Only Germany can save the euro zone, therefore Germany must — such is the refrain heard around the world. For non-Germans, it is increasingly hard to understand why the country is not moving forcefully to stop the debt crisis. This past week’s coordinated action by the world’s top central banks to strengthen global lending only underscored the need for urgent action in Europe. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who sees the continent “on the edge of a precipice,” made a dramatic appeal Monday for leadership from Berlin: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity,” he declared.
A global call for the use of German power was not what anybody thought they would ever hear again. And Germans themselves are only slowly waking up to the fact that they are now seen as Europe’s “indispensable power,” as the historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote. So grave is the crisis of the common currency that it now represents the third moment in 100 years when Germany has unilaterally determined the fate of Europe — after 1914 and 1939. It’s that history that weighs on German action or inaction.
After World War II, West Germany wanted nothing more than to shed its pariah status. Followership, not leadership, earned it the respect it coveted. For years, West Germany was an invisible and reliable partner; it simply managed challenges or contributed to collective action. Leading the charge on large-scale solutions for international problems was a concept that died on the battlefields of the war. Continental or global leadership is nothing that postwar Germans have ever learned, aspired to or exercised.
Germany’s reunification changed the equation — a fact becoming apparent two decades later. When Russia and later the United States largely disengaged from the continent, they left a void, just as Germany was transforming itself from “the sick man of Europe” into “Europe’s powerhouse.” A combination of entrepreneurial spirit, shrewd business strategies and economic reforms fueled the comeback. Today, Germany’s population and economy are about a third larger than France’s, Europe’s second power. This success has triggered the calls for Germany to become the continent’s white knight in the midst of crisis.
But the Germans have discovered a contradiction: Europeans may call for German leadership, but they don’t want to be led by Germany. And they certainly don’t like the results of German leadership. When a European Union task force, led by a German, traveled to Athens in October to offer technical assistance with economic reforms, some disgruntled Greeks soon called its members “the Gauleiters,” the term for Nazi-era regional government representatives.
In Ireland and Portugal, the public is torn over whether to regard German help as a modern Marshall Plan or a Versailles Treaty without the war. Such reactions have certainly not been an incentive for Germany to provide even more help.
If the euro fails, it will be seen as Germany’s fault, not Greece’s or even Italy’s. To avoid the blame as well as the economic fallout, Berlin has little time left to act. The European summit set for Thursday and Friday is a golden opportunity — perhaps the last one. The question that only Germany can answer is this: Does it really want to assume significant responsibility for the euro zone’s debt, thus taking on enormous risk but also making itself a hegemon? Right now, it certainly looks like a reluctant hegemon, one that is in over its head.