Stelzenmüller gives a German perspective on European relations

Constanze Stelzenmüller was going to give a lecture titled “The Future of European Foreign Policy.” But after arriving at the Institution, she decided to scrap it and wrote a speech especially for the Chautauqua audience.

Continuing Week Seven’s theme of “Redefining Europe,” Stelzenmüller gave the morning lecture Wednesday in the Amphitheater. She provided a German’s perspective on her native country, its role in Europe and its path from the end of World War II to today’s economic dominance.

She was born in 1962 and grew up the child of a German diplomat. World travel during her youth provided an experience she would find useful in her career as a foreign policy expert. Stelzenmüller was a journalist for 15 years before she became an adviser and “think tanker.” She covered humanitarian crises in Somalia as well as the Rwandan Genocide.

Her father and mother, born in 1927 and 1933, respectively, grew up through the rise of the Nazi Party and World War II. To avoid being cannon fodder on the frontlines, Stelzenmüller’s grandmother pushed her father into becoming a navy officer.

In February 1945, her father, along with five other German soldiers, swam naked across the Elbe from Dresden, Germany, to escape the coming Soviet onslaught. They were captured by a lone American soldier.

Stelzenmüller’s father was treated well as an American prisoner of war. Before becoming a diplomat, he was trained as a translator, even working in that role on Howard Hawks’ 1949 comedy film “I Was a Male War Bride” starring Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan.

Stelzenmüller spent four years living in the U.S. between 1972 and 1976, which she fondly remembers as the time between the Watergate scandal and the American Bicentennial.

Her lecture covered five questions: Will Germany face up to is history and pay its pay its debts? Will it become a member of the West? Will Germany be willing to use military force when it matters? Will it be able to stand up to Russia? And what is Germany’s relationship with Europe?

Germany has been left as Europe’s leader almost by default, according to Stelzenmüller. The question becomes whether it is willing to step up to that responsibility. As an addendum, she said, whether the world was accepting was also up for debate.

“It’s not by design, certainly. In fact, [the EU] was designed to prevent that,” she said. “But the way things have developed economically and politically has left us where we are; Germany has done best in the European debt crisis mainly because it managed to undertake painful labor market and competitiveness reforms before the debt crisis hit.”

The opponents of Germany’s three bailouts of Greece have stoked criticism from anti-austerity advocates who refer to the historical forgiveness of Germany’s debt post-1945. However, Stelzenmüller said, she finds the criticism’s tone disconcerting and the implications ignorant.

“I think it’s indicative of the amount of stress and confusion that we’re facing that it’s also something I’d like to see change,” she said. “But I also acknowledge the fact that people like me and other Germans have to do a better job at explaining ourselves.”

Without getting into details, Stelzenmüller said Germany had paid war reparation. The debts that were forgiven were the punitive ones enforced by the Treaty of Versailles that crippled Germany’s economy and created the vacuum in which the Nazi Party rose.

It’s a mistake to think Germany has not learned from its history, she said. The first step along the path of atonement was the Nuremberg trials. However, there is, to this day, some consternation among Germans that they didn’t go far enough and allowed too many Nazis off the hook due to lack of evidence or political reasons.

The second step was fielding an army of 500,000 in the 1950s despite having no desire to do. Indeed, millions of Germans protested against the NATO-approved measure, meant to guard the Berlin Wall from Eastern bloc aggression, should it occur.

“It’s factually untrue that Germany never paid, and to say it’s comparable with what happened with Greek bailout is, I think, economically and politically misleading and not a helpful way to frame it,” she said.

Stelzenmüller also said Germany accepted its role as a perpetrator of war crimes in contrast to Japan, where the military history museum Yushukan has “alternative history” glorifying Japan’s aggression. It is an institution she is glad does not exist in Germany.

German reunification in 1989 was “the greatest miracle of my lifetime,” she said.

“For me, the great lesson on the fall of the wall was to understand that it was something I hadn’t paid enough attention to,” she said. “That this was something I had maybe refused to see. I think that’s true of many Germans of my generation.”

Germany’s relationship with the West is strong despite bumps along the road such as the Iraq War and Wikileaks revelations of spying, she said. The country remains a leading member of NATO, the EU and the UN. The “corsets have been loosened,” though, and Germany “seeks new responsibilities.”

Germany’s military was previously kept at arm’s length due to fear and politics. Other nations did not want it to have a strong army. However, since the 1950s, that has changed gradually. The forces that, decades ago, were only expected to patrol the Berlin Wall are now engaged in Northern Afghanistan and in the Balkans, according to Stelzenmüller.

Still, Germany remains cautious and refused military engagement in Libya, Syria and Iraq. The country is most cautious with Russia.

While they had a “strategic alliance” with their eastern neighbor until recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in Ukraine is the primary concern for German foreign policy, Stelzenmüller said.

Russia operates from a place of weakness and economic stagnation, which makes the federation an unpredictable threat, she said. While modern Russia is a far-cry from the Soviet Union, with porous borders and the Internet, Germany fears a tipping point where the situation in Ukraine becomes uncontrollable.

“Let there be no mistake, it is absolutely unacceptable for Germans to invade other countries, to annex their territory, to deny the agency of civil society,” she said. “All of this is unacceptable, and there are no deals to be made about this.”

While Europe’s sense of solidarity has taken a hit and its divisiveness has been exacerbated by many crises, Stelzenmüller said Europe is Germany’s home. It is its base of power, influence and leverage.

“The reality is that the Germans are not in the EU what the Americans are in NATO,” she said. “It may be currently the most powerful and with the most successful economy, but we are very conscious that, just 10 years ago, we were the sick man of Europe, and what goes around, comes around.”