Foes into friends: Germany’s role in postwar European integration

It is the ultimate irony of the past 20 years of European integration that its very effects are now pushing Germany closer to the position of power which post-war European treaties sought to prevent.

Klaus Kinkel, Helmut Kohl and Theo Waigeln at the EMU Council in Brussels, May 1998. Credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo.
Klaus Kinkel, Helmut Kohl and Theo Waigeln at the EMU Council in Brussels, May 1998. Credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared in ’The Pursuit of Europe: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2016.

Sometimes wishes seem to come true. Writing in 1943, the German novelist Thomas Mann was horrified by Hitler’s plans ‘to make Europe German‘. Instead, Mann wanted ‘Germany to become European’. Today, many would argue that his wish has turned into a political reality, even if others would contend that this Europe bears a heavy German imprint. Particularly, the tectonic shifts that the EU is witnessing as a result of the ongoing sovereign debt crisis seem to have a heavy teutonic imprint. Greek protesters waving blue flags with yellow stars forming a swastika are just one of the more radical signs of some of the most recent turns of the debate.

Any analysis of Germany’s role in and contribution to European integration has to start in 1945, at the time when the most important attempts to define Germany’s relationship to Europe and the world had utterly failed. Internationally, there was a consensus that no successor state should ever get a third chance to unleash the country’s destructive potential. Clearly, this goal was unattainable through 19th-century balance-of-power politics, while attempts to neutralise or curtail the Reich during the interwar years had sparked radicalism and revisionism in Germany and thus planted the seeds of future trouble. But laissez-faire and non-involvement were not viable options either. So the daunting challenge of finding a practical path for the unsettled heart of central Europe remained a central litmus test for the postwar order.

At the same time, it was unclear what Europe actually stood for and whether Germany should become part of it. Most pro-European initiatives of the early postwar years excluded the country: the treaties of Dunkirk (1947) and Brussels (1948), paving the way for military co-operation in Western Europe, saw Germany not as a new partner, but as a former and also, potentially, future enemy. Containing Germany was as important as the idea of counterbalancing the Soviet Union and its emergent Eastern bloc and this motive also found its way into the formation of NATO in 1949, of which the Brussels pact was a precursor. The Council of Europe, instituted in 1949, which some hoped would become the central motor of a broad European integration, also excluded Germany from its original members. Only the American-driven Marshall Plan opted for a different strategy: even if the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) was initiated before the creation of a West German state, the three Western occupation zones participated and the Federal Republic became a regular OEEC member soon after its formation. For Washington, the economic reconstruction of Western Europe was quite inconceivable without German participation, while in Europe, reluctance to treat the remnants of the Reich as an equal partner still predominated after the two world wars launched by Germany in the previous 35 years.

Particularly in this first period, no country defined the trajectory of Germany’s role in European integration as much as the United States. At least from 1947 onwards, Washington insisted on the Western zones of occupation being treated as equals in European matters. The American foreign policy elite saw integration as a way of keeping Germany under control, while creating a new partner and a strong pillar of the Western bloc. This approach also implied the division of Germany — integration into ‘Europe’ with the United States as a benevolent hegemon was only plausible if the eastern extremities of both Germany and the continent were amputated. So the foundation of the two German states in 1949 was the precondition for meaningful steps integrating West Germany into the nascent European structures under American auspices. By the late 1940s, France had also learnt that it needed Germany’s economic power; that any plan to liquidate its eastern neighbour once and for all as a European power would face insurmountable American resistance; and that it had to take the initiative, unless it wanted to allow Britain and the United States to define the postwar order in Western Europe.

This was the backdrop to the Schuman Plan of 1950, proposing cooperation in coal and steel production. Here, France blended economic arguments with the idea of making war impossible by ensuring shared access to key resources. Negotiations on this plan led to the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which was the first successful initiative to give Franco-German cooperation pride of place. Also, it was the first international organisation with strong supranational elements. From this starting point, France, Germany and the other four founding members of the ECSC (Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) soon embarked on new and even more audacious projects: the European Defence Community (EDC) and the European Political Community (EPC) were conceived as further steps towards supranational co-operation, this time extending beyond the economic realm — until the veto of the French National Assembly brought these soaring hopes crashing down in 1954.

