The German Question – Alignment with the West or Hegemony?

Since World War II the Federal Republic of Germany didn’t have to make any fundamental decision regarding its geo-strategy. Tilman Rademacher explains why this will change even if the east-bound visions of the far-left party DIE LINKE and the nationalist AfD are not going to prevail.

When Angela Merkel meets the other Heads of State or Governments, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and President of the European Council Donald Tusk for a meeting of the European Council in Brussels, they often negotiate until late at night: Eurozone crisis, crisis in Greece, refugee crisis, Brexit – the nation states must then explain themselves in the early morning hours on which measures they were able to compromise on to lead Europe into a better future. But what is interesting and new about this fact? It is, quite simply, that all the criticism on the EU’s ability to act and its organization misjudges what is really wrong with the European system. The EU is only as good as the compromise the nation states are able to negotiate within the European Council. That is because “the European Council shall provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development and shall define the general political directions and priorities thereof.”[1]

Neither is there a prevailing autonomous European interest in the process of creating European legislative acts. There as well the consensus of nation states is decisive. Indeed the legislative initiative comes from the European Commission, which is bringing an element of proper European interest to the table by promoting the general interest of the Union and taking appropriate initiatives to that end.[2] However, the content of the legislation is decided by the joint work of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Against the will of the Council of Ministers no European legislative action can be made. Since the nation states dispatch one of their members of government each to the Council of Ministers, their interest is protected. In fact what happens within the Council of Ministers on a legislative level is exactly what happens within the European Council on a political level: The nation states negotiate until a European compromise is found. This system is not perfect by any means, because individual nation states can be overruled in the Council of Ministers.[3] There is a real possibility that a nation state has to implement European rules it desperately wanted to prevent. It is completely right to criticize that the mere existence of such a mechanism undermines democratic legitimacy to such an extent that the participation of the European Parliament in the legislative process cannot compensate for it.[4] Nevertheless, in practice this situation is far from being a challenge to democracy: The collective of nation states knows exactly that the interests and majorities can be completely different in the vote on the next topic. Because of that the own self-interest prevents the collective to overrule certain states too often.

However, the often-quoted “dictate from Brussels”[5] is not a hollow phrase. The accusation of back-room politics of “small power cliques and privileged groups”[6] precisely expresses the sentiment of many European citizens. In light of the extremely complicated procedures and regulations the established media has stark difficulties to criticize the process of European law-making in a few sentences. That is why many European citizens feel like being at the mercy of a faceless bureaucracy they have no emotional ties whatsoever with.

The risk of undifferentiated EU criticism

At exactly this point the EU critics from the nation states enter the discussion, thereby commingling the criticism on the Common Market, the Euro and the EU as a negotiating platform for the nation states’ foreign policies.

The legislative acts negotiated in Brussels in fact are deciding on many everyday questions that are directly felt by the people: From the consumer’s right of revocation to making the re-import of cars possible over the regulation of the roaming charges and the Europe-wide invitation to tender in public procurement decisions are made in Brussels. Therefore the nation states lack possibilities to ease local hardships by interfering with the competition on the markets through national regulation. However, exactly this unification of rules is what first makes it possible for the actors on the market to cross the national borders. It goes without saying that a common market for about 500 million people does have its down-sides and the criticism on them is not anti-European, but an expression of democratic diversity of opinions.

The criticism on the Euro as the common currency of a group of nations that is extremely heterogeneous regarding its economic power is understandable too.[7] A common currency area without joint liability is without historic example and the crisis in Greece revealed that the Eurozone’s solution represents a shaky compromise for both sides in between a de facto liability of the central and northern European countries through the ESM and an unacceptable destruction of state structures in southern European countries.

However, the criticism on the Common Market and the Eurozone becomes extremely dangerous where it leads to a general criticism on the EU. If there is a call for a “Europe of fatherlands” in the German speaking countries[8] in which the nation states shall pursue their interests outside regulated institutions, this is a hidden call for the return of inner-European foreign politics.

