- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005

If there is a people other folks think they comprehend, it is the Germans. No holds are barred when talking about the Germans. In Washington, neoconservatives alternately ridicule German military weakness and expound on the “fear in everyone’s mind” of a remilitarized Germany.

Such discourse ignores the greater part of German history and is unfair to new German generations. Germany today has two histories: one between 1900 and 1945 that is short in years but eternal in memory, and another before 1900 and after 1945 that is centuries long yet eludes memory.

The first thrusts the worst qualities of Germans into the foreground so powerfully it is easy to forget who Germans were before 1900 and who they have become since 1945.

Germans grapple today with economic and social problems that are vital for Europe’s future. Whether they will succeed is best answered by their neglected longer and more recent history.

The first problem is the “German disease” of a chronically stagnant economy. If specters of renewed fascism and anti-Semitism accompany thoughts of German rearmament, a 35-hour workweek, a six-week vacation, retirement at 55, social spending at 30 percent of gross domestic product — all amid the highest wages and taxes — suggest self-indulgence unbefitting the world’s third-largest economy and reputed engine of the European Union. Economically, the German numbers are not good: four consecutive years of stagnation, 11 percent unemployment, and continued lack of investment in eastern Germany.

On the other hand, Germany still accounts for a third of the EU economy. Its businesses have learned the art of the hostile takeover and how to downsize a company. Wielding the threat of outsourcing, corporations bargain harder and major unions agree to longer workweeks without increased compensation.

To attract investment, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder recently announced plans to cut the federal corporate tax rate from 25 percent to 19 percent. Yet, German public opinion is still quick to condemn companies that bully or deceive customers, employees or shareholders. As major political parties study tax simplification, polls show the great majority of Germans support a real economic makeover.

At the price of party leadership, Mr. Schroeder installed a tough five-year reform program (Agenda 2010) and directly carried out new legislation (Hartz IV) forcing 1,7 million hard-core unemployed to accept state-offered jobs as a condition of continuing assistance.

A second pressing problem is the integration of Germany’s 7.3 million foreign residents, most (4.3 million) having settled between 1989 and 1998. Almost half (3.5 million) are Muslim and 70 percent of those are Turkish. Observers worry secular Germans will find themselves at odds with devout Muslims who honor Islamic law over the German Basic Law.

To ease the threat of culture clash, a new immigration law came into force last September, requiring foreigners seeking permanent residence to take substantial courses in German language, law, culture and history. The goal is integration with mutual respect for cultural variety, under the slogan “Learning From One Another, Living Together.” More accommodation than assimilation, it recognizes parallel cultures and layered regional identities familiar to Germans since Roman times.

Many believe these hurdles are too high. With gloomy predictions of absolute 18 percent population decline by midcentury — 15 million fewer ethnic Germans than today — the future scenario of academic doomsayers sees a demographically and economically stressed Germany and European Union falling prostrate before the U.S. colossus.

How can such dire predictions be based on estimated birthrates and revenues five decades away? History is a better measure of who a people are and how they may fare when challenged.

Germany’s long history reveals a people at least as adept at beating the odds against them as raising them.

In the fourth century, German warriors controlled virtually every senior military post in the Roman army and ran the Roman Empire in its last decades. During the Middle Ages, Frankish and succeeding Germanic dynasties melded Germanic, Jewish-Christian, Greco-Roman and Byzantine cultures into a new European civilization. In the 16th century, the Saxons and the Hessians successfully defied Papal Rome and the Habsburg emperor, as Martin Luther, despite himself, laid the foundation of modern religious freedom and pluralism.

In the same century, Germans endured Europe’s largest social revolution (the Peasants’ War) before the French. In the 19th century, they survived Napoleon’s occupation and dissolution of their empire before defeating him with the help of allies, then adopting, as always, the best features of their adversary.

As new generations of Germans continue shaping their postwar history, they may take hope and inspiration from their longer and more recent history. With the advance of Islam into Europe, they may also find in their own, older, Judeo-Christian heritage a refuge from present fear and gloom.

Germany is fortunate its present problems overlap, resolving one promises to resolve the other. A Germany that lets its immigrants fully share in the new democracy will not lack loyal, skilled hands to remain a world power at mid-21st century.

Who in 1950 would have believed that in the second half of the 20th century, as the Cold War began thawing, the two Germanys, at their own initiative (“We are the People”) would reunite and present themselves as the world’s youngest liberal democracy, or that a European Union with German wealth would integrate Eastern and Western Europe at century’s turn, or that Germany’s foreign minister would be the champion of Turkey’s and Islam’s admission into that Union, or that the latter’s anthem would be the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony of an 18th-century German musician?

Count on the Germans for surprises!


McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History

Harvard University

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