This piece was first published by Geopolitical Futures and is reprinted here with permission.
Regardless of how the Ukraine crisis ends, one thing present but often overlooked is the German question. It’s a question that has hounded Europe for centuries. After the Napoleonic Wars, the concern was whether Germany would unite into a single state. The Germans, especially the leaders of their fractious countryside, worried about this too, for in an age of monarchs and emperors, there can be only one ruler. But for the rest of Europe, the prospect of a revived Holy Roman Empire, a once-powerful entity even without the sense of unity or shared “German” identity, was frightening. The possibility that it might share Prussia’s militarism made their fears all the more acute.
The German question loomed large, but it wouldn’t be answered until 1871 when the fragments of Germany were cajoled by Prussia and Otto von Bismarck to at least partially unite. Germany was a weak experiment that nonetheless defeated France in a rapid war. This bought the southern Catholic part of Germany into the new nation-state. Germany was thus created, and France was defeated.
The next question was what the German state would be. In a Europe now constructed around the Industrial Revolution, the new Germany surpassed France and challenged the United Kingdom as an economic powerhouse. (Particularly frightening were German efforts to develop a navy.) The very existence of a united Germany undermined the balance of power in Europe that had been settled after the defeat of Napoleon.
Both world wars pivoted around the German question. After 1945, the issue seemed to have been settled, but alas, Germany was too strategically important to the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Soviets’ forward position was in East Germany. NATO was created to guard West Germany, and a West German military force was created to guard its eastern frontier. West Germany, rich in expertise if nothing else, executed an economic miracle that propelled Germany to the top of the European economic hierarchy.
The country became a front line in the Cold War. The Germans didn’t want this; they wanted a united Europe that would bury German nationalism under new institutions and create a framework for economic growth. The European Union was intended to achieve both but failed in a fundamental way. Germany emerged not only as the major economic power of the bloc but also as the de facto arbiter of European affairs. Obscured by the Cold War, the German question clarified itself again. Germany was the dominant force in Europe.
The genuine desire of most Germans was to not allow the country’s economic power to overshadow its position as simply another European power. After the Cold War ended, Europe focused not on military force but on prosperity. But history took a turn. The prosperity of Europe was not uniform, and Germany itself was not safe from history. The interests of the EU’s members were profoundly different. Italy’s economy could not bear what Germany had to have. Eastern Europeans had values the Germans disliked. In other words, the reality was far more complex than what the Germans wanted.
And so, as the crisis plays out along Ukraine’s border, the German question has once again emerged. Russia has risen from the collapse of the Soviet Union as a military power insisting on reshaping Ukraine and Eastern Europe to its interests. Germany depends on Russia for energy, and it is horrified by even the possibility of armed conflict to its east. NATO is now a trap for Germany, compelling Germany to cooperate on the one thing it did not want to do: prepare for a potential war. It has refused to send weapons to Ukraine, putting it at odds with the U.S. and Britain. It cannot afford to risk its economic relationship with Russia. Every time Germany tries to escape history, history pulls it back in.
For Germany, life after World War II, but especially after the Cold War, was about economics. It achieved through the EU what it couldn’t achieve since 1871: domination of Europe. And it did so without the kind of violence that had ripped the Continent apart for centuries.
That may no longer be the case. Russia, less powerful than before but powerful still, is reclaiming lands in its supposed sphere of influence. The U.S. is once again on the defensive. NATO still exists, and Germany is part of it. Germany is thus essential in the Ukraine affair. Economic power, economic needs, fear of war and fear of what peace would look like tear at the Germans.
Germany had hoped that its past could be forgotten. But in this confrontation, the German question is vital. How Berlin answers that question – or how others try to answer it – will once again reshape Germany and Europe. Germany may not like it, but the question has been around since the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Nations don’t get to select what questions are put to them.