German-American Relations since 1990: No Future for Germany’s Past?

Germany’s reluctance to play a leadership role and to use military force is often explained with the continued impact of the collective memory of the Nazi period in contemporary Germany. This was undoubtedly the case for the Federal Republic between 1949 and 1990. Together with the power structures of the Cold War, the collective memory of Germany’s Nazi past was the key determinant of West Germany’s foreign policy identity. With unification, Germany’s position is said to have changed from one of military and moral subordination to the United States to one of an equal partnership, as described by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, when he anticipated Germany and the United States to be “partners in leadership” in the post-Cold War world.[1]

Since 1990 Germany has become more independent than it has ever been since 1945 and—rather than continuing to benefit from the security provided by others, particularly the United States—it is also increasingly expected to provide security for the benefit of others. It is hardly surprising therefore that it has been in the area of security policy that German-American relations since 1990 have suffered the most set-backs. To America’s exasperation, united Germany continues to be very reluctant to take on a leadership role and employ military means to achieve political goals, even though the ruling of the Federal Constitutional Court of July 1994 ensured that out-of-area missions of the Bundeswehr became possible under particular circumstances, i.e., if they took place within a multilateral framework and had the backing of the Bundestag.

But is it still the collective memory of Germany’s Nazi past that is the main reason for this reluctance to engage in military operations? Does it continue to make Germany’s foreign policy fairly predictable, as Germany’s (pacifist) reaction to the crises in Libya and Syria suggests? In other words, does the Kohl doctrine—that German soldiers should not go where the Wehrmacht had been—continue to restrict the scope of German security policy even though the ruling of the Federal Constitutional Court of 1994 has abolished the legal-constitutional constraints? Or in more general terms, how present has Germany’s Nazi past been since 1990 and does it have a future in German foreign policy? An analysis of the dynamics of collective memory at critical junctures in German-American relations since 1990 (Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria) go some way to provide answers to these questions.

As the discussions leading up to and during German military involvement in the Kosovo war in the late 1990s showed, references to Germany’s Nazi past resulted in new and very different “lessons” even though the contributors to the debate drew extensively on the same past for their arguments. It became very obvious that the “no more war” strand of German collective memory could not co-exist with the “no more Auschwitz” strand anymore since—it was argued—military involvement was needed to avoid “another Auschwitz.”[2] Klaus Kinkel, for example, explicitly compared the situation in Yugoslavia with Nazi Germany and suggested that the German government would in part be responsible for the atrocities there if it did nothing to stop them.[3] In what appeared to be a direct renunciation of the Kohl doctrine, Gerhard Schröder declared that crimes committed by the Nazis in the Balkans should not allow a democratic Germany to tolerate new crimes in that area.[4] In another debate in the Bundestag he went even further by suggesting that German historical guilt in this area could be alleviated if Germany now helped to prevent new massacres from happening.[5] In a similar vein, Rudolf Scharping suggested that inaction would mean that Germany’s history was allowed to repeat itself elsewhere.[6]

At the same time, the debate drew on traditional interpretations of the “no more alone” memory strand when Schröder announced that “there can’t and there won’t be a Sonderweg with us”[7] and Klaus Kinkel declared that Germany had to show solidarity with the Atlantic Alliance that had protected Germany for decades,[8] an argument that drew on a collective memory strand that was to take center stage after 9/11 and the run up to the war in Afghanistan. Over Kosovo the “no more war” collective memory strand thus lost to the “no more Auschwitz” strand and it was argued that Germany—because of its past—had a special responsibility to avoid “another Auschwitz” from happening elsewhere.

Whereas debates about the war in Kosovo are interesting for the way the “lessons learned” from the past had changed (going to war was portrayed as acceptable by the German political elites in order to avoid “another Auschwitz”), the political elite discourse in Germany in the aftermath of 9/11 and the run up to the war in Afghanistan was noteworthy for what it “forgot” rather than what it remembered: for the first time since the Second World War, Germany intervened militarily without any reference to its Nazi past and the lessons drawn from it.[9] Interestingly, but maybe not all that surprisingly, it was the memory of American and NATO solidarity toward the Federal Republic during the Cold War that became the most prominent memory strand in the debate. And—fitting in perfectly with the demands of the present—it was linked to the notion of the Sonderweg reminding Germans that “going it alone” had led Germany into catastrophe before.

