Publication International / Transnational - War / Peace - Europe - Western Europe - Positive Peace Germany’s "New Responsibility" in Foreign Policy?

A historical and left-wing perspective from Wolfgang Triebel



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March 2019

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Wolfgang Ischinger, 55th Munich Security Conference in Munich 2019
"Mr Ischinger's idea of ​​making Brussels a European governing body under German leadership thwarts the 'new' German responsibility in foreign policy." Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference (MSC), wears a jersey with the European flag with one missing star while giving a speech to open the 55th Munich Security Conference in Munich, southern Germany, on February 15, 2019, Christof STACHE / AFP

At the Munich Security Conference held in February 2014, the President of Germany at the time, Joachim Gauck, put forth the argument to the country’s then foreign secretary, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and its defence secretary, Ursula von der Leyen, that Germany should play a greater role in Europe’s foreign and security policy. Since then, politicians and media outlets have spoken enthusiastically about the Federal Republic’s ‘new responsibility’ for European and international developments (although it would, in fact, be more accurate to speak of this new duty being that of the Federal Government rather than of the country as a whole).

In today’s political praxis, which has become marked by intensified power struggles between the 27 ‘partner’ states of the European Union and the United States, the repeated assertion that Germany is supposedly taking on a ‘new responsibility in terms of foreign policy’ leaves Europe’s citizens, politically, with a persistent bitter taste in their mouths (which is unsurprising, considering the continent’s history). The ‘old’ German approach to foreign policy was clearly too long kept concealed. Two valid questions thus arise: what was Germany’s ‘old’ responsibility in terms of foreign policy and when did its ‘new’ approach begin? And how is this interpreted by the German government and the Left?

A Look Back at Germany’s "Old" Foreign Policy Responsibilities

Until the revolutions of 1848, Europe was awash with feudal land-grabbing. When leaders spoke of ‘responsibility’ then – usually ‘for the fatherland’ – they often meant acquiring other fatherlands with the aim of annexing the territory and extending their power outwards. The purpose of foreign policy was primarily to defend the interests of the state’s ruling classes – not of its subjects. This is still largely the case today. The monarchy-led plotting of the Congress of Vienna and the Holy Alliance during the early 19th century aimed to subvert the ideas that fuelled the French Revolution of 1789 and safeguard its members’ feudal forms of rule. But the rapid pace of the 19th century’s Industrial Revolution upended these power structures that had come to define ‘old’ Europe. The 1848 revolutions and the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871 meant nationalistic and ultra-right-wing politicians entered the scene. Following the events of 1871, Germany’s territorial interests and desire for assets beyond Europe’s borders came to the fore in its imperial, bourgeois foreign policy. Subsequently, foreign policy goals and the means of achieving them had to be redefined. 

In 1885, Paul de Lagarde wrote an essay on the subject entitled The Coming Tasks of German Politics, which contains the following: “Firstly, the creation of a central Europe – let us, for the sake of argument, call it ‘Germania’ – should be used to create a power that can keep all of Europe under control using only moderate effort…”.[1] [2] In 1895, another representative of the ultra-right-wing club of bourgeois ideologues set out their ‘Fantasies about Germany’ in Die Gegenwart magazine. These ‘fantasies’ included the following: “However, the most crucial question is this: what shape will this future Germany take …? As world history has clearly shown us, cultural development essentially involves smaller peoples being gradually absorbed by the greater ones, namely by the great civilised people. It is the very nature of the Darwinian struggle for existence fought between different peoples …”[3] Racism, chauvinism, political arrogance and xenophobia are the characteristic features of imperialism’s ideological indoctrination of the people.

