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While many in the West are turning to Angela Merkel’s Germany for leadership in the face of Trump’s America, the chancellor is more a pragmatic politician than a visionary. By Hamish McDonald.

Merkel’s pragmatism may not deliver West from downslide

In Berlin, the past can’t be another country, however much some may wish it so. All around are relics of the grim 12 years of Hitler’s Reich, the turmoil that led to it, and the distortions that followed – not hidden but displayed like an old tattoo.

Voices across the Western world now proclaim Germany as a pillar of a liberal and open world order – scarcely thinkable a generation ago, but now forced by United States president Donald Trump’s abdication of American leadership – so some will wonder still if the beast is truly tamed.

A tour of the monuments of Berlin shows how far the Germans have come.

At the bathing beach on the Wannsee, a big lake, young Berliners stretch out to toast themselves pink in the early summer sun, an older crowd of Freikörperkultur nudists behind a wooden screen. Beyond the yachts, on the far shore a stone mansion sits sombrely in a forest clearing. There on January 20, 1942, SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich convened a high-level conference of officials to co-ordinate the final solution. The building is now a museum to that meeting.

Those who cycle or stroll eastwards through the shady trees and meadows of the city’s central Tiergarten reach the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the field of grey-painted concrete blocks laid out in 2005, not far from the chancellery and bunker where Hitler ruled and met his downfall. What other government would put a monument to its country’s greatest shame so conspicuously at the heart of its capital?

Smaller markers include: memorials in the Tiergarten, to the Romani and to homosexuals also sent to the death camps; a memorial by the Landwehr Canal on the site where anti-Bolshevik militia executed Spartacist leader Rosa Luxemburg in 1919 and dumped her body in the water; around the corner from Bertolt Brecht’s theatre, a wartime air-raid shelter cum flak tower where the playwright’s East German patrons kept political prisoners (and sometimes stored tropical fruit, citizens sniffing the air vents to remember the flavour of bananas).

Confronting all this terrible truth didn’t happen all at once. Across the road from the Berlin Opera in Charlottenburg, there’s a pillar. Eight days ago people gathered to hear speeches and a cellist’s dirge to mark an incident 50 years ago that ended up pushing historical truth far forward.

While the rest of the Western world was playing the newly released Sgt. Pepper’s album, West Berlin’s students gathered to protest against the Shah of Iran, being hosted at the opera by city leaders. Undercover members of the Shah’s secret police, the Savak, attacked the students, starting skirmishes.

Leading the heavy police contingent was Erich Duensing who, like many senior officials, had started his career under the Nazis. He told his men how to deal with the “communist” students. “You apply the liverwurst principle,” he said. “You pierce into the middle, then press at both sides.”

Cornered in a nearby yard, 26-year-old student Benno Ohnesorg was being beaten by police. Into the circle of flailing fists and clubs stepped a plain-clothes police security branch officer, Karl-Heinz Kurras, who shot Ohnesorg in the head. Kurras was acquitted twice of negligent killing and went on to head West Berlin’s criminal police. After the Berlin Wall fell, he was revealed to have been an informer for East Germany’s Stasi since 1955.

Planned or opportunistically, the East Germans made the most of the police killing, allowing Ohnesorg’s funeral cortege to proceed down the road corridor to West Germany. Enraged German students were at the core of violent anti-establishment protests that swept Europe into 1968. In Germany itself, the students forced a reappraisal of personal responsibility. “Ask your father what he did in the war,” they said.

So after this near-century of transition, we have hopes pinned on Germany amid the dismay of America’s allies at Trump’s retreat from liberal values, open trade, collective defence and climate change action. This had started even before Trump’s offence-making European tour last month and his June 1 decision to pull the US from the Paris climate accord. “The German chancellor isn’t just the leader of Europe,” one British writer declared in February about Angela Merkel. “She is now the de-facto leader of the free world.”

But those who pin this on Merkel will find a hesitant leader, in charge of a hesitant country.

