer Steinbrück, at least to begin grappling with it. They did not.

The question, over the centuries, has always had two premises. The first is Germany’s geographical centrality. Even today, Germany has more neighbours than any other country in the EU. The second is Germany’s ‘awkward scale’, as Kurt Georg Kiesinger, then chancellor of West Germany, called it in 1967. It is neither huge like America nor tiny like Belgium. It is too small either to dominate (‘lead’) Europe outright or to exist independently in a world of US, India and China-sized powers. At the same time, it is too big simply to ‘get in line’, as just another member of the system. Thus Germany may have one vote, equal to Malta’s, on the governing council of the European Central Bank. But as supplier of almost 20 per cent of the ECB’s capital, its interests and sway cannot be considered equal to Malta’s (providing less than 1 per cent of the bank’s capital).

Henry Kissinger once phrased this dilemma as ‘too big for Europe, too small for the world’. Thomas Mann, Germany’s greatest modern writer, expressed essentially the same idea in a famous speech in 1953 as a tension between ‘a German Europe’ or ‘a European Germany’. As the eurozone now decides whether to submit to ‘German’ rules about fiscal and economic management, and as the EU as a whole decides where its political centre of gravity should sit, they are all in effect asking the same timeless question over and over again.

During the Holy Roman empire of the German nation, the question was about whether the vast area in the middle of Europe would centralise and dominate the continent or stay fragmented and destabilise it (as during the Thirty Years war). After Napoleon dismantled that empire, the question became how these German lands would unite: as a ‘greater Germany’ with Austria or a ‘lesser’ one with Prussia but without Austria. Bismarck supplied his answer and Europe responded by trying to balance German power with other alliances. This approach led to the first world war. Afterwards, Europe tried to answer the question by keeping Germany down. Indirectly, this led to the second world war.

After that war, the world – as by now the US was involved – gave not one but two answers. First, the whole world was to be split, and the split was to run through Germany, so that it was no longer at the centre of anything but rather at the edges of something, each of its halves being submerged into one of the two global camps. Second, within western Europe, West Germany voluntarily tried to make the question irrelevant by becoming just another member of an ‘ever-closer union’, now called the EU. As part of that deal, Germany explicitly ceded political primacy to France and military power altogether, no matter its economic might.

The first part of that double answer became obsolete when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and German unification the following year undermined the second part. France, in particular, pushed for a reinforcing of Germany’s integration-cum-subservience in the EU by making Germany give up the Deutsche mark, which president François Mitterand once called Germany’s ‘nuclear weapon’. Yes, the successor currency’s central bank would be located in Frankfurt to assuage the Germans. But ‘Frankfurt’ also sounded reassuringly like ‘franc fort’. The ultimate point was – staying with Thomas Mann – to keep Germany, and in this case its money, European. As Timothy Garton Ash at Oxford University has put it: ‘European monetary union forged during and after German unification was not a German project to dominate Europe but a European project to constrain Germany.’

It is therefore ironic that this same monetary union has, from the point of view of the Greeks or Cypriots or Portuguese, led instead to a Europe made German. Only this feeling can explain the posters of Angela Merkel defaced with Hitler moustaches and swastikas that accompany the distressed and angry citizens of the crisis countries when they take to the streets. It is the iconography of a belief that Germany has in fact become a hegemon over the eurozone. In the protesters’ minds, ‘austerity’ – budget cuts to reduce indebtedness – and simultaneous reforms to make their labour and product markets more competitive within Europe and in the world are ‘German’ rules, imposed by Mrs Merkel.

From the German point of view, however, the same crisis looks very different. Leave aside for the moment the question of whether austerity is actually effective as policy and whether reforms are politically feasible in this climate. What Germans see is their chancellor failing to impose her will on Europe, that she is at best slowing down the process of pledging more German money to rescues (despite a ‘no bail out clause’ in the EU treaties that every German seems to know about), paying at best lip-service to new rules (such as the ‘fiscal compact’). The Germans do not blame Merkel for this, for they suspect that any chancellor from the opposition parties would have done more of the same, and faster. But Germans see no evidence that they are dominating anybody. Meanwhile, they do see evidence – the Hitler moustaches on Merkel posters and all that – that they are being blamed as if they were.

