A Millennial Considers the New German Problem After 30 Years of Peace
Growing up, I liked listening to Freundeskreis, a German hip-hop reggae band. One of their songs asserts “history is something that was a long time ago or always happens without you.” It was the late 1990s, I was sitting in my bedroom in West German suburbia — and I distinctly remember thinking how exactly right this felt. Here we were, all historical ideological battles fought, and nothing was ever happening. Calm and cozy. A bit boring, really.
It is easy to look back and laugh at my misplaced teenage angst of missing out. History certainly did not end, and I would like to tell my younger self that the whole “living in interesting times” thing isn’t what it is made out to be. But now that my generation is getting into positions of power in German foreign policy, it is worth reflecting on how our upbringing has shaped our thinking.
Thomas Bagger, German diplomat and advisor to the federal president, once noted, “The end of history was an American idea, but it was a German reality.” [Ed. note: Bagger claims it was Bulgarian author Ivan Krastev who came up with this phrase, although Krastev credits Bagger.] To which I would add: “…and a millennial problem.” Because Bagger is right: The “end of history” was, until recently, German reality — both in the ideological sense in which the concept’s father, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, meant it and in the simplified sense that “very little happens.” This creates a special challenge for German millennials — those of us who grew up during this time. Namely, I believe that German millennials have a hard time adjusting to the world we are living in now. We struggle to think in terms of interests, we struggle with the concept of geopolitical power, and we struggle with military power being an element of geopolitical power. This is concerning given that a lot is riding on Germany as an actor in the international system.
A German Challenge
We are entering a period of geopolitical competition and instability. In this context, many look to Germany. Berlin is supposed to help defend the liberal world order. It has to hold the European Union together and help it navigate between a rising China and a declining United States. The largest and economically strongest European country, whose economic and social wellbeing depends on international trade and stability, has its work cut out.
These are challenging times, but it is not the first time a country has had to navigate a changing international landscape. There is, in fact, a method for addressing such challenges: define your interests and prioritize them, assess your abilities, and work out how to make sure resources are sufficient to achieve goals. Find ways to improve capabilities through alliances, changes in funding priorities, and more. Formulate a strategy to achieve your goals with those capabilities. While doing this, adopt the same process to assess opponents. What are their interests? What do they want to do? What are they able to do? What might they achieve?
It’s not quite math — there are uncertainties, imperfect information, and the human element. And certainly, not every policy decision from Westbindung (Germany’s post-1949 self-binding to the West) to the “Global War on Terror” was taken solely based on this method. But it should be the starting point of every foreign policy decision. Such strategic thinking helps guide the foreign policy thought process.
Unfortunately, strategic thinking is something that does not come naturally to younger German foreign policymakers. In fact, it is completely alien to us. For three decades, we have been cocooned away from the harsh world of power politics. The exceptional world that we grew up in was our normal. The ideas that developed out of 1989 were our convictions. Now that geopolitics, and specifically geopolitical power politics, is back, we are lost.
I experienced this many times, but it took me a while to realize that German millennials, the oldest of whom were born in the early 1980s, think about foreign policy in a peculiar way. The longer I lived outside Germany, and specifically in countries where geopolitical and strategic thinking is more common, the more I found myself baffled by some of the discussions my peers in Germany had. This was perfectly summarized by a fellow German millennial: “Geopolitics just sounds so much like troop movement!” he declared. This epitomizes in one statement several beliefs and convictions I encounter often among my German peers: a skepticism of geopolitics, an inability to think in terms of power and interest, and a rejection of the military as an instrument of politics. German millennials think of international politics in terms of values and emotions rather than interests. Of course, values and interests are not mutually exclusive and are often linked in a way that makes them difficult to disentangle. But, as Germans, we have learned to reject the interests part of the equation completely. My generation has developed an almost romantic idea of international relations. We see alliances as friendships and disagreements in terms of value differences. And German millennials struggle with the military — specifically the idea that the military is an element of geopolitical power. This is a phenomenon already prevalent among the German population (and strong among the Green Party, which could come into power in Germany after the September elections). But it is even more pronounced among millennials, as a recent poll shows: A higher number of millennials support reducing the German defense budget than any other age group, while support for a budgetary increase is lower among millennials than among all other groups.