She appears headed for a fourth four-year term as chancellor after elections on September 24, putting her up with her centre-right Christian Democratic Union predecessors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl in political longevity. She has impressive brainpower – a doctorate in quantum chemistry – but Merkel is a tactician more than a strategist. She rides with public sentiment and is an indifferent public persuader.

Her famous decision, after Japan’s Fukushima disaster, to shut down Germany’s nuclear power stations, probably the world’s best-run and safest, was popular but has left her party’s business supporters coping with high power costs from renewables and her Bavarian coalition partners resentful at unsightly cables bringing power down from North Sea wind farms.

Her government’s decision in September 2015 to allow what became a million Middle Eastern refugees into Germany was actually a non-decision, as German journalist Robin Alexander has detailed in his recent book Die Getriebenen (The Driven Ones). Merkel and her ministers passed the buck around on a plan to close the border until they found themselves getting acclaim for their humanity and let them come.

That Willkommenskultur evaporated after North African men molested German women at Cologne Station the following New Year’s Eve. Merkel then signed a deal with Turkey in March 2016 to stem the refugee outflow. The unplanned fallout from her gesture was the Brexit vote, removing the European Union’s second-biggest economy and second nuclear power, and a boost to the far-right in Poland, Hungary and Germany itself, not to mention Trump’s campaign. In Germany, sales have boomed for books such as Thilo Sarrazin’s Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany is doing away with itself) that see German identity disappearing as a result of a low domestic birth rate and high immigration of Turks and Arabs who allegedly refuse to integrate.

Although the anti-Islam and far-right political party Alternative für Deutschland’s support has dropped from the 15 per cent level reached a year ago, which then put it into 13 of the 16 state parliaments, its vote is likely to pass 5 per cent and allow it into the federal Bundestag for the first time in September.

The far-right tide also peaked this year in Holland and France below the power threshold. But far from moving out front to make Berlin the Welthauptstadt Germania (“World Capital Germania”) envisioned by Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, Merkel is now binding herself to a duumvirate with the newly elected French president, Emmanuel Macron.

Macron is reciprocating, appointing German speakers as prime minister, defence minister and other key posts. His first official visit was to Berlin, on his first full day in office. Their perceived mission is to shore up the EU and the common currency, amid high unemployment and resentment by both givers and receivers of the bailouts for Greece.

The biggest worry is Italy’s banking crisis and refugee influx, with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s agents helping to stir trouble. An Italian exit would achieve Moscow’s goal of a divided Western Europe. Better-off Germans are meanwhile pouring money into real estate, not only because of low interest rates but also as a hedge against abandonment of the euro – the adoption of which nearly everyone now admits, at least in private, was a huge mistake.

Merkel also remains an “Atlanticist”, set on waiting out Trump. “We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands,” she said after the NATO and G7 meetings, then quickly added: “Of course in friendship with the United States of America, in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbours wherever that is possible also with other countries, even with Russia.”

In recent years, she has extended German military power. In addition to the Afghanistan role she inherited, she’s sent an anti-missile battery to Turkey, trainers for the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq, and a battalion to Mali. In January, 1000 troops and Leopard tanks went to Lithuania, and Luftwaffe fighter jets to Estonia.

But these operations are all in alliances with the US and NATO. Merkel is expanding the armed forces by 5000 personnel to 198,000, but at 1.2 per cent of gross domestic product defence spending is still far below the 2 per cent level Trump has set as the “dues” for NATO membership. Despite Putin, the German population still has its post-1945 misgivings about a strong national military.

The author Robin Alexander summed up a split self-perception in Germany about Merkel and the internationalism of her refugee policy.

“Half of the country is saying Angela Merkel is a saint,” he told the Exberliner website recently. “The Spiegel cover was Mother Angela: our chancellor is a saint, and we Germans, we are saints too. Look at the evil French and what they are doing with the Calais Jungle, look at the evil Spanish and [Hungarian prime minister Viktor] Orbán, that devil. We’re saints, we learnt our lesson from history, etc. And the other half is saying, she is an irresponsible person, she has lost her mind, she wants to replace our society with Muslim law … Nonsense. She’s neither a saint nor a witch. She acted like a politician.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 10, 2017 as "Guardian Angela". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.