On the 1st July this year conscription in Germany will be formally abolished, and already the last consignment of troops has been called under the outgoing system. Upon the formation of the coalition government in Britain last May, Dr. Fox, the new Defence Secretary, was swift to outline a strategic review of British armed forces deployment that would see the army’s sixty five year presence in Germany come to end. Together these developments mark the demise of the limits that were placed upon German sovereignty by the victorious Allies. The conscription stipulation in particular was an incongruity that many modern Germans found hard to accept. While the deployment of large military units (25,000 men in the case of Britain, or approximately a quarter of the army’s strength) could be legitimized to some extent under NATO’s strategic requirements, the imposition of a recruiting system that was generally abhorred by other modern Western societies was a real point of bitterness. That sense of unfairness was exacerbated as Germany’s NATO partners asked ever more of its military capabilities after reunification. Forced to grapple with the inefficiencies and shortcomings of a derided system, Germany has nonetheless played an important role in stabilizing the Balkans and Afghanistan, in the latter establishing a key relationship with recalcitrant Uzbekistan that may play much to the West’s advantage in opening up Central Asia in the future.
Yet the central irony of conscription in modern Germany was the fact of utilizing a typically authoritarian method of staffing the armed forces, one of the two pillars of sovereignty, precisely in order to avoid a resurgence of authoritarianism in the country as a whole. It was also a conspicuous example of Allied suspicion about the true currents moving German society. Could the perceived militarized Prussian raison d’etat ever really be displaced and the vigour of the German people channeled into some more benign expression? West Germany’s profound renunciation of Nazi aggression and subsequent forced political reorganisation and concentration on revivifying its commerce and industry seemed to suggest that maybe it could. Yet conscription was thought necessary to permanently emasculate the ‘kultur’ of German elitism nowhere better represented than by the formidable General Staff and professional army.
Today questions still remain about Germany’s role in Europe and the wider world as it shakes off the last vestiges of its punishment. Yet the immediate impetus to stirring German assertiveness is not the issues of foreign bases or conscription, but the excesses of Greek, Iberian and Irish workers living beyond their means. The Club Med’s woes stand in stark contrast to the German economy, which in the second quarter of 2010 posted its best growth figures since reunification. While Chancellor Merkel’s government has since just about managed to persuade the German electorate that a bailout of its southern neighbours is in the country’s best long term interests, the gesture has not been made for nothing. Over the coming years the Eurozone is going to have to accommodate to its most dynamic member coercively inculcating a more austere, more productive, in a word, more German, way of doing things. Franceis unlikely to raise any substantial objections, dominated as it is by the imperative of maintaining the Franco-German VIP club within the EU and not doing anything to provoke friction with its more powerful neighbour. Yet what of Britain’s role in this restructuring of continental geopolitics?
The National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review documents released almost contemporaneously in October 2010 outlined plans that pulled at once in different directions. The NSS envisaged a continued if not expanded role for British foreign policy, while the SDSR promised substantially fewer tools with which to prosecute it. Explicit in both documents was a focus on Britain’s relationship with France, which came on the back of widespread speculation that the two countries would seek to cut costs by sharing aircraft carriers. Whatever the detail of their future defence cooperation, the de facto special relationship that exists between Britain and France should be celebrated and the poignancy of the fact that nations steeped in such a history of mutual conflict now consider war between themselves a practical impossibility should not be lost sight of. Yet the survival of the Entente Cordiale in which the relationship is enshrined presents potential problems when looking towards Germany’s role as she regains her natural weight in the region and beyond. That cheerful sounding document cannot disguise the fact that it was fundamentally conceived against Germany, and while defensive in nature implies a lasting distrust of German intentions identical to that which underpinned the bases and conscription laws. Twentieth century history allows us to easily understand those fears. Fortunately, nineteenth century history might allow us to assuage them.
Niall Ferguson foremost amongst others has convincingly argued that far from the European great powers marching inexorably to a timetable for general war, the First World War could, in fact, have been avoided, with Britain in particular having a choice in its response to German aggression. One of the primary factors limiting that choice was the signing of the 1903 pact and more generally the culture of secret alliances so condemned by Woodrow Wilson at Versailles. The degeneration of British foreign policy in this period might reasonably be said to have begun with the retirement of Lord Salisbury, whose domination of it for almost fully half of the Victorian era took as a fundamental point of departure the imperative of avoiding set alliances, and particularly of choosing between France and Germany. Indeed, there was really no ideological reason why Britain should have preferred France over Germany and in the event the decision was premised entirely on the prevailing reality of France being broadly content with its empire and Germany not. Indeed, much to Salisbury’s annoyance, Joseph Chamberlain as Colonial Secretary, spent the 1890s feverishly and furtively trying to bring about at British-German alliance, which was indicative of the strong monarchical, cultural and scientific bonds that joined the countries at the time.
Today Germany is even more a fit partner for Britain and, indeed, for France. Germany’s liberal-democratic development is an integrative success story against its authoritarian past. While a common and cohesive Greater European security and foreign policy identity under the auspices of NATO is a goal to work towards, the difficulties in achieving it cannot be ignored. As such, a more realistic starting point for European security should be an intimate accord between Britain, Germany and France, again within NATO. In many ways German aggression from Bismarck’s retirement in 1890 to the outbreak of war in 1939 can be attributed to its exclusion from the great Franco-British projects of the day – first empire and then the reshaping of Europe. Let it not be excluded from today’s project of spreading our liberal-democratic economic and political values abroad. If it is, the result will be resentment at Britain’s residual suspicion and habit of using the US as an interlocutor and protector. In these circumstances Germany will be pushed closer to Russia as Berlin naturally seeks a focus of power that France cannot provide alone. In the absence of a core relationship with France and Britain closer energy, manufacturing and labour ties with Russia will inevitably result in the kind of closer political ties that truly could be cause for concern.
It is finally time to engage Germany wholeheartedly and promote its role more sincerely in the Western endeavour of democratic geopolitics beginning with its inclusion in the Franco-British inner circle. It is only with these three pivotal nations in step that Europe can undertake its proper share of the burden of defending democratic security to date shouldered disproportionately by America. A conspicuous effort to prioritise political, military, business, educational, scientific and cultural links between Britain, Germany and France will be more likely to foster the kinds of revolutions in technological affairs that will provide for an enhanced competitive advantage vis-à-vis Asia. They will also place Europe in a position of much greater strength in its engagement of Russia and short circuit Russian attempts to expose Eastern Europe which depend heavily on establishing a special relationship with Germany. It was British, French and German ingenuity that was at the heart of Western cultural and scientific dominance after the Portuguese and Spanish had started the ball rolling. A unique relationship between the three in Europe will be crucial to ensuring its survival as the Twenty First Century unfolds.