In his government declaration of 19 September, for instance, Gerhard Schröder justified his offer of “unlimited solidarity,” made in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, by pointing out that his country would never forget what the United States had done for Germany by defeating Nazism and helping to rebuild and protect a free, democratic West Germany as well as West Berlin. He also reminded Germans of the support they had received from the U.S. for unification. According to Schröder, the solidarity he had promised the United States in the aftermath of 9/11 was therefore one of the lessons to be drawn from German history.[10]  Only a few weeks later he more explicitly linked this to the demands of the present by arguing that because Germany had achieved freedom and self-determination with the help and solidarity of its American and European friends and partners, it now had a duty to take on new responsibilities which—according to Schröder—included the participation in military operations which were aimed at defending freedom and human rights in order to produce stability and security.[11] He thus skillfully coupled the solidarity theme to the implicit reminder that a German Sonderweg had not served Germany in the past.  The only notable exception to the general trend of not referring to Germany’s Nazi past in the context of the war in Afghanistan was provided by Joschka Fischer when he pointed out that one of the main goals of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism was the destruction of Israel and that Germany therefore had a historical responsibility and even duty to employ all available means.[12]

In a very creative fashion, and providing a perfect example that even terms that normally have a fairly clear and non-negotiable message, Schröder used the term “the German way”—which clearly evokes the connotation of the German Sonderweg—to distance the German government from the United States and its allies with regard to military intervention in Iraq. In contrast to the elite discourse on the war in Afghanistan where the notion of a German Sonderweg was evoked in order to suggest the danger of Germany “going it alone,” over Iraq it was turned into a virtue vis-à-vis “the war-mongering states” led by the U.S. Schröder thus appealed to the still widespread antimilitarist attitudes in German society at large by mobilizing his electorate with the “no more war” strand of collective memory. Apart from that, there were not many references to German collective memory. The justice minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin provided the only explicit and very tactless example when she declared that George W. Bush was using the same tactics as Hitler when he waged a war to divert public attention away from domestic problems.[13]

Over Libya a new memory strand emerged which was drawn from very recent history: the specter of Iraq. Especially foreign minister Guido Westerwelle—implicitly as well as explicitly—referred to it on numerous occasions to justify the German government’s decision to abstain from the vote in the UN Security Council on the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya.[14] Westerwelle also saw himself accused of violating another important memory strand—the “never again alone” strand—and had to defend the decision against accusations that Germany had isolated itself from its traditional allies.[15] He also tried to directly tap into the “no more war” strand of German collective memory—after all, it had worked for Schröder in 2002!—when he declared in front of the Bundestag on 18 March 2011: “So called surgical attacks don’t exist. Every military operation also claims civilian victims. We know that from our own painful experience.”[16] Angela Merkel successfully avoided using the Iraq argument in this context, which is hardly surprising since—when in opposition—she had sided with the Bush government in favor of military intervention.[17]

Responses by the German government to the chemical attacks in Syria and the question of military engagement offered fairly little in terms of explicit references to the past, even though a link could have been made very easily between the chemical attacks in Syria and the Holocaust but clearly this would not have fit with the German government’s stance of ruling out German military involvement. Westerwelle pointed out on numerous occasions that the use of chemical weapons was a zivilisatorisches Verbrechen (a crime against civilization), which could be read as an implicit reference to the Holocaust, which has often been referred to as “the worst crime against humanity.” Interestingly, neither Westerwelle nor Merkel have made much use of references to the past in order to justify the decision regarding Syria, but on several occasions Westerwelle referred to the German Basic Law and legal constraints as obstacles to a potential German military engagement.[18] Asked about the threat to Israel’s security, however, Westerwelle declared that Israel’s security in the Middle East is of crucial importance to German foreign policy.[19]

