Time for Germans to Earn the Gift of 1989

The Wall was brought down in 1989—when I was a German graduate student in the U.S. and, at twenty-seven, the same age as the man-made frontier between West and East Berlin—by the courage and determination of many: the 70,000 who marched in Leipzig, the East German Volkspolizisten who decided not to shoot, their leaders who decided not to resist, Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl, Hungarian and Czech activists, Polish shipbuilders and steelworkers, Ronald Reagan, Willy Brandt, Russian dissidents, and multitudes of others. Some West German students pitched in, smuggling samizdat, printers‘ ink, or dissidents‘ letters. Regrettably, I was not one of them.

So for me, and probably for most of my West German generation, the reunification of Germany and of Europe, for which so many had risked so much, was a miraculous gift. A gift which we had done nothing to deserve, for which we were unprepared, and whose meaning we took a long time to decipher.

Twenty-five years later, we are fifty-somethings—about the age when Germans are reluctantly acknowledged to be possibly-good-for-something by their elders—and we find ourselves in the midst of the greatest challenge to our prosperity, freedom, and peace that Europe has seen since 1989, indeed in our lifetime. The economic crisis (which is not over) has exposed the fragility of our institutions and of our social contracts, which we have taken for granted. It has opened a gaping divide between the continent’s resilient north and its vulnerable south, and has led us to question the viability, even the legitimacy, of the European project. Some member states, such as Britain, are demanding that Europe turn back the clock of integration, and that it restrict fundamental principles of the EU, like the freedom of movement—barring which (they insist) they will leave the Union.

The Euromaidan movement in Ukraine has reminded the doomsayers that, as a community of free liberal democracies, and despite our flaws, Europe remains a model for its neighbors. Now, however, Ukraine’s aspirations are being threatened by Russian threats, subversion, and outright aggression. Islamist extremism in Syria and Iraq is menacing our neighbor, NATO ally, and EU candidate Turkey, propelling floods of refugees towards our borders, and inciting young European Muslims to join the jihad abroad—or to bring it back home.

At this watershed moment, Germany, dubbed the “reluctant hegemon” not so long ago, finds itself the pivotal player in Europe. The reasons are many: because of Germany‘s economic strength, and political clout, because Britain and France are going through phases of introspection and self-doubt, because of Berlin‘s newly warm relationship with Poland and the Baltic states, its historic “special relationship” with Russia, and its alliance with the United States.

Germany also has the largest stake in these multiple and mutually reinforcing crises, as Europe and the eurozone are the source of almost all of its wealth, influence, and power. Key German politicians have declared that they want to shift Germany’s foreign policy from its deeply ingrained “culture of restraint” to one of greater leadership: one that matches its responsibilities to its clout. And while it is arguable whether Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is receptive to Western warnings, if anyone has his ear, it is Germany‘s Chancellor Angela Merkel.

German leadership still means German cheques. Berlin remains the largest guarantor of European sovereign debt. It is already paying a significant price for sanctions against Russia. It will also have to underwrite much of the costs of transforming Ukraine, and of supporting the EU economies that are most vulnerable to Russian pressure.

However, Germany will also have to overcome its reluctance to use force. True, German troops have been engaged in combat in Afghanistan for years, and Berlin is now sending weapons to Kurdish fighters in Iraq; but we must also spend more on deterrence and defence, and on putting the muscle back in NATO.

Yet that is not where German responsibility ends. Russia’s actions have made it clear that it sees itself as engaged in a systemic conflict with the West; China’s silence suggests that it is waiting to see which side emerges as the winner. Germany can no longer free-ride on the liberal world order created, maintained, and protected by America; nor should it hope to surf the waves of chaos as others sink. It must develop a vision of its own for what a free and peaceful order for the 21st century should look like—and join forces with others to make it.

This is our chance, and our time, to earn the gift of 1989.