Germany in decline? I beg to differ
Looking at a recent cover of the German news magazine Der Spiegel, one might be forgiven for thinking that all is lost for the Fatherland.
A dismal performance of the German national football team (Die Mannschaft) is seen as the consequence of a general malaise. “Haggard”, “exhausted”, “tired” are not only words used to describe the football coach Joachim Löw but also Germany’s long-serving chancellor, Angela Merkel.
In the Der Spiegel article, Merkel is depicted as a spent force. She is blamed for a serious upset to the years of plenty by her morally laudable but politically disastrous decision to allow 1.5m refugees into the country. She is seen as a mere shadow of the woman named Time Magazine’s person of the year in 2015. Does she even remember that glorious year 2014, when she celebrated with the World Cup-winning German team in Brazil?
There are plenty of reasons to buy into this narrative of decline. The right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland has risen to prominence as a response to immigration, causing a political upset at the latest election that meant it took six months to form a government (Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund chose the words “paralysed nation”).
The ongoing scandal about car emissions has embroiled not only Volkswagen (Das Auto), but also the other big German car manufacturers. The German construction industry appears unable to deliver major infrastructure projects such as the new Berlin Airport or the Stuttgart 21 train station. And, most excruciating to watch, Horst Seehofer, Merkel’s pugnacious minister for the homeland, is holding her to ransom over his “masterplan” for transition centres that are supposed to stem the flow of asylum seekers.
But are the prophets of doom right? Or is it just part of the more general negative mood music we are hearing this summer, with observers dancing to the tune of Trump and Brexit, yet holding on to an impossible expectation that Germany, “the strongest remaining bastion of liberal democracy”, should somehow solve the world’s problems?
Yes, Germany is the largest country in the European Union and has the strongest economy, but it accounts for only 80m out of 500m Europeans. It is stuck in a Catch-22 situation, with every move to lead immediately met with a suspicion that it is up to no good again. Hans Kundnani’s description of a reluctant hegemon in his excellent The Paradox of German Power (2014) still holds true, even if he now advocates that the US rethink its support for a German-led Europe.
Reasons to be cheerful
Jeffrey Cliffe, the outgoing Berlin bureau chief of The Economist, sees a different country. Only a few months ago, the magazine’s title page celebrated a “Cool Germany” that was reinventing itself, becoming “more open, more informal, more hip”. In a recent interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, he told Germans to let go of their pessimism and cheer up, but also criticised his media colleagues for creating the impression that the nation was close to the abyss.
As anyone who has actually been to Germany can attest, the reality is indeed very different. It’s a civilised and safe country with a vibrant culture and friendly locals who treat visitors like adults. This view is backed up by Portland Communication’s Soft Power 30 ranking which placed Germany in third place. It pointed in particular to its positive, values-driven foreign policy and its supportive environment for the creative and nighttime economies resulting in vibrant, 24-hour cities.
This summer, visitors to Germany will encounter a country that is looking forward, investing in an “energy transition” and slowly getting used to a greater international responsibility. But this responsibility need not necessarily mean doubling its military budget. Germany is using its considerable resources more intelligently and humanely. Having learned from its past, it has accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees when others have not.
Visitors will see, in contrast to the sensational headlines and the hate messages, that the majority of Germans are involved in the massive and ongoing task of helping these refugees. They are working to find them a safe place to live, recover from their traumatic experiences, learn the unfamiliar language, find a school for their children, secure a job, start a business, learn a trade, get a University degree – and, perhaps, begin to feel at home.
Germany will overcome the current challenges, just as it has successfully dealt with the challenge of reunification. In the words of Angela Merkel: “Wir schaffen das” (We can do it).