In the course of the 20th century, Germany attacked every one of its neighbours except closely allied (or occupied) Austria, neutral Switzerland and tiny Liechtenstein. Those attacked, in the First and Second World Wars, were the major states of France, Italy and Poland, and the smaller states of Belgium, Czechoslovakia (as it then was), Denmark, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
The German problem of the late 19th and first half of the 20th century was that of a large, militarily and industrially powerful, imperially ambitious state which sought to dominate, or invade, its 'near abroad': and which had the strength and efficiency to do so. The defeat of its last ruthless and genocidal expansion, ending in 1945, changed it utterly and – it has seemed – permanently.
From the 1950s, with gathering depth and conviction, Germany grew into Europe's 'indispensable nation'. The phrase had been used by Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State in Bill Clinton's second presidency. In a 1998 TV interview, addressing Iraq's flouting of UN sanctions, she said that 'if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us'.
Germany's indispensability has been nearly the reverse of that of the US. It became indispensable to a certain idea of the European Union – the idea which has been the EU's underpinning ideology and, for many of its most enthusiastic supporters, still its reason for being. Germany's contribution to the EU budget is by some way the largest: in 2017, the last figures available, it paid in €12.8bn, more than €5bn more than the next contributor, the UK, at €7.43bn. Its public assent to membership is among the highest, its news media's bias in the EU's favour the greatest.
Where Albright saw indispensability as standing tall and having the unique right to use force to keep the world on the right track, Germany essays as modest a demeanour as Europe's largest and richest state can manage, has a relatively small military which is said to be less than efficient, and shrinks from being a lone power – routing its foreign and defence policy through the European Union, Nato and the United Nations. Its contribution to Nato is supposed to be 2% of its GDP: it is 1.5%, and recently went down rather than up – a reflection of the neuralgic attitude of the country to military issues.
Until the rise of the Alternativ für Deutschland from 2013 till today – it is still rising – no organised party or group questioned the rightness of Germany's choice for the EU, though many disliked, and still dislike, its adoption of the Euro.
For German politicians, civil servants and diplomats, the progressive, if slow, integration of the European Union was both inevitable and irreversible. It was so, because in the minds of the German governing class, it accorded with the contemporary way of the world – at least the European world. This way of the world was for greater openness, greater accountability of governments to their peoples and an increasing recognition of human and civil rights.
At a recent lecture in Berlin, Thomas Bagger, diplomatic adviser to the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said that for him and his (in their late 40s) generation of diplomats, one of the largest proofs of this was the foundation of the International Court of Justice in the Hague – a court under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. It seemed to be a statement that justice now had no borders: that criminals, especially those committing war crimes, could and would be brought to justice.
The high-water mark was 1989, with the collapse of the Berlin wall, and the subsequent collapses of both the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party. The American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, has been much mocked for his observation that this was 'the end of history' because, with Communism's fall, it was the end of one of the two competing world political-ideological-economic-social systems. Liberal democratic states whose economies were, in one way or another, capitalist would now be the only national governing form in the future.
In one matter he was right. Capitalism, in some form, has become the dominant world economic system, co-existing with vast corruption in the former Communist states and elsewhere, named 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' (including some corruption) in China. Even the holdouts are inching towards it: Cuba, at the end of November, allowed purchases in dollars.
But the shift towards democracy has stalled. The Arab Spring, starting in Tunisia in December 2010 with the immolation of the market stallholder Mohamed Bouazizi, was over by 2013 (it may be starting up again: Algeria has been roiled by huge protests, as has Egypt, in September. Egypt's demonstrations were on a smaller scale, but the repression was larger: the Egyptian dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, ordered over 4,000 arrests). Authoritarian leaders in China, India and Russia, and in Europe, in Asia and in Latin America, while not of the bloody sort of the generals who massacred the opposition in Argentina, Brazil and Chile in the 70s and 80s, still look confident in their rule.
The forward march of the European Union has also stalled. For the Germans, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the decision of the British to leave the EU were large shocks. So, too, were the Russian occupation of Ukraine's Crimean region and its sponsoring and arming of separatists in Ukraine's eastern Donbass area. Trump's appearance meant that the Euro-Atlantic alliance was called into question; Brexit showed how unpopular the EU was in a major state (Macron admitted to Andrew Marr two years ago that the French might have voted like the British had they been asked the same question); and the Russian invasions shifted the borders in Europe in a way which opened up the possibility of much more of the same.
'We Germans realised,' said Bagger, 'that the world is no longer as open as we wanted it to be. We realised that every people... every society must fix things their own way'. I asked him if that meant that the nation state was now recognised as the basic unit of democracy. He avoided a direct answer, but said that: 'Germany must invest more in Europe's cohesion: we must still try to make integration work'. How to combine nations fixing things in their own way with greater integration is a question which has no answer.
Greater integration will, in any case, be an uphill struggle. The close alliance with France in 'making integration work' will continue, but there are strong disagreements: Chancellor Angela Merkel has directly contradicted President Emmanuel Macron for his remark that Nato was 'brain-dead'. His push for a banking union and greater fiscal harmonisation is likely to be resisted as strongly as ever by any future German government – so distrustful is the country's financial and industrial establishment of the spendthrift southerners, so certain are they that, in the event of a banking union, they will be called upon to bail out bad Italian banks over whose policies they had no control.
An indispensable country needs to be recognised as being indispensable. The US, for all the craziness of its President, remains so, at least to Europe. Merkel, in her riposte to Macron's 'brain-dead' comment, reaffirmed that Nato – to the cost of which the US contributes by far the largest amount – was necessary to Europe's defence, and would be deep into the future.
But Germany's indispensability is lessening, as EU cohesion does. All will depend on how the new leaders of the Union – they finally take office this week – will approach its now scarred landscape. They will meet an evident political challenge.
There is a renewed growth in national populism: in Sweden, the far-right Swedish Democrats recently polled 25%, more than the ruling Social Democrats. The Alternativ für Deutschland achieved the same percentage in recent elections in Germany's east, coming second in two regions. Spain's far-right Vox did very will in last month's general election, and, like the AfD, is now the third largest party in the parliament. Matteo Salvini, who failed in his attempt to force an election in September and crashed out of the ruling alliance, is again the most popular politician in Italy, and his Eurosceptic Lega the most popular party. Marie LePen's Rassemblement National came top of the European elections in May this year… and more.
Germany itself now sees the pillars of its post-war politics – the centre-right Christian Democrats, their permanent allies the Christian Social Union, and the centre-left Social Democrats, still in coalition with the CDU/CSU and falling steadily in the polls – as crumbling, especially the once mighty SPD. If the left succeeds in taking power again, it will be led by the Greens, relatively high in the opinion polls but as yet untested as the leading governing party.
'The world is no longer as open as we wanted it to be.' Bagger’s lament, for a progress to a united Europe lost, points to one of the largest challenges of the next decade, which begins next month. That is, if the EU is not going ahead to greater integration, thus losing what had been its dynamism, what does it now do?
The third millennium is proving, in its early decades, to throw up harsher, indeed existential, choices than any we Europeans have seen since the end of the last war. Brexit, at least, will force we British to recognise that we have no-one to depend on but ourselves.