So what reasoning, what ideology lies behind these statements on foreign policy dating back to the end of the 19th century? By 1871 imperial Germany had largely outgrown its meagre feudal principalities. A new, wealthy German elite had grand ideas of obtaining political dominance among Europe’s great powers. What arrogance Riedel harboured towards smaller, less populous states possessing fewer material possibilities for international action than larger countries and/or the great powers. Ultra-reactionary circles, predominantly springing from Prussian-German militarism, decided war was the path to turning Germany into a leading European power. Friedrich Engels warned of such a development in 1887: The “German petite bourgeoisie” would become “even more pompous and chauvinistic” than in 1871. “The state is increasingly alienating the interests of the masses in order to turn itself into a consortium of land owners, financiers and industrialists to exploit the people … And now, ultimately, the only war in which Prussia–Germany can become involved … is a world war – a conflict that would be unique in extent and intensity.”[4]

To impart to the German people the aggressive ideological stance taken by the new elite, in 1892 the “most influential organisation of German monopoly capital was founded for the purpose of offering ‘public opinion’”: the ‘Pan-German League’.[5] In 1904, it listed 276 members among its ranks, including 19 university professors, 61 teachers and (incredibly) members of the clergy, 62 intellectuals, 35 officials, 10 officers, 61 business representatives and 28 from a range of professions.[6] The ‘Pan-German League’ existed until 1939. Initially, it espoused the same anti-Semitic and racist ideology as the Nazis. It revered the fascist ‘Leader Principle’ and its supporters felt they “belonged to a master race”.[7] Following Germany’s defeat in 1918, the Pan-German league were already harbouring ideas of waging war to gain global power. However, they feted Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm in an all too conspicuous manner. Subsequently, Heinrich Himmler, chief of the Gestapo – the Nazi’s secret police – and the man who oversaw the concentration camps, dissolved the association in the spring of 1939.[8] By then, the Nazi Party, with its sub-organisations and its minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels, had complete control over creating ‘public opinion’.  

Germany’s urge to redraw the map – a result of the emergence of capitalism – famously led to two world wars, the deaths of over 500 million and the devastation of communities in Europe and beyond. It therefore made sense both historically and politically that following World War II those Germans who were the main organisers and perpetrators of this genocide, and who also profited from their crimes, were – for the first time in history – held responsible for their acts by a people’s court. The creation of the UN and the Potsdam Conference of 1945 gave legitimacy to the Nuremberg trials, where members of the Hitler government were tried as war criminals and charged with crimes against peace as well as for generating profits from the wartime sale of military equipment (Krupp, Flick and IG-Farben trials). There were also indictments against the Nazi foreign ministry (the ministries trial) for reckless foreign policy, and against the leaders of the Wehrmacht (high command trial) for committing genocide in occupied territories. These and approximately 12 other war crimes trials against doctors, jurists, high-ranking officials from the Hitler government’s ministries and other Nazi German authorities furthered the evolution of democratic international law.

After the downfall of the Nazi dictatorship, Europe could have grown into a continent of equal states. The victorious western powers hampered efforts to eradicate the causes of German fascism, as had been set out in the Potsdam Agreement, and also disbanded the anti-Hitler coalition. They allowed German anti-communist and anti-Soviet obstinacy to persist in their occupied zones, and in the western occupied territories, they thwarted anti-fascist, democratic developments. After the founding of the German Federal Republic in 1949, the majority of those condemned in the post-war trials were pardoned after just a few years. Before long, many of them were back in influential positions in government, administrative bodies and in business; large corporations were able to have their capital restored. In 1948, the NATO military alliance was founded, allegedly for the purpose of offering a defence against a Soviet attack on western Europe. Germany and Europe were divided in 1949, heralding the start of the Cold War.

70 years later, it has to be said that Bertolt Brecht’s post-war assessment that “The womb [it] crawled from is still going strong” is sadly highly relevant once again. In Germany and Europe, we are witnessing an obvious shift to the right. Even the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright titled her recently published book: Fascism. A Warning.