We’ve intellectually — and practically — disarmed. As we never had to train our strategic muscle, it atrophied. Power politics is at odds with our understanding of how the world works. We don’t have our brains wired in this way, don’t speak the language — and are thus utterly unprepared to face opponents with different interests who are increasingly vocal in questioning what we thought was, ultimately, the only system. How did this happen?
Check Your History
We are all shaped by the world we grew up in. But while socioeconomically, this is well understood, few of us have thought about what this means (geo)politically. We are taught to check our privilege, but how many people check their history?
Generations are often defined by important events — living through the same moments and experiencing the same upheaval at the same age binds a generation together, gives it a theme, and creates points of reference. Of course, important events are never experienced by just one generation, as at any one time, people belonging to somewhere between three to five generations are alive. But reference points for what normality is supposed to look like are set in the first few decades of life.
“Millennials” are said to be born between the early to mid-1980s and the late 1990s. We owe our name to the turn of the millennium, which we witnessed at a young age. But while New Year’s Eve 1999/2000 was a fun moment, it wasn’t foundational. In fact, I would argue that my German generation did not experience a foundational, uniting event that binds us together.
Rather — and strangely — the most important moment for my generation in terms of impact is an event few of us can even remember because we were either not born yet or not old enough to understand what was happening: 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall. It set in motion the end of the Soviet Union and led to the collapse of the whole geopolitical stage, paving the way to global unipolarity. For Germans, 1989 was the last time they were directly exposed to geopolitics for a long time. Now that my age cohort is getting into positions of power, it is high time for us to check our history and address our blind spots.
Here, I must acknowledge a blind spot of my own: I speak of German millennials, but I suspect East German millennials see things differently. Contrary to the West German experiences that I describe below — stability and the deeply felt conviction that their system was the final form — East Germans of my generation were born into a world that was in a process of disintegration. The German Democratic Republic was dissolved in 1990, which led to a complete restructuring of East Germany’s economy and the introduction of a new currency. East Germany was hit by an economic crisis, and many firms collapsed and unemployment rose high. The political party — and ideology — which had dominated for decades disappeared. Growing up during this process surely came with its own lessons to which I, however, cannot testify. Hence, although I believe that my experiences and the lessons drawn from them are, to some extent, generalizable for the Western world and other Europeans, they likely best describe the demographic of the West German, Europhile educated middle class. However, while this may not be representative of the totality of my generation, for better or worse, it describes a lot of millennials currently rising through the ranks of political leadership.
There are two reasons why German millennials are unprepared for a world that puts a premium on strategic thinking. First, we grew up in a period of exceptional geopolitical stability. This is what the Freundeskreis song expresses: We never felt as if we were a part of the ever-churning history, but rather, we had the impression of being outside of it, born after the fact. Trying to understand politics seemed as important as aiming to learn about geography, geometry, or geology — all reasonably interesting fields but without an immediate impact on our lives.
Second, nowhere in the world was the idea of the “end of history” internalized as much as in Germany. Germans who experienced 1989 enthusiastically embraced the idea that ideological competition was a thing of the past — and German millennials simply internalized this as the way the world worked. The solution to political discussion had been found by those who came before us, and the best system was in place — we might straighten out some edges on the social front but otherwise could move on to other things.
A Quiet Normal
Any German too young to have a recollection of the end of the Soviet Union and German reunification has grown up in a world of exceptional stability and peace. Militarily, we were shielded by the United States and NATO, and so, we never had to think about the military. This was, of course, great for my generation. But it has had an important impact on how we see the world and what we consider normal.
Germany has often been at the center of European and world politics. German history has been a rollercoaster of changing frontiers and political forms of organization, ideological fights, wars, and conflict. But following 1989 and German reunification in 1990, things calmed down considerably. For Germany, even the simplified understanding of Francis Fukuyama’s famous concept of the “end of history” applied: Since 1989, very little has happened in Germany.
Of course, the world has not stood completely still during the last 30 years. But from 9/11 to the Global War on Terror to the financial crisis, these events did not happen to us. The Bundeswehr went into a war in Afghanistan, but this did not impact society at home. The 2003 Iraq invasion made some millennials demonstrate against American imperialism, but otherwise, it was far removed from our reality. The conflicts of the world seemed a testimony of the fact that others had not yet understood that ideological fights were futile. The financial crisis perhaps came closest to being a defining event for German millennials, but since Germany managed to get through it so well, it only reinforced the sense that Germany had a better system than most.