This situation both irritates and scares Germans. They see that the euro situation is causing old resentments to resurface, and that many of those resentments are directed against Germany. As Dominik Geppert, a historian in Bonn, argues, they also observe ‘another disagreeable relic of the past: more and more often Germany’s representatives in negotiations at a European level find themselves isolated’. Is this another Sonderweg?

Reared on the lesson that Germany must never again try to be a ‘leader’ (the word is Führer), the German elite is now hearing calls to become just that. ‘I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity,’ the Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski said in 2011. Soon after that speech, the debate started within German academia, when Christoph Schönberger at the University of Constance called for Germany to drop its provincial mindset and become a ‘hegemon against its will’.

A hegemon, as defined by the late economic historian Charles Kindleberger and others, is a country that has military, political and economic power, but chooses to use its power not to dominate other countries but to preserve the existing system, even against its own short-term interest, for instance by acting as lender of last resort. Britain during the years of the gold standard comes to mind, or the US more recently. America’s refusal to become a hegemon sooner, Kindleberger thought, actually made the Great Depression so long and bad.

Right away, this makes the case for German hegemony problematic. After the second world war, Germany explicitly forswore military and political power. It does have economic power, which it could in theory use to be lender of last resort in the euro crisis. But for the time being, the ECB has stepped into that role.

This points to a particular problem with hegemonic theory in this instance, as Werner Link at the University of Cologne has pointed out. The ECB (like the ESM and all the other acronymised EU-spawned institutions) exists precisely because the system to be preserved – the euro and the EU – was designed so that nobody could ever be a hegemon over it – not Germany, nor France nor Britain, nor any combination of them. Under the EU’s horridly complicated voting rules, a decision requires at least 55 per cent of the member states (15 countries) provided these states represent at least 65 per cent of the EU population. The EU’s other bodies, such as the ECB, have similar decision-making rules in place. The whole point is that no single country can dominate.

In this context, then, calls for German hegemony in the current systems amount to demands for German money without any other form of German influence – euros without strings. This is what Germans fear: another ‘transfer union’. They already have two transfer unions at home, and like neither. The first is the German system of equalising revenues among the 16 federal states, so that strong Bavaria, say, gives money to weak Berlin. The second is a solidarity tax that all Germans have been paying since reunification (due to end in 2019) to send money to eastern Germany. They’d rather not add a third layer for the eurozone.

Geppert argues that the resulting ‘semi-hegemony’ is in fact the real German dilemma. Germany is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. If it does insist that recipients of rescue funds observe certain economic rules then it will earn enmity for its ‘neo-imperialism’. If Germany instead opens its purse (through debt mutualisation or eurobonds, say) then its own voters, and probably courts, will eventually balk. ‘Maastricht’ could one day have the ring of ‘Versailles’, ventures Geppert. Regardless, both scenarios are bad for Europe.

These views are, admittedly, rather pessimistic. Germany and Europe are capable of finding a better course. But the point is that they must begin to talk about how to do this – and all the political parties in Germany during this campaign have done their best to talk about anything else instead. Jürgen Habermas, Germany’s best-known philosopher today, calls this a ‘historical failure of the political elites in Germany’. He believes that these debates would be ‘unavoidably polarising’. That they did not occur in Germany in 2013 is a shame.

This article appears in issue 20(2) of Juncture, due out shortly.

19 thoughts on “My take on the German Question

  1. I suspect there are good reasons the “German Question” isn’t being debated during this election campaign. It may have to do with the 30 second sound-bite culture, and because of the mere 90 seconds allowed for each answer in televised political debates.

    On the topic of Germans not eating meat on on Thursdays, how different is this really from how it was when I was a boy, when it was considered wrong to eat meat on Fridays in favour of fish?

    • Relgious Germans already don’t eat meat on Fridays, health-conscious ones hardly eat it at all. But that’s all by choice. The dangerous thing about the Greens is that they want to make laws for those sorts of decisions. If given a chance they’d regulate everything. It’s the paternalistic and illiberal attitude that bothers me.
      That said, today is Thursday, and I suspect I will let it pass into Friday without having eaten any meat. See, all by myself. 🙂

  2. ”……that German evergreen: whether the rich are too rich and should forfeit part of their wealth (not just their income) in the name of ‘social justice’……”

    If *this piece* from the Guardian (UK) is to be believed, the glowing image of the German economy as presented to the outside world is highly flawed.

