Trump & co: From populism to Caesarism

Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan and Viktor Orban already are. Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and a long list of others really would like to be. What? Little Caesars. Because Caesarism sooner or later grows naturally out of populism. And that is a threat to our Western understanding of republican liberty.

That, at least, was my hypothesis when I was invited to a delightful format of intellectual discussion in Berlin called Politischer Eintopf. It means “political stew”, and you literally get a bowl of stew while you listen to a guest speaker. Then you discuss.

This discussion was lively and good. Because it struck a chord. In Europe, we are about a month away from a populist effort to get Britain out of the European Union. In America, a long, slow-surging wave of populism has washed up the figure of Donald Trump. In Hungary, Poland, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Spain, Greece, and … even Germany there are now populist movements afoot.

But why would I even pose a question about Caesarism in this context? Here is why.

Phenomenon I: Populism

Populism (like so much else) originated in the late Roman Republic. The word populism comes from populus, “people”. During the last century of the Roman Republic, two political styles (not parties!) emerged in Rome. They were called Optimates and Populares

The Populares included some famous people:

The Optimates also included some famous people:

  • Cato the younger
  • Cicero
  • Brutus

It’s important to understand that their differences were not about content, or “policies”. Instead, they were about a style of power–about how to attain power and whence it springs.

The Populares went directly to the populus, the people, in Rome’s various assemblies, through what we would today call referendums. They wanted to circumvent the elites in the patrician families of Rome as represented in the Senate. It was (then as now) ironic but not contradictory that the Populares were usually themselves members of the elite they were trying to outmaneuver.

The Optimates in turn wanted to keep power concentrated in the elite, especially in the Senate. For that was part of their idea of liberty. History had taught them that populism sooner or later yields a tyrant and thus a threat to the republic.

What features did populism already have then, that it still has now?

  • anti-elitist rhetoric. Today that can be (especially in America) anti-intellectual or (as also in Germany) anti-PC, meaning against political correctness. That could also mean anti-“mainstream media”.
  • polarization and personalization: populists want to get people riled up and angry. And they want to reduce problems from issues to people. A personality cult usually ensues. If only there were a “strong leader”….
  • Degradation first of language, then of institutions. Violence metaphors enter language. Soon taboos are broken. Violence becomes physical. People (starting with the Gracchi brothers) are killed.

 

Phenomenon II: Caesarism

Caesarism eventually arises naturally out of populism. It requires 1) a few cycles of populist softening of republican values through (the aforesaid) coarsening, polarization and personalization and 2) a charismatic leader. That leader promises at last to bring “solutions” to “problems” that the republic with its tedious processes had no answers for. The populus loves it.

Sometimes Caesars go too far too fast. The first Caesar encountered a Cato, a Cicero and a Brutus, and got himself stabbed. Who would be Trump’s Cato today? Perhaps Paul Ryan?

Other times Caesars are more skillful. The second Caesar was. We know him as Octavian in his youth and Augustus in his prime, but his official name was that of his adoptive father, Gaius Julius Caesar. He never officially abolished the republic he ended, just as Hitler never formally scrapped the Weimar constitution. Instead, Augustus became not king but princeps, “first head”, first among equals. The Senate and all other republican institutions were conspicuously maintained. Only they were now hollow in all but appearance.

America’s founding fathers, above all James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, had this example in their minds as they worried about their young nation’s constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. They feared that a future president could become another king in all but name. An anecdote about Ben Franklin sums up the worry. As he left the negotiations in Philadelphia, a lady asked him: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.” The meaning is all in the second clause.

The founding fathers’s main answer was based on an idea by the Frenchman Montesquieu. It was the separation of powers. He had in mind what we today call the three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. But in time the West has recognized other powers, above all that of a the media. Today’s Little Caesars (such as Putin or Erdogan or Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński) usually try first to take out the free press.

