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January 30, 2003

The German Difference

Why U.S.-German relations remain strained. By Hoover fellow Russell A. Berman.


The German-American relationship, once a pillar of the Atlantic community, is in a sorry state. What went wrong? In part, the problem involves the relations between the two principals, President Bush and Chancellor Schroeder. But the issues run deeper. Only a better understanding of German public opinion and its cultural background can shed light on the current tensions.

What a Difference a Year Makes

When Bush visited Berlin in May 2002, thousands of demonstrators protested his foreign policy, but Schroeder came to his defense, reminding the German public of the American role in protecting Germany (especially Berlin) during the Cold War. The German parliament received Bush’s speech warmly. In turn, the president chose to overlook anti-Americanism in the press and the hostile tone on the street. On the contrary, he graciously projected a message of personal rapport with Schroeder—no small political capital for the Social Democrat chancellor, who would face a national election in the fall.

But by autumn the goodwill had vanished. In a tight campaign, Schroeder had chosen to play an anti-American card. Not only did he insist that Germany would under no circumstances participate in a war in Iraq, but he chose to denigrate Bush’s approach to Iraq as an “adventure.” His hostile campaign rhetoric denounced “American conditions”—code for deregulation, free market principles, and all the fears that Europeans sometimes harbor regarding the United States. To make matters worse, second-string players on the Social Democrat team decided it was time to let loose their own prejudices. Most notoriously, Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin took it on herself to liken Bush to Hitler.

In fact, important parts of the German public were appalled by Schroeder’s campaign strategy, and his anti-American turn cost the Social Democrats some centrist voters. But the real game was on the Left. By profiling himself so adamantly as an opponent of American foreign policy, Schroeder attracted voters who would have otherwise opted for the former Communist Party. Keeping the extreme Left vote to an absolute minimum was crucial for the Social Democrats’ victory. The price of that victory, however, was opening German public debate to a strident anti-Americanism.

The German on the Street

Anti-Americanism in Germany is, to be sure, hardly a majority position. Germany has become a liberal democracy and views itself firmly as part of the democratic West. On many important issues, German public opinion does not differ significantly from views elsewhere in Europe or the United States.

Nonetheless, there are important differences, as evidenced by a poll conducted in June 2002, just after the Bush visit to Berlin and on the eve of the German electoral campaign. Sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the survey found a marked divergence between Germany and its neighbors. Asked whether the European Union should become a superpower like the United States, 48 percent of the German respondents answered affirmatively. This is noticeably lower than the European average of 65 percent and far below the French (an amazing 91 percent). In fact, the German percentage is the lowest for all the European countries surveyed. Most Germans do not want Europe to act as a superpower, a result consonant with Germany’s relative reluctance to participate in international military activity in general and its position on Iraq in particular.

However, among those Europeans who do support superpower status for the EU, the rationales vary in a telling way. Should a strengthened EU approach the United States in a spirit of competition or cooperation? Only in Germany is there a significant minority (22 percent) that regards the EU as a vehicle for better competition with the United States; in Great Britain the corollary figure is only 7 percent, and in France, 9 percent. Most Germans desire cooperation, like most Europeans, but the minority with a more adversarial attitude toward the United States is greater than elsewhere. That difference involves precisely the voters that Schroeder targeted in his campaign.

Two other points in the survey add important texture to the German profile. Large majorities in all polled countries feel that it is important for their country to play an active role in world affairs: 82 percent in England, 86 percent in France, even 90 percent in Italy. Germans too are internationally minded but at a much lower rate (65 percent). More revealing is the size of the minority that prefers to see its country “stay out” of world affairs: 15 percent for England, 12 percent for France, but 23 percent for Germany. (It is perhaps ironic that on this score Germans are most like Americans, 25 percent of whom are inclined toward isolationism.) Germans are twice as likely as the French to hope to avoid international involvement, so it is hardly surprising that France and Germany play such different roles on the world stage and that they have pursued different strategies with regard to Iraq. France has used the United Nations as a way to ensure that it (as a Security Council member) remains a player, whereas Germany has followed Schroeder’s lead to the sidelines, rejecting participation even under U.N. auspices.