Moreover, on the domestic level, Germany experienced an extraordinary continuity in the last 30 years. I am 34 years old, and during my lifetime, I have known three German chancellors. I even remember being somewhat baffled that Helmut Kohl’s chancellorship could end: He had come to power five years before I was born and was succeeded by Gerhard Schröder when I was 11. Schröder was in power for seven years. And for the last 16 years, there has been Angela Merkel. To compare, an American of the same age has lived through seven presidencies. A Brit of my age has known seven prime ministers and an Italian nearly 20. Even more strikingly, during all but seven years of my life, Germany was governed by a government led by the same party, the union of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria.
This international and domestic political continuity meant that politics did not provide us with a defining moment. There were no 1968 protests we could rally around, no 1989 celebrating on a fallen wall, no war that left us traumatized (thank God!), and no revolution, political revolt, or geopolitical sea-change. The best my generation can come up with as defining moment is the 2006 World Cup which Germany hosted. The first time that geopolitics visited us at home was in 2015 in the form of the refugee crisis. But in 2015, even the youngest millennials were 20 years old, and most were 25 years or older. This was too late (and also not impactful enough) to fundamentally shape our outlook on the world. The same is true for the current pandemic.
More importantly, we internalized continuity as the norm. On an emotional level, we never really understood that things can change and rather quickly. In 1989, suddenly the wall was gone, and a whole regime, a form of life, just disappeared. The geopolitical ground shook. This must have been exciting and disorienting. Whoever lived through it learned that stability is not guaranteed. My generation did not experience such a political earthquake. The ground is stable now, so it must always be stable — how could it be otherwise? And while we may know on an intellectual level that stability is not guaranteed, it’s not the same. It is one thing to be taught that earthquakes exist and another to experience one. I worry that we don’t have the ability to imagine an earthquake, much less prepare for one.
Of course, the saying “may you live in interesting times” is thought to be a curse, not a blessing. Eventful times are interesting only in hindsight while living through them is disquieting, disempowering, and often dangerous. Hence: I am not complaining. But living in quiet times brings its own challenges — especially when circumstances change.
You Merely Adopted the End of History. We Were Born in It, Molded by It
Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” idea is often misunderstood in a simplistic sense that “there will no longer be important events.” But although even that simplistic interpretation largely came true for Germany, Fukuyama was talking about ideas, not events. He wrote, “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” He argued that Western liberal democracy had become the only game in town. Germans, it turned out, were more than ready to believe him.
Three years ago, Thomas Bagger wrote an excellent essay on the impact of 1989 on the German mindset. He showed that Germans embraced the end of history idea more fervently than anyone because “toward the end of a century marked by having been on the wrong side of history twice, Germany finally found itself on the right side.”
The world, so explained by proponents of the end of history, would converge towards a system that discounted (military) power and favored legal proceedings. Countries would deal with transnational challenges in international organizations. Nationalism and ideologies would lose their appeal. After the breaking of the floodgates that 1989 represented, these developments seemed inevitable. All this appealed greatly to Germans. The primacy of law over power was a great concept for a country that felt it could not be trusted with power. The liberal idea fit Germany perfectly, including the loss of importance of personality in politics. The arc of history was bending towards liberal democracy, so individuals were much less important, needed not as “Führer” — a term which rightly had lost all legitimacy in German — but as administrators overseeing an inevitable development. This may explain why German politicians tend to be so, well, boring. One of the most exciting news items about Angela Merkel is how she cooks her potato soup. Being a boring politician in Germany isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.
Bagger concludes that this experience has made it difficult for Germans of his generation, which adopted the end of history enthusiastically, to adjust to the changed geopolitical situation today. That is true, but he doesn’t consider that there is one generation impacted even more by this than those who experienced it: the generation that didn’t live through the moment but for which the ensuing convictions became the norm. People may deride the naivete of post-1989 optimism today. But how can we abandon it if we have never known anything else? You merely adopted the spirit of 1989. We were born in and molded by it.
