Since reunification, Germany has had its best 30 years. The next 30 will be harder

The EU is in the country’s DNA. But global threats mean a strong transatlantic Western alliance has never been more vital

Image by Kai Wegner

Happy birthday, Germany: 30 years old on 3 October, the anniversary of German unification in 1990. But, hang on a minute, isn’t Germany 71? Counting, that is, from the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949. Or 149, if we go back to the first unification of Germany, in 1871? Or 1,220 years old, if we take the coronation of Charlemagne, in 800, to be the beginning of what Germans call the Reich, more widely known as the Holy Roman Empire? Or some 2,000 years, if we detect in the brilliant former FC Bayern Munich midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger a remote descendant of those warlike but also proto-democratic tribesmen that Tacitus described in his Germania?

Answering the apparently simple question “How old is Germany?” is far from simple. But let me venture this bold claim: the last three decades have been the best in all that long and complicated history. If you can think of a better period for the majority of Germans, and their relations with most of their neighbours, I’d be glad to learn of it. In today’s world, roiled by populism, fanaticism, and authoritarianism, the Federal Republic is a beacon of stability, civility, and moderation – qualities personified by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But the national and regional challenges that Germany has faced over the last 30 years pale in comparison with the global ones it will face over the next 30. Unlike some other democracies, including southern European members of the eurozone such as Greece and Spain, this German democracy has not yet faced the test of a really major economic crisis. That is a result of its own great economic strengths, but also of the growth of export markets such as China opened up by globalisation, the advantages of having the euro (rather than a less competitively valued Deutschmark), and a reservoir of cheap skilled labour in east-central Europe. There is no guarantee of equally favourable geo-economic circumstances in the years to come, nor of a benign geopolitical environment.

At the recent online launch of John Kampfner’s book, Why the Germans Do It Better, the British author was asked what the Germans thought of Brexit. After rightly observing that they were first amazed, then appalled, and then contemptuous of the mess Britain is making of it, he went on to say that if the Germans had done something like Brexit they would immediately have convened a cross-party Bundestag commission and worked out a sober, rational plan for implementing it.

The next important date in German history is not 3 October but 3 November, which will see probably the most crucial US election in the history of the modern transatlantic West.

It’s an interesting thought, but we must avoid the fallacy of extrapolation. If Germany had voted to leave the European Union, that would presuppose the triumph of a nationalist movement that would make the Alternative for Germany (AfD) look like a vegetarian NGO. Such a movement would not abide by the current, sensible, consensus-seeking norms of German politics. Moreover, being embedded in the EU has an existential significance for Germany that it does not have for Britain. And Germany is more important for the EU. It is possible to imagine a post-Brexit Britain somehow muddling through on its own outside the EU, and an EU without Britain. It is impossible to imagine a Germany resembling today’s Federal Republic without the strong European framework – let alone an EU without Germany.

This is a lesson that emerges clearly from a new short history of the Germans, Wie wir wurden, was wir sind (How We Became What We Are, currently only available in German), by Heinrich August Winkler, one of the country’s most eminent historians. He identifies the first Reich – the Holy Roman Empire – as a fundamental, constitutive fact of German history, just as what he calls the “freedom-favouring island position” is of English history. Unlike England, Germany’s whole medieval and early modern history involved multiple layers of law, sovereignty, and authority. Winkler’s most famous work is an enormous history of Germany called The Long Road West. He starts this new volume by quoting the then federal president, Richard von Weizsäcker’s, carefully crafted statement on 3 October 1990: “the day has come in which for the first time in history the whole of Germany has found its lasting place in the circle of Western democracies.” Yet what strikes me about this late work of the now 81-year-old historian (born in Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, in 1938) is the sceptical, concerned, even warning tone in which he admonishes his compatriots to remain firmly embedded not just in Europe but also in the transatlantic West.

The concern seems to me justified. Despite the xenophobic Euroscepticism of the AfD, we need have few worries about the European part. The word “Europe” appears in German political speeches as often as “amen” in church. Most Germans understand very well how their future is inseparable from that of the EU. That is no longer true of the West, which, if mentioned at all, features almost as a relic of the cold war, as outdated as the telex machine. Most Europeans are appalled and sickened by Donald Trump, but there is a special edge to German attitudes towards the United States altogether. In the German media, the US is now routinely talked about in the same breath as China and Russia.

Emmanuel Macron’s battlecry of “European sovereignty” has been taken up with corresponding enthusiasm. If “European sovereignty” means “we Europeans should do more to stand up for our own interests”, that is clearly right. If, however, it means “we can manage on our own now, yanks”, then it is dangerously wrong. Precisely the worldwide challenges we will face over the next 30 years – such as the climate emergency, artificial intelligence, pandemics such as covid-19, and the aggressive posture of a Leninist-capitalist Chinese superpower – demand a global partnership of democracies, not just a regional one.

In a loose historical analogy, post-1990 Germany’s great good fortune has been to be part of the Holy Roman Empire of the EU, which has secured Germany’s prosperity and greatly enhanced its citizens’ freedoms and opportunities – and also to be part of the Roman empire of the US-led Western alliance, which has guaranteed its military security and given a wider framework of shared values and global reach.

That American Rome will never again be what it once was. If Trump wins a second term, all bets are off. His former national security adviser John Bolton says Trump might even take the US out of NATO. Then Europe would be compelled to fend for itself on security, a task for which it is still ill-equipped. But, if Joe Biden becomes president, the US can return to being an indispensable proponent of the liberal international order on which Germany depends more than anyone. In this sense, the next important date in German history is not 3 October, which is just a nice anniversary, but 3 November, which will see probably the most crucial US election in the history of the modern transatlantic West.

Timothy Garton Ash is an ECFR council member and a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist. This article first appeared in The Guardian.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.