The Washington Post Column

Listen to Germany

After Secretary of State Colin Powell makes his presentation to the United Nations today, don’t listen for the “European” reaction. As the past week has proven, “Europe” has many opinions about the United States and Iraq, ranging from Tony Blair’s almost suicidally loyal support to John le Carre, who would “love to see Saddam’s downfall — just not on Bush’s terms.” Nowadays, anyone claiming to speak for Europe on foreign policy is speaking out of line.

For different reasons, there is no need to pay close attention to the French reaction either. If, after Powell voices an opinion, the French argue the opposite, that will be no surprise. That’s more or less what the French have been doing since the 1950s, opposing not only American foreign policy but American-style economics (“le capitalisme sauvage”), and Hollywood movies too — and sometimes quietly changing their minds later on. The earth will not move if they do it again.

But listen hard to what Germany says, for it is Germany, not Europe or France, that has been behaving unusually, even peculiarly. Since the 1950s, Germany has seen itself not (like France) as a counterweight to America but as the essential bit of glue that stuck America to the European continent. Far from disliking America, a whole generation of Germans — the foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, includes himself among them — were profoundly influenced by American political traditions. German anti-Americanism existed at the margins, but a string of West German chancellors, left- and right-wing, ignored it. Even the German peace movement’s angry demonstrations against American imperialism and American missiles never dissuaded Germany’s political class from its support for American foreign policy. German politicians accepted American leadership in the world and European Union leadership in Europe.

Over the past several months, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has reversed 50 years of this tradition. Instead of quashing the anti-American voices in his country, as his predecessors did, he has encouraged them. For the first time, a German Bundestag member told me, “we have a government which does not contain those sentiments, but rather fuels them and exploits them.” During his election campaign last summer, Schroeder spoke frequently of “putting Germany first.” During that same campaign, he announced that Germany would oppose any war with Iraq, whether or not Saddam Hussein was proved to have weapons of mass destruction, and regardless of what the United Nations thought about it. At the time, German diplomats led their American counterparts to understand that this was domestic politics, not a real change of German direction. Yet since then, Schroeder has not moderated his rhetoric. His party, he now says, is “pro-peace.” Anyone with a more nuanced view of the issue is “pro-war.”

Although it sounds like pacifism, Schroeder’s rhetoric seems to be part of a larger pattern of assertiveness. When he came to office, he spoke of his desire to make Germany a “normal” country, liberated from its past. Now his countrymen seem determined to take him up on it. Last spring, a handful of German and Austrian conservative politicians tried to revive the long-dead question of compensation for Germans expelled from the Czech Republic at the end of the war — an issue that many felt had been settled. Recently a debate over whether the Allied bombing of Dresden was a war crime has preoccupied the German press. Speaking of Dresden, one German historian called on the British to face up to their past — something many have long asked of Germany. Germans complain louder than they did in the past about the unfairness of European Union budgets, which have always been supported by German taxpayers, and they have grown more assertive in their demands for German influence within the European Union itself.

These points may seem distant from today’s debate, and some are subtle. But put together, they add up to something best described with metaphors: Germany feeling its oats, Germany finding its voice, Germany shaking off the shackles of the past. They also put the German discussion of Iraq into a larger German context. A new generation of politicians runs Germany, a generation that feels less guilt about the war, greater skepticism about American leadership and more impatience with the subordinate role Germany has played internationally for the past half-decade. Which is why it is so important to listen, carefully, to what Germany has to say over the next few days: We may learn something, not only about Iraq, Europe and the Middle East, but about the direction of Germany itself.