Germany and the World of Yesterday

LSE IDEAS Strategic Update by Leon Mangasarian

Without security there is not only no prosperity, there is almost nothing.

Security is the be all and end all — no matter how much cynical, post-everythings take a jackhammer to reason, understanding and power. A glance at the metrics of states suffering chronic insecurity shows the horrendous cost. Without security there is not only no prosperity;[2] there is almost nothing.

Germany’s ‘strategic frivolity’… a country that has lost the ability and even the language to address and think about power, national interest and geostrategy.

Yet the idea of truly producing, rather than just consuming security, remains alien to most Germans, even as it was underlined in two remarkable speeches by German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.[11] Why is this? In a book, written with Jan Techau,[12] we argue this stems from Germany’s “strategic frivolity.” It’s rooted in the trauma of Germany’s moral bankruptcy under the Nazis, with the Holocaust as its nadir, followed by 45 years of occupation and division under which Germans had limited say in their own, let alone European security.

  • A failure to understand that the past 75 years of peace in Europe is an anomaly that contrasts with the past millennium in which Europe was dominated by war. Germans gloss over that Europe’s fringes are being made safe again for territorial conquest as with Azerbaijan, aided by Turkey, routing Armenian forces (Where was Europe when Turkey and Russia redrew the borders?[13]) or Russia with its land grabs in Georgia and Ukraine. Stuck in a shibboleth of being a “civilian power” where “nationalism and heroism are verboten and ‘leave me out’ is the best part of valor,”[14] Germans express horror at the idea that to keep the peace you must be ready to fight and die for it.

A failure to understand that the past 75 years of peace in Europe is an anomaly that contrasts with the past millennium in which Europe was dominated by war

  • Germany’s military isn’t treated as a linchpin of the nation. With its legendary planes and helicopters that can’t fly and submarines that can’t go to sea, the Bundeswehr, wrecked by decades of underspending, probably couldn’t even defend Germany, let alone other NATO members.[15] In the US, this would be political suicide. But in Germany there are no votes to be won for more military spending. Telling German Friday for Future climate activists that their nation also needs a Friday for the Bundeswehr’s future elicits bafflement followed by disbelief. The breaking of the Bundeswehr happened under 15 years of rule by Merkel and her Christian Democrats. Nothing will change until after the September 2021 election and if, as will likely be the case, any mix of the SPD, the Greens or the former East German communist Left party play a role in the next government, things will get worse. The curious suggestion of Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock is that Germany should not meet NATO’s defence spending goal but at the same time must “strengthen European sovereignty.”[16] She’s a member of what Charles Grant identifies as the club of German politicians “who talk about Europe taking more responsibility for its own security and then refuse to vote for more defence spending.[17] The harsh conclusion is that there’s little chance German military spending will rise to needed levels. This, more than anything else, should alarm the German people and spark deep misgivings among Germany’s friends and allies.
  • There is widespread ignorance of how dependent Germany remains on US armed forces and intelligence services for its safety and security. Almost 50 percent of Germans want the number of US troops in Germany reduced[18] and 51 percent say Germany and Europe should become more independent from the US.[19] Germans almost universally fail to ask the most basic question: ‘Why are US troops here?’ If they did, they’d get the answer, ‘Because there’s a threat to NATO member states from Russia and from Chinese authoritarianism’s use of economic power as a weapon’[20] — as Merkel herself has indirectly admitted[21]. So, if US troops leave there’s a vacuum. The logical follow-up question would be ‘Who fills the vacuum? But since nobody in Germany asks these questions, nobody admits there’d be a vacuum and then explains how it will be filled. The problem with Germany is that there’s no military-security-political ethos. In London or in Paris the question would be: How do we defend Europe? In Berlin, there’s aimless wandering around with lots of process and hand-wringing but no geostrategic compass.
  • Anti-Americanism has long been a potent force in Germany and entire books have been written about it. “Ami Go Home,” is a slogan passed on since the 1950s.That a prize-winning reporter for the magazine Der Spiegel could get away with making up cliché-ridden, hateful stories about the US for years[22] raises questions about the nation’s media culture. The US is too often treated by Germans like the man sitting over a dunk tank at a Wisconsin county fair. You can hit the target with a ball so he looks a fool and falls into the water — and then wander off to enjoy the rest of the fair. Germans endlessly criticize the US but still want to earn money on Wall Street and visit Florida or the Grand Canyon.
  • Germans, even at the highest levels, remain under illusion and error when they look at Russia. Exhibit №1 is Chancellor Merkel who for years has claimed that the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, running from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, is just a business deal. Sorry, Chancellor: with Russia (or China or Iran) there can be no separation of business from geopolitics. Exhibit №2 is former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder who is chairman of the board of directors of Nord Stream 2 and pals around with Vladimir Putin, whom he calls a “flawless democrat.” That Poland and the Baltic states fiercely oppose Nord Stream 2 is of fleeting interest to German leaders. Berlin’s stance on the pipeline has a whiff of then French President Jacques Chirac who derided Central and East European countries for missing a chance “to shut up.”[23] Even the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny seemingly isn’t changing the business-is-just-business doctrine. To be sure, there are striking exceptions to this stance. German military leadership of NATO troops in Lithuania shows that Berlin doesn’t always view its smaller, eastern neighbours as flyover country on the way to Moscow.
  • China is where Germans most fear the idea of looking at trade from a geopolitical perspective. China, in popular imagination, is the country where Germany sells BMWs, Mercedes and its world-beating machines. Merkel’s forbearance regarding Chinese technology for German 5G mobile networks[24] is the same side of this coin. It’s also a wedge in the transatlantic alliance.[25] Merkel’s ramming through of an EU-China investment agreement at the end of last year is “a geopolitical gift to Beijing and a slap in the face to an incoming Biden administration,” says Noah Barkin, a Berlin-based analyst at the Rhodium Group.[26] There’s scant realization of the historic and fateful choice Berlin might have to make between the US and China amid worsening Sino-American ties or even the most limited military standoff. Some 82 percent of Germans say their country should stay “neutral” not regarding a possible US-China hot war but rather merely in a “new US-Chinese cold war.”[27] Most Germans no longer read the Prussian philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz. If they did, they’d realize that war is different from everything else and war changes everything.[28] If there’s a conflict between China and the US in which American soldiers die and Germans think that Siemens and Audi can go on exporting to China it will be the end of the US security guarantee for Europe. The idea that Germans or Europeans don’t have to take sides in a US-China standoff is a dangerous fallacy.[29]
  • Germans may not be pacifists but the almost automatic response to any international crisis is: “A military option is not the solution.” This may be true most of the time, however, Germans fail to understand how military strength can make diplomacy more effective. The prospect of hard power triggers a collective nervous breakdown rather than being viewed as a tool of statecraft. In private, German officials marvel at the clout provided by Bundeswehr foreign deployments. “You wouldn’t believe how carefully Baltic governments listen to us when our Luftwaffe is stationed there,” one official told me.
  • Strategic frivolity is in abundance with regard to Germany’s intelligence services. Their work is widely seen as dishonourable and immoral. There’s little realization that a country of Germany’s size and importance needs its own spies and will be spied on, including by its allies. Allegations that Merkel’s mobile phone was listened to by the US caused nationwide moral outrage. A more useful response would have been a few billion euros more for the BND intelligence service to prevent this ever happening again. In contrast, there is little public outrage over a Russian cyberattack on the German Bundestag.[30]
  • Germany may be one of the most successful trading nations in the world yet the economic importance of “Made in Germany,” free trade and globalization for the nation’s prosperity is hideously unrecognized and apparently not taught in school. Even a new Tesla plant being built outside Berlin triggered protests and legal action that repeatedly delayed its construction. There were bigger protests against the now defunct EU-US free trade agreement (TTIP). Regarding trade, a spoiled and sated society is unable to comprehend the foundation of its success.
  • Related to this, Germans are oblivious to the fact that their business model: exports, is totally dependent on the US given that 90 percent of world trade goes by ship and the US guards the global seaways.
  • What follows is a failure to understand that keeping Germany fit as an economic powerhouse is intensely important for the success of the EU. Chancellor Schröder committed political suicide with his hugely successful Agenda 2010 economic reforms. Merkel not only lacks the courage to continue Schröder’s reforms, she’s chipped away at them, raising taxes, social benefits and energy costs. Germany now has almost the most expensive electricity in Europe, mind-numbing corporate regulation and some of the highest taxes in the world. Holding the EU together is going to take a lot of money. Only a rich Germany with dynamic economic growth can shoulder the cost.

