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The New German Question

What Happens When Europe Comes Apart?

Über alles: Alternative for Germany supporters at a rally in Berlin, May 2014 Thomas Peter/REUTERS

Many have been lamenting the dark path that Europe and the transatlantic relationship are currently on, but there hasn’t been much discussion of where that path leads. European weakness and division, a strategic “decoupling” from the United States, the fraying of the European Union, “after Europe,” “the end of Europe”—these are the grim scenarios, but there is a comforting vagueness to them. They suggest failed dreams, not nightmares. Yet the failure of the European project, if it occurs, could be a nightmare, and not only for Europe. It will, among other things, bring back what used to be known as “the German question.”

The German question produced the Europe of today, as well as the transatlantic relationship of the past seven-plus decades. Germany’s unification in 1871 created a new nation in the heart of Europe that was too large, too populous, too rich, and too powerful to be effectively balanced by the other European powers, including the United Kingdom. The breakdown of the European balance of power helped produce two world wars and brought more than ten million U.S. soldiers across the Atlantic to fight and die in those wars. Americans and Europeans established NATO after World War II at least as much to settle the German problem as to meet the Soviet challenge, a fact now forgotten by today’s realists—to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” as Lord Ismay, the alliance’s first secretary-general, put it. This was also the purpose of the series of integrative European institutions, beginning with the European Steel and Coal Community, that eventually became the European Union. As the diplomat George Kennan put it, some form of European unification was “the only conceivable solution for the problem of Germany’s relation to the rest of Europe,” and that unification could occur only under the umbrella of a U.S. security commitment.

And it worked. Today, it is impossible to imagine Germany returning to any

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