When Westerwelle was asked directly whether he thought that the experience of Iraq is creating an obstacle to military engagement for policymakers, he chose not to comment but simply acknowledged the sincerity with which the situation was assessed in Washington, London, and Paris.[20] Interestingly, Westerwelle also used the term “culture of restraint” on several occasions, which serves as a reminder of the recipe for success of the Bonn Republic and might well constitute the emergence of a new memory strand.[21]

Whereas the key collective memory strands “no more war,” “no more Auschwitz,” and “never alone” made West German foreign policy quite predictable, references to the past have thus undergone considerable diversification in the post-Cold War world with different memory strands being evoked and entering the political discourse in an attempt to justify and legitimize foreign policy decisions that involved the use of military force, e.g., over Kosovo and Afghanistan. At the same time, however, there have also been instances that made it very clear that Germany’s traditional memory strands are still a powerful discursive tool that can be used to mobilize support and—this is new—for a variety of purposes other than the formerly rather predictable lessons such as “no more war” and “no more Auschwitz.”

The above examples also illustrate very clearly Halbwachs’ dictum that the past is socially constructed in the light of the present and that it is selective.[22] Different memory strands have been drawn on in order to justify a wide range of—at times even diametrically opposed—policy options.

This suggests that rather than memory influencing policy, it is used by political elites as a discursive tool to justify and legitimize particular decisions. As we know, historical comparisons are not always helpful for analysis. These references to history and the collective memory they evoke try to suggest that they are. More often than not, references to the past—especially when they come from politicians rather than historians—hinder rather than help a sober analysis of the facts regarding decisions over important questions such as military intervention.

So, does the German past have a future? It certainly looks like it. The German past continues to be used as evidence to support particular foreign policy decisions. The interesting thing is that the lessons learned from the past are not as predictable anymore and that the same past is used to generate very different lessons and legitimize very different policy decisions.

In German-American (security) relations since 1990, we have thus witnessed a diversification in terms of the “lessons learned” from the past as well as the emergence of new memory strands which draw on more recent history.

Dr. Ruth Wittlinger was a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow in August and September, 2013.  She is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University (UK).


[1] George Bush, “Address to the German People on the Reunification of Germany,”’ 2 October 1990, http://usa.usembassy.de/etexts/ga6-901002.htm

[2] It is particularly interesting in this context how the liberal left—which had always insisted on the singularity of the Holocaust—suddenly started to identify “holocausts” all over the world. See Karl Wilds, “Identity Creation and the Culture of Contrition: Recasting ‘Normality’ in the Berlin Republic,” German Politics 9:1 (2000).

[3] Klaus Kinkel, “Abgabe einer Erklärung durch die Bundesregierung. Deutsche Beteiligung an den von

der NATO geplanten begrenzten und in Phasen durchzuführenden Luftoperationen zur Abwendung einer humanitären Katastrophe im Kosovo-Konflikt,” 16 October 1998, http://dip21.bundestag.de/dip21/btp/13/13248.pdf

[5] “Antrag der Bundesregierung zur Deutschen Beteiligung an der militärischen Umsetzung eines Rambouillet-

Abkommens für den Kosovo sowie an NATO-Operationen im Rahmen der Notfalltruppe,” 24 February 1999, http://dip21.bundestag.de/dip21/btp/14/14021.pdf

[6] Cited in Karl Feldmeyer, “Das Unbehagen des Sozialdemokraten,” FAZ, 25 March 1999.

[7] Gerhard Schröder, “Abgabe einer Regierungserklärung des Bundeskanzlers. Aktuelle Lage im Kosovo,” 16 April 1999, http://dip21.bundestag.de/dip21/btp/14/14032.pdf

[8] Klaus Kinkel, “Abgabe einer Erklärung durch die Bundesregierung. Deutsche Beteiligung an den von

der NATO geplanten begrenzten und in Phasen durchzuführenden Luftoperationen zur Abwendung einer humanitären Katastrophe im Kosovo-Konflikt,” 16 October 1998, http://dip21.bundestag.de/dip21/btp/13/13248.pdf

[9] Volker Heins, “Germany’s New War: 11 September and its Aftermath in German Quality Newspapers,” German Politics 11:2 (2002) and Wolfram Wette, “Ein Hitler des Orients? NS-Vergleiche in der Kriegspropaganda von Demokratien,” Gewerkschaftliche Monatshefte 54:4 (2003).