The EU as the Solution of the German Question

Just how dangerous the renationalization of the inner-European foreign politics would be for the peace and the self-determination of European citizens, we can only understand by a correct analysis of the purpose of the European integration. In doing so it would be especially short-sighted if one would only look at the two world wars: The EU is the best answer to the German Question we Europeans came up with so far.

With the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 Europe established a peace order that was based on a equilibrium of power. No state actor was supposed to be able to obtain a position of strength that would enable him to subjugate all the others. The German territories posed a huge challenge to this solution: Their population density, the considerable potential for economic power, the military discipline of its people and the relative political weakness of the different German territories together set a stark incentive for external interference. There was the permanent risk of these territories falling under a centralized organization, which then almost automatically would have obtained a position of power so great that the state in question would have risen to be Europe’s hegemony. Therefore, in 1815, the peace order of the Congress of Vienna established the North German Confederation as an organization just strong enough to prevent a German civil war, but that could never become a threat to its neighbors.[9] With the rise of nationalism in the German territories during the 19th century there grew a foundation that Otto von Bismarck skillfully used for the benefit of Prussia, by beating Denmark, Austria and France one after another: With the erection of the German Reich in 1871, Prussia managed to do what the other European states had been afraid of since 1648.

Bismarck’s solution of the German Question essentially was a predecessor of the EU based in his own personality: Whenever possible the German Reich assured its neighbors not to have any further territorial interests. At the same time it tried to establish itself as a neutral and peaceful intermediary. Yet already Wilhelm II.’s thoughtless dispatchment of these policies revealed what wiser politicians knew anyway: Peaceful intentions alone are not sufficient to guarantee peacekeeping, if they are not based on a fundament of actual political power. Objectively, the German Reich through its geographic position, its vast population and its thriving economy based on the enhanced central coordination was a latent threat to its neighbors in Bismarck’s times already.[10] Wilhelm II. merely proofed the weak politician he was by giving way to the objectively existing position of German power on a subjective level. Furthermore, the diplomatic environment of secret pacts set an incentive to lead wars of aggression, because politicians lacked information: Not always was it clear whether or not a certain political move would trigger a mutual defense clause of opponents so that a preventive military strike had certain rationality for power-calculating politicians – especially, because the destructive power of industrialized warfare had not yet made its way to the collective conscience of civil society.

After World War I, there had to be found a sustainable solution for the German Question. A dissolution of the German Reich seemed to be a far-fetched option even to the winners: After all nationalism was not just a German phenomenon, but the emotional identification of the individual with the state was common all over Europe. There was a fundamental acceptance for the Germans’ wish to live in a common country. Thus, the Treaty of Versailles aimed at taming the German Reich via the imposition of moral guilt, the obligation to demilitarize completely and to pay a compensation of roughly 300 percent of the German GDP of 1913.[11] This solution of the German Question – especially because it was implemented inconsistently regarding certain facilitations towards the Weimar Republic – laid the foundations for a German revanchism that until 1938 enabled the Nazi movement to make the German Reich more powerful than it had ever been in the times of the emperor.

After World War II guilt did not have to be imposed on us Germans through a treaty. The concentration camps had discredited any autonomous German statehood and after 1870, 1914 and 1940 France wanted to have lasting security of its aggressive neighbor. After 1945, the already foreseeable Cold War created a basis for such a solution: The US wanted to have a democratic Germany as the frontline against the Russians and from the French perspective the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany was acceptable because it had only half the size of the German Reich and because Allied occupation guaranteed for absolute control. For the US, Western Europe was an enlarged zone of influence that could best be controlled the more unified the European actors were. However, we Europeans had to be dragged to the ball: In 1946, Winston Churchill postulated the United States of Europe,[12] but didn’t want Great Britain to be a part of it. Even the Schuman Declaration that today is celebrated as the EU’s crucial moment of foundation, can be traced back to stark US initiatives. US Secretary of State Dean Acheson on 30 October 1949 wrote the following lines to Robert Schuman:

“The weakness of German loyalty to international obligations and to democratic procedures, isolated from the main sources of the development of the ideas and institutions upon which our society is founded, and grossly intensified in the period of Nazi domination and the occupation, must be ended by a very much increased intercourse with the Western world. (…) We here in America, with all the will in the world to help and support, cannot give the lead. That, if we are to succeed in this joint endeavor, must come from France.”[13]

The US promised the French to control the Germans and the French agreed to tie the interests of the German and the French state together. The unconditional military integration of Germany into NATO and the increasing implementation into the Common Market since then brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to both Germany and France.