There are also significant and telling differences on the question of defense spending. In England 24 percent advocate an expansion of the defense budget, whereas 21 percent support cutbacks. In France, 28 percent support expansion, as opposed to 23 percent for cutbacks. The German difference is remarkable: only 14 percent for expanded defense spending but a whopping 45 percent for reductions—a gap topped only in Italy, where the corollary numbers are 12 percent (for more defense spending) and 52 percent (for less)! Our historical West European allies, in other words, are willing to maintain and perhaps increase their commitment to military spending, whereas in Germany and Italy—the defeated nations of the Second World War—public opinion clearly points toward defense cuts.

It is important not to exaggerate the results. In general, the public opinion of Germans resembles that of West Europeans and Americans more than it differs from them. Still, the distinct flavor of German public sentiment shows a greater predisposition to foresee competition with the United States rather than cooperation, more reluctance to play a role in world affairs, and much less support for defense spending. Schroeder’s Iraq policy should therefore be viewed not only in terms of the opportunism of an election campaign but also as an expression of German attitudes, which have been shaped by a particular history and culture.

The Legacy of War

In both world wars of the twentieth century, Germany and the United States were adversaries. Germany was twice defeated, and West Germany was fashioned as a democracy—with considerable American influence. As strong as the German-American friendship has grown, the scars of those wars linger in German memory and fuel current anti-Americanism. For those Germans who compare Bush and Hitler, the equation provides a perverse consolation: If they can show that today’s Americans are as bad as the Germans once were, then today’s Germans can feel absolved of any inherited guilt. This anti-Americanism is therefore less a sober response to current American policies—in Iraq or elsewhere—than an irrational symptom of a troubled German past.

Western democracies drew a clear lesson from the Second World War: Appeasement in the face of an aggressive, authoritarian regime is not warranted. Germans came to a different conclusion: no more war, under any circumstances. It is noteworthy that Germany and Italy are the European nations least committed to defense spending. Because they fought immoral wars, and lost, they assume that war is never moral—even against a dictator who flouts international law and threatens international security. In practice, Germany remains part of the international coalition: German reconnaissance tanks patrol in Kuwait, German troops help maintain order in Kabul, and the German navy participates in policing the Mediterranean. But the German past strictly limits the willingness of the public to support more than these marginal engagements.

Compared with their European neighbors, Germans are noticeably more anxious to avoid involvement in world affairs. Yet the German economy is one of the most export dependent in the world, so one might expect German public opinion to be all the more supportive of international engagement. But Germans are the least international of the Europeans, an expression of a deeply rooted cultural predisposition. German writer Thomas Mann called this a culture of “inwardness” and “seclusiveness,” part of the legacy of romanticism and its desire to escape the affairs of this world. This same temptation toward isolationism has reemerged in Germany’s policy toward Iraq.

To repair German-American relations, German leaders must address this anti-Americanism head-on. Germany’s separate path of foreign policy has not only hurt relations with Washington but begun to isolate Germany in Europe. Even though Germany is generally very supportive of European integration, its Iraq policy has slowed down prospects for a united European foreign policy. Germany is at odds with England and France, both of which are much more engaged. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, where memories of American leadership in the Cold War are stronger than in Germany, the large and pro-American crowds that welcomed Bush in November 2002 contrast markedly with the anti-American demonstrators in Berlin in May. Germany has a lot of catching up to do to escape its self-imposed isolation.


Russell A. Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.

Berman specializes in German culture and is a member of both the Department of German Studies and the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Enlightenment or Empire: Colonial Discourse in German Culture (1998) and The Rise of the Modern German Novel: Crisis and Charisma (1986), both of which won the Outstanding Book Award of the German Studies Association. Other books include Anti-Americanism in Europe: A Cultural Problem (2004), Fiction Sets You Free: Literature, Liberty and Western Culture (2007), and, most recently, Freedom or Terror: Europe Faces Jihad (2010).


Special to the Hoover Digest.

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