The problem with checks and balances is of course that they slow things down. Everything becomes a process: tedious, complicated, frustrating. Problems seem not to get swift solutions. The populus gets cranky. If only somebody understood us little people, talked as we talk, solved our problems!

Another French philosopher, Joseph Marie de Maistre, once said : “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” Many of us the West will in the coming years find out just what we deserve.

My Germany mix (I: remembrance)

So I finally got around to Hitler.

I took the expiry of the copyright of Mein Kampf as my excuse to reflect on how the Germans have over the past 70 years dealt with the shadow and legacy of the Führer.

But that piece in our 2015 Christmas Issue is only the latest of several articles that I’ve written on the wider theme of German remembrance.

Recall that in 2012 I moved from California to Germany to cover the country for The Economist. In that time (through 2015) I must have written a couple of hundred articles of all lengths, in print and online. So I want to select just a few here on my blog, in a series of posts grouped by themes. And the first theme must be remembrance.

I’ve always been fascinated by German Vergangenheitsbewältigung. That one long word means coping-with-the-past, and it’s telling that only the Germans would need such a term. Germany is cursed with the worst past to cope with. But coped it has. In the process, Germany has transformed a curse into a sort of blessing. All other countries, and even individuals, can learn from it in this respect.

The question, for a country and a person, is: how does one confront the worst in one’s past to atone for it and eventually to transcend it by becoming good in the present?

The answer is: with relentless honesty and everlasting sensitivity so that the act of remembering always connects one with, rather than divides one from, those one has harmed and allows new connections in the present. (That aspect of re-connecting is salient in the Stolpersteine piece below.)

Articles I have written that touch in different ways on this theme of remembrance and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, in reverse chronological order:

Hitler: What the Führer means for Germans today

Obituary: Richard von Weizsäcker

The Graffiti that made Germany better

This is a piece I wrote for The Atlantic on how Germany uses its public architecture “to blend the tragedy of the past with redemption in the present and renewal in the future.”

Stumbling over the past with Stolpersteine

Other themes to come in this series:

Marx was wrong: Humiliation is the base

Tom Friedman was in Berlin this week, hosted by the American Academy, to make himself smart on Germany and to begin plugging the book he’s working on, “Thank you for being late”.

Sipping drinks on a Charlottenburg rooftop before a dinner given for him, Tom and I were talking about one of the many ideas he is pursuing in that book, which is that humiliation is the driver of events in the Middle East today. Young male Arabs in that region arguably feel more humiliated than any other group in the world today. That puts them at extra risk of drifting into the various forms of nihilism. Young Arabs in the banlieues of Paris and other European cities also feel humiliated and are also at risk.

Then Tom and I pondered whether humiliation drives human action (and thus history) more generally. The Germans after World War I felt humiliated by the “peace” the Allies imposed on them, and that humiliation, probably more than hyperinflation or depression, drove them into the arms of Hitler. Today, the Russians feel humiliated by the “peace” the West and NATO imposed on Europe 25 years ago, which appears to make them surrender willingly to the propaganda of Putin. And so on.

Just then I had an embryo of an idea and dropped it into the conversation: Marx was wrong, I said. It’s not the mode of production that is the base, with everything else being the superstructure. Instead our sense of dignity or humiliation is the base. The base is thus not materialistic but psychological.

Tom was intrigued by that half-formed thought so we met again on Saturday at the American Academy’s beautiful lake-side villa for a long talk, marred only by that day’s pollen count, which left me a red-eyed and sniffling hunk of misery. Tom wanted me to flesh out the idea. I’m hardly an expert on Marx. But we ruminated on it for a while and came up with a hypothesis along the following lines, which I would now like to test on you.

Marx was a Hegelian, ie a follower of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whom I’ve called “the archetype of the Teutonic windbag” on this blog before. Hegel thought, in his convoluted way, that history was a process that led, via many surprising turns, to a higher end state. So Marx wanted to one-up Hegel by explaining what the mechanism or driver of that historical process was, and what the end state looked like.