Germany’s Understanding of Its "New" Foreign Policy Responsibility Is Encumbering Europeans’ Desire for Peace

It is one of the achievements of an international policy focused on delivering peace that since the UN’s creation and the adoption of its Charter in 1945, all member states have had the same rights and duties. Every time the organisation takes a collective decision, each country’s vote carries equal weight, regardless of its size or population. This was also the case for members voting on political and economic matters as part of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) from 1975 until it was renamed as the OSCE in 1995. Instead of continuing to foster the existing terms favourable to the promotion of peace and a de-escalation of tension after 1949, some West German politicians played with the idea not only of embracing anti-communism as state policy, but of anachronistic notions of a
‘United States of Europe’, envisioned as a bulwark against the USSR and its allies. Today’s European Union, consisting of a mere 27 member states, sees itself as the body representing Europe under international law; it seems to have forgotten that Europe in fact consists of forty states.

Since the turn of the 21st century, our continent has been a battleground for political ideologies driven by the power and economic interests of its dominant nations, who – most notably the Federal Republic of Germany and the twelve eurozone states – now set the tone of the EU’s current foreign policy. A succession of German governments has managed to gradually secure the country’s objectives through the EU’s control structures. Post-1990, they were able to expand German hegemony in Europe. Former US president Barack Obama called Angela Merkel “Europe’s rock of stability”, stating that she alone would be worthy of taking over the symbolic mantle of ‘leader of the free world’.[9] It would have been more beneficial for our citizens if she had been praised for being a German woman of peace.

Most EU member state governments are still following Germany’s example, although at times reluctantly, e.g. regarding the tightening of sanctions against Russia as they are detrimental to their own citizens. The EU is roiling with tension. Many Europeans saw the troika’s response to events in Greece as reminiscent of the colonialism of a bygone age. The commanding actions of the EU bureaucratic apparatus have shaken people’s trust in Brussels and raised further doubts about its legitimacy.

"White paper on the future of Europe – Reflections and scenarios for the EU27 by 2025"
"The future of the European Union is open. In preparation for the European Parliament elections in May 2019, a debate should involve the 'whole continent' and the 'entire civil society'. Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, has presented a 'White Paper on the Future of Europe - the EU of 27 in 2025'."

The future of the European Union remains uncertain. In preparation for the European Parliamentary elections in June 2019, a debate is set to take place in September 2018 that involves “the entire continent” and “the whole of civil society”.[10] In preparation, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has published a white paper on the future of Europe – reflections and scenarios for the EU27 by 2025. “This White Paper maps out the drivers of change in the next decade and […] how Europe could evolve by 2025.”[11] To get people ready for the EU parliamentary elections in 2019, discussions on the future of the EU and the whole of Europe are urgently needed. This process attempts to set Germany’s ‘new’ foreign policy duties apart from its ‘old’ responsibility.

In order for Juncker’s ‘Project New Europe’ to make an impact, all EU member states must stop backing the US’s aggressive foreign policies, either directly or indirectly. To impose war on other states in violation of international law, overthrow their governments or to destroy the lives of those living in these countries are crimes against peace and a violation of these people’s human rights. The EU must roundly reject war fought in the interests of Europe. No state that values its own self-determination should let Washington’s hubris go unchallenged, i.e. its assumption that all countries and global companies should fall into line with the US’s punitive embargo and tariff provisions against e.g. Russia, China, Iran and Syria. The trade war currently being waged by President Trump is intensifying the battle for political supremacy. These contradictions within the current global distribution of power stem from the capitalist system.

Since the end of the East-West conflict, competition between the global capitalist system’s ruling elite has been at the fore of conflicts concerning economic, political, cultural and ideological change, as well as religious balances of power. Those representing Germany and the EU’s respective foreign offices would be well advised to ease tensions with Russia and China through diplomatic channels for the sake of their mutual economic interests, if for no other reason than to ensure Europe is not on the receiving end of the first atomic strike. Militant right-wingers in the US have predicted the nation would triumph in a nuclear war with Russia thanks to the US’s programme to modernise its nuclear armoury.[12] All the assurances of security being offered by the political elite in Germany and in the EU ignore this serious threat to peace – not to mention the fact that the EU’s elite are frantically expanding their arsenals too.

