Why the new rift between the U.S. and Germany is for real.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Sept. 24 2002 4:34 PM

Gerhard's Generation

Why the new rift between the United States and Germany is for real.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Just before last weekend's election, Germany's former Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin exacerbated already-tense relations between Berlin and Washington by blithely comparing George W. Bush to Hitler, noting that each used foreign adventures to distract attention from domestic woes. Däubler-Gmelin was forced to quit her Cabinet post, and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder spent the first days after his narrow re-election victory attempting to apologize to Bush. But it would be wrong to view this incident as some kind of aberration. In fact, the gaffe was an expression of a fundamental change in German politics, driven by a generational shift.

Like Schröder, her former boss, the justice minister is a Social Democrat of the first generation of German politicians who grew up without the taint of a Nazi past. This was the "Tuscany Faction," stylish, tanned German lefties who spent their leisure months in Italy and suffered from a deep aversion to power and leadership—a splendid phenomenon if you were Helmut Kohl, the conservative, unstylish chancellor who kept Germany firmly in the American orbit through the '80s and '90s.

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But the Tuscany Faction appealed to many Germans, left and right, who had rebelled against their fascist parents by wrapping themselves in the European flag and embracing pacifism despite their country's membership in NATO. Their naiveté was a Cold-War-era luxury. Germany was ground zero in the event of nuclear war, but the United States and the Soviet Union also relieved the Germans of having to have much of a foreign policy of their own.

After the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany, the country's leaders gingerly promised to take on more responsibility around the world, but the steps were tentative and tiny—a few peacekeepers here, a nice donation there. The world was not ready for Germany to become a political or military power, and neither were most Germans. Americans can grumble and mutter about wussy Germans refusing to carry their own weight, but the fact is that this is our own success in, you'll pardon the expression, nation-building: We helped mold a real democracy over there after World War II, and what the Germans have developed since then is the world's most heightened sensitivity to anything that smacks of nationalism, aggression, or cruelty to animals and trees.

Meanwhile, speaking of leaders who turned to foreign adventures to distract attention from domestic failures, Schröder looked up this summer to find his country in a financial mess and himself in grave danger of losing to challenger Edmund Stoiber, a Bavarian Christian Democrat who was only too happy to press the always-popular anti-foreigner button. The conservative started making noises about how Germany would never regain its economic prowess if it kept electing socialists who opened the borders to (swarthy) foreigners, who steal jobs from upstanding Germans.

Schröder responded with the Social Democrats' version of the anti-foreigner appeal, a zesty dose of anti-Americanism. The chancellor broke not only with Bush but with other Europeans, making clear his disgust over U.S. threats toward Iraq. How could a card-carrying member of the Tuscany Faction do such a thing? Schröder acted out of political necessity, emboldened by his own, American-style charisma and the Tuscany Faction's gradually increasing comfort with power.

When I lived in Germany during the Gulf War as the Washington Post's correspondent, the anti-Americanism that had long simmered beneath the Cold War radar emerged in force—demonstrations, threats to those of us who represented U.S. institutions, a stunningly pure righteousness from the children of mass murderers. Thanks to the birth of our daughter, my wife had the fortune to be confined to a Bonn hospital on one of the first nights of American bombing in Iraq. "What do you think of your country bombing all those people?" my wife was asked by the midnight nurse, who had just whisked our infant away for a few hours' rest. My wife responded with a grave "War is bad," and pretended to drift off to sleep. Her answer was more than enough for most Germans.

This time, many Germans again are aghast at American aggression. But this time the anti-American rhetoric comes not only from lefties painting "No Blood for Oil" on bed sheets hung out their windows, but from the country's leaders. Where Helmut Kohl was unsurpassed in his heartfelt expressions of solidarity with America under Bush I, Schröder found a path to re-election in breaking with Germany's mentor and protector. The difference is generational as well as ideological. Kohl never forgot the GIs who shared their chocolates with him when he was a teenager in the Rhineland; the Chancellor of German Unity never beamed as boyishly as when he was dining with an American president—Bush or Clinton, it hardly mattered. Schröder, though fluent in English, has never felt any such affinity for the prudish Americans and their incessant babbitry.

So, when Däubler-Gmelin said what many Germans believe, the rest went according to script: The defeated Stoiber said that the chancellor had "opened the floodgates for anti-American tones," and he called the crisis with the United States "the most devastating of the last 50 years." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the incident "had the effect of poisoning a relationship." Bush, who expects nations to abide by the same rules of friendship that govern prep-school boys, is said to feel hurt and refused to make a congratulatory phone call to Schröder.

We will now see Schröder and especially Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, a Green, try to make nice—already, Germany is moving to take over the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan—but the response will not be the self-flagellating apology that came automatically whenever feathers were ruffled over the past half-century. "I think this difference of opinion will remain," Schröder said Monday. "We will have it out in a fair and open way without in any way endangering the basis of German-American relations."

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