[10] Gerhard Schröder, “Regierungserklärung des Bundeskanzlers Gerhard Schröder zu den Anschlägen in den Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika,” 19 September 2001, http://www.documentarchiv.de/brd/2001/rede_schroeder_terror-usa02.html

[11] “Regierungserklärung des Bundeskanzlers Gerhard Schröder zur aktuellen Lage nach Beginn der Operation gegen den internationalen Terrorismus in Afghanistan,” 11 October 2001, http://www.documentarchiv.de/brd/2001/rede_schroeder_1011.html

[12] Rede des Bundesauβenministers Joschka Fischer zur aktuellen Lage nach Beginn der Operation gegen den internationalen Terrorismus in Afghanistan, 11 October 2011, http://www.documentarchiv.de/brd/2001/rede_fischer_1011.html

[13] For more examples on the discourse on Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, see also Ruth Wittlinger and Martin Larose, “No Future for Germany’s Past? Collective Memory and German Foreign Policy,” German Politics 16:4 (2007).

[14] E.g., foreign minister Guido Westerwelle in an interview with the Magdeburger Volksstimme, 12 March 2011; Foreign minister Guido Westerwelle in an interview with Deutschlandfunk on 17 March 2011; Regierungserklärung des Bundesauβenministers Guido Westerwelle vor dem Deutschen Bundestag am 18. März 2011.

[15] Foreign minister Guido Westerwelle in an interview with the Passauer Neuen Presse on 23 March 2011; Foreign minister Guido Westerwelle in an interview with the Süddeutschen Zeitung on 24 March 2011.

[16] Regierungserklärung des Bundesauβenministers Guido Westerwelle vor dem Deutschen Bundestag am 18. März 2011, http://www.bundesregierung.de/Content/DE/Regierungserklaerung/2011/2011-03-18-westerwelle-libyen.html

[17] In her open letter to the Washington Post in February 2003, she describes “never again should Germany go it alone” as the most important lesson of German politics. She also asserted in this letter that German and European history of the 20th century teaches us that military force should never be ruled out as the ultimate means of dealing with dictators, see Angela Merkel, “Schröder does not speak for all Germans,” The Washington Post, 20 February 2003.

[18] “Ich mache mir allergrößte Sorgen,“  Interview of foreign minister Guido Westerwelle with the Welt am Sonntag on the situation in Syria, 1 September 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20]  “Blockadepolitik Russlands enttäuscht uns,“ foreign minister Guido Westerwelle in an interview with the Neuen Osnabrücker Zeitung on the situation in Syria, 31 August 2013.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Ruth Wittlinger

Durham University (UK)

Ruth Wittlinger is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, UK. She has published widely on post-unification German foreign policy, collective memory of Germany’s Nazi past and European integration. Her most recent publications include a monograph on German National Identity in the Twenty-First Century: A Different Republic After All? (2010), a number of articles in West European Politics, German Politics and Society, German Politics and German Studies Review and a co-edited collection − together with Eric Langenbacher and Bill Niven − on the Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (2013).

During her DAAD/AICGS Research Fellowship in August and September 2013, she worked on a project, which examined memory and identity issues in German-American relations since 1990. The main aim of the project was to shed new light on the nature of the bilateral relationship by looking at the changing dynamics of collective memory in German-American relations in the post-Cold War world. The project identified the dynamics of collective memory in German-American relations since 1990 − e.g. what is remembered and also forgotten − in the discursive construction of German-American relations by political elites. It will also examine what these references to specific periods of the past in the discourse of both countries tell us about the nature of the relationship of the present and about the underlying values of the two countries. Furthermore, it examined which narratives of the past have been used to provide the justification for key foreign policy decisions affecting the bilateral relationship at critical junctures since 1990.