Not only the unforgettable Nazi past, but also the hard power materialism and reactionary politics of the German success story, made Germany in many respects the least lovable country in the Western world.
Despite the rise of the European Union, and Germany’s dominant role as the economic engine pulling the European train, the culture and politics of the country remained unpleasantly nationalist, unwelcoming to foreign minorities even after several generations of residence, an assessment that the three million Turks will confirm. If anyone doubts this harsh depiction of German reality, I recommend watching the acclaimed Christian Petzold film, Jerichow, that depicts the tragic plight of a Turkish ‘success’ story in Germany, or for that matter, a reading of almost any novel by Gunter Grass, especially, The Tin Drum and The Rat.
Of course, national stereotypes should always be skeptically viewed, if not altogether avoided, but if invoked, at least balanced by an acknowledgement of contradictory evidence, which in this case would call attention to a litany of German achievements through the ages. Germany has given the world far more than its share of great music and literature, and its engineering skills produce a range of superior products. And philosophically, German thinkers have exerted a profound influence on modern thought, perhaps none more than the enigmatic Nietzsche whose metaphysical nihilism induced a still not fully acknowledged or understood courageous humanism.
Personally, I had the good fortune to have a friendship with two extraordinary Germans, Petra Kelly and Rudolph Barro, who represented the opposed factions of the Green Party during its early period of formation and prominence in the heartland of the Cold War. It was this green questioning of modern industrial society in Germany that raised the most serious post-Marxist challenge in the West. It was a challenge directed at what later became known as the ‘Washington Consensus,’ the label used to draw attention to the regressive neoliberal ideology that continues to generate market behavior that exploits the peoples of the world and destroys our natural habitat. In the last several years this ideology of contemporary capitalism proved itself resistant to correction despite a deep recession, and expectations of worse to come in the near future. These two German public intellectuals disagreed sharply as to the proper depth and breadth of the green vision. Kelly thought that a responsible reformation of capitalism was possible while Barro was convinced that nothing less than the rollback of industrialism could ensure ecological and spiritual survival for the human species. Especially in the aftermath of the Sendai/Fukushima ordeal these issues are again becoming integral to the political and moral imagination for all those of us who see the future through a glass darkly.
My emphasis here is on the recent bashing of Germany because of its stands on nuclear energy and the Libyan intervention. With respect to nuclear energy, German public opinion exhibited more of a reaction to the Fukushima problems than anywhere else on the planet, probably in part because of the strong Green political presence, memories of the devastation of World War II, fears generated by the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown and radioactivity carried to the West by wind currents, and because 25% of German power comes from nuclear reactors. With the Fukushima disaster intensifying day by day, Chancellor Angela Merkel found herself in an anxious political atmosphere relating to domestically crucial upcoming elections at the sub-federal or länder level. Merkel retreated from an earlier embrace of nuclear energy, imposing a moratorium on extending the life of existing reactors and temporarily shutting down seven reactors that were of the same design as those in trouble at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex. German voters were not persuaded by this switch, apparently regarding it as a tactical ploy, and in the key conservative länder of Baden-Württemberg the electorate gave the Green Party a stunning surprise victory. It was the first time that the Greens won political control of a German länder, one that was known to be the most conservative in all of Germany where the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had exercised uninterrupted dominance during the past six decades.
The mainstream media has both derided Merkel for her failed cheap political trick to assume an anti-nuclear pose and attacked the Greens as unfit to govern or to devise an economically responsible energy policy for the future. In effect, Green insistence on ending German dependence on nuclear power has been accompanied by the belief that the accelerated development of wind and solar can supply energy needs without hurting the economy. In their bid for greater political influence the Greens now accept capitalism as their policy framework, and believe that markets can be made to function humanely and in a manner that is environmentally sustainable. Whatever else, this Green upsurge in Germany brings to the fore some alternative thinking that is desperately needed throughout the world, and is currently absent in most major societies, perhaps most dramatically here in the United States. This Green thinking has great appeal for German youth, especially women, as a way of forging a brighter future. Instead of considering the Green success in Germany as an anomaly in secular politics because it focuses less on jobs and Eurozone difficulties, it should be regarded as a challenge to the sterile and historically irrelevant political parties that continue to dominate the scene in Euro-American elections, and help explain the alienation of the young and the embitterment of the old, as well as the rise of the mean spirited and totally dysfunctional Tea Party in America. What strange plants manage to flourish in this political desert of American political life should make all Americans, and for that matter everyone everywhere, tremble. We not only are damaging ourselves by this politics of evasion, but also due to our heavy global footprint, putting others throughout the world at severe risk.
The growing oppostion of the German public to nuclear energy is equally justifiable. Rather than being dismissed by the pundits as an over-reaction (Germany is not prone to earthquakes or tsunamis) or economically quixotic (renewable energy will not be able to supply sufficient energy to dispense with nuclear), it should be praised as taking weighing carefully risks that have been thoughtlessly assumed elsewhere. It is not only the events in Japan that should give us pause. The explosion of the oilrig engaged in deep sea drilling by British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico and the oil-driven interventions in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East are kindred events that should be introduced into the societal calculus of gains and losses. These various developments, including a variety of geo-engineering schemes under consideration to gain access to deep pockets of natural gas and oil shale deposits are suggestive of the overall pressure to rely on these economically seductive frontier technologies despite the massive environmental risks posed. In effect, the compulsion of modern civilization to grow beyond the carrying capacity of the earth is pushing human endeavor up against a series of limits, which if not respected enter domains of catastrophic risk that can and will only be appreciated fully in retrospect. It seems self-evident beyond discussion that now that the Fukushima reactor accidents have taken place, the future of nuclear energy will be scrutinized in a manner that was inconceivable only two months earlier.