All in all, Germany was more a plaything of larger forces and powers than a strong actor in its own right in these projects. Even after its foundation in September 1949, the Federal Republic was not a proper sovereign state: under the Occupation Statute, ‘supreme authority’ continued to lie with the Western Allies. Especially in the field of foreign policy, there was no room for independent and uncoordinated initiatives. However, important parts of ruling West German elites, particularly Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and his Christian Democratic Union, endorsed basically the same agenda as the United States and other Western partners, even though a majority of the population would have given priority to national unification. Westintegration, however, stood for a close alliance with the United States and for a Western European integration built on Franco-German reconciliation. This strategy was seen as the best way to protect West Germany from Soviet aggression, as well as from its own violent and ultra-nationalist past. This broad consensus between Bonn and the Western Allies on the overall political direction was the main reason why Germany’s path into Europe was able to unfold quite smoothly, peacefully and harmoniously — and why this specific Europe would turn into a powerful and meaningful category.

If anti-communism and angst over the country’s past were motives that united Germany and its Western partners in their choice for Europe, there was also a factor that was unique to the Federal Republic: paradoxically, it could regain sovereignty by surrendering it. Rearmament is the obvious example. In the negotiations over the European Defence Community, Chancellor Adenauer insisted that in exchange for the deployment of troops, Germany should have its equal international status restored. During the negotiations, the Allies basically accepted this proposal. The EDC project failed in 1954, but the promise had been made and, in 1955, a similar and, in its detail, even more advantageous package deal for Germany came about — full membership of NATO and the pre-existing Western European security structures in return for the General Treaty (Deutschlandvertrag), which gave it most of the rights of a sovereign state. Thus, West Germany only regained sovereignty because it was willing to integrate into Western European and transatlantic structures.

Obviously, other member states also hoped they would gain something by surrendering sovereignty, but in Germany’s case this dialectical process was particularly powerful and visible in its causal mechanisms and effects. International observers who puzzle over why the Federal Republic has, time and again, opted for supranational integration and not for a more intergovernmental approach with a bigger focus on free trade — and thus a position closer to the British than to the French — sometimes overlook this feature of Germany’s stance on integration.

Other motives played a role, too, such as the hope of winning access to new markets and fostering economic growth. This was particularly true in 1957, when the six ECSC members overcame the impasse caused by the failure of the EDC by signing the Treaties of Rome. Although this brought European integration down to earth – planning the scrupulous continuation of sectoral and economic integration, rather than the quick leap to a federal political structure that the EPC had aimed for — it did create two new projects: Euratom, to promote cooperation in the sphere of atomic energy, and the European Economic Community (EEC), to create a common market. In an institutional sense, both had substantial supranational elements.

Due to its strong and export-oriented industry, Germany was very eager to obtain the common market. The economic dimension should not be overemphasised, however. Important segments of German society would have preferred a different European or global arrangement to the kleineuropäisch approach of the Europe of the Six. Ludwig Erhard, Adenauer’s minister of economics, was an outspoken proponent of such a position. On the day the German Parliament first discussed the Treaties of Rome, he was quoted as calling the whole project ‘nonsense from a macroeconomic point of view’. Indeed, he feared that an insulated and protectionist common market of six economies with an uncontrollable bureaucracy in Brussels would cut Germany off from its largest traditional trading partners. This objection was by no means unfounded — 75 per cent of West Germany’s exports went to countries outside the future EEC and, in a purely economic sense, a ‘more European’ approach (eg. including Britain and Denmark), or a global free trade line, would have been more beneficial to the country.

All in all, ‘Europe’ was primarily a political choice for West Germany. Economic integration was seen through this lens and, as in the days of the Weimar Republic, Germany regained international recognition primarily by economic means. But this is probably the only parallel to the interwar years — Franco-German rapprochement, American hegemony and a supranational institutional framework signified a new trajectory. At the same time, the Gestalt of Europe was quite unclear in the 1950s and the EEC continued to be a fragile creature over the following decade. Sharp shifts in global constellations (such as the Korean War, which killed most of the hopes for the ECSC), or inner-European conflicts (most notably the Gaullist challenge to the EEC in the 1960s), could have drowned it quite easily.

