The 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe is an occasion to reflect on the defeat and liberation of Germany and the return of Germany to the community of democratic states. It is also a landmark date in the contemporary German-American relationship, and an occasion to consider what opportunities the United States provided to a defeated and disgraced Germany, the political and historical distances we have traveled, and the possibilities and partnerships of the future. The creation of the contemporary German state is fundamentally tied to American policy, from denazification (imperfect as it was) to the support of reunification. Germany has been included in the community of leading states and has become a partner in the European project. For that, and despite our current and past disagreements with the United States, Germans should cherish our relationship with the United States of America.
The 8th of May is, from the German perspective, a day of liberation from National Socialism. In the period following Hitler’s suicide on April 30, many Germans yearned for an end to the horrors of both the dictatorship and the war, but it remained a time of tremendous violence and dangerous insecurity – a time of angst. What remained of the Nazi government under Karl Dönitz in Flensburg was firm in the conviction that they could lead Germany to its destiny without a return to democracy. The British finally brought a stop to the last Nazi government on May 23. The remaining and returning German democrats – especially the Social Democrats – wanted a new beginning. They’d had ample time in exile, prison, or the Nazi concentration camps to think about the challenges and possibilities of a new democratic Germany. It was clear to them that the rubble of war and the brutal realities of 1945 would make the road to democracy a very difficult one to travel. Furthermore, 12 years of dictatorship had destroyed Germany civil society.
Yet these democrats did not despair. The Social Democrats in particular were committed to building a new Germany upon the foundations of parliamentary democracy, creating a state which would live responsibly and in peace with its neighbors. But German democrats needed the opportunity to build a Germany according to a democratic and pluralist vision. The western allies, through American leadership, gave Germans that opportunity. Although the calamitous war of German instigation had wreaked havoc across Europe and North Africa, committed genocidal crimes, destroyed the German state, and cost the lives of millions of civilians and combatants alike, America gave Germans another chance at creating, enacting and living in a democratic state.
While the postwar renaissance of German democracy began in the western occupation zones and the western sectors of a divided Berlin, the intention was to include Germans in the German Democratic Republic in this story, despite their initial exclusion from the Federal Republic of Germany. American prompts to German civil society to create a democratic Germany, bound to and within a western order, was a central component of the birth of the Federal Republic and the creation of a post-war liberal international order. This wider international system of alliances and organizations, in which the Federal Republic could be a member and participant, provided a basis for peace and (West) German foreign politics for the duration of the Cold War. And as the historical tides turned in the late 1980s, America enthusiastically facilitated and lobbied for the project of reunification begun in Central Europe and East Germany. They celebrated with us that “what belongs together will grow together,” as Willy Brandt once said.
This historical trajectory seems in hindsight to be a foregone conclusion, but none of it was guaranteed. Different political choices with respect to Germany could have been made by America, Britain, France, and even the Soviet Union, through the same justification that it was in the national and security interests of each country. Those choices could have been deeply punitive to Germany, which would have created a very different post-war Europe without planting the seeds of the European Union.
This is not the place to discuss hypotheticals or counterfactual histories, but rather to recognize the deliberate decisions American leaders made to bring Germany into the community of democratic states. We are quick to remember the humanitarian efforts of the Berlin Airlift, and Presidents John F. Kennedy’s and Ronald Reagan’s soaring oratory in a divided Berlin. Despite their political differences, they both called for a unified, democratic Germany, and were committed to helping this goal be realized. It was not so long ago that a young Barack Obama, just months away from being elected president of the United States, gave a speech in Berlin citing these landmarks of German-American relations as examples of what is possible when former enemies can come together in cooperation and peace to become extraordinary friends and partners.
Re-reading Obama’s July 2008 speech from the perspective of 2020, one is struck by the disjuncture between the optimism of his inspiring and moving rhetoric and the rockier history of German-American relations during the two terms of his presidency. Perhaps some hopes were dashed, and some expectations resulted in disappointment. But the before-and-after comparison of expectations and reality under the Obama administration pales in comparison to the political and emotional consequences of the election of Donald Trump, which ripped open the horizon of what we thought was possible from our American friends.
But whatever our disagreements might be, and while it is easy to be profoundly dismayed in current American leadership, it is worth noting as well that American democracy and leadership is – like any democracy – something that ebbs and flows. It is fluid, not static. It changes from president to president, and sometimes within presidential terms. We should not give up on the United States nor lose sight of the future of the German-American relationship, with its shared challenges and potential for great opportunity and positive change.
This is because the future of Germany in Europe is more intertwined with America than ever. We cannot return to 2008, or to the 1990s. Germany, Europe, and the United States must confront truly global challenges of a magnitude perhaps not seen since the war whose end we reflect upon today. We must be willing and able to be flexible on both sides of the Atlantic in order to successfully avert the dangers of climate change and global pandemics, and to ensure the preservation of a rules-based international order. Transatlantic cooperation must be strengthened, not skeptically sent into a pessimistic twilight. A new president of the United States might very well be elected in six months’ time, and with that election American leadership will change again.
We must be ready to work together when that change comes. We must not allow a friendship to elapse that has endured through thick and thin. And we must remember that this friendship stemmed from American generosity following the conclusion of the war, at a moment when a lack of charity might have seemed justifiable. The 21st century demands a new application of the lessons of German-American friendship and the bold vision of a renewed Transatlantic relationship. How will we reinvigorate this partnership? It will not come from focusing on past injuries, be they rhetorical breaks, flirtations with unilateralism, abandoning security commitments, or temporary abdications of leadership. But reinvigoration will come from renewing our existing commitments, maintaining dialogue, and creating a new partnership that addresses future challenges, not historical ones. The 75th anniversary of May 8th is a day of reflection, with lessons for all of us about democracy, freedom, and multilateralism that should last year-round, year-in and year-out.