    Consider only these extracts from the Guardian piece:

    “……Radical reform of the jobs market launched a decade ago has left around a quarter of the workforce in low-paid, insecure and part-time employment……”


    “……25% of all German workers earn less than €9.54 (£8.15) per hour. In Europe only Lithuania has a higher percentage of low earners – those earning less than two-thirds of the national average wage……”


    “……..Mini-jobs are destroying ordinary workplaces, and for most people they do not provide a living wage. It can’t be that even in the US most states have a minimum wage, while Germany, one of the world’s richest countries, has none……”


    “…….the top end German workers’ wages rose by 25% between 1999 and 2010 while salaries in the lowest fifth rose by a mere 7.5%, when inflation was 18%……..”


    “……The situation has fuelled a growing poor-rich divide as well as increasing resentment among those who see German prosperity being built on the exploitation of the downtrodden……..”

    A damning picture indeed.

    Of course, if one removes the words “German” and “Germany”, it could describe what’s going on everywhere. But still…..

    • 1) That reads like the talking points out of the party programmes of The Left, SPD or Greens. Some of it is correct and worrisome and needs attention. Other bits are platitudes, and other bits are wrong. One example: “fuelled a growing poor-rich divide”. Aside from the mixed metaphor, that is not correct as stated. The Gini coefficient in Germany has been FALLING since about 2005.

      2) You listed this in response to a line in my piece, which was: “whether the rich are too rich and should forfeit part of their wealth (not just their income) in the name of ‘social justice’”

      That’s an interesting non sequitur. The line did not contain a subsequent phrase “whether the poor are too poor and should get free or better [insert social service]”
      So you jumped from a phrase that was about taxing people who are well off to a list of social ills, with the implied causality that taxing the well off would somehow cure these ills, and the assumption that there are no other or better ways to address them?

    • I’m not sure he really said it, but Winston Churchill is quoted as saying: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of the blessings. The inherent blessing of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.” It nicely sums up the polarity of the debate on inequality and how it should be addressed. I like your final statement that often there is an assumption that there are not other or better ways to address inequality than by taxing high incomes or even wealth. We need to be finding some of these other and better ways rather than just hoping for an economic boom to fix things.

      I guess it comes down to whether you agree with The Spirit Level or The Spirit Level Delusion.

    • @Thomas – The quote from Winston Churchill puts me in mind of that old joke, that under Capitalism Man exploits Man; under Socialism it’s the other way around.

      I’ve always rather liked that.

      @Andreas – Do I take it that Mrs Merkel doesn’t have to canvass you for your vote on the 22nd?!!

      ”……The Gini coefficient in Germany has been FALLING since about 2005……”

      This would appear not true if the graph in *this article* is to be believed.

      You’ll see the German Gini coefficient is more or less unchanged from 2005 to 2010, with the coefficient for 2010 (0.29) the same as for 2005, after a quite steep rise from 0.25 between 2000 and 2005.

      I don’t have the figures for 2011 to 2013. If they exist, do they, peradventure, show a significant drop in this two year period? If so, what is the current figure?

      You said of my previous comment, “…….you jumped from a phrase that was about taxing people who are well off to a list of social ills, with the implied causality that taxing the well off would somehow cure these ills……..”

      I’m surprised you can’t see this causality. Governments, after all, redistribute wealth from the Rich to the Poor through the tax mechanism, and have done this successfully many times in many countries in recent history, to the benefit of their societies as a whole. You would surely know this.

      Since in Germany, as well as in the other industrialised lands, the numbers of the Poor are growing, and the wealth of the Rich is becoming greater, with no end in sight to this dynamic, the need to use the tax mechanism to stop this unconscionable dynamic grows with each day.

      Since the Rich’s percentage share in the economic pie in most industrialised lands is now about 50% or close to that, it follows that imposing heavier taxes on the Rich help the Poor, is the way to go.

      Because taxing the Rich to help the Poor has a successful history, the burden of proof is on those who assert there are more effective ways for the Rich to help the Poor.

      You doubtless know that the top marginal income tax rates in all the industrialised countries are today the lowest they’ve been in at least the last 60 years (consider just the US, where in the golden 1950’s the top marginal rate was 91%, and in 1980 70%, compared to today’s 39%).