Will it be enough to prevent future disasters? Just as Hiroshima was a warning ignored with respect to nuclear weaponry, there is every indication that Fukushima will become another unheeded warning. Reassurances from influential members of the governing elites are likely to take the form of promising higher safety and monitoring standards and more care when deciding in the future upon where to locate reactors. These gestures will be reinforced by a variety of arguments put forward by formidable private interests to the effect that soft coal is far more dangerous to human health and societal wellbeing than is nuclear energy even if full account is taken of the periodic occurrences that generate public fear of the sort now present in Japan. Conventional wisdom is claiming that such a catastrophic accident temporarily disrupts social reason, and that in due course there will be a return to rational decision that will restore confidence that nuclear energy is comparatively benign, and in any event, is necessary to prevent economic collapse. Germany, whatever its motivations, has reminded the world that these issues, however resolved, should engage both the leadership and citizenry of a robust democracy, and in this sense, represents a display of public reason at its best, rather than a foolish detour into the underbrush of romantic politics derisively associated with this unexpected Green upsurge. Of course, it is not clear that the rest of the world, or even the rest of Europe, will take any significant note of this German response to Fukushima and the threat of nuclear energy beyond cynical commentary.
Germany has also been widely criticized for its refusal to back the Security Council Resolution 1973 of March 17, 2011 authorizing the establishment of a No Fly Zone for the protection of civilians in Libya. The widely voiced opinion in Europe and the United States was that the German vote to abstain was a stab in the back from the perspective of European unity and loyalty to NATO, and some went so far as to call it as an inappropriate expression of ingratitude for the protection given to Germany by NATO throughout the Cold War. It was also suggested that the German abstention was an irresponsible refusal to stand up for the humanitarian values that the intervening governments were insisting to be at stake in Libya. No matter that the concerns that Germany expressed prior to the vote have all been proven correct: a No Fly Zone is a clumsy instrument of intervention, essentially incapable of either altering the outcome of the struggle for power that was underway in Libya or achieving regime change, and to the extent this political goal was being pursued it would involve ignoring the limits and purpose set forth by the UN resolution. As the military operation unfolded, it has decreasingly been devoted to protecting Libyan civilians in cities under attack by Qaddafi forces, and mostly dedicated to helping the rebels somehow prevail, despite their meager military capabilities and shadowy political identity. By refusing to endorse such a venture it would seem to me that Germany deserves the thanks of the world, not a lecture about alliance loyalty. Should not a democratic government be reluctant to commit its resources and risk the lives of its citizens in foreign military undertakings?
In the instance of Libya, Germany had urged that diplomacy and sanctions be tried prior to any serious consideration of military intervention. Is not this what the UN Charter mandates, seeking to make recourse to force the last option after all efforts at peaceful resolution have been tried and failed? Unfortunately this is not the first time that the UN has succumbed to American-led geopolitics in the aftermath of the Cold War. It authorized without any ongoing supervision the first Gulf War (1991) when a diplomatic solution could probably have avoided mass killing and the destruction of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, and now this new authorization in relation to Libya issued twenty years later. True, the Security Council did not endorse the Kosovo War (1999) (thanks to the prospect of a Russian veto) or the Iraq War (2003), but it did acquiesce afterwards in the results produced by the unlawful uses of forces in both instances, thereby making its refusal to mandate the attacks in the first place little more than a nominal obstacle that could be circumvented by ‘a coalition of the willing’ acting independently of UN blessings. For Germany to stand alone among its Western allies while being in solidarity with the BRIC countries should be a moment of national pride, not a time for solemn soul searching as the German mainstream media has been encouraging. It may even be, if the EU cannot manage its sequence of sovereign debt and banking crises that Germany in the future base its security and wellbeing by moving toward a closer alignment with an emergent global multipolarism and giving up altogether an outmoded adherence to an American led unipolarity that has existed in the aftermath of the Cold War era. Admittedly, this remains but a glint in the eye at present, although attractive from the perspective of constituting a genuine ‘new world order,’ which is long overdue. In the face of continuing American decline as a responsible global leader, Germany can seize the day by withdrawing from the anachronistic behavior of violent geopolitics, and put to rest once and for all its own disastrous heritage of failed militarism.
In concluding, where others raise eyebrows over these controversial recent German developments, I find them deserving of admiration and reflection. Just as Turkey has been recently chastised by American neoconservatives and Israeli warmongers for getting out of its lane, that is, seeking a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Iran in relation to its nuclear program, so Germany is being told to get back in its NATO lane, which is tantamount to doing what the United States wants done on the global stage. It is true that here in response to domestic pressures that it was France and Britain that were most ardent champions of intervention, seeming having most to gain (above all, oil and the avoidance of an influx of Libyan immigrants) by getting rid of the Qaddafi regime. But unfortunately, for these former senior partners of the colonial era, a major NATO undertaking cannot be made credible without American leadership. The Libyan operations seem to have demonstrated this, and may inhibit future European adventurism. In effect, in matters of war and peace, each country is ethically sovereign given the way the world is organized even if many countries often act as if they were politically subservient, that is, by being more deferential to the geopolitical hierarchy than respectful of international law or even of its own selfish calculus of values and interests. With this background in mind, let us hope that these German initiatives are not merely episodes soon to be forgotten, but rather represent the first steps along a new pathway to a global future that others should reflect upon rather than dismiss or ignore.