Sunday 25 February 2018

Why Merkel needs to remember the war

If things continue the way they are, Germany could once again find itself an outcast, writes Aengus Fanning

VISIONARY: Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was never driven by trying to satisfy the German tabloids or the short-term whims of his voters
VISIONARY: Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was never driven by trying to satisfy the German tabloids or the short-term whims of his voters

WHEN the Germans are getting worried about the Germans, you know you're in trouble. And when Angela Merkel's mentor is publicly washing his hands of her, you know we're really in trouble. And when that mentor is Helmut Kohl, then we should definitely pay attention.

Kohl is the man who mended Germany's relationship with the world and clearly, as an ailing 81-year-old, he is worried that his protegee Merkel is undoing all that good work, or "gambling it away", as he puts it himself.

Dr Kohl fired a fairly startling broadside at Merkel and Germany's current way of dealing with the world in an interview last week. You may not have bothered to read what he actually said, but in fact it's worth it, because he is very frank indeed and goes much further than you would expect a German to go in saying that, basically, Germany is in danger of losing all the good will it painstaking earned from its international neighbours over the past half-century.

In fact, Kohl, who was, of course, the architect of much of this good will, seems to believe that if Germany and Merkel continue to rule based on what goes down well with the German tabloids, then Germany could find itself an international outcast once again.

And yes, you got it right there. He was pretty much mentioning the war.

"We need to return, urgently, to our old reliability," Dr Kohl said last week. "If we abandon this anchor... the basis of trust will be lost, uncertainty would spread and in the end Germany would be isolated."

Kohl went on to say that Germany's current "erratic" foreign policy was due to a shocking lack of historical awareness among the current rulers of Germany.

Helmut Kohl could not be accused of lacking historical awareness. He has a sense of history indelibly stamped on his soul. Kohl remembered war first-hand. Kohl had been through war and knew what it was. He knew the carnage personally.

To Kohl, war was not an abstract horror. And that is why he determined it would never happen again and set out to forge a united Europe -- admittedly possibly one that was led by the Germans, but even at that, surely in a more enlightened and Olympian way than the current German dominance of Europe.

Kohl understood the echoes of the past and how powerful ghosts can be. And one suspects that that understanding is at the root of his current concern.

There has been a suggestion that Kohl's comments about Merkel and her foreign policy were motivated by revenge for when Merkel turned on Kohl after all he had done for her. But you'd doubt that. Kohl is a fairly serious person. You will remember that when he first came on the scene, he was regarded as a bit too serious.

One of his predecessors, Willy Brandt, was regarded as a dashing, urbane and witty Kennedy-style figure. Kohl was regarded as a bit of a dull dog, Brandt's solid, if highly intelligent, successor.

But Kohl would go on to become one of the last great statesmen, his double act with Mitterrand a sharp contrast to Merkel and Sarkozy's desperate huddling together to protect themselves in their next elections.

Kohl was never driven by satisfying the German tabloids or the short-term whims of his voters. He was not a petty, inward-looking creature. He did not, as he suspects of 21st-century German rulers, lack a compass. Kohl had a grand vision and he wasn't afraid to impose it on people.

So he united Germany, at such financial cost that he caused the first deficit in post-war Germany and re-awoke the spectre of inflation, repugnant to German sensibilities given what they had experienced in the Weimar Republic. But he imposed it on his voters, and of course, in the long run, it proved visionary.

Can you imagine the timid Ms Merkel doing the same? Can you imagine her risking alienating the lowest common denominator of German voters? Can you imagine her taking a political risk in favour of a grand vision? Can you imagine her trusting her compass over the polls?

If Kohl was still in his heyday, you can be sure that the world money markets would not be collapsing because of inaction and poor choices in dealing with the eurozone crisis. Kohl would not have continued kicking the can down the road, refusing to implement an overall solution for fear of the next election. But he is not here. And instead, we have Merkel. And so it drags on and on.

And privately our own politicians and mandarins admit that it is a waiting game and that hopefully in one, maybe two years, there will finally be a proper solution, when it is politically expedient for Angela and Nicolas. While every economist or practitioner worth their salt says that eurobonds and more of a commitment to the bailout fund are the kind of grand gesture needed, Angela, hamstrung by concerns for her own popularity at home, can't do it.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are left to wonder if our poor busted economy has one or two years left. Can we take any more of the austerity? Can we take any more of the uncertainty? Will we make it to the time when Angela is finally ready to act? And meanwhile our politicians hang around implementing the plan, with no real power and no real respect at the EU table.

I, ever the realist, once asked arch rationalist Conor Cruise O'Brien what would have happened if the war had gone differently and we had been colonised by the Germans. And Conor Cruise O'Brien said that if we had been colonised by the Germans, we'd all be dead. And you know, they could do it yet.

Sunday Independent

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