      Hence taxes today on the Rich are little over half what they were as recently as 30 years ago. More reason, therefore, for today’s Rich to cough up a little more.

    • @Christopher:
      sorry for the tardy reply. Lots going on in my reporting life at the moment.

      “Do I take it that Mrs Merkel doesn’t have to canvass you for your vote on the 22nd?!!”

      No, you should never extrapolate any private conclusions I might draw from my public musings. Also, btw, it is not as easy as that (and I know you know that). Germans do not vote for a person, they vote for a party, often tactically and with the intention of making a specific coalition more likely.

      The Gini coefficient in the article in your link seems precisely stable in the time that Merkel has been in government, having risen in the years before, first under Kohl, then under the SPD-Green government.

      but I’ve seen a different chart, which we’ve also used in the Economist, in which the coefficient has fallen slightly in the past few years. A lot in germany depends on how whether you break out East and West.

      My point would simply be this: Inequality is a global problem that has increased for the past 30 years for reasons we don’t entirely grasp. Beware the quick and easy answers.

    • @Andreas “………Inequality is a global problem that has increased for the past 30 years for reasons we don’t entirely grasp. Beware the quick and easy answers……..”

      Is this not the rationale of those who are happy with the status quo, for doing nothing to change it? The reasons for any status quo are usually not as arcane or as ungraspable is its guardians would have everyone believe.

      Because I know almost nothing of economics, and almost nothing of anything else come to think of it – so that I’m just a Yokel whose mind is uncontaminated by any learning – I think I can see certain things in the matter of inequality that non-Yokels with their minds contaminated by learning, can’t.

      Therefore as a Yokel, I see the main causes of of this growing inequality as fairly obvious. From everything I’ve ascertained, the manifold causes of this inequality contain nothing that’s esoteric.

      I’ll give just a couple of these graspable non-esoteric causes, of which I’m sure you’re aware. I’ll use America as an example, since the other western economies usually end up aping what happens in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave:

      – The steep reduction of taxes on the Rich, who put the consequent savings into the stock market, creating the Bull Market, making the Rich richer still.

      – Chronically high unemployment, mainly because of automation and overseas outsourcing of jobs, making the Poor poorer still.

      These have led to consequences that, were I to talk of them, would make this comment unconscionably long, but I’m sure you get the picture.

      You’re aware, I’m also sure, that the per capita GNP in well-nigh all the western economies has, after taking out inflation, doubled over the last forty years. Hence western societies as a whole are twice as wealthy as they were forty years ago, and have in fact never been more wealthy than they now are.

      Consider how it was, for example, in America in the ‘50’s, ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, when – thanks to confiscatory tax rates above very high levels of income – the economic inequality was the lowest in the country’s history; when there was full employment; when everyone shared proportionally in productivity gains; when the median wage was the *equivalent of $90,000 today* (compared this with today’s median wage of $45,000). And this was the golden age of American economic growth.

      All this happened in a society only half as wealthy as it is today.

      So, as you can surely see, there’s no real reason not to go back to how it was, not only in America, but in the other western societies too, given government’s absolute power to tax, to spend, to pass laws, and to make regulations.

      But, will we go back to how it was? Probably not, absent a catastrophic war, or a sudden apocalyptic economic collapse of a magnitude that shocks us into radically changing the ways we think.

      So we seem destined to beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past……….

  3. I noted one of your recent Twitter entries that made mention of the passing of the renowned critic of German literature, Marcel Reich-Ranicki. I remembered that I’d read his autobiographical “Mein Leben” some years ago, that told, among many other things, of his harrowing experiences during the Holocaust, which he survived, but only through great ingenuity and luck.

    Reich-Ranicki’s life was as good an example as any of how a consuming love of literature has the power to emotionally and spiritually enable one to get through the most depraved circumstances.

    It’s my understanding that Reich-Ranicki was (is) as much a household name in the German-speaking lands, as is the name Brad Pitt in the English-speaking lands. What does this say about the difference between the German-speaking and English-speaking cultures? that in the former, an elderly and cantankerous literary critic is as well known as is a youthful blonde Adonis of the silver screen in the latter.

    But, I’ll venture to say that whereas many, if not most, Germans will at least have heard of Brad Pitt, almost no North Americans will even have heard of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, despite that we in North America think there’s almost nothing we don’t know about.

