The Old German Problem

German flag outside the Reichstag Building in Berlin (Photo: Philiprowe)
Germany’s negative attitude toward the U.S. long predates the rise of Trump.

Berlin — Germans do not seem too friendly to Americans these days.

According to a recent Harvard Kennedy School study of global media, 98 percent of German public television news portrays President Donald Trump negatively, making it by far the most anti-Trump media in the world.

Yet the disdain predates the election of Trump, who is roundly despised here for his unapologetic anti–European Union views. 

In a 2015 Pew Research Center survey of European countries, Germany had the least favorable impression of America. Only about 50 percent of Germans expressed positive feelings toward the U.S. Former president Barack Obama, who visited here last week to lecture the world on diversity and tolerance, never changed negative attitudes much from the unpopular George W. Bush years.

Germans apparently do not appreciate that fellow NATO member America still subsidizes their defense. Nor do they seem appreciative of their huge trade surplus ($65 billion) with the United States.

Germans seem to have forgotten that American troops for 45 years kept the Soviets from absorbing all of Germany. The Berlin Airlift is now premodern history.

Why, then, do confident Germans increasingly dislike the United States?

It is complicated.

Since 1989, Germany has worked hard on its post-unification image as a largely pacifistic country. It is eager to teach other nations how to conduct themselves peacefully and to pursue shared global goals such as reducing global warming or opening national borders to the world’s refugees.

Implicit in Germany’s utopian message is that postmodern Germans know best what not to do — given their terrible 20th-century past, with the aggressions of imperial Germany and later the savagery and Holocaust perpetuated by Hitler’s Third Reich.

Yet being guilt-ridden does not equate to being humble (never a German strong suit).

The same conceit of an ethnically, linguistically, and culturally uniform state that drew Germany into conflict with the U.S. (whose late entry into both World War I and World War II helped ensure German defeats) has never quite disappeared.

Instead, German condescension merely has been updated.

In international finance, Germany de facto runs the European Union on a mercantile system. It manipulates the euro as a weaker currency to swarm export markets in a way that would have been difficult with the older and higher-valued Deutsche mark.

When poorer southern European countries bought too many German goods on easy credit only to default on paying for them, the Germans gave them informed but self-important lectures on their need for Germanic thrift and industriousness.

A similar German hubris was true of recent immigration into Europe.

Berlin often virtue-signals the world how morally superior it now is, while also searching for ways to import cheap labor. One result is German chancellor Angela Merkel’s disastrous open-door policy of welcoming in millions of unvetted immigrants from the war-ravaged Middle East at a time of heightened worries over jihadist terrorism.

But Germany did not just flood its own country with impoverished, hard-to-assimilate newcomers. It also dictated that other European countries do the same — whether they wished to or not.

In matters of international relations and trade, Germany’s sense of superiority occasionally resulted in old-style cheating. To increase imports of Volkswagens into the U.S., the company tried to cheat emission tests to skirt expensive regulations. Germany’s Deutsche Bank was caught money-laundering the profits of Russians in Vladimir Putin’s crony cabal. And reports indicate that to convince soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, to award Germany the 2006 World Cup, German officials resorted to bribery.

Germans brag about their generous social-welfare state and often compare it to a supposedly cutthroat capitalist America. But it is quieter about shirking its NATO membership requirements for defense spending to free up cash for its own citizens — and making mega-profits from exporting pricey luxury cars to a hyper-capitalist American elite.

If German haughtiness works on a dependent Europe, it certainly does not always impress a wary America.

We should all feel gratitude to Germany for turning its undeniable talent and energies from war to peace. Its huge economy understandably makes Berlin influential in the European Union.

Yet if German haughtiness works on a dependent Europe, it certainly does not always impress a wary America.

The United States is still far larger, wealthier, and more powerful, just as it was in 1918, 1945, and 1989. It does not necessarily listen to German sanctimoniousness on climate change, immigration, trade, or the occasional need for the use of force.

Instead, America more or less does what it believes to be in the best interests of itself and its allies.

Germans find such American independence cowboyish and insubordinate — and believe they can teach Americans about the dangers of such misplaced chauvinism.

Americans usually ignore these weary sermons. Instead, many of them believe that whenever Germany sticks to worrying only about Germany, the world is a far safer place — both now and in the past.


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— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, to appear in October from Basic Books. You can reach him by e-mailing © 2017 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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