Exports are totally dependent on the US given that 90 percent of world trade goes by ship and the US guards the global seaways.

  • Germans massively underestimate the cost to the EU of losing the UK. The quaint habit Germans have of referring to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as merely “die Englander” may be part of the reason. Germans are truly saddened by Brexit but they overlook the impact of a big, like-minded nation exiting the European project: a military nuclear power with battle-hardened combat troops; a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing club (with the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand); a permanent member of the UN Security Council; a democracy and bureaucracy with centuries of experience; a big free-trading nation (that helped Berlin counter Paris); and the country with some of Europe’s best diplomatic and intelligence services. Minus the UK, the European Union will be poorer and diminished. Germany urgently needs to start thinking more like France does about filling the capabilities and leadership gap.

Minus the UK, the European Union will be poorer and diminished.

  • Germans do not understand the continued need of nuclear deterrence. They do not grasp that NATO is a nuclear alliance; that their own national security policy is built on deterrence and that the US nuclear umbrella is the ultimate security guarantee for NATO member states. Germans, including many Social Democrats, want the US to remove nuclear weapons stationed in Germany. Little consideration is given to how a Germany, decoupled from American nuclear weapons, could respond to Russian nuclear blackmail.

About the Author

Leon Mangasarian was an editor and reporter for Bloomberg News (2007–2015), Deutsche Presse-Agentur (1994–2007) and United Press International (1989–1994) in East Berlin, Berlin, Bonn and Brussels. He received a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics in 1993. He is now a freelance writer living in Potsdam, Germany, and on a farm in southeast Brandenburg state.


[1] Nicholas Lezard, „The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig,” The Guardian, Dec. 5, 2009.



LSE IDEAS is LSE’s foreign policy think tank. We connect academic knowledge of diplomacy and strategy with the people who use it.

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LSE IDEAS is LSE’s foreign policy think tank. We connect academic knowledge of diplomacy and strategy with the people who use it.