There is a new German question. It is this: Can Europe’s most powerful country lead the way in building both a sustainable, internationally competitive eurozone and a strong, internationally credible European Union? Germany’s difficulties in responding convincingly to this challenge are partly the result of earlier German questions and the solutions found to them. Yesterday’s answers have sown the seeds of today’s question.
Before I explore those historical connections, however, let us reflect on everything that this new German question is not. Twenty-three years after unification, the enlarged Federal Republic of Germany is about as solid a bourgeois liberal democracy as you can find on earth. It has not only absorbed the huge costs of unification but also, since 2003, made impressive economic reforms, lowering labor costs by consensus and hence restoring its global competitiveness.
This land is civilized, free, prosperous, law-abiding, moderate, and cautious. Its many virtues might be summarized as “the banality of the good.” Asked by the tabloid BILD-Zeitung what feelings Germany awakes in her, Angela Merkel once famously replied, “I think of well-sealed windows! No other country can make such well-sealed and nice windows [dichte und schöne Fenster].”1 Yet the place is not altogether so banal. Opening the well-sealed windows of my hotel room in Berlin, I look across Unter den Linden to the illuminated, translucent dome of the Reichstag building, at the heart of what is now, after London, Europe’s most exciting city.2
An Israeli friend who has taken German citizenship describes Germany to me as a “balanced” country, and that feels just right. The French leftist politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon caused a stir when he said that “amongst those who have a zest for life, no one wants to be a German.”3 In that case, there must be an awful lot of people who have no zest for life, because according to a twenty-five-nation BBC poll, Germany is the most popular country in the world—ten points ahead of France.4
It also has weaknesses and problems. Who doesn’t? Germany has a rapidly aging population. On a gloomy, no-change extrapolation, it could be down to a ratio of just over one working person to each pensioner by 2030. Without any immigration, its population might fall from over 80 million today to under 60 million in 2050. Immigration therefore has to be a large part of the answer to its demographic challenge, but Germany lags behind France and Britain, let alone Canada and the United States, in emitting those vital, elusive social and cultural signals that enable people of migrant origin to identify with their new homeland.5
Having made an irrational, short-sighted political decision to abandon its own nuclear power program, following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, and relying heavily on coal and gas, Germany’s industrial energy costs are some 40 percent above those in France. Its economy is brilliant at making things that people…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.