Marx called the driver the “base” and postulated that it was the mode of production — ie, how and by whom things are made in a given society. That thinginess is the Marxist “materialism”. (If I am wrong, you experts, please correct me in the comments.)

Everything else — ideas, thought, art, music, religion, politics, relationships — is but the “superstructure” built on top of that base. User “Alyxr” on Wikipedia depicts it thus:

Base-superstructure_Dialectic

In his own time, Marx thought, Europe had gone from feudalism to capitalism. A new class, the bourgeoisie, had taken over from the feudal lords as the owners of the means of production. This capitalist bourgeoisie now determined the superstructure. But as more and more of the workers on the capitalists’ payroll felt exploited (“humiliated”?), they would eventually rise up, ushering in socialism, and eventually communism. That would be the Hegelian end state.

So Marx thought that production was the deep-down driver of human action, in the way that Nietzsche thought it was power and Freud thought it was sex. But as Tom and I scanned today’s landscape, we started thinking that maybe humiliation was the more powerful driver. We see it in China, for instance, where a synthetically hyped “memory” of the humiliations by the West and Japan play a big part in driving progress.

I see it in America: Many blacks feel humiliated by cops in certain places. Prisoners feel humiliated by the reigning punishment mentality in the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world and in history.

I also see it in eastern (ie, “East”) Germany, where many Ossis march in the so-called Pegida demonstrations in Dresden against foreigners. Like members of the Tea Party in America, Pegida followers tend to be middle class and middle-aged and thus objectively not at the exploited end of any mode of production. But they have a subjective sense that they were marginalized in a reunited and politically correct Germany and feel humiliated.

I think postwar Germany, given what it had just committed, recognized this primacy of humiliation in 1949 by enshrining its positive opposite, dignity, in the first article of Germany’s new constitution:

Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar.

(The dignity of every human being is inviolable.)

Despite this post’s title (which is meant to provoke), the idea is not to suggest that humiliation/dignity should become a new base, with everything else becoming its superstructure. I don’t see, for example, how humiliation (as opposed to technology) could determine the mode of production. And there are plenty of people who don’t feel humiliated but make history nonetheless. So there probably is no single base, and trying to pick one was the real error of Marx and people like him.

But the need for dignity, and the power of humiliation, nonetheless seem basic. Whenever dignity is violated (much more than when property rights are violated, for example) human beings will react. The more humiliated they feel, the stronger their reaction will be. That’s not how all of history is made. But it’s how much of history is made. And because people will always humiliate and feel humiliated, history has no end state.

1989 in the grand sweep of German history

Here in Berlin everybody is revving up for the third big anniversary of the year. The first two marked tragedies: the 100th of the outbreak of World War I and the 75th of World War II. This third one marks a happy event: the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989 and the crumbling of the entire Iron Curtain.

I will soon write something about this in The Economist, of course. But here on my personal blog I want to attempt something more daring: to place the fall of the Wall in the very grand sweep of German history:

Stand back and squint at “Western” history as a whole since the early modern era and the Enlightenment. Bring your attention in particular to two ideas:

  1. national unity
  2. liberty

What do you see? You see that most Western nations first achieved unity in the form of highly centralized kingdoms, as in England and France, or republics, as in the Netherlands and America after their splits from Spain and England.

Popular energies in these nations, inspired by Enlightenment ideals, thus refocussed on the other goal, liberty. This led to successive liberal revolutions with different flavors of conservatism/radicalism: 1688, 1776, 1789.

And Germany? As far as unity goes, it was the odd man out. Until Napoleon, there was the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. But, as the famous phrase had it, it was neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire. In reality, some 300 quasi-sovereign principalities co-existed next to one another, often tensely (see: Austria and Prussia). After Napoleon, other federations or customs unions took the Empire’s place but did not resolve “the German question” of how or even whether the country would unify.

