Germany: Always the Villain
Old habits do die hard. In the past year, and dramatically in the past month, references to German dominance of Europe have multiplied. They are motivated by Berlin's leading role in solving the Eurozone's sovereign debt crisis, including in the deal agreed to today. Direct parallels with Nazi Germany's ambitions have been dared: winner of World War II; IVth Reich; Gauleiters in Greece with the "Third Reichenbach" in the new Gestapo headquarters. Chancellor Angela Merkel's policymaking has been described as Bismarck-like. And these parallels did not emerge only from angry blogs or tabloid headlines, but in the mainstream media and in public interventions, too.
Really? Do Europeans still think that way?
There is an evident contradiction within the EU in asking for Germany to live up to its responsibility but at the same time making sure Germany does not get too powerful. More than that, Europeans have been hearing claims at the political level that Germany has finally succeeded in dominating Europe. Economic dominance has led to long-awaited political dominance. Within Germany, some are proud; elsewhere in Europe, some accuse.
Nowadays, it seems a clear separation is deliberately being made between Berlin's actions or inactions, and its intentions. In times of crisis and elections, shortcuts with the past are dangerous, easy, tempting: because Germany is the only one who can save Europe (although Germany alone cannot do much), Germany wants to dominate Europe, and it never stopped wanting to.
On Monday, during a key press conference on the future of the EU, President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel jointly condemned and warned against such amalgams, which have largely come from those out of power. Several French ministers have also come out strongly to protect France's friendship with its German ally.
Populist and nationalistic discourses in European democracies are one thing. Defending national interests and sovereignty around the negotiation table is another. But doing it by using blunt fear is dangerous and petty. It is not courage, nor determination; it is frustration and dishonesty at their worst.
Not all fault lies with those outsiders. Berlin's hesitations to fully step up are fueling negative outside perceptions of the country. And the more Germany is put in the spotlight before every "crucial" summit, the more it will be perceived as setting the agenda, or worse, pushing its own. But wouldn't it be the same for any country in this position? The hit at Germany is cheap, and most know it, but they still enjoy the sport of it. Is this how the EU's great political, economic and social achievements should be summarized? And why are new generations more frightened by Germany than older ones?
The sad comparisons and references to Europe's history barely conceal the more fundamental issue of peoples' perception of leadership, dominance, and domination. The three concepts are different, much in the same way that responsibility, influence, and control are distinct, too. Perceptions have the ability to irrationally downplay actions or exacerbate intentions. Dominance is a perception, domination is a fact. Leadership is a driver, and Europe has not been led for a long time. While most Europeans are adjusting to the idea of having someone in the driver's seat, it is a collective responsibility to make sure that vile sentiments from the past do not resurface and tarnish the immense opportunities that lie ahead for peace and prosperity in Europe. Let's not take either of the two for granted.
When Europe is asked to be at its best, some always feel the urge to immediately bring it down to its worst; and mostly for short-term political gains. It's lunch money. But Europe is not a playground and the line is thin, very thin, between politics and ideology, calumny and desperation. Let's not walk that line.
Doomsday scenarios for Europe will continue to be drawn, and Europeans will keep on pointing fingers at each other in case of feared failures. But in today's environment, deeply rooted blame will fall inevitably on Germany at every single occasion; this might only be the beginning of the wave. Germanophobia is not the hatred of Germany - it is the fear of Germany. As such, it risks becoming the easy excuse to dodge one's responsibilities, and to prefer inaction and apathy. All-for-one, yes, but never one-for-all.
Raising the specter of German dominance will follow trends and personal agendas across European countries. It is not rampant, but very much standing straight. As so, it is the duty of political leaders to firmly reject and condemn any attempt, by anyone, to revive fear, anger, and worse among the peoples of Europe.
In Brussels, the offspring of two nationals from different member states are valued as children of a "mixed couple." In slowly finding its way out of the crisis, and ahead of unforeseeable challenges, Europeans need to be reminded of what they have achieved through tolerance, humility, and understanding in a little less than 65 years.