You may have noticed, but the Germans lost the world wars. Ever wonder why? The obvious answer is they started a two-front war, but the truth is more basic.
Germany sits in the middle of the Northern European Plain (NEP), a stretch of flat, arable, temperate, well-watered, densely-rivered territory that comprises most of the rich parts of Europe. It is a great place to craft a successful ethnicity, polity, economy and state. With one exception: Germany sits in the middle of a plain. Germany doesn’t have much in terms of defensible borders.
As big as Germany is, the Germans will never enjoy a quantitative advantage over their collective competitors so their only option is to be better at, well, everything: infrastructure, education, planning, financing, manufacturing, and so on.
But there are no secrets in Europe. The high productive capacity of European farmland means the whole region was the first in the world to urbanize. Combine a dense population footprint with an agriculturally rich zone like the NEP, and French cities and Dutch cities and Polish cities and Danish cities are so close to German cities that everyone’s noses are perennially in everyone else’s business. Germany cannot hide how good they are. Make anything as big as Germany as efficient as Germany and its mere existence is interpreted by everyone as an existential threat, prompting a pan-European alliance that tears it down.
Germany can deal with this in two ways. Option one is to hope against hope that no one will come for it in the night. Every time that do-nothing strategy has been chosen, Germany eventually suffers cataclysmic defeat and dismemberment. Option two is to attack first, trying to defeat its rivals in sequence before they can overwhelm Germany. Every time that strategy has been chosen, Germany eventually suffers cataclysmic defeat and dismemberment.
Unfortunately for the Germans, they live in a geography that actively discriminates against successful long-lived countries.
But the post-World War II world is different from what came before. In the bad ole days the imperial powers (Germany included) duked it out in a more or less continuous march of often-multisided wars. Trade among the empires was kept deliberately curtailed because trade with today’s friend could quickly devolve into dependency upon tomorrow’s enemy. Germany’s perennial quest for superior quality was harnessed for military purposes, and the Germans kicked some serious ass. From unification in 1871 on, the Germans inflicted triple or more the casualties on their foes than were inflicted upon them. The marrying of such a deliberately fractured international system to the rising industrial technologies to Germany’s penchant for perfection brought us to the inevitable horrors of World War II.
At war’s end the Americans bribed all the expeditionary powers – wartime allies like the United Kingdom and France and wartime foes such as Japan and Germany – to be part of its Bretton Woods alliance. The rivals who had caused the war were now clustered under American strategic leadership. The most successful of those powers were those able to refabricate their systems to fully take advantage of a world of open borders, of a world where the Americans provided free security for all, of a world where all the expeditionary powers were aligned, of a world where trade wasn’t something to fear, but something to embrace.
No one did it better than Germany.
Because Germany was defeated, the Germans had the advantage of a clean slate. The ancien régime wasn’t simply removed, it was executed. The allies imposed a new constitution (the Germans know it as the Basic Law) which established a number of legal roadblocks to keep extremist parties away from decision-making power.
But the real transformation was in German industry. After centuries of treating the German military as its first and most important customer, having the option of investing in, well, Germany, was a bit of a treat. Germany’s penchant for efficiency and organization was no longer directed to service the needs of the SS or the Wehrmacht but instead using the best technologies of the day to rebuild a country from scratch. Energy shortages became a thing of the past. The result was one of the fastest stretches of economic growth in world history. (Note: We are talking about West Germany here. Soviet-dominated East Germany was a hot mess.)
As West Germany-the-country was rebuilt, it was only one small step to West Germany-the-export-machine. Germany’s position in the middle of the Northern European Meat Grinder meant Germans had long been used to deferred gratification. Their savings tended to get funneled not into personal consumption, but instead into state-centric investment plans that typically had at least a heavy dusting of military purpose. But with the Nazi regime gone and the rebuilding largely completed, Germany’s (in)famous efficiencies were no longer applied to tanks or planes or rail lines or smokestacks, but instead to export goods such as automobiles and chemicals. West German exports were highly sought after the world over, largely because they were the highest quality goods humans had ever produced.