As Germans emerged from the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic Wars, therefore, they had to pursue two goals simultaneously, unity and liberty. That was asking a lot. But they tried, and their twin ideals found a symbol in the colors black-red-gold, which about 30,000 men and women optimistically carried up to the castle of the small Rhenish town of Hambach in 1832. (Apparently, Germans today have the colors upside down, as this picture suggests.)Hambacher Fest

In 1848, at last, the inevitable revolution(s) broke out. If they had succeeded, Germany would have become a liberal republic or a constitutional monarchy¹ with its capital in Frankfurt. But the revolutions failed in the gunfire of Austrian, Prussian and other princes.

And so began what historians used to call Germany’s Sonderweg, or special path, separate from the West. In the decades after 1848, many Germans concluded that pursuing liberty and unity simultaneously was too much, that unity had to come first. The Italians seemed to confirm this view with their (also belated) unification.

The rest is well known: unification with only a sheen of liberty under the aegis and sword of Prussia (after wars against Austria, Denmark and France); a chauvinistic nationalism to cover for the liberal deficit; war and humiliation; another failed attempt at liberty and unity called Weimar; another war, holocaust and destruction; then division.

Dividing Germany into West and East appeared to scrap half of the grand project forever. Germans would never be united, it seemed. But at least those in the West finally got liberty, even if they had it imposed upon them by the Western victors.

And now the full import of 1989 should be coming into focus. The East Germans who decided to stop being afraid and took to the streets in Leipzig and elsewhere, starting in October of that year, at first shouted “We are the people.” This was directed at their communist oppressors and represented their primal scream for liberty. But that same autumn their cry turned into “We are one people.” This was their bold leap for unity as well.

1989 thus follows 1688, 1776, and 1789. But it also one-upped all of them. It was not only the first successful liberal German revolution but also the first of the grand liberal revolutions in Western Europe that was entirely peaceful.

The Sonderweg was over at at last. Germany was finally united and free–and part of the West.

But, 25 years on, is that how Germans see it? This is another question. I hope to come back to it in due course.


¹A year after the revolutions broke out, in March 1849, the floundering Frankfurt parliament indeed offered the imperial crown to the Prussian king, Frederick William IV. He refused this offer “from the gutter”.

Let them talk before they’re gone

In the winter of 2013, I attended the funeral of an aunt at an Alpine lake where she had spent much of her life and her final years. As the coffin was lowered into the frozen ground, I stood next to my godfather and whispered an idea to him.

Born in 1924, my godfather had been sent as a German pioneer to Italy to blow up roads and bridges as the Germans retreated and the Allies advanced, spending most of his time behind enemy tank lines, usually alone. He was captured by the British, spent several years in prisoner camps in Egypt and Libya, then returned emaciated to the bombed rubble of occupied Germany in 1948. He met another of my aunts (the sister of the one we buried in 2013), fell in love and wooed her. He married her in 1953, and thus entered my family, which at that time centered around Uncle Lulu (Ludwig Erhard).

My godfather and my aunt tried to have children. They bore six sons in the next decade or so, but each was born somewhat prematurely. Today, these cousins of mine would live. In postwar Germany, they died. After years of this, my aunt committed suicide in 1968. My godfather found her floating in their swimming pool. She had sedated herself and jumped in.

My godfather fell apart, but eventually picked himself up again, perhaps with the psychological skills he had learned as a pioneer. He learned to fly small planes, because somebody had told him it’s a way to keep the mind still (or otherwise crash). In time he remarried, had two more children, eventually met a different woman, and so forth.

So we watched the coffin go down and I said something like: “Your generation should talk to my generation before your stories are lost. Into a microphone. No judgment, no parameters, just your memories, good and bad, before they’re gone.”

After the funeral I soon forgot about the little conversation. But my godfather remembered. Half a year later, he called and said: “Come down” (to Munich) and bring the microphone.