Anyone searching for a peaceful way for the people of the world to coexist in the 21st century will have to fight for the UN as a gatekeeper to enforce the UN charter. In Europe, previous positive experiences of a politics of peaceful coexistence and the CSCE cannot be continually ignored, even if the reasons for such action today are different from the original objectives. Initiatives for states to exist side by side peacefully must be put on the agenda of the UN General Assembly and the EU Parliament by the people, by representatives of national organisations for peace, anti-nuclear movements and anti-war activists from groups, e.g. of doctors, jurists and academics.

What Should German Foreign Policy’s "New" Responsibility Be?

Let me return to the Munich Security Conference, an event which claims to be setting the course for new political trends towards peace. A speech before the assembled guests and media given by the chairman of the annual Munich Security Conference, Prof Wolfgang Ischinger, on 16 February 2018 contained statements that were disastrously reminiscent of the ‘old’ German concept of Europe from 1885 and 1895 mentioned at the start of this piece, and raise questions about Ischinger’s ideological worldview. Ischinger believes that although Europe’s citizens have become more sceptical of the EU generally – which is true – he claims they harbour no mistrust towards the EU’s foreign policy decisions, arguing that NATO was still able to guarantee Europe’s security. The people, according to Ischinger, “can very much sense that small nation states are too small, too insignificant and too weak to tackle the global foreign policy and security challenges of tomorrow alone. They know, […] that in future Europe’s wealth and security will depend upon whether we can leave this regionalism of the past behind us and act collectively in the interest of all Europeans to help shape a multipolar, complex, 21st-century world order […] With its financial, human and creative capabilities, Germany can play a leading role and help pave the way for European unity.”[13] 

What is here described as being Germany’s supposedly ‘new’ foreign policy responsibility is, in fact, reminiscent of the disastrous lack of responsibility that defined Germany’s ‘old’ foreign policy. The foreign policy pursued by the great capitalist powers ignored the vital interests of small states. This logic, which stems from the German empire and the age of Hitler, has been introduced to the current climate by moronic conservative circles. AfD mountebanks have helped bring old notions of national hubris into the German Parliament. Ischinger’s remarks in February 2018 may sound less aggressive than Lagarde’s Germanised Europe-mania from 1885 and Riedel’s contempt for other peoples expressed in 1895. Ideologically, however, they are based on the same European political approach to power: Germany is Europe’s leading power; through the EU, German foreign policy can, according to Ischinger, “outline a clear European position in contrast to a Trump-led United States” and “tirelessly lobby for Europe’s standpoint”. Take, for example, the Paris climate deal or the Iran nuclear agreement. “And we must make it our aim to ensure that no EU state makes ‘deals’ with the US government at the expense of other member states.”[14] Does Germany thus want to dictate who smaller EU states maintain bilateral relations with and to what end? If so, Germany is acting exactly like Trump, who rudely disciplines his allies. And, in realistic terms, Germany’s role as Europe’s hegemon can hardly be disputed. In 1895, Friedrich Engels spoke of Germany’s responsibility for creating peace in Europe, stating that Europe’s states would follow Germany if it reduced its military capability.[15] But whose interests does Germany’s hegemonic power serve today?[16]