    Now, happily, English-speakers can read Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s remarkable autobiography in an English translation, by *clicking here*.

  4. I note that economic issues have dominated the comments here, yet they are absent from your identification of the German Question.

    Am I to suppose, therefore, that the pressing European economic dilemmas are a consequence of the German Question – that the answer is in the question – or even that the answer to life, the universe and everything is indeed 42?

    Should we start by facing straight on the universal shortcomings of human nature? Will attempts to cure these through economic manipulation result instead in greater bitterness and misunderstanding between peoples? Is economic discussion a distraction from the painful process of self-criticism and a cowardly avoidance of the true issues by appealing to envy and avarice? I do not know.

    Is it a vanity that all the great questions, of which the German Question is only one, can be resolved in formulas of numbers or words rather than by the more difficult process of coping with them as best we can, and humanely, as they arise?

    For sure – if there are no rich there will be no taxes to distribute, wisely or unwisely. The poor are always with us.

  5. Thought provoking post and take, Andreas.

    I am – more humbly – working on the Germans as well (one of the MoR manias) so I might come back and comment.

    I was btw re-reading some of your posts which were a nice part of our blogosphere slice.

    Hey, now that I think of it, I am back here already. This is what I can gather (one year later) from Rome’s observation point 😉

    *There’s no German question any more*. All that is bad can be turned into good.

    Seen by South Europe AND by some Germans as well, like inspiring sociologist Ulrich Beck, (pretty sure you know him well.)

    What I mean, there are so many reasons why all over Europe people may say: “We still like the Germans (and will always like them)”.

    Ok, there may be problems with them (the Euro crisis, the upcoming European elections, etc.)

    They are transient problems though, in truth.

    Since, as for ‘Rome’ in the broad sense so many things unite us: 2000 years ago – when Germani began to merge with us – and today, when the merger goes further.

    Where to? Well, to an increasingly united Europe, why not? (some people may dislike this but I’m afraid the process can’t be stopped, not many doubts about it.)

    As Ulrich Beck put it a few days ago (on the Roman daily ‘La Repubblica’: paraphrased and abridged by the MoR, pls be so kind as to send me the German-original link, should you have it) :

    *Europe’s crisis – Beck argues – is not economical, it is MENTAL*.

    It is a lack of imagination as for the good life beyond consumerism.

    Most critics of Europe are caught in nostalgic nationalism, like French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut – among others.

    To these critics Beck retorts: open up your eyes! Europe and the whole world is going through a transition.

    Paradoxical and hegelian-dialectic examples lol :

    1. All British media are full of accusations against the EU, but Eurosceptic Britain is also shaken by a wave of European public opinion never known before.

    2. China, as a result of its investment policy and so forth has long been an informal member of the euro-zone: should the Euro fail, China would get a *hard* blow.

    [allow me to add, Andreas – as an example of the said merger: the collapse of the Italian economy would result in a (symmetrical) collapse of half of the German industry, since we provide many of the components for Germany’s manufacturing]


    Thus being said, Beck’s take goes on. I will soon post “Why we still like the Germans (and will always like them). 2″ over at the MoR’s.

    [I must first change the lousy graphical blog theme of my blog which will imply some work pages and posts being pretty tangled]

    All the best dear Andreas
    and keep up the good work in Berlin
    (or wherever you are)

    Giovanni de Roma


    • Hi, MoR-Giovanni,

      as it happens, I’m currently in your country, if you count Etruria. 😉 All lulled into mental lethargy by an Epicurian onslaught to my senses.

      I have not read that essay by Beck (or anything at all while on this holiday), so I don’t know the context. But you, MoR, paraphrase him as:

      “Where to? Well, to an increasingly united Europe, why not? (some people may dislike this but I’m afraid the process can’t be stopped, not many doubts about it.)”

      Leaving aside whether that goal is desirable or not, do you really still think the process “can’t be stopped”? That’s what it felt like in the 80s, and I remember that feeling well. But now the process HAS stopped. Instead, we have a process toward “ever looser union”.

    • Now it is too early. I know. It’s 8:30 but I went to bed 3 hours ago. Tuscany is also my resting place. I’ll try to contradict you whenever i can, for the sake of discussion

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