I was less enthusiastic at first. I had said that at the funeral as one says these things, not expecting to be called on them, and now it was extremely inconvenient in my middle-aged life. But at some point, I remembered why I had whispered my “offer” in the first place. So I spent a long afternoon and evening in his small study amid papers and family photos. And he talked.

Such conversations can fail. I don’t think children or grandchildren can interview their parents or grandparents, for example. The bond is too intimate, and the observer becomes part of the observation. The older person might feel at important moments that he or she is being judged, and there must be absolutely none of that for any of it to be interesting. Having a stranger do the interview is also unlikely to work. There must be some intimacy to get the right stuff out of the person, to let them speak in their own idiom and have things be understood.

I now have many hours of rough, rambling conversation on my computer, unstructured as all human communication is. I have discovered Garage Band and am cutting these hours to condense and arrange the segments, bringing them into an order so that the stories become intelligible. To do so is not to waste time but to enter another one. It puts a lot of things in perspective. I recommend it.

Where every wall tells a story

Since moving to Berlin two years ago, I’ve spent uncountable hours on architectural walks–whenever possible with people who can tell me the stories behind a building, structure or gap.

That’s because the architecture and its stories are so moving, so fascinating and absorbing. This accumulation of impressions had to find an outlet, and now it has.

The Atlantic has just published my big online essay on what I see as a distinct new Berlin style in public architecture and political culture. Its

dominant narrative is tragic, but with redemption in the present. The reunification of the city (and country and continent) in 1990, and the move of the German capital from Bonn to Berlin during the following decade, provided the opportunity and the physical space to express this narrative architecturally. Many public buildings built or rebuilt during this time visually acknowledge the disasters of the past but surround them with the achievements of the present. The combination constitutes an exhortation for the future. The Reichstag is perhaps the best example of how this distinct style came into being.

Indeed, the Reichstag, and in particular the decision when rebuilding it to keep the graffiti of the Russian soldiers who had taken the building in 1945, was the germ of my thesis. That’s why the piece begins and ends with it.

You could regard this piece as part of a series. You might call it a commemoration or remembrance theme, or something along those lines.

It began with my longform article on Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”), the private art project in which people in Germany and other European countries “sponsor” a victim of the Nazis who had once lived at a particular address in order to have a brass plate installed in its public sidewalk.

In pointing you to that piece here on this blog, I already posted a photo of the Reichstag graffiti as yet another example of this remembrance aesthetic. At the time I had not even decided to follow up with a separate piece. But here it is.

My series continued with this blog post on The Economist’s Charlemagne blog (soon to be discontinued, btw) about the astonishing story of the Swiss Embassy in Berlin. It happens to sit right between the Bundestag and the Chancellery, and for a reason.

And so it goes, every day I spend in Berlin: Every wall, rock, hole or hill¹ has stories to tell if you as much as scratch it or kick it. And the stories are often both harrowing and uplifting, and demanding to be told.

There may well be more to come in this series.


¹If you’re wondering how a flat place like Berlin could have hills, well, that is the story. They are not natural. They are the rubble of the destroyed 1945 city, swept up once in the West and once in the East, then built upon by the conquerors to house spying towers (Snowden should visit) and now a venue for all sorts of funky goings-on…. 

 

The Euro crisis seen through 3 historical models

Helmut Schmidt.jpg

When Helmut Schmidt invites you to give an “Impulsreferat” (an impulsive talk to spark discussion) you 1) accept, 2) feel honored, 3) get intimidated, and then 4) do your best to be insightful in a provocative way. After all, the former chancellor, about to celebrate his 95th birthday, not only made a good chunk of history but remains one of Germany’s top intellectuals.

The other day I was indeed invited to speak before him and a distinguished group of his Nationalstiftung, a sort of think tank. The topic was “Germany’s role in Europe.”

