The Fall of the German Empire

Posted May 16, 2018 9:48 p.m. EDT

The first modern German empire was announced by Otto von Bismarck at Versailles in 1871; it died on the Western Front in 1918. The second German empire was forged in a swift march of annexations and blitzkriegs; it lasted seven terrible years, from the Anschluss to the bunker, and died with Hitler and his cult.

The third German empire is a different animal altogether. Repudiating both militarism and racist mysticism, it has been built slowly and painstakingly across three generations, in cooperation with other powers (including its old enemies the French), using a mix of democratic and bureaucratic means. Today Germany bestrides its Continent, but German power is wielded softly, indirectly, implicitly — and when the fist is required, it takes the form of fiscal ultimatums, not military bluster or racial irredentism.

But still the system is effectively imperial in many ways, with power brokers in Berlin and Brussels wielding not-exactly-democratic authority over a polyglot, multiethnic, multireligious sprawl of semi-sovereign nation-states. And thinking about the European Union this way, as a Germanic empire as well as a liberal-cosmopolitan project, is a helpful way of understanding how it might ultimately fall.

The possibility of such a fall has been haunting the Continent since the Great Recession, as the sense of crisis, the threat of dissolution, has spread from the Balkan periphery to an increasingly nationalist Eastern Europe and a Brexit-chasing Britain. Now with the near-takeover of Italy’s government by a populist coalition, it has reached the original European Union project’s core.

As this crisis has developed and encompassed grievances beyond the economic — immigration and national identity above all — it has been covered more and more as a clash between liberalism and illiberalism, between freedom and authoritarianism. In the wave of liberalism-in-peril books written since Donald Trump’s election, the European and American experiences tend to get folded together into a story of democratic values threatened by ethnic chauvinism and would-be strongmen — by Putin imitators, to borrow a common trope, who want to use the democratic part of liberal democracy as a ladder up to power and then burn away the liberal part.

This story has some truth to it. There are ideological affinities as well as funding streams linking Moscow and many of the nationalists to Russia’s west, and the most empowered populist within the European Union, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, is explicit about his intent to replace liberal democracy with a form of “Christian democracy” that looks suspiciously like de facto one-party rule.

But if the test of Europe’s unity feels like a test for liberal democracy, it’s a mistake to see it only in those terms. It is also a struggle of nations against empire, of the Continent’s smaller countries against German mastery and Northern European interests, in which populist parties are being elected to resist policies the center sought to impose upon the periphery without a vote. And the liberal aspect of the European system wouldn’t be under such strain if the imperial aspect hadn’t been exploited unwisely by leaders in the empire’s German core.

This disastrous imperial dynamic was first manifest in the fiscal policy imposed on Southern Europe in the wake of the Great Recession — a policy that manifestly made more sense for Germany’s economy than for Italy’s or Spain’s or Greece’s, even as it was confidently presented by German bankers as a hardheaded necessity that no merely national government could be permitted to reject.

Then the same dynamic repeated itself on immigration, when Angela Merkel took it upon herself to make migration policy for the Continent, in atonement for Germany’s racist past and in the hopes of revitalizing its aging society. The resistance from other Europeans to her open door to refugees and migrants, the refusal to let the German chancellor and her admirers determine immigration policy, is one reason among many that populists won the Brexit referendum and find themselves on the cusp of power in Italy — and it is the major reason that populist parties rule today in Budapest and Warsaw.

Two recent essays make this point well: a short piece by Branko Milanovic, a former lead economist for the World Bank, and a longer one by Damir Marusic, the executive editor of The American Interest. Here is Milanovic, describing the belt of Eastern European countries stretching from the Baltic to the Aegean, most of which happily joined the European Union but have since found themselves in tensions with its core:

“When one draws a line from Estonia to Greece ... one notices that all currently existing countries along that axis were during the past several centuries (and in some cases, the past half-millennium) squeezed by the empires: German (or earlier by Prussia) Russian, Hapsburg, and Ottoman. All these countries fought, more or less continuously, to free themselves from the imperial pressure ... their histories are practically nothing but unending struggles for national and religious emancipation.”

Most of these nations, Milanovic continues, experienced the events of 1989 primarily as a national liberation, and only secondarily as a victory for liberal principles over totalitarian or authoritarian alternatives. And the nation-states that emerged from ’89 tended to be ethnically homogeneous and proudly so, with their political independence and sense of shared identity inextricably linked.

So it should not be surprising that countries so recently emancipated would embrace the project of European Union liberalism only insofar as it does not seem to threaten either their long-traduced sovereignty or their just-reclaimed identity, and would be wary of a cosmopolitan vision that seems like it could dissolve what they so recently have gained.

As Marusic writes in his essay, from a liberal-cosmopolitan perspective that “sees 1989 primarily as an ideological triumph” for universal values, “much of the politics of the past 10 years in Eastern Europe can only be seen as backsliding,” with leaders like Viktor Orban “a symptom of political decay.”

But from the vantage point of those same countries, for whom independence itself feels hard won and precarious, it seems strange that they should be expected to surrender to a different form of empire just because it dresses its appeals in the language of universal liberalism — especially when the language has a distinctly German accent.

Now of course those same nationalists — encompassing Brexiteering Britons and populist-voting Italians as well as Poles and Hungarians — often want to have it both ways, to have their sovereignty and also have the advantages of membership in the European imperium. Orban rails against foreign influence in Hungary but still takes what Brussels offers; the Brexiteers want to keep as many of the benefits of their soon-to-be-erstwhile European Union membership as possible; the Italian populist parties are busy rewriting their joint agreement to make sure it’s clear they do not want to leave the euro. There are no political innocents in this story.

But there is a complexity that’s lost when the situation is framed as simply about enlightenment versus authoritarianism. Political norms matter, but so does sovereignty and the substance of policy disagreement. And the problems that have pitted populists against Berlin and Brussels — a common currency that remains misbegotten even though the fiscal crunch has eased, a demographic-economic imbalance between Europe and neighboring regions that promises migration crises without end, a democratic deficit in how the European Union is governed — cannot be resolved by simply appealing to an abstract liberal project.

If they are to be resolved or at least managed, if the third German empire is to last, it will require a change in how its present leaders think about their role. Paradoxically it may require them to become more consciously imperial in certain ways — to recognize that the complex system they are managing is unlikely to ever evolve from a loose empire into a United States of Europe (not least because our own system is increasingly imperial as well), and that it can be governed effectively only by a more modest, self-critical and disinterested elite.

In the meantime, it is a grave mistake for liberalism’s champions to portray the tensions between the center and the periphery in Europe as just a choice for liberal values or against them. Because framing the choice that way, to people who recognize all too well that it can also be a choice for or against their own sovereignty, is a good way to hasten the fall not only of Germany’s third empire but of liberalism itself.

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