September 22nd, 2013
02:50 AM ET

A tale of two Germanies

By Fabrizio Tassinari, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Fabrizio Tassinari is head of foreign policy at the Danish Institute for International Studies and senior non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin. The views expressed are his own.

Once again, the world is populated by two German entities. You cannot draw them on a map this time, but their contours are still clear.

The first Germany is heading for general elections on September 22. It is a nation self-absorbed by the bread-and-butter issues that form the baseline of economic livelihood. Politics being local, some of the items on the agenda appear quirky to outsiders, such as the discussion of a “veggie day” in state canteens. From minimum wages to rising inequality, this Germany is preoccupied with similar things to any post-industrial democracy, plus a touch of trademark Teutonic rigor and angst.

The second Germany doesn’t need to go to the polls to be crowned Europe’s paramount power. This is the country with an aggressive commercial diplomacy that dictates policy on the profligate nations of Southern Europe. The Economist recently wrote about Berlin’s reluctant hegemony; others call it a “geo-economic power.” The key question for this other Germany is whether and how it will take up the mantle of leadership, in Europe and beyond.

Each of these two versions has its detractors: The first version is mocked as an isolationist big Switzerland. The other has been the object of scorn throughout the euro crisis, with Chancellor Angela Merkel unflatteringly portrayed in Nazi fatigues. No one questions that Berlin has basically weathered the Great Recession relatively well. Still, rarely have the mentality of a nation and the world’s expectations of it seemed so far apart.

As a newcomer to Berlin – itself a unique blend of dazzling metropolitan diversity and cozy provincial frugality – it’s fascinating to observe how these two versions form the present German story. Consider the economy. The new German miracle is routinely described as a combination of manufacturing and export prowess, helped by decade-old reforms, particularly wage control. Germans themselves have mixed feelings about these reforms. Many economists here argue that both for its specificities and shortcomings, the German experience does not amount to a “model” applicable to others.

Still, other nations are understandably likely to want to emulate parts of what is working: President Barack Obama, for one, suggested as much in his last State of the Union address, with his reference to vocational training.

To be sure, German insistence on austerity has irked several governments in Europe. But structural reforms in Europe’s cash-strapped south are motivated by real imbalances and a chronic lack of competitiveness. Spain or Italy need to liberalize their calcified labor market for their own sake, especially that of their jobless youth, not Germany’s. That said, even a country with valuable practices to share can become the bully imposing its will on others.

Foreign policy is the other mirror of this dual Germany. Even by its anti-war standards, Germany’s abstention from the 2011 Libya intervention stood out as inconsistent with the Western mainstream. Today, Berlin’s stance on Syria remains typically studious: “Germany,” said Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, “would be among those who consider consequences to be appropriate.”

Britain’s parliamentary debacle and Obama’s self-inflicted detour in Congress underscore how leaders are struggling to find foreign policy legitimacy. As in other countries, German politicians would rather steer clear of discussing complex international crises during an election campaign. Yet, Berlin is routinely accused of punching below its weight even when, as in Syria, the international community seems to be following a similar path.

Elections are usually the time to take stock of a country’s self-image. But if anything, the fact that the German campaign has been so restrained on this is a sign of a mature democracy. Indeed, the uneventful campaign may indicate that, in the eyes of many voters at least, the German position on fundamental economic and strategic issues has been largely vindicated.

For better or worse, Merkel herself is often described as the chief architect of much of the above. For sure, she is the perfect embodiment of it: her pragmatism makes her the champion of the first Germany and her poise an epitome of the second one. Yet because of the arcane arithmetic of the German voting system, even high approval ratings would not translate into a landslide victory.

Ultimately, though, the Chancellor’s enduring popularity suggests that these two imaginary Germanies can coexist just fine.

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Topics: Germany

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soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. jane pavitt

    I truly enjoy this show. However, I am Locked out of viewing it. I do not have television service for my household, it simply became unaffordable. I can only watch Fareed "live" if I pay for a service provider subscription, or purchase it on iTunes. I appreciate the high intellectualism of this show, understandable to mainstream viewers without watering down the content or presentation. I only wish that viewership accessibility was as open.

    September 22, 2013 at 11:28 am | Reply
  2. George patton

    There was a time when Germany could be very proud of their country but since 1919 that has changed and even more so after WW2, and especially after WW2! Since then, there has never been a true "German" chancellor since each leader in both East and West Germany took orders from the outside, the East from the Russians and the West from Washington D.C. The gutless wonders who now lead Germany are enough to make even Adolf Hitler look good, especially that Washington loving Angie Merkel! As a German American, this broad offends me to no end!