When the Cold War came to an end, the Germans advanced from what had been the greatest era of its existence to something even better. The two Germanies reunited. Germany gained access to a dozen new oil suppliers. The former Soviet satellites to Germany’s east and southeast all joined NATO and the EU. Instead of being a front-line state, Germany was now surrounded by allies and partners who were all members of the American-secured global structure. Defense spending plummeted with the savings poured into making Germany an industrial behemoth.
Simultaneously, the rise of the euro fused the European space together under German economic leadership. Even the weakness of some of the euro’s members – most notably Italy – helped Germany. With Germany in the same currency zone as moribund economies, the price of the Euro was weaker than a purely German currency would have been. German exports no longer merely competed on quality, but also cost. A second Golden Age dawned.
It was too good to last. Since 1992 the Americans have been pulling away from maintaining the global order that is so central to German peace, success, wealth and unity.
The first hot point for the Germans in this scared new world involves the Russians. The whole idea of Bretton Woods was to fence in the Russians. If the Americans walk away from Bretton Woods, Russia is not only no longer the bugaboo, it becomes a potential partner in a never-ending multi-sided balance of power game. And nearly anytime anyone has thought of the Russians as a partner, a bit of a scrap has eventually ensued between Moscow and Berlin.
The second point involves Europe. The European Union is able to exist because the United States keeps the European countries safe from both outside powers and one another. Germany is the EU’s economic heart and Germany is an export-oriented economy, which makes every other EU state integrated into German supply chains export-dependent systems as well. Remove American security overwatch and the whole thing comes crashing down (assuming other European issues such as the euro, sovereign debt, bad banks, terminal demographics, refugees, and so on don’t tear the Union down first).
It should come as no surprise that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s dominant emotional state these days seems to be exasperated resignation, and why the key word from her post-G7 summit communications was “depressing.” There is absolutely no way forward here that works out well for Berlin.
But inaction is not an option, and so Germany once again faces the inevitable clash between strength and fear. The Germans under the Bretton Woods regime were able to have global economic reach without corresponding military reach. Strip away that feature, and the Germans either need to massively deindustrialize so that their economy matches their current military power, or they need to massively re-arm so that their military can sustain their current economic power. In times past the first option generated the 30 Years War, the Great Depression, and the near collapse of European civilization. In times past the second option generated the Nazis, the World Wars… and the near collapse of European civilization.
Which is a roundabout way of me saying that I think the Germans will end up trying something a bit different. They don’t currently have the military required to look after their own interests, and they don’t have an economy that is sustainable without someone powerful looking out for them. What they do have is a few neighbors who find themselves in hauntingly similar situations, many of which are also tied into pre-existing and most certainly non-military German manufacturing supply chains.
Courtesy of Bretton Woods, NATO, the Soviet collapse and the euro, there is an arc of countries that have broadly the same top-level concerns as Berlin: a crumbling European system, a supply chain model dependent upon extra-European end consumption, a concern about large-scale refugee movements, a shortage of local energy resources, and above all a resurgent Russia.
- Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia check all the above.
- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Finland and Denmark check all but the supply chain issue.
- Belgium, the Netherlands, and Austria check all but the Russia issue.
The first two bullets suggest a Germanocentric NATO in miniature. The latter two bullets suggest a Germanocentric EU in miniature (perhaps selling military goods to the Germanocentric NATO?).
Neither is likely to last the test of time. Russia’s demographics are so horrid that it is unlikely to be a long-term problem and nothing kills an alliance like the lack of an enemy. Any revised supply chain system still needs a market, and once war-related demand fades, what then? And a Germanocentric system of any type is certain to attract the gentle crowbars of the French, British, Russian and Turkish diplomatic services within minutes of getting going.
Compared to the long dark of Germany’s past, the possibility — however impermanent — of a third way between near-pacifism and a raging war machine is a surprisingly upbeat future. Merkel has presided over the best years in German history. What’s in front of her with a bit of luck just might be brighter than the German norm.