Between Lagarde and Ischinger and 1945, the globe suffered two devastating world wars, both largely provoked by Germany. This was then followed by an anti-communist Cold War that was pushed by both the US and the German Republic. All those adamant that the Federal Republic of Germany’s post-1949 foreign and security policy was one consistently focused on peace – shaped by the country’s obligations as part of NATO and the EC – ignore the fact that Germany’s international policy was implemented in the shadow of a ‘Cold War’ fuelled by imperialism. After the turn of the 21st century, its list of enemies was expanded to include Islamist terrorists following wars with Afghanistan and Iraq. The high number of refugees has stoked nationalistic pride, racism, anti-Semitism and anti-communism in Germany and throughout Europe. Since 2016, we find ourselves with 92 MPs sitting in the German Bundestag who represent a party led by neo-fascist provocateurs. (I am, of course, referring to Alternative for Germany.) Are we seeing a return to the outdated ideologies of the past? I am not suggesting that Prof Ischinger, who was born in 1946, merely represents a continuation of the ideas of Lagarde et al. However, we cannot ignore the fact that there are similarities at play here. None of the generations to come should dismiss historical contexts and lessons learnt from Germany’s unforgivable foreign policy decisions from the last century as mere relics of the past.

It is high time that we bring together the intellectual potential of all democrats, regardless of their political and religious affiliations, to give a collective, honest response to the citizens’ concerns regarding worrying international trends. With a global population that is almost stifled by the world’s renewed obsession with expanding its military capabilities, it is incumbent upon the people – as the largest political force – to effectively rein in the unbridled greed of the militant defence corporations and their desire for maximum profits.

Germany’s "New" Responsibility for Heralding International Progress Requires a New Political Approach

  1. At the core of Germany’s first new responsibility in Europe lies the idea that Germany must be a force for peace at all costs. We must not forget that German imperialism was the main cause of two world wars in the last century. The protagonists and instigators of these events wanted to use war to redraw the global maps and were motivated by their desire for power and profit. 500 million of Europe’s men, women and children died for somebody else’s desire for capital. Anti-fascists liberated from the concentration camps in 1945 and survivors of the Nazi dictatorship, of the war and of imprisonment made sure peace became the guiding principle of German politics. That was their legacy to future generations. Today every parliamentarian should be judged by how they act in defence of the values of peace and disarmament, as well as understanding among and friendship between nations.
  2. Germany’s hegemonic position in Europe means its governments are entrusted with a unique political responsibility for ensuring a peace-driven community of equal states. Germany’s responsibility in terms of foreign policy is to respect all neighbouring nations’ desire for peace and for mutually beneficial international relations. The approaches taken by the CSCE between 1975 and 1994 need to be revisited in a way that meets the needs of the 21st century. Prof Ischinger’s idea of turning Brussels into a European ‘super-government’ led by Germany – a de facto modernised version of the ‘Europe strategies of German Capital 1900–1945’[17] – contradicts Germany’s assumption of new foreign policy responsibility.
  3. Germany’s economic, academic and technical capabilities and experience oblige German governments to assist less developed states and countries ravaged by war to develop their economies without simply taking action that would do little more than generate additional capital for Germany. The high number of refugees coming to Europe from Africa and the Middle East is also the consequence of Germany’s involvement in wars waged by the US. Wealthy capitalist industrialised countries commit criminal acts when, driven by a desire for power and profit, they destroy the infrastructure of sovereign UN members, murder their civilian population – who achieved liberation from colonialism merely 50 years ago – reverse social gains and lay waste to cities, villages and world renowned cultural sites. German governments and their media gloss over these war crimes against their better judgement and with the help of outrageous lies. What is more, Germany’s arms ‘cartel’ continues to supply conflict zones with ever-new instruments of death. Despite the events of 1945, German capital is once again responsible for causing crimes against peace.
  4. Since the only form Germany has taken since 1990 is that of a capitalist superpower, we have seen a return of militarisation, anti-Semitism and racism. Germany can only fulfil its responsibility of ensuring a civilised, humanist path for Europe if it finally breaks with its militaristic past. It must avoid a new arms race at all costs. Fascism has many faces: militarism, racism and war are its ugliest.
  5. Wanting to take responsibility for a civilised future for Europe also means taking up the German traditions of Enlightenment and classicism. The ‘Seven dispositions of the great peace woman’ from Herder’s Letters for the Advancement of Humanity[18] remain as relevant as ever. The dream of Goethe’s Faust to “…stand upon free soil with free people…” remains the dream of many people today. Among the many humanist paragons for Germany’s youth stand pacifists such as Albert Einstein, Kurt Tucholsky, Albert Schweitzer, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger and Bertolt Brecht, as well as the international peace activists Pandit Nehru (India), Nelson Mandela (South Africa), Martin Luther King (US) and millions of others who are fighting for peace on every continent. In order to truly embrace a new responsibility, German governments must base their ideology on their own citizens’ desire for peace as well as that of the people of other nations and all those humanist role models who came both before and after the European Age of Enlightenment.
Prof. Wolfgang Triebel studied pedagogy, German, and history at the Humboldt University in Berlin and later served as a professor of political science there. He researches and publishes on German post-war history. Translation by Nivene Raafat and Helen Veitch for lingua•trans•fair.