The German Reunification as an Obligation to France

No sooner had the first mutually acceptable solution of the German question been established than the USSR collapsed, leaving Germany with a real opportunity to unify the two German states. Although the US had a massive interest in doing so to establish influence over Eastern Europe, France and Great Britain had serious doubts. After these territorial gains for Germany, the objective equilibrium of power in Europe would depend completely on the presence of the US and therefore on the good will of politicians: The will of the Americans to pacify Europe with its presence and the will of the Germans not to pursue its interests outside NATO or the European Community.[14] French President Mitterand expressed his assessment to the German Federal Foreign Minister Genscher that a reunified Germany as an autonomous and uncontrolled power was unbearable for Europe if one was to prevent a situation like the one before World War I.[15]

Therefore, the Mitterand government gave its approval to the German reunification only on various conditions: First, the European unification would have to be completed. Furthermore, the Federal Republic of Germany would have to recognize the Polish western border, to renounce from any aspiration to obtain NBC weapons and to guarantee its strict military integration into NATO.[16]

Just today German politics should desperately honor these commitments made to the Franco-German relations. Already during the presidency of Barack Obama it became clear that the US presence in Europe is not a matter of course, but subject to the volatile political opinion formation of any democracy. Donald Trump’s statements regarding NATO renewed this European sorrow with all urgency.[17] Should the US leave Europe, all that stands between a situation like 1914 is the self-restraint of German politics.

The EU as Warden of the Peace

If today different politicians of DIE LINKE and AfD pronounce the German interest in Eastern Europe and demand a stronger diplomatic connection with the Russian Federation,[18] they question many of the guarantees given to France and Great Britain due to the German security politics in 1989 and 1990. Thus, even if the AfD nationalists could explain how a major cut of EU competency would be possible without massively harming the economy, they still would  have to answer  for how exactly they want to impede unleashing the German Question once more when Germany turns its back on NATO and EU. The Federal Republic of Germany not only is Europe’s strongest economy, but also outshines France and Great Britain technologically in many areas. In addition, due to the German language and its position on the map, Germany can exert far more influence over Central and Eastern Europe than France or Great Britain ever could. This is a vast reservoir of potential German power. For the moment, Germany’s integration into NATO and the EU guarantees that German politicians acknowledge and respect their partners’ concerns regarding the possibility of a German state pursuing an autonomous foreign policy. However, if the EU was to be weakened excessively, sooner or later German politicians would make use of the objectively feasible German power.

When we see increased demonstrations of sympathy from within the German Parliament[19] or even from Foreign Minister Steinmeier[20] towards a better German relationship with the Russian autocracy that should not only be a warning to us Germans, but also to our neighbors:  In the future Germany could decide against its Alignment with the West in NATO, EU and Eurozone. Especially in light of the stark support for the nationalist AfD and their visions for German foreign politics, the moderate parties have to position themselves. It would virtually be a tragedy if the decision was made for Germany by a French vote to reject the EU – France would thereby throw away the most effective geopolitical strategy it has ever been able to put in place for its own security. The Franco-German friendship is not imaginable without an institutionalized framework – on an objective level of power France can outshine Germany only in the military area and even that just because France disposes over nuclear weapons. Without an institutionalized framework for Franco-German interests, rational politicians would have to build up reinsurances against one another.

Therefore, if you compare the procedures in Brussels as indicated above with the ones of our bloody history, you should have some patience with the EU: The standard of comparison for the EU’s bureaucratic and democratic shortcomings is not your national parliament, but the two World Wars.

