How Germany became America's conscience, and why we should listen

Chancellor Angela Merkel declared last year and again after the recent July NATO summit that Europe can no longer rely on the United States conducting itself in the future as a force for order.

Angela Merkel gestures during a cabinet meeting in Berlin (photo credit: HANNIBAL HANSCHKE/REUTERS)
Angela Merkel gestures during a cabinet meeting in Berlin
The past two years have seen a vast shift in the relationship between the United States and Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel marked that turn when she declared last year after the G-7 summit and again after the recent July NATO summit that Europe can no longer rely on the United States conducting itself in the future as a force for order.
But the change in attitude has not been unidirectional; Americans opposing US President Donald Trump increasingly view Germany as precisely the force for order – grounded in the upholding and respecting of human dignity and human rights – that Germany believed it had found in the US during the postwar period, but now seeks in vain. Such a turn may appear counterintuitive given Germany’s Nazi past, and yet it is precisely this past that has bequeathed to many Germans insight into the precariousness of human decency.
These views are not uniform within Germany, as shown by the current rise in right-wing populism, racism and antisemitism, yet even as it battles this incursion into its own liberal politics, Germany has become our voice of conscience.
While the US’s allies around the world see Trump’s ambivalence toward NATO, withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and upsetting of trade norms as a threat, Germans have perceived Trump’s election as something more personal, a seismic tremor that they associate with their own past. Germans, drawing from their experiences with authoritarian and racist regimes, have offered urgent advice to the United States without denying the self-rebuke of the original lesson.
For example, when Trump released his first order banning citizens of a variety of majority-Muslim countries from entering the US just after his inauguration, protesters in Berlin held signs that explicitly related America’s present to Germany’s past, signs such as “Dear Mr. Trump, You can trust a German on this… fascism is a bad idea,” “No more walls,” and, less politely, alluding to Martin Niemöller’s post-war poem about Germany complicity in the Holocaust, “First they came for the Muslims, and we said, not now, motherf***er, not ever.”
Rather remarkably, however, Trump’s election has not ushered in a broad anti-American backlash in Germany. Germans have instead educated themselves in our separation of powers and hoped, often too optimistically, that our legislative or judicial institutions might backstop the erosion of rights. The German news covers American protests and lawsuits as closely as the activities of Congress and the White House.
Germany, after all, anchors its identity in the notion of a “Rechtsstaat,” a term often thoroughly mistranslated as a “nation of law,” when it actually means “a state based on rights.” Given a past in which democratic elections led to fascism, the German constitution enshrines the rights and dignity of each at the guiding center of their democracy, a value prized above the popular vote.
A portion of America, meanwhile, appears to be listening. Germany is in the news more than at any time since the events surrounding reunification in 1989. While the troubling rise of antisemitism deservedly receives plenty of coverage, it is handled with far more nuance than it would have been just three years ago; it shares room with stories of Germany’s hot-andcold reaction to migration, and analysis of its domestic and international political struggles, while according Germany first-place status as the barometer of our allies’ reaction to the US’s unprecedented international and national policies under Trump.
One might seek reasons for Germany’s stalwart allegiance to the idea of Europe or to the European Union, or in its dramatic policies and recent policy-shifts regarding migration, which seem to reflect on American concerns, but these facts are not independent from Germany’s relationship to its past. Indeed, it is not only from the German side, but also from the American, that Germany has come to represent a voice of conscience.
The German government is itself fragile, engulfed by disagreements over migration policy that have estranged the Christian Democratic Union, which under Merkel has seen the welcoming of refugees as a national calling, from the more conservative Bavarian-based Christian Social Union, often regarded in the past as its sister party. The result is increasing tension in the role of the CDU as broker between the CSU and its other coalition partner, the left-leaning Social Democratic Party. In the case of a broken coalition, fears that the ultra-rightwing Alternative Party of Germany will increase their power appear well-founded.
In this context, Merkel’s reaction to Trump’s policies constitutes a plea to her own people not only to continue to uphold the values that allowed the country to build a stable democracy and stand at the center of a more peaceful Europe over the past 70 years, but to embrace their role as a model of these values for Europe and US.
The writer is professor and chair of Germanic Languages and Literature at Duke University.