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



When the Navy sent me to Germany in early 1946 to join occupation forces in the defeated Third Reich, I was unprepared for the massive devastation the country's cities had sustained in the war. Arriving on a courier flight into Berlin, I couldn't see a roof on any building for nearly a mile around Tempelhof Airport. It was stunning.

After release from the Navy in Germany, I took a civilian job in Berlin at the U.S. military government headquarters (OMGUS). Berlin was then divided into four occupation sectors: American, British, Russian, and French. It was possible to drive anywhere in the city without showing a pass if you were in a military vehicle. One could drive right through the Brandenburg Gate, where the Soviet sector started.

I was lucky to be in the Nurnberg courtroom on October 1, 1946, when the top Nazis, including Herman Goering and Rudolf Hess, were sentenced for war crimes. Seeing those twenty pathetic-looking prisoners from a balcony seat, it was difficult to imagine that three years earlier they had dominated the entire European continent.

Now, sixty-five years later, Germany has emerged as an economic powerhouse and the most influential country in Europe. As the Economist observed recently: "The euro crisis shows starkly that power in the European Union has shifted from France to Germany." ("Power Shift," Dec. 11)

What accounts for this remarkable transformation of a totally defeated nation into Europe's most influential power? I suggest four factors.

Creation of constitutional democracy. In 1949, the three western powers--Britain, France and the United States--ended their occupation of western Germany and a new government in Bonn adopted a constitution based on democratic principles and individual rights. When the Soviet Union refused to allow the eastern zone to participate, Germany was divided into a democratic west and a communist east, and the Cold War began. Over the past sixty years, German democracy flourished and now includes the east, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The capital was moved back to Berlin in 1991.

Reconciliation with France. In foreign policy, the Bonn government worked out a reconciliation arrangement with France in the 1950s that enabled the two countries to live in peace after fighting three costly wars in seventy years. France viewed rapprochement as a way to prevent a reemergence of German militarism, while Germany saw it as a means to rebuild its shattered economy and establish good relations with its neighbors, which remained fearful of it.

Promotion of European Union. Beginning with the Common Market in the 1960s and moving toward European Union in the 1990s, Western Europe pooled its economic and political resources to ensure that Germany remained a strong partner at a time when Bonn was under great pressure from Moscow to break loose from NATO and adopt a neutralist foreign policy. Although a social democratic German government toyed with the idea in the 1970s, a successor conservative one moved closer to NATO in the 1980s and joined in the allied effort to persuade Moscow to end the Cold War.

Close alliance with Washington. In 1955, Washington persuaded the NATO allies to bring West Germany into the alliance and permit it to rebuild an army and air force. In return, the Bonn government agreed to let the United States and other allies establish military bases and station half a million troops along its border with East Germany. When the Berlin Wall fell, Washington supported Bonn's decision to absorb East Germany, even though Britain, France, and others feared a reunited Germany.

The euro crisis leads some observers to think that the entire fabric of European unity may be threatened. German chancellor, Angela Merkel, now holds the key. Even though the German public opposes "bailing out" countries such as Greece and Ireland whose governments failed to practice fiscal discipline, Merkel now appears to share French president Nikolas Sarkozy‘s view that saving the euro, and potentially the European Union, is in Germany's interest as much as it is in France's. British prime minister, David Cameron, seems to share that view even though Britain doesn't use the euro.

In the longer term, how will resurgent Germany, with its new economic and political power, view its national interests in Europe and the wider world?

Here the picture is a bit clouded. A strong argument can be made that after sixty years of progress toward economic and political stability and a huge increase in living standards, Germany will not abandon its close ties with other European countries but will continue to embrace plans for a more united and self-confident European Union.

The other possibility, less likely in my view, is a Germany that desires to go its own way and make Berlin a central power in Europe and beyond, perhaps forging a special relationship with Turkey, an emerging Middle East power, and gaining influence in that vital area.

Americans need to abandon the notion that this country can continue to play a major role in European affairs. That day has passed. But we can take pride that after sixty years we succeeded in persuading Europeans to stop making war and instead build a strong economic and political union. That is America's contribution to post-1945 history.

File last modified on Monday, 10-JAN-2010 10:05 AM EST

Feedback to Author