The Myth of German Pacifism

Article excerpt

Germany's behavior during the lead-up to the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003 seemed to confirm that the country is marked by a strategic culture of pacifism and multilateralism. However, a closer look at German actions and pattern of participation in military operations reveals that German pacifism is a myth. There was no cross party consensus on German foreign policy in the 1990s around a principled opposition to the use of force. Even in the early years after the Cold War, the Christian Democrats began very quickly, albeit deliberatively and often secretively, to break down legal and psychological barriers to the deployment of German forces abroad. Pacifism persisted on the left of the political spectrum but gave way following a genuine ideological transformation brought about by the experience of the Yugoslav wars. The nature of Germany's objection to the Iraq invasion, which unlike previous debates did not make ubiquitous references to German history, revealed how much it has changed since the end of the Cold War. Had the election in 2002 gone differently, Germany might even have supported the actions of the U.S. and there would be little talk today of a transatlantic crisis. It is now possible to treat Germany as a "normal" European power.

Keywords: political parties; pacifism; military intervention; Iraq; Balkans; political culture

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The end of the Red-Green government and the creation of a new grand coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) in Germany give us reason to reflect on the major policies that marked the alliance of the SPD and the Greens and offer thoughts on what to expect for the future. In foreign affairs, the leftist coalition will forever be associated with its Iraq policy, in particular the crisis in bilateral relations with the United States that emerged as a the result of severe differences over how and whether to disarm and overthrow Saddam Hussein. Many might be inclined to believe that little will change with this new government, given the widespread belief in the United States that Germany bases its foreign policy on markedly different values. By virtue of its unique history, Germany is marked by both an instinctive pacifism and a distrust of unilateralism. This finds strong echoes in the seeming academic consensus regarding Germany's "strategic culture," which claims that German foreign policy since the Second World War has demonstrated remarkable continuity, despite momentous events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, German unification and more recently, the terrorist attacks on the United States. (1) Policy analysts like Robert Kagan go further, claiming that Europe is just Germany writ large. (2) In this view, Germany is only one of a majority of European countries which, by virtue of their weakness, fixate on multilateral decision-making and prefer to resolve conflicts nonviolently. It is these pacifist instincts that the Red-Green coalition, and Gerhard Schroder in particular, exploited to squeeze out an electoral victory in 2002. The Social Democrats and Greens, it is maintained, ran opportunistically against the United States, throwing away almost fifty years of strong relations for narrow, short-term gains.

A look at German foreign policy behavior since unification, however, suggests that German pacifism is a myth. There was no cross-party consensus in the 1990s around a principled opposition to the use of force. Even in the early years after the end of the Cold War, the Christian Democrats began very quickly, albeit deliberatively and often secretively, to break down legal and psychological barriers to the deployment of German forces abroad. At that time, it was the Social Democrats and Greens, not the entire political class that carried the torch of outright pacifism, and bitterly fought this agenda. Yet, within a decade they themselves were leading Germany into its first use of force since WWII, the Kosovo air war. …