Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


JUNE 2010

Sixty five years ago, a defeated Germany lay completely in ruins. American, Russian, British, and French troops took control of the country and carved out four occupation zones, administrated by military governors. Many of us who served in the occupation of Germany wondered whether it would ever recover from this disaster.

In the spring of 2010, we have seen the reemergence of Germany as the principal power on the European continent, not as a military goliath, but an economic giant that is calling the tune on the European Union's struggle for stability.

What accounts for this remarkable turnaround in Germany's fortunes? I suggest three factors: good leadership, economic discipline, and a wise U.S. policy.

Good leaders. When the West German government was formed in 1949, after the Soviet Union refused to hold elections in its zone, Germans chose a brilliant elder statesman, Konrad Adenauer, as the first chancellor of its new democratic government. In addition to starting the country on the road to economic recovery, he forged a partnership with postwar French leaders that laid the basis for the European Common Market, and later the European Union. Adenauer also brought West Germany into the NATO alliance, ensuring that it would not pursue an independent foreign policy.

Economic discipline. Adenauer and successive chancellors adopted economic policies that made Germany's currency, the D-mark, Western Europe's strongest. They promoted exports over imports and, as a result, made Germany into a leading exporter of high-quality industrial products. By keeping taxes high and the powerful labor unions mollified, the government gradually turned West Germany into Europe's leading industrial power.

Wise U.S. policies. After World War II, Harry Truman and successive presidents pursued a policy of integrating West Germany into a larger grouping of European states. This was accomplished first by offering Europe large economic aid through the Marshall Plan and by sponsoring the North Atlantic Pact (NATO), which provided for Europe's common defense against the Soviet military threat, especially to West Germany.

A major test of this inclusive policy occurred in 1989-1990 when the Berlin Wall came down and President George H.W. Bush faced a crucial decision: should the U.S. support Germany's desire to impose immediate reunification of the country, which had been divided since 1949. Bush persuaded British, French, and Soviet leaders that a united Germany tied to NATO was the best solution to their strategic objective: ensuring that this new, united Germany would not again become a threat to its neighbors.

Greek crisis. The financial crisis in Greece raises serious questions not only about Europe's common currency, the euro, but also the future of the European Union itself. Because Germany is Europe's strongest economy, other EU members, especially those using the euro, had assumed that Berlin would pay the major share of a financial rescue of Greece. They were mistaken.

The reality is that Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a hostile public that opposes using German taxpayers' money to "bail out the profligate Greeks," or any other member of the EU. Germans fear that Spain, Portugal, even Italy, may ask for bailout funds. One writer referred to Germans' rejection of the "spendthrift Club Med countries of southern Europe that used the euro as a credit card." (David Ignatius, Washington Post, May 13).

Chancellor Merkel belatedly agreed on May 9 to a large EU contingency reserve, supported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to assist any eurozone country facing default. But her popularity at home suffered. Many Germans are beginning to regret that they abandoned the strong D-mark in 1999, claiming that the EU was not given the power to enforce fiscal discipline on countries that adopted the euro.

Optimists assert that Greece's financial crisis will spur EU leaders to adopt new rules that give the European Commission in Brussels authority to rein in the spendthrift eurozone countries. Pessimists argue that governments of the larger members will not accept supervision of their budgets, by Brussels or the IMF, which Greece is now doing.

As the largest economy in Europe and increasingly its most influential voice, Germany faces what Angela Merkel calls "an existential threat." Addressing the German parliament in early May, she warned: "What is at stake is no more and no less than the future of Europe, and with it the future of Germany in Europe." ("Future of Europe is at Stake, Merkel Warns Bundestag," Financial Times, May 6)

Merkel's decision to contribute to a $950 billion EU-IMF reserve fund to support eurozone states facing bankruptcy is based on a similar calculation made by Konrad Adenauer in 1949, that Germany's national interests lie in partnership with other European states, not in an adversarial relationship.

Europe's leaders fear that if the EU falters as a result of the Greek crisis, nationalist sentiments in Germany will grow and promote the view that "Germany is now strong enough to go it alone." That would be a disaster for European solidarity.

File last modified on Friday, 21-MAY-2010 10:56 AM EST

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