In the debate which followed I inhaled a great deal of wisdom and an even greater amount of second-hand smoke (because Mr Schmidt, directly across from me in the picture above, was smoking throughout, as is his wont). I cannot tell you who said what, but I can tell you how I decided to get that debate going.

Three historical models

We could analyse the euro crisis and the entire European Union today through three historical precedents which each would imply a possible solution.

Using the formula “Model | Precedent | Solution”:

  1. Leadership/hegemony | Pax Britannica or Pax Americana | Pax Germanica
  2. Deep integration | Alexander Hamilton’s Federalism in America | United States of Europe
  3. Loose integration without hegemony | Holy Roman Empire | Muddling through

1) Pax Germanica

In the 19th century, Britain preserved the international system (of free trade, the gold standard, et cetera) by being that system’s hegemon. This era is called the Pax Britannica (“British peace” in Latin, harking back to the Pax Romana.)

When Britain became too weak to continue as hegemon after World War I, and America was not yet willing to take over as hegemon, the system fell apart into chaos.

Order was restored only once America became willing, after World War II and with the onset of the Cold War, to step in as hegemon. This is (was?) the Pax Americana.

What is a hegemon? Charles Kindleberger in his class book The World in Depression, 1929-1939 provided the definition. In a nutshell, it is a great power which decides to lead by putting the interests of the system above its own short-term interests in order to preserve that system, for example by being a so-called lender of last resort.

When people suggest that Germany ought to become more of a leader in the euro zone today (as we at The Economist do suggest, but this blog contains — as always! — my personal and open-ended ruminations) they have in mind a regional Pax Germanica, in which Germany in effect becomes the lender of last resort.

I see four reasons why a Pax Germanica cannot become a permanent solution:

  1. For obvious historical and psychological reasons, the Germans do not want to become a leader (the German word is Führer) of anything again.
  2. Whereas Germany’s business elite has a globalist and cosmopolitan outlook, Germany’s political elite is astonishingly provincial.
  3. People in neighboring countries, even those who currently claim to want Germany to be a leader, would not actually be happy if it did become leader.
  4. Above all, the system to be preserved — the EU — was designed specifically so that no single member country could become a hegemon ever again.

That last point needs elaboration, which I sort of provided in this essay on “the German Question”. Thomas Mann once expressed this as the question of whether Europe is to be German or Germany is to be European.

When Germany, France, the Benelux countries and Italy got together in the 1950s to start the European project, their motivations were the following:

  • Germany wanted to atone and be readmitted into a Western and civilized community of nations, explicitly offering to cede political power even as it regained economic power.
  • France wanted to keep projecting influence even as it was losing its power (and empire), especially vis-a-vis America, by accepting Germany’s offer of playing second fiddle in politics to France’s first fiddle.
  • The Benelux, like other small countries who joined later, wanted to gain a modicum of power simply by being part of a system in which nobody else dominated.
  • Italy wanted to outsource its governance to the north.

The structure that became the EU, now with 28 members, was therefore built so that no member can dominate the others. That’s why all the institutions of the EU, from the Council of Ministers to the ECB, have such complicated voting rules and why, for example, tiny Malta has the same number of votes (one) as does huge Germany on the ECB board.

There was no such system, one intentionally designed to prevent hegemony, during the Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. (The United Nations and Bretton Woods were sort of meant to be similar, but clearly were not.)

Pax Germanica therefore is simply not available.

More importantly, attempting a Pax Germanica would entail risks, as Dominik Geppert at the University of Bonn describes in a new book. (I am actually paraphrasing his views from a preparatory essay he wrote:) It would at most result in a “semi-hegemony,” in which Germany would be held responsible for maintaining the system but would not have the means of maintaining it.

This would turn the EU into a tension system. But the EU was conceived as the opposite: a peace project. If hegemony were forced onto a system meant to be non-hegemonic, Greeks might one day again hate Germans (some already do), and that’s what Germans are most afraid of.

