In the run-up to German reunification 20 years ago, the German-Jewish son of a Holocaust survivor vented fears that were emblematic for the time. Whole again, he wrote back then, the country "may grow into everything the world abhorred in the Germany of the early part of the century." A "self-centered society," it was "never content to accept limits on its strength." Soon we might get the replay, he worried. "The peaceful and moderately dull Federal Republic…is leaving the stage." The new Germany "may become a strange and eerie place—perhaps even the source of a new wave of darkness spreading over the earth."
Many other Europeans thought so, too, and so did even Germans themselves. Luckily, they were wrong. When the Berlin Wall came down, the kids dancing atop the crumbling concrete weren't singing "Deutschland über alles," but a soccer ditty: "What a day, what a wonderful day." Twenty years later, this united Germany, again the most populous and powerful country in Europe, is as peaceful and dull as had been the West German heir of Hitler's Reich.
The nation that once marched to the gates of Moscow and Cairo is now stretched to the limit with about 8,000 soldiers between Kosovo and Kabul. Flag-waving is but a quadrennial affair, when the German soccer team marches off to the World Cup. "Lebensraum," once applied to the conquered lands in the East, is now an ecologically correct moniker for niches reserved for toads and other endangered species. The new autobahn has to snake around them.
The Fourth Reich doesn't live here. This is the moral of a tale that began 20 years ago amid dreadful memories of the Third. The new Germany, though liberated from the chains of the Cold War, is like a mighty Sweden: social-democratic to the core, inward-looking, and as aggressive as a sloth. Thus culture does change, making mincemeat of the much-beloved "Luther to Hitler" line about a bad-news Germany then and evermore.
Postwar Germany did not even turn into a remake of Weimar, that miserable failure of democracy after 1919. That's because everything that went wrong then was just right after World War II. Instead of reparations that bled the country dry, there was the Marshall Plan. Instead of beggar-thy-neighbor, there was the Common Market, free trade on a silver platter that drove West Germany's export-led economic miracle. Instead of isolation and encirclement, West Germany experienced integration and alliance with America, which bestowed the most precious gift of them all: guaranteed security. In such a benign setting, the opportunities for pied pipers to lead Germany astray were decidedly on the low side, and so democracy could sink strong roots in a soil once tread by Junkers and Führers.
For once, Germany was not alone but embedded in the West, part of a community that delivered a shelter and a role. Because West Germany's defense was underwritten by a mighty superpower, the country was blessed twice: It could not threaten others, nor could it be threatened by them. The historical irony is pretty thick here: the loser as victor and greatest profiteer of the postwar order. West German democracy was the sturdy child of security "Made in the U.S.A."
Social scientists explain such wondrous outcomes as "path dependency"—the future as a function of the past. Weimar was bad, and the Third Reich was a hundred times worse. But West Germany was off to the best of starts, and in the next 40 years, success bred ever more success: a shockproof liberal democracy and an economy that is No. 4 in the world.
By the time the eastern half collapsed westward, Germany was rich, settled and ready. Ever since, the country has been spending 4% of GDP annually (a bit less than the share of defense outlays in the U.S.) on the former communist part. So no immiseration as in Weimar, and no revolt of the dispossessed.
These days, Germany is the odd man out in a reassuring way. Practically all of Europe, East and West, now has to grapple with anti-immigration parties on the right. Holland has Geert Wilders, France has Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front, Austria has the mis-named Freedom Party, the Swiss recently banned minarets by referendum, and in Sweden a party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement just made it into parliament. And in Hungary, even plain, old-fashioned anti-Semitism has crept back into the political arena.
Yet the Germans, who once turned racism into industrial genocide, have no politically successful party right of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. Nor will they likely have one—for the simple reason that "Never Again!" is now part of their collective DNA. That, too, is "path dependency." The Germans didn't invent fascism, but they improved considerably on the original model, as authored by duces and caudillos. Hence the reaction here is stronger than anywhere in Europe. Immunization to the max.
Does this new Germany throw its weight around? Of course it does, as it did most recently in the intra-European Union battle over the Greek bailout. In the end, Mrs. Merkel prevailed by getting Brussels to attach stringent conditions to the multi-billion rescue package. Yes, she did it to mollify the German taxpayer. But she also wanted to keep Europe from degenerating into a vast welfare agency for the profligate. The national interest was embedded into the common good, i.e. the defense of a tottering common currency. A country that has learned to pursue its own well-being by taking care of the larger interest will not soon turn into a "strange and eerie place."
Still not convinced? Then look at Europe as a whole. In the past 500 years, this Continent used to be the fountainhead of the world's worst wars. Europe invented imperialism, colonialism, nationalism and totalitarianism. These fires burn no more. Germany is like Sweden, and both are like the rest. The "strange and eerie" stuff now happens elsewhere, in the Middle East, in Asia, in Africa. But Europe, with Germany in the center, is rich, democratic and…well, a bit dull. But given Germany's and Europe's past, normality is not only boring, but also reassuring.
Mr. Joffe is editor of Die Zeit and senior fellow of the Institute for International Studies and Abramowitz Fellow of the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford.