Germany's uncomfortable role as Europe's 'economic police'

Since World War II, Germany has preferred to stay out of international leadership roles. But the eurocrisis has put the country at Europe's head – with all the criticism that entails.

Gero Breloer/AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a discussion panel on 'making Europe strong' during the Europe forum conference in Berlin Thursday. Germany has consciously avoided a leadership role in Europe since the end of World War II, but the eurocrisis has put it in the limelight – with all the criticism that brings.

Americans took a leading role in the world in the post-World War II era. And today they are used to being unpopular, yet called upon when needed.

Germans in the postwar era, on the other hand, have preferred to blend into the background.

But amid Europe's sovereign debt crisis, as Germany's healthy economy has put it at the head of the 27-member European Union, that's been proving impossible. And now Germans are dealing with the criticism that accompanies being a regional – if unwilling – hegemon.

While a recent Pew poll shows Germany to be considered by many countries to be the most trustworthy nation in Europe, it has also accrued new enemies far and wide, with Greeks burning German flags or picketing with signs of German Chancellor Angela Merkel dressed in Nazi uniform. There have even been claims from France that Germans are out to rule the Continent.

“We have made a lot of commitment to help those people,” says Markus, a musical theater stage producer, in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, a public square and major transportation hub in Germany’s capital Berlin. “It’s really unfair.”

It’s also untrue – at least the part about Germany wanting continental dominion, say German and European observers. Instead, the avoidance of tough positions in foreign policy, so Germany is not led into a moral dilemma, is ingrained in the postwar mentality, they say.

“There is no appetite for domination. Germany has been pushed into this position by default,” says Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There is no ambition to shape the continent in the image of Germany.”

“Germans want to be liked by the rest of the world,” says Michael Wohlgemuth, director of Open Europe Berlin. “Germany feels uneasy in its new powerful role. We don’t want to be leaders of Europe.”

Outside the US embassy in Berlin, Erkan Arikan says that Germany is being unfairly maligned in Europe. But he says he can also laugh it off, as a German of Turkish descent in a multicultural Germany that has nothing to do with the 1930s.

He says that he can see some parallels between the hegemonic positions of Germany and the US today, but there is a limit. “The US is still the world police for everyone; Germany doesn’t want to be the focus,” he says. “But maybe it’s becoming the economic police of Europe.”

It’s a role that many Germans might feel uncomfortable playing, especially with the bad will that can breed.

If Americans don’t like the term “ugly American,” Germans like it even less.

Ulrike Guérot of the European Council of Foreign Relations says when she travels around the country and talks to everyday Germans, they are starting to ask, “Are we responsible for this youth unemployment in Spain? There is an uneasiness they they are just starting to feel,” she says. “They don’t want to be the ‘ugly German.’”

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