2) United States of Europe (Hamiltonian EU)

Confronting a different but not irrelevant crisis in America, Alexander Hamilton in the 1780s conceived a vision in which a relatively loose group of 13 states were to pass their sovereignty to a new federal center.

In so doing, that new central government would take on the debts of the member states and repay them out of a new federal treasury with new federal tax revenues.

Because this constitution proved successful, the Swiss later imported it almost wholesale as the basis for their federal system, so there are at least two models out there.

Applied to the EU, it would mean:

  • EU taxes
  • an EU Treasury
  • EU bonds
  • an EU White House (the Commission), an EU Congress (the EP), et cetera.

Notice, however, that these EU bonds would have nothing to do with the “eurobonds” that are being discussed. Those eurobonds would instead be bonds issued (in the analogy) by California but guaranteed by Texas and the other 49 states jointly. Neither America nor Switzerland has, or could have, such an arrangement. Eurobonds (where Germany in effect vouches for Greece) in fact belong properly into the Pax Germanica model, not into the Hamiltonian model.

Notice that even Hamilton was not able to resolve all major questions, above all the issue of slavery, which he abhorred but had to tolerate in one group of member states. In the EU today, there are no open questions on that scale, but nonetheless very different views about how, for instance, states and markets should interact. America eventually had to fight a civil war to resolve its open question; the EU, remember, is above all a peace project.

That aside, is this model even feasible? My guess is that Germany has more people than any other large member country who would even contemplate ceding sovereignty to Europe. (I am thinking of the old guard of Helmut Kohl and Wolfgang Schäuble.) But they would still be in the minority. Elsewhere, above all in France (not to mention non-euro countries like Britain), you would be laughed out of the room for even asking.

So whereas we can all keep busy planning more shallow integration (that’s basically what the fuss about “banking union” amounts to), deep integration is also not available.

3) Muddling through | Holy Roman Empire

Quite a few historians have of late noticed the remarkable similarities in structure between the late Holy Roman Empire and today’s European Union. I devoted an entire Christmas Special to this comparison last year. Even in Hamilton’s time the Holy Roman Empire was seen as a possible alternative model for a federation in America: Thomas Jefferson, later Hamilton’s archrival, even traveled through the Holy Roman Empire taking notes to explore that option.

It does not matter that the constituent parts of the Empire were not democratic, as the EU’s member countries are. What matters is the way those parts share sovereignty with their union and express that in common institutions.

In a nutshell, the Holy Roman Empire after the Thirty Years War agreed to leave the question of sovereignty and integration ambiguous. Thus its laws were signed by “Kaiser und Reich”, emperor and empire, where empire meant the princes. In much the same way, the German and EU flags today fly side by side on top of parliament.

The struggle between closer union or looser union was thus resolved in favor of a looser union, rather as Britain imagines the ideal EU today. As Hamilton’s America had slavery, the Empire had the Catholic-Protestant conflict, but it defused this through loosening of the union (“subsidiarity” in the language of today’s EU). The Holy Roman Empire would never again fight about religion. (Arguably, the Catholic/Orthodox-Protestant split continues in the EU and euro zone to this day.)

Even the process and style of bureaucracy was similar: Germans today have the phrase “etwas auf die lange Bank schieben” (to shove something onto the long bench) to mean endless delays in Brussels or elsewhere. The phrase originated at the imperial diet in Regensburg, where delegates literally shoved their paperwork onto a long bench which still exists in the city hall today. (Several German Eurocrats have remarked to me that Germans, with their millennium of experience with federalism, tolerate the processes of Brussels more readily than the French or British do, with their history of centralism.)

How did the Holy Roman Empire fare in its final 160 years?

  • Its citizens were comparatively prosperous and free.
  • It constantly had problems with currencies and princes’s debts, as we do today. It kept finding new solutions, including regional currency unions (the Taler zone in the north and the Gulden zone in the south) with accompanying institutions, such as the Kreistage, which resemble our Eurogroup.