For a long time, our convictions seemed to be supported by reality: We were doing well and more and more people wanted to be like us. Throughout the 1990s — our childhood — in Western Europe, there was a feeling of progress. The European Union grew at a rapid pace as more and more countries wanted to join. The expectation of a grand convergence as well as the thought that the whole world would move towards democracy and market economy and that over time, everyone would become like us — these ideas became part of our DNA. Everyone, we believed, would eventually follow the example of Germany. Importantly, to us, this wasn’t an ideology — we had moved on from ideologies and -isms and had arrived at the way things should be. Ideological struggles were something for the history books, and we looked with mild pity at those caught in such struggles in the past. We had moved to a higher plane of existence.
If you, reading this, are a Greek or a Pole, chances are that you will find this description of German thinking not just arrogant but also incorrect. Has Germany over the last years not, in fact, very much pursued policies that were in its interest and not nearly as enlightened as my description claims? What about Nordstream II? What about austerity politics? And hasn’t Germany benefited more than almost anyone from the European integration and the Euro? Isn’t all this talk about values and friendship a smokescreen for good old interest politics?
Personally, I don’t think it is. The European Union is good for Germany, but it would not have gotten where it is now if Germany had not been willing to make sacrifices that more self-interested countries in its position would not have made, most notably giving up the Deutsche Mark for the Euro. Nordstream II, in my view, is more than anything an example of Germans not thinking strategically but believing that we have moved beyond power politics to a world where economics is most important and trade brings everyone together. But even if you disagree, for German millennials, what matters is the narrative. Millennials are only coming into power now. We have grown up on the narrative that power politics is bad. And it is on the narrative that we Germans have understood this better than anybody else.
A Dangerous Moral Superiority
If this sounds arrogant to you, you are not alone. There is a feeling of moral superiority that comes with the rejection of power politics, of realpolitik, and of national interests. We are so good at coming to terms with history and so mature not to be so nationalist, not to be seduced by demagogues. Yes, we screwed up massively in the past, but no one has learned the universal truth lessons better than us. Geopolitics, interest politics, and realpolitik, therefore, are things left to other less enlightened ones.
Not only is this sense of moral superiority rather unattractive and may alienate allies that do not like to be treated as unenlightened cousins, it is also dangerous because it is uncritical. We believed in the adages of 1989 without realizing that they were only one reading of the future. In our minds, convergence was inevitable — China’s mittelschicht would ask for democracy once empowered enough and Russia’s nationalism would subside. It is partly because of these beliefs that we were so utterly unprepared for the changed world that has come to light more recently. Not only could we not understand what was happening, but we also have had trouble defending our system against attacks from outside and inside. If you just know that a united Europe is the answer, that international cooperation is needed, that rule of law is better than power politics, and that all of this is just right, it can be surprisingly difficult to explain this to someone who questions that premise.
The moral superiority also ignores that while we may have moved beyond such — in our view — obsolete ideas like military power, someone else — NATO and the United States — were holding a military umbrella over us, which allowed us the luxury of discounting military might.
And the end of history took our future. After all, we knew where the process would end. Politics became boring — an act of administration rather than ideological competition. This may also help explain why all German parties inevitably claim the political “middle.” There seems to be no need for thinking strategically about the future.
I am not complaining that my generation had a great childhood — stable, secure, and full of convictions that the future would be even better. But we grew up in an exceptional world that we considered normal. Now that international politics is changing, we are lost.
I could, of course, be wrong. Someone once called me “the oldest young person” they knew, which I took as a compliment though it probably wasn’t meant as one. So maybe I am the one not seeing the light and not understanding that the world has indeed changed. But it worries me when, in wargames (which in Germany are called simulations) with other millennials, no one’s intuitive approach is to assess a situation by looking at one’s own and others’ interests and capabilities and to formulate a strategy that matches both. It worries me that we seem this inept at strategic thinking in a moment when the international system is fragile and alternatives are being raised by actors who don’t have our best interests at heart. I have doubts that we can count on the next generation of German foreign policy thinkers and makers. We have a generation of Germans that have taken things for granted and struggle to answer challenges. Secretly, my generation hopes that all will go back to our normal soon and that we can move on from this unenlightened power politics to address real challenges like climate change. But the world is unlikely to do us that favor. To be up to this challenge, my generation will need to train its strategic muscle — and fast.
Ulrike Franke, Ph.D., is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and a German millennial. She works on German and European foreign and defense policy, especially the impact of new technologies on warfare. She hosts the Sicherheitshalber podcast, a German language podcast on security and defense policy.