New Germany Thwarted as an International Player : Diplomacy: If it gets involved, old fears of conquest re-emerge; if it stands back, it appears impotent.


When East and West Germany reunited one year ago, the new Germany instantly became the most populous, potentially most politically powerful state in Europe. The leaders of the other Western European powers looked with awe and foreboding upon that phoenix nation, risen from the rubble and shame of World War II.

They waited anxiously to see what role the new creature would assume in world affairs.

But as it began to flex its muscles in international relations, the expanded Federal Republic seemed to be caught in a no-win game--damned if it did make an effort proportionate to its new weight in the world, and damned if it didn't.

If it sat on the sidelines during a world crisis, as it was accused of doing during the Persian Gulf War, Germany was attacked as an economic giant acting like a diplomatic dwarf.

But when it entered energetically into a messy regional conflict like the one in Yugoslavia, it was accused of wanting to revive the Teutonic "sphere of influence" in Eastern Europe. Whispers of resurgent German domination coursed the diplomatic corridors of European capitals.

"Since German reunification they have become more aggressive--more independent," said Alfred Pijpers, political scientist with the Europe Institute in Amsterdam. "I'm not suggesting that Germany is becoming more dangerous, but they are more self-confident and more impatient with the smaller countries. Two years ago they would have been much more in the background in a crisis like Yugoslavia."

German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher irritated European allies by steering an independent course in Yugoslavia, threatening to recognize Croatia and Slovenia as independent states without consulting his fellow foreign ministers in the European Community.

Yet when Germany supported a proposal to send a Western European military peacekeeping force into Yugoslavia, it was once again criticized for not doing enough.

Germany refused to send troops of its own because of a controversial constitutional provision that supposedly limits German military activities to North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries. It was the same constitutional provision--which not all German legal scholars consider binding--that the German government used as a reason not to provide military forces in the Gulf.

"So Germans would be asking others to go and stand between crazy Serbs and Croats," Britain's Economist magazine fumed in an editorial opposing the military intervention in Yugoslavia.

The debate over Yugoslavia captures the ambiguous, anxious feelings in other European countries as reunited Germany begins to feel its way in the world. Before unification, European leaders begged what was then West Germany to play a larger geopolitical role, more in keeping with its economic might as the world's third-largest industrial power behind the United States and Japan.

"Everybody was relieved that Germany didn't want to do too much," Geoffrey Edwards, a political scientist with the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, commented wryly in a telephone interview. "But there was a feeling that a little more would be rather nice."

But now that two Germanys are one, the same Europeans are asking that the new Germany be more demure in its exercise of power. They want Germany like it was in the polite old days, before unification.

No wonder this has produced a kind of political schizophrenia in Germany's relations with its Western partners.

"The schizophrenia is outside and inside Germany," said Christoph Bertram, diplomatic correspondent for the Hamburg newspaper Die Zeit. "Germans feel they should be listened to but are afraid to take a bigger role.

"It is all part of a transitory process," said Bertram. "We are going to have to become accustomed to the fact that what we say carries weight." Unlike Americans, he said, Germans are not accustomed to being criticized for their foreign policies.

After Genscher's free-lance diplomacy favoring Croatia and Slovenia--dictated in great part by the fact that the 600,000 Yugoslavs in Germany are mostly Croat and Slovene in origin--Bertram said many Germans were "shocked that Serbians demonstrated against Germany."

"It is part of our learning process," he said.

Many of the initial fears about German reunification in Western Europe, particularly in France and Britain, were allayed when it became clear that the former West Germany faced an enormous, expensive and difficult task in bringing the former East Germany up to its level.

"The big surprise was that East Germany was so industrially weak," said one British official. "There was a backwardness and a lack of competition there that no one had dreamed could be."

This was a big relief in Britain. Under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the fears of a resurgent, pushy Germany had been whipped into a frenzy by former Trade Minister Nicholas Ridley.

In an infamous interview with the Spectator magazine in London, Ridley vehemently opposed reunification and accused the Germans of using their strong currency and powerful economy to dominate Europe through the European Community.

"It's all a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe," said Ridley. "It has got to be thwarted."

Ridley was known to be close to Thatcher. But relations with the Germans have improved under her successor as prime minister, John Major. The fact that Germany has often appeared to be reeling under the weight of reconstruction in eastern Germany has calmed the Thatcherites in the ruling Conservative Party.

"The process of reunification hasn't been that smooth," commented an adviser to the Conservative Party government. "The Nicholas Ridley fears about a resurgent, dominating Germany have been allayed for the moment."

Of all the European countries, France had perhaps been the most attached to the idea of a divided Germany and the most surprised when the Berlin Wall crumbled and reunification became inevitable. Until then, many French agreed with the oft-quoted line from the writer Francois Mauriac: "I like Germany so much that I want there to be two of them."

So when reunification appeared imminent, something akin to panic ruffled the French political community. The center of Europe appeared to be shifting east from Paris to Berlin, and shifting along with it were French dreams of playing the pivotal role in Europe's future.

Trying to calm some of the fears, the German Embassy in Paris printed maps showing the united Germany superimposed over France. "It showed that France was still a lot bigger than Germany," an embassy official remembered. "It seemed to reassure the French."

The French government's reaction to reunification has been to accelerate its effort to bind Germany to the 12-nation European Community. With Germany safely in the fold of Europe, the French reasoned, its political weight on the Continent would be diluted and manageable.

The French believe that to a large extent, their hopes of a European restraint on German grandeur have been realized. Under Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Genscher, the Germans have been among the most enthusiastic members of the European community.

Just how far the Germans are willing to go to calm the fears of their European neighbors will be evident at a meeting of the European Parliament next week. At that meeting, members are expected to allocate new seats to Germany based on its increase in population because of reunification.

Before reunification, the four main member states of the European Community--France, West Germany, Britain and Italy--all had approximately the same population (between 55 million and 60 million) and the same number of seats, 81, allocated in the Parliament. But after reunification, the population of Germany jumped to 76 million, an increase of more than 25%.

Under strictly demographic terms this would mean that the Germans should qualify for at least 21 new seats. However, they are expected to be offered--and are almost certain to accept--a lesser number, probably 18. The reason they are likely to settle for less, said one European Parliament official, is that "Germany does not want at this stage to upset the French government and to a lesser extent the British government by demanding their rights. The French believe in Franco-German equality."

"The problem with French-German relations goes back to an old maxim," said a diplomat in Paris, explaining the delicate relations spawned after three wars in less than a century. "The Germans love the French but don't necessarily respect them. The French respect the Germans but don't necessarily love them. The problem is that the Germans want to be loved and the French want to be respected."

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