The Return of Germany

More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, a sense of déjà vu is raising anew issues once thought settled. In Moscow, demonstrators are once again filling the streets, calling for an end to authoritarian rule -- this time aimed at Vladimir Putin instead of the Communist Party. In Europe, resolution of the sovereign debt crisis on Berlin's terms has retrieved the "German question" from the ash can of history.

What happens next in Russia's version of the Facebook-driven Arab Spring will take some time to play out. German dominance of Europe, however, is already enough of a fact to prompt British Prime Minister David Cameron to opt out of any role in the future of a German-run European Union that would constrain British sovereignty.

Margaret Thatcher long ago saw the challenge Cameron would be facing. In a candid roundtable discussion about German unification and the end of the Cold War with Francois Mitterrand, George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev published in the journal NPQ in 1995, Thatcher minced no words. "I was opposed to German unification from early on for the obvious reasons. To unify Germany would make her the dominant nation in the European community. They are powerful, and they are efficient," she said at the time.

Addressing Bush and Gorbachev, she continued: "President Mitterrand and I know. We have sat there at the table [with Germany] very often indeed. Germany will use her power. She will use the fact that she is the largest contributor to Europe to say, 'Look, I put more money in than anyone else, and I must have my way on things which I want.' I have heard it several times. And I have heard the smaller countries agree with Germany because they hoped to get certain subsidies. The German parliament would not ratify the Maastricht Treaty unless the central bank for a single currency was based there. What did the European Union say? Yes, you shall have it."

Thatcher then said what is surely on Cameron's mind today: "All this is flatly contrary to all my ideals. Some people say you have to anchor Germany to Europe to stop these features from coming out again. Well, you have not anchored Germany to Europe, but Europe to a newly dominant Germany. That is why I call it a German Europe."

In the 1995 discussion, neither Bush nor Gorbachev shared Thatcher's alarm. "I felt German unification would be in the fundamental interest of the West," Bush said. "I felt the time had come to trust the Germans more, given what they had done since the end of World War II." Despite the Soviet Union's early opposition to German unity, they ultimately agreed. As Gorbachev put it: "President Bush was right about Germany. The Germans had accepted democratic values. They had behaved responsibly. They had recognized their guilt. They had apologized for their past, and that was very important. So, as difficult as it was to accept, it was inevitable that the Soviet leadership took decisions consistent with this reality."

The ultimate retort to Thatcher's historical anxiety has come from Poland, the country that suffered most at the hands of Germany. For Poland's current foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, German strength is a welcome anchor for Europe as it faces down the global bond market and the specter of slowing growth.

"The biggest threat to the security and prosperity of Poland," Sikorski said recently," is not terrorism, not the Taliban, not German tanks, nor Russian missiles, but the collapse of the eurozone. ... I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. You have become Europe's indispensable nation. You must not fail to lead."

Thatcher and Sikorski are both right; their views are the flip side of the same Euro coin. A Europe in which Germany is the indispensable nation is, in effect, a German Europe. But a Germany ruled as it is today by the kind of democratic rectitude Thatcher would admire, not the maniacal recklessness of the Reich, is precisely the kind of anchor Europe needs.