The German Question is a geopolitical force that was not solved by the creation of NATO, EU and Eurozone: It needs the constant attention of German, American and European politicians. Since now there are two big political parties, the AfD and the LINKE, who actually question Germany’s Alignment with the West, the Federal Republic has to make an active decision. Do we want to integrate ourselves in the West or do we want to pursue our nationalistic interest as short-sighted soldiers of fortune in the East?

[1] See Article 15 Section 1 Sentence 1 of the Lisbon Treaty.

[2] See Article 17 Section 1 Sentence 1 of the Lisbon Treaty.

[3] See Article 16 Section 3 and 4 of the Lisbon Treaty.

[4] Dingwerth, Klaus/Blauberger, Michael/Schneider, Christian, in: Postnationale Demokratie, 1. Edition 2011, VS Verlag, Wiesbaden, S. 34 f. und 90; Grimm, Dieter, in: Europa ja – aber welches?, C.H. Beck, München 2016, S. 85 ff.

[5] Representatively cf. Bonse, Eric, in: „Das Diktat aus Brüssel“, of 8 July 2015,!5211026/; Bolzen, Stefanie, in: „Diktat aus Brüssel – Europäer wehren sich gegen Oettingers Stromsparplan“, Die Welt online of 22 June 2011,; Gutteridge, Nick, in: „Brexit happened because the EU is  a ´broken  dictatorship´ Italian MEP blasts“, Daily Express online of 8 August 2016,

[6] The exact wording of Italian MEP Barbara Spinelli as quoted in Daily Express online of 8 August 2016,

[7] Cf. Guérot, Ulrike, in: Warum Europa eine Republik werden muss!, Verlag J.H.W. Dietz, Bonn 2016, S. 58 f.

[8] Cf. „Programm für Deutschland. Das Grundsatzprogramm der Alternative für Deutschland.“ S. 17 ff.; Quote of Heinz-Christian Strache, in: Der Standard online of 14 February 2016,


[9] Cf. Simms, Brendan/Zeeb, Benjamin, in: Europa am Abgrund, C.H. Beck, München 2016, S. 53 f.

[10] In 1871 the German territory measured roughly 500.000 square kilometers and Germany had a population of approximately 41 million.

[11] Cf. Fischer, Konrad, in: „Wie der Zündholzkönig Deutschland knebelte“, Handelsblatt online of 31. January 2010,

[12] Cf. Winston Churchill’s famous speech of 19 September 1946,

[13] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1949, Council of Foreign Ministers; Germany and Austria, Volume III, U.S. Government Printing Office, S. 622 ff. Available at:

[14] Cf. Görtemaker, Manfred, in: „Verhandlungen mit den vier Mächten“, in bpb online of 19 March 2009,

[15] Ibid.

[16] Cf. Lappenküper, Ulrich, in: „Dem Élysée tut alles weh?“, FAZ online of 20 December 2011,

[17] Cf. Sanger, David E./Haberman, Maggie, in: New York Times online of 20 July 2016,

[18] Cf. Herzinger, Richard, in: „Warum die Linken und die Rechten Putin so lieben“, Die Welt online vom 28.04.2016,; Spiegel Online vom 23.04.2016, „AfD-Jugend und Putin-Jugend verbünden sich“,

[19] So far mostly MEPs of DIE LINKE who orientate themselves here: „Beschluss der 1. Tagung des 5. Parteitags der Partei DIE LINKE am 28. und 29. Mai 2016 in Marburg“,

[20] Spiegel Online of 19 June2016, „Steinmeier provoziert Koalitionskrach“,

Tilman Rademacher
Tilman Rademacher
Tilman Rademacher is a German Christian Democrat. He studied law in Münster and in Pamplona and is a member of the CDU Düsseldorf. He leads a working group on Europe with the Junge Union and is active for the Young European Federalists. As a passionate European, Tilman is strongly in favour of building a European Army and calls for the development of a European State.

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