    September 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Reply
    • Ast

      you are missing the point of German "pride"!
      In Germany you are proud of your accomplishments not of the fact that you have been born in a specific geographic location. Germans have a heavy burden to bear with their history, and they never take it lightly, actually quite the opposite
      You obviously have never studied history, or the humanities
      I have been living in the US for 8 years now, yes I am an immigrant; yes, I am German and the fact that you call yourself a "German American" ...what is this??? IMHO either you are an American or you are not
      respectfully, AST

      September 22, 2013 at 9:20 pm | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      Ya gotta take the good with the bad. And in striking such a balance, we all know that Hitler went way over board. So try not to let the Obama-Merkel-Putin love triangle offend ya too much. But I think the spelling of "broad" should be changed to "brawd".

      September 23, 2013 at 6:11 am | Reply
  3. Danro

    Honestly, I do not know what this article was trying to say about Germany and its relationship to Europe. What I think it was trying to say was how such a large economic power and default leader of the EU can come to terms with its new found position after its history. Germany is leading because it has to and it is the only one. Let's remember that England is in the EU but does not participate on account of if euro skepticism. France was its leader but its economy is in the tank. Italy is a mess so the only game in town is Germany. If German could they would prefer to be a big Switzerland and after the Euro crisis will probably go back to being that. That shadow of wars, separation, union and the general trauma of the 20th century is very long and deeply ingrained in the memory of all Germans.

    September 22, 2013 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    It's inconceivable what the author wants to say. The "first Germany" is in concrete terms a nation made up of its people. In a democratic process, their votes every four years help shape the "second Germany", that the world perceives.

    September 23, 2013 at 5:52 am | Reply
  5. Michael

    The real questions are: Who is stronger? The American business or German business? Whose business is more upscale? Who has more influence? Americans or Germans – the two competing economies.

    September 23, 2013 at 9:37 am | Reply
  6. Stefanie

    Once upon a time there were two Germany's: West and East. West Germany was pro-western and East Germany was pro-communists. Now, most people don't understand the differences. Like they say it in one American movie: "what's the case about communism?" – meaning they did not really understand, what does it mean. Now, we have one Germany, that's quite anti-western oriented, that likes to export into USA market, but is sceptical about any American products. We hope that Frau Merkel will open-up German market for America.

    September 23, 2013 at 10:42 am | Reply
    • Mikel

      "...but is sceptical about any American products".
      What!!?? Stefanie, lay down the pipe – reality is calling...

      September 24, 2013 at 3:38 am | Reply
  7. schlawa

    Whenever anyone calls for German leadership, what they really are after is German money. Nobody in Europe or the World is really looking for the opinion of Germans, nor would the US for example even consider a German position. Take the Iraq War: Germany and France warned the United States dearly that there were no WMD's in Iraq, that it would only damage the US image and hurt the US economy. For that Germany was called a weasel, not worthy to be a US ally. In Europe, Germany has tried hard to negotiate a stronger, more integrated Europe, only to be ridiculed. Now the crisis, at a time where these same countries that always insisted on their national sovereignty are in trouble, they are calling for "German solidarity" (MONEY ! MONEY ! MONEY !), but are still reluctant to reform, instead the same political parties that destroyed Greece, Italy and Spain are populistically calling Merkel a Nazi. The World will have to live with a Germany that cares mostly for its own interest, at least until People have layed off to connect the word Nazi to German foreign policy.

    September 24, 2013 at 8:30 am | Reply
  8. Joseph McCarthy

    If I were the German chancellor, I'd quit taking orders from Washington and make my country far more self assertive in trying to promote peace around the world. For instance. work to get the Turks to set up a timetable for the gradual independence for the Kurds and try to get both al-Assad and the so-called rebels to settle that country's civil war peacefully and finally get the U.S. and Iran talking to one another to stave off another obscene war.

    September 24, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Reply
  9. Layne

    For me as an American, the German government seems much more answerable to its citizens and committed to the honor of its nationhood–as opposed to being corrupt lap dogs of avaricious and amoral elites–which is certainly the case in the US and the UK. In the face of globalization, Germany not only retained but expanded its manufacturing base to become a world-leading industrial super-power that is also environmentally responsible, energy efficient, socially stable and fiscally sound.

    September 24, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Reply
  10. rightospeak

    All the writing for nothing again-the truth is too much for CNN and the Thought Police was at work.
    There is nothing democratic about the EU. People are jailed for unpopular opinions , the people are brainwashed and enslaved through debt, whole industries demolished for the sake of monopoly. Germany did well but many post Communist countries became colonies.

    September 24, 2013 at 8:43 pm | Reply
  11. rightospeak

    The level of censorship at CNN is comparable to Communist censorship and I may just stop writing comments because we are becoming fast a closed society with totalitarian controls. Mostly what we read and hear is PROPAGANDA and will destroy our nation. The disaster is just around the corner.

    September 24, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Reply
  12. boungiorno

    like i said believe half of what you hear and all of what you see

    September 24, 2013 at 10:27 pm | Reply

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