Things started going bad when two of its members, Austria and Prussia, began openly competing with each other for pre-eminence, even going to war. This was a failure of the system, which, after all, was designed to prevent a Pax Austria or a Pax Borussia and to preserve a non-hegemonic system. So there is a question about whether such systems can remain non-hegemonic indefinitely.

Weakened by that rivalry, the Empire finally proved no match for Napoleon and expired. The EU could of course face such an external threat one day (Russia?). But until then, it may just have to muddle through the way the Holy Roman Empire did during its final 158 years. That option would not be intellectually clean and satisfying. But unlike the alternatives, it might just be available.

(One more reminder: This is a personal and tongue-in-cheek thought experiment and in now way represents the editorial opinion of my employer.)

My take on the German Question

Photo credit: Wolfram Huke at http://wolframhuke.de

Photo credit: Wolfram Huke at http://wolframhuke.de

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.

Thank you down in South Africa

ImageI just became aware of a fantastic podcast about Hannibal and Me from South Africa. I don’t even know when it aired (possibly months ago).

Image

Ian Mann

But now I’ve got this link. (It took a while to load in my browser, but persevere.) The bit about Hannibal and Me is between minutes 47 and 54.

At first, the host makes a slightly goofy segue into the (admittedly prolific) genre of business books about mass murderers from history. But then a management strategist named Ian Mann, of Gateways Business Consultants, comes out swinging for me with humour and verve.

He keeps extolling my alleged “erudition” and then quips that Hannibal and Me is

one of the few Self-Help books that an intelligent adult can read without wrapping it in a brown cover.

He then makes the case why Hannibal and Me is the book to read if you want to understand your career, whether you’re “stuck” (as the host suggests) or at the top of your game, or dealing with disaster.

Recall from my radio interviews a year ago that I was never very good at talking, in sound bite, about my book. Ian Mann is much better at it. Thank you, Ian!

The throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia

My employer, The Economist, is 170 years old. Another British publication, the Financial Times, turned 125 today.

It turns out that we are

  1. loosely affiliated in some complicated corporate way and
  2. very dearly affiliated in a personal way, because I, for instance, share an office space with them in Berlin.

By pure coincidence, their Berlin Bureau Chief, Quentin Peel, has exactly the same deep, sophisticated British voice and accent that one of our editors in London (Xan Smiley, if you must know) has, so I keep doing double takes whenever Quentin is on the phone, expecting Xan to come waltzing in. I digress.

The first of my points, if this post has any, is that the FT is a spring chicken by our standards. I mean, we were friggin’ middle-aged when they were born. But what’s a half-century or so among friends?

The second point is that it can be strangely revealing to go back in time to what journalism back then was like. And so I indulged myself during my coffee break today by reading their first front page, the one from February 13, 1888.

As was the custom at the time, the articles were listed (no pictures, it goes without saying) in unadorned columns. And so my eyes alit, after the headline on “Russia and Finance” and before the one on “Speculation in Copper,” on an article that began as follows:

The Crown Prince

What is to be the result of the very serious operation which has been performed on the throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia? This is not a mere question of ordinary politics, but one which vitally affects the peace and prosperity of Europe. It is not merely that the Crown Prince is the son of our ally, the Emperor of Germany, and the husband of England’s eldest daughter, but he is a Prince of pacific tendencies, though not less a soldier than the rest of the Brandenburgers. The operation only took ten minutes to perform…..

For those among you who are, or are related to, hacks, let’s just savor such themes as:

  • lede
  • context and history
  • grammar (=> passive tense, hyperbole, …)
  • presentation

Is this not a gem? Happy birthday, FT.

___

PS: As far as I can discern, the Crown Prince (never named in the article) is Frederick III, and “England’s eldest daughter” is Victoria Adelaide Mary Lousia.

Frederick III Vicky