[1] Taken from: Europastrategien des deutschen Kapitals 1900 bis 1945. Ed. Reinhard Opitz. Bonn 1994, p. 95. Paul de Lagarde (1827–1881) Orientalist and cultural philosopher, professor in Göttingen from 1869, active anti-Semite. 

[2] Translator’s note: all citations used in this text were translated into English from the original German unless otherwise stated.

[3] Ibid, p. 103. The author of the article is named as a certain Wilhelm Friedrich Riedel, who developed such ‘fantasies’ in his profession as a philologist.

[4] Friedrich Engels: preface to ‘In Memory of the German Arch-Patriots’. Marx Engels Collected Works, Vol. 21, p. 350.

[5] Jürgen Kuczynski: Studien zur Geschichte des deutschen Imperialismus, Vol. II, ‘Propagandaorganisationen des deutschen Monopolkapitals’, Berlin 1950, p. 9. See, in particular, the section on the Pan-German League and its specific foreign policy goals. The Pan-German League served as an umbrella organisation for associations such as the German Colonial Society, the German Easter Marches Society and the Reich Association against Social Democracy, and later acted to oppose Bolshevism.

[6] Jürgen Kuczynski, ibid, p. 18.

[7] Ibid, p. 12.

[8] Ibid, p. 115/116.

[9] Quoted from Neues Deutschland, published on 19/20 November 2016, p. 3.

[10] European Commission 1 March 2017: White paper on the future of Europe. Foreword by Jean-Claude Juncker.

[11] Ibid, Introduction, p. 7.

[13] Wolfgang Ischinger: ‘Mehr Eigenverantwortung in und für Europa‘. Speech given at the Munich International Security Conference held in February 2018.

With his “Germania”, Lagarde wanted to create a power that would “keep all of Europe under control, thus enabling […] peace to be truly secured; that would then lower the increased tax burden made necessary by the military if Russia and France still have not been humiliated once and for all.” Europastrategien des deutschen Kapitals, loc. cit., p. 95

[14] Ibid.

[15] Friedrich Engels: ‘Can Europe Disarm?’ Marx Engels Collected Works, Vol. 22, Berlin (East) 1963, p. 369 et seqq.

[16] Ahead of the EU summit held on 22 February 2018, the 27 heads of state and government discussed the refugee crisis. After the German Chancellor’s suggestion of tying EU relief fund payments to the poorer regions of Europe to conditions such as their agreement to admit refugees, Neues Deutschland ran the front page headline on 23 February 2018: “Mum threatens to withhold pocket money”.

[17] The title of a collection of texts published by Reinhard Opitz, Pahl-Rugenstein, Bonn 1994.

[18] Which are: “1. Horror of war, 2. Reduced respect for heroic glory, 3. Horror of false statecraft, 4. Purified patriotism, 5. Feeling of justice towards other nations, 6. Concerning presumptions in trade, 7. Activity”. Taken from: Joh. Gottfried Herder: Letters for the Advancement of Humanity. Rudolstadt, licensed by the Soviet Military Administration of Germany (1947), p. 287 et seqq.