German foreign policy has long been rather subdued and passive compared to other countries of similar economic power. Germany even drew open criticism and ridicule when it refused to support a NATO military intervention in Libya in 2011. Part of this obviously stems from the country’s history, especially the Second World War. After more than three generations, Germans still usually do not display patriotism like other peoples do, if at all. There are no military parades on October 3, when Germany celebrates its reunification, and the display of German flags during sports celebrations is something that has only occurred on a large scale since the 2006 FIFA World Cup. But this has less to do with German history by now and more with the fact that Germans alive today have simply never known things to be different.
Some of the people born in the late 1980s and later by now also have children and they grew up in a unified Germany, know the Berlin Wall only from the history books and to most of them “Nazi” means “skinhead,” not “Hitler.”
Yet they could hardly imagine German armed forces going out on a large combat mission like the American and British did in Afghanistan or the French in Africa. It’s something Germany simply does not do.
The habit formed and ingrained itself over generations. After World War II, Germany did not want to be perceived as a warmonger. Foreign policy, and indeed domestic policy, was made according to pacifistic standards. It was primarily geared toward peaceful relations, especially trade relations, with other European Union and NATO member states.
This attitude is also reflected in Germany’s military spending. Equivalent to 1.4 percent of the gross domestic product, it is significantly lower than that of other G7 states. France spends the equivalent of 2.3 percent of its annual economic output on defense; Britain 2.5 percent and the United States 4.4 percent.
Anti-militarism is so prevalent in Germany that Germans who look to the armed forces as a career opportunity often have to cope with ridicule and sometimes even hostility from their peers. The army is not a part of everyday life but rather shunned and hidden away. While this has not degraded the quality of military hardware produced in Germany, it has sapped the fighting spirit of the Bundeswehr. Military leaders also complain about a lack of moral support from the population for soldiers’ efforts.
But these are just symptoms of the problem. Today’s political leaders are of a generation that grew up with the shame of Nazism in the West and the specter of Stalinism and constant government surveillance in the East. Neither side was allowed to do anything decisive without approval from either Washington or Moscow.
Youngers Germans are beginning to shed these old habits and have at least started to celebrate football and other national events with massive flag displays. But political power still rests with the generation of their parents and grandparents and they are reluctant, to say the least, to play a prominent role in world affairs, even alongside their NATO allies.
Also, and this should also not be underestimated, enough of the Nazi specter remains to remind those who grew up in postwar Germany that the “Once a Nazi, always a Nazi” card can and will still be played against them. A British publication famously proclaimed after a German pope was elected, “From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi.” And during negotiations with Greece at the height of the European sovereign debt crisis, when Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed her heavy handed austerity policies, Greek publications were rife with Hitler comparisons. Whenever Germany shows a sign of strength or leadership, someone, somewhere will play on old anti-German sentiments.
So in order for Germany to change its foreign policy, three things have to change.
The political leadership has to be willing to act decisively and provide adequate funding for missions the Bundeswehr is now simply not equipped to carry out.
Germany’s attitude toward its armed forces has to come closer to the one displayed by its European neighbors, in particular Britain and France.
And the playing of the Nazi card by popular news outlets in allied countries has to stop. As long as they are regularly reminded that even their closest allies still harbor resentments — when those same allies urge them to shoulder more of the responsibility for keeping the world safe — Germans will be very reluctant to deviate from the save and successful path they have trotted for the last seventy years.