Photo by JARAMA
Artillery Row

The strange death of liberal Germanophilia

Do the Germans “do it better”?

Germany amassed the largest economy in Europe on the back of its manufacture of automobiles and pharmaceuticals. Recently, another of its exports has flooded the British market. Just as Blair, Blur and Oasis sold a certain image of Britain to the world — chic and coolly confident — so too did Germany under Angela Merkel project itself as essentially “serious” and “mature”. After 2016, when Britain fell to Brexit and America to Trump, Germany became a powerful foil to these disquieting developments, a shining example of good government.

Germany’s reputation for fiscal prudence, its Protestant ethic, enabled Merkel — the daughter of a Lutheran pastor — to dictate to Greece how to structure its economy. The relatively new reputation for moral probity allowed the country to play the role of Europe’s conscience during the 2015 migrant crisis. All this bred a certain arrogance, which was infamously captured when German delegates laughed at President Trump as he voiced his misgivings, in a rare moment of acuity, about their nation’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels. When that clip first went viral, the joke was on Trump; now it lands quite differently.

This phenomenon finds its apotheosis in the journalist Annette Dittert. Frau Dittert is the London bureau chief of the ARD, Germany’s public-service broadcaster. She moved here in 2008, and she clearly mourns the Britain she found when she arrived, before it was killed by Brexit.

Yet many of Dittert’s gripes with Britain pre-date 2016, sometimes by many centuries. She often reminds one of the stereotypical 19th century anthropologist in the field: sneering at that which she makes no effort to understand. She is suspicious of the undemocratic element of the British constitution, whilst simultaneously yearning for it to be more powerful. When King Charles gave royal assent to a bill that Dittert didn’t like, as every one of his predecessors has dutifully done since 1708, she complained that this was “not a good look for the monarchy”.

Dittert is also concerned about the threat of the far right in Britain, and she suggests that Germany can offer us urgent lessons about it. The notion that Germany’s own experiences of fascist dictatorship gives it moral authority today is surprisingly widespread. One might even say that it is the foundational myth of modern German national identity. That myth runs something like this: Germany has learned the lessons of the Holocaust so well, it has so taken to heart “Never Again”, that Germans are now expert in spotting the warning-signs of fascism. The metaphor at play is something akin to medical inoculation: Hitler injected himself into German veins, so the Germans now have anti-fascist antibodies.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine discredited Merkel’s energy policy

We can also see this line of thought from Tanja Bueltmann, the professor of international history at the University of Strathclyde. Defending Gary Lineker’s comments that Suella Braverman’s rhetoric about migrants was reminiscent of 1930s Germany, Prof Bueltmann declared, in language similar to Dittert’s: “As a German … when politicians speak in a language not dissimilar to that used in 1930s Germany, I recognise it.” A caveat in her argument (that we “need to be mindful of the specific contexts of 1930s Germany”) exposes the smug evasiveness at play: it may seem at first glance like Germany is heeding a noble moral call, but in fact the idea that fascism could succeed anywhere is flattering to German history — obscuring all the specific national conditions that made Hitler and the Holocaust possible.

Germany’s post-war reckoning, what they call Vergangenheitsbewältigung, has thus in some cases produced a perverse type of moral superiority. It may be churlish, but it is also correct to point out in response that when it comes to the actual historical practice of resisting the far right, we are, so to speak, ahead one-nil. We might equally wish to credit our political constitution, with all its mediaeval accoutrements, for withstanding the wave of extremism that once brought Europe tumbling down.

Owing in part to a credulous acceptance of German “expertise” in antifascism, liberal Germanophilia has won itself a considerable following. Its locus classicus is probably John Kampfner’s 2021 book, Why the Germans Do it Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country. Like Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, I fear that this book will forever be more mocked than read. Already it has aged quite poorly, as the idea of Germany as a “grown-up country” has suffered two major blows.

The first of these blows was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which discredited Merkel’s energy policy (epitomised by her wholesale abandonment of Germany’s nuclear energy programme) and vindicated Trump’s concerns about German overreliance on Russian gas. The war has also drawn attention to the intimate relationships between Germany’s political elite and Russia’s.

The second nail in the coffin of Kampfnerite Germanophilia has come into focus more recently. The AfD, Germany’s party of the radical right, won its first mayoral election earlier this month and shows no signs of slowing down. It still languishes behind a cordon sanitaire — though Friedrich Merz, the leader of the CDU, has equivocated on this of late — but, according to recent polling, it commands more popular support than each of the three parties currently in government.

There is, therefore, the (I daresay, immature) temptation to reverse the “Dittert treatment”, as it were. We Britons might be at liberty to wag our fingers at our German friends — to tut-tut that the rise of the AfD shows that they have not learned their lessons after all, to compose jeremiads about the parlous state of German democracy. Perhaps we would even find a market for such ideas within Germany itself — we may yet find a positive reception for “sensible, grown-up, technocratic Britain”, where the far-right doesn’t even have any representatives in parliament (unless, like Dittert, you count the Tories). “As a German,” Bueltmann began her criticism of Suella Braverman. “As a Briton,” we might say the next time the AfD does well in a German election, “we know a thing or two about defeating fascism.” Such temptations are, perhaps, best resisted.

There are, to be clear, good reasons to be a Germanophile. I am a Germanophile because I love the poetry of Heine, the music of Wagner, Currywurst, Augustiner-Bräu and the Konjunktiv-I. Germany is a country like any other, though, with problems that are in some cases sharper even than our own. There was a strain of Germanophilia that denied this basic fact — but that strain now has had its day, and it is best left for dead.

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