In a sense, the central question of Germany’s post war identity is of whether it constitutes a part of the West or not. As the historian Heinrich August Winkler tells it, Germany has completed its long westward journey. However, the reality is more complicated considering the increasing shift of the Federal Republic’s foreign policy towards Moscow.
The integration of West Germany into the Atlantic alliance and the embryonic European Union, which began in the context of the Cold War as an almost existential necessity, was a project of the West German right – above all Adenauer. While the SPD had by 1959 reconciled itself to the Westbindung, the far left was always split on the issue of westernisation. The West German student movement began as a rebellion against almost everything Adenauer stood for: consumerism and social conservatism, silence about the Nazi past and support for Israel, but also the Westbindung and anti-communism. Some “anti-authoritarian” students wanted a more liberal democratic culture as a kind of compliment to the military alliance – in other words a deepening of westernisation. But there was also an anti-western current within the student movement that called for a decisive break with the West, often in the form of a withdrawal from NATO. This current began with Rudi Dutschke and went through the peace movement of the eighties into both the SPD and the Greens.
Both of these two currents of thinking of the post-war generation – pro-western and anti-western – manifested themselves in the foreign policy of the “red-green” government. While Joschka Fischer was a convinced Adenauerian, Gerhard Schröder was less publicly committed to the idea of the West. In its first term the “red-green” government was guided by the principle of Bündnistreue, even when it involved sending German troops into combat for the first time since World War II. But as the Bush administration increasingly relied on “coalitions of the willing” instead of operating through multilateral institutions like NATO and the UN, Schröder responded unilaterally himself and in the process risked isolating Germany. After Iraq, with Europe split, Schröder leaned away from the United States towards Russia.
This rupture between Germany and the United States reflects deeper, long-term geopolitical shifts that have put the relationship between the two countries under greater pressure than ever before. The Westbindung is no longer an existential necessity as it was under Adenauer: Germany is no longer as reliant on the United States as it was during the Cold War; conversely, the United States no longer needs Germany as much as it once did. The current financial crisis may also further increase opposition in Germany to the “Anglo-Saxon” social and economic model – part of the thrust of Schröder’s concept of a Deutscher Weg.
The post-war generation, in other words, has left an ambivalent legacy in terms of the Westbindung. Whether or not Germany now turns away from the West will come down to which of the two currents of the post-war generation’s thinking influence the next generation of German leaders – people like Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the two candidates in next month’s election. Some claim that Germany’s Westernization is now no longer reversible. In fact, it is more a matter of choice than ever before.
Hans Kundnani is a journalist. He was a correspondent for The Observer in Berlin and writes for the Guardian, Prospect and the Times Literary Supplement. He is the author of Utopia or Auschwitz. Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust, which will be published in October 2009. This essay was published at Atlantic-Community.