“Too Big for Europe”: The Recurring German Problem

German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, May 18, 1889

Today’s Germany emerged in 1990 when the formerly communist East Germany was incorporated into the Federal Republic. Nearly half a century of disunion had left an economic and social divide in the country that took more than two decades to mend — and some imbalances remain. Historically, however, the more pertinent geographical divide in Germany has been between its north and south.

This Nord-Süd-Gefälle actually mended an economic divide that had previously been to the advantage of the north. Trade centers like Bremen and Hamburg, as well as Berlin, have since imitated the south’s focus on high technology and employed more workers in services.

Competition between the highly autonomous Länder and Germany’s big cities stems from its long division into different sovereign states. Prussia, which had come to occupy virtually the whole of the North European Plain during the Napoleonic Wars, including today’s northern and western Poland as well as Russia’s Kaliningrad province, was by far the most powerful. Its prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, forged an empire out of the many German kingdoms and principalities in 1871.

To prevent the reemergence of a Germany that America’s former secretary of state Henry Kissinger famously said was “too big for Europe,” the allies, after World War II, divided it. West Germany was effectively reduced to a Rhine Confederation that, sans Prussia, had been a client state of Napoleonic France’s. East Germany became a Soviet vassal. West Germany was further ensconced in a European and transatlantic economic and security framework, through NATO and what would become the European Union, that allowed it to prosper economically without posing a military threat to its neighbors. With Germany on par with France, the European balance of power that had been frantically sought throughout the nineteenth century seemed to have been finally achieved by abandoning the game of shifting alliances.

Reunification in 1990 revived the German problem geopolitically but the nation had been so thoroughly pacified in the preceding half century that it could hardly be expected to pose a security threat.

Nevertheless, as it has taken a central role in solving the European currency and debt crisis, the Franco-German parity is increasingly an illusion and fears of German domination have resurfaced, especially in those European Union member states that now depend on the nation’s financial support.

As Europe’s central power and largest economy, Germany is the only country that can set the terms for its future political integration. Its dilemma is that it has to guide that process, to secure access to markets for its industrial surpluses, while preventing an alliance from rising against it that would jeopardize European unity.

Full article: “Too Big for Europe”: The Recurring German Problem (Atlantic Sentinel)

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