We could blame Frederick Muhlenberg. He was a German-American and the first speaker of the House of Representatives. And in 1795 he allegedly cast the deciding vote against making German the second official language of America. The truth is more complicated, but it’s the legend that counts, for it says a lot about German-Americans. One one hand, they have always been the largest immigrant group in America (even today, if you consider Hispanics separately as Cubans, Mexicans, and so forth). On the other, they are probably the least distinct and self-conscious. Schmidts became Smiths, Müllers became Millers. You’d hardly know how close the two cultures have been and should still be.
I also happen to be a German-American, and so is Donald Trump. But America’s president is not interested in history. If he were, he would have a more subtle appreciation for America’s true “special relationship” since 1945. For that is not the Anglo-American but the German-American one. Yet in the past week, Mr Trump has – with his overbearing behavior during a visit to Europe, his verbal attacks on Germany and his shocking snub of international efforts to control climate change – damaged that bond in a way that may take years to repair. Just possibly, he may even have ruptured the transatlantic alliance, as we explain in our long read today.
Such a development would be a tragic historical turn. For after World War II, western Europe was only able to overcome its ancient hatreds, especially between Germany and France, under the aegis of American protection. Americans of that generation intuited that they had an interest in, and responsibility for, preserving a liberal world order. So they magnanimously helped to rebuild their recent enemy West Germany. In doing so they brought along democracy, the rule of law, and everything from Jazz to Jeans and Elvis.
For that, many West Germans admired and even loved America. Still today I keep hearing stories from elderly Germans about the Care Packages they received from America in the hungry years after the war, with chocolates and other pleasures they barely knew. Quite a few West Germans even emigrated to America, as Germans have been doing since Muhlenberg’s time. My parents boarded a ship for New York in 1967. To those Germans America was “cool.” That’s soft power.
Admittedly, other Germans have always looked down on America culturally. Those types especially enjoy explaining to me how “superficial” they find America. For Germans on the anti-capitalist left, “Amis” were and are the root of all evil, and nowadays those on the populist far right agree. Even many Germans in the political middle like to lecture and harangue America, whenever it wages war, for instance, or when it spies. Given their past, many Germans like to flaunt their modern pacifism, forgetting that they can affect such purity only because America has been on stand-by for them.
Americans, meanwhile, have hardly noticed any of these pro- and anti-American currents in German attitudes. That’s because most Americans just aren’t very interested in the world outside America. But many, especially in “red” states, have a general impression that the world has been taking advantage of them. Donald Trump plays with those anxieties and frustrations. Germany, with its huge trade surplus and stingy military spending, makes a great bogeyman for him, if his tweets are any guide.
The tragedy is that he is thus forcing a natural ally to turn away from America. In her youth behind the Iron Curtain, Angela Merkel used to dream of the American way of life. As soon as she could, she visited San Diego and was blown away by the friendliness of the place. As an East German who speaks fluent Russian and has got to know Vladimir Putin far better than she ever wished, she also has no illusions about the alternatives to American leadership.
And yet she has reluctantly come to the conclusion that Germany and Europe, like teenagers who turn eighteen, must now find their own way in the world, not against but without America. That is the subtext of her characteristically elliptical comments in a Bavarian beer tent this week. Nobody knows the consequences if Germany and America were to separate. But only our common enemies would have cause to celebrate.