The first signs of a more independent German foreign and European policy came with the Ostpolitik and its concept of change through rapprochement after 1969 and concurrently with the push for enlargement following the resignation of de Gaulle. Another such sign was Germany’s role in the discussion of new policy fields, such as monetary or environmental policy, since the turn of the 1970s. Equally important, the Wirtschaftswunder massively increased the Federal Republic’s economic power. Germany now became more proactive in European politics, at times trying to upload its preferences to the EC level, for instance in the European Monetary System (EMS) negotiations of the 1970s.

However, it is easy to overestimate the magnitude of change in Germany’s stance on Europe. In all important dimensions, continuity prevailed. Ostpolitik was always preceded and balanced out by attempts to deepen Westpolitik. Even if West Germany played an important role in opening the door to the EEC for Great Britain, Denmark and Ireland, it preferred to leave the centre stage to France during the entry negotiations — as well as generally.

Also during the 1980s, Germany accepted the role of France, its junior partner in the Franco-German engine, at least symbolically. In European and international politics, the economic Gulliver of Western Europe voluntarily kept its shackles. The rhetoric of ‘national interest’ in foreign and, particularly, in European politics never loomed as large as it did in other countries and the German government never pushed its concerns to the extent that, for example, its British or Greek counterparts did. Germany framed European integration issues in a predominantly pro-communautaire and consensus-oriented fashion. To some extent, this was the result of the updated version of angst within Germany’s Western partners: now, they worried less about totalitarian tendencies or aggressive onslaughts emanating from Germany, but rather about the country’s colossal economic power.

More important than this external factor, however, was that Germany’s political elite had by now internalised the philosophy of self-restriction. William E. Patterson has called this a culture of ‘reflexive multilateralism’, veiling Germany’s increasing economic and political potential. Hence, larger social and economic trends and processes that could have altered Germany’s take on integration – including the ups and downs of the Cold War, the country’s economic performance, its growing international recognition or the changing global environment – mattered less than the ideational and strategic orientation of its political elite. Therefore, change remained gradual and did not lead to any fundamentally new choices.

German unification, then, had ambivalent effects. On the one hand, it tremendously increased the country’s size, population and economic potential; on the other hand, the reconstruction of the former GDR tied up a lot of resources. At the time, Margaret Thatcher and others feared that unification could overturn the power balance in Europe. In this light, the Federal Republic tried to allay these concerns by continuing a policy of self-restraint. Vis-à-vis the crumbling Soviet Union, it agreed to a severe reduction of its combined armed forces and affirmed its renunciation of weapons of mass destruction. In its Western and global contexts, it continued its multilateral course, with a firm commitment to the UN, to Nato and to its other international memberships.

The same holds true for the EC, where Germany again took a pro-integrative stance, with Franco-German cooperation as a core element. Monetary policy came to play a central role. Negotiations over European monetary union had started long before 1989, brought to the fore by the end of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s. Since then, several attempts at European cooperation had been made, most importantly by establishing the European Monetary System in 1979. In EMS, the deutschmark served as anchor currency, thus triggering an intense debate about German monetary hegemony. This, together with the fact that EMS did not suffice to stabilise Europe’s monetary situation, explains why France, in particular, continued to push for an even stronger form of integration in this field. In the end, Germany agreed to embark on such a project. Timing is important here: even if concrete negotiations on a common currency had started before the end of the Cold War, the unwinding of the East-West conflict added urgency and helped to speed up the project. As several times before, German political elites and many of their European partners shared a fundamental belief: the need to contain Germany by deepening integration. This time, however, Bonn acted not so much under the pressure of its partners, but in a proactive, even pre-emptive way. By allaying their fears, it again revealed how much it had internalised a pro-communautaire and multilateral approach.

The dialectical mechanism developed as early as the 1950s was thus reactivated. Germany, in the end, surrendered its currency as a price for national unification and full sovereignty. During the Maastricht Treaty negotiations, Germany prioritised political considerations over economic interests and the country won international leeway by surrendering parts of its sovereignty. Henceforth, a pro-communautaire and explicitly multilateral idea stood at the cradle of Economic and Monetary Union. Hegemony was clearly not the intention; Germany did not pursue real power, but quite the opposite. Similar things can be said about later rounds of negotiation, for instance in 1998, when the Kohl government full-heartedly supported Italian euro membership, despite internal governmental reports that stressed its southern neighbour’s severe problems in living up to the euro convergence criteria.

It is the ultimate irony of the past 20 years of European integration that its very effects are now pushing Germany closer to the position that EMU tried to prevent: supranational integration, in the end, explains why Germany today plays such a pronounced role and why its voice and role matter so much. The EU treaties since Maastricht have created a union that is neither fish nor fowl: on the one hand, they have brought too much integration for member states to tackle the ongoing challenges with the cocktail of measures at the disposal of sovereign nation states; on the other hand, existing mechanisms at the EU level do not suffice to resolve the crisis.

It follows on easily to muse whether these imbalances in integration were created intentionally at the time of the Maastricht negotiations — either to wreck the union or to create good arguments to push forever-deeper integration thereafter, as some argue today. International treaties are normally not the result of master conspiracies, but of hard-fought compromises. In the long run, Germany’s willingness to compromise has turned the country into the anchor-economy of the eurozone. Certainly, Berlin would also have a lot to say in a Europe without EMU and the Maastricht Treaty in general. But it is this mechanism that has given the largest and economically most potent member state a huge systemic responsibility in and for the EU.

All this helps to explain why Germany is not acting as a clear-cut hegemon in the ongoing crisis and why, so often, it reluctantly and belatedly swallows the pill presented to it by others. It never sought the leadership role it is now forced to play and its elites are still getting used to their new responsibility. To some extent, history teaches us primarily one lesson: in the new world brought about by the euro crisis, it will be necessary to leave parts of history behind. More precisely, history holds the three following lessons for today.

First, the economics of European integration have to be taken more seriously. While German and many other economists warned of the risks of EMU early on, neither the Federal Republic, nor other member states have been willing fully to remedy them. In its pre-Maastricht phase, the economic stakes of European integration always remained manageable. The wine lakes and butter mountains produced by the Common Agricultural Policy — as the EC’s most costly policy at the time — might have been troublesome during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but they look like small puddles and mounds in comparison to the sums that are at stake at the moment. Acting under immense time pressure, it will be easy to make serious mistakes now, reducing the competitiveness of the eurozone and the stability of the EU.

Secondly, there is a problematic continuity in Germany’s European and more general foreign policy. Adenauer fully overrode public opinion in prioritising Westbindung over unification from the late 1940s and on rearmament during the 1950s. During the 1970s, Brandt’s Ostpolitik was as fiercely contested as was Schmidt’s and then Kohl’s support of the Nato Double-Track Decision during the 1980s. Even if a majority supported plans for the euro in 1992, German participation in the common currency was built more on a permissive consensus than on staunch support. The same holds true today and public backing for Chancellor Merkel’s course remains somewhat fragile. It is not a given that the Germans will always accept deeper forms of integration, especially if the price for them becomes very high. Present developments help little to increase input-oriented democratic legitimacy and, at the output level, the answer is still unclear.

Thirdly, there is no real alternative to European integration. National sovereignty of the kind nation states exerted in the interwar period does not exist anymore, at least not in the Europe of the EU. Due to many commitments in international organisations, and particularly a result of the specific character of the EU, all member states have turned into ‘post-classical democratic nation states’, as the German historian Heinrich August Winkler once pointed out. They have all surrendered quite a bit of their sovereignty and this holds especially true for the eurozone. Or, to return to Thomas Mann: even if Germany wanted to, it could not make Europe German – simply because Germany itself is already so European.


Kiran Klaus Patel