Germany's foreign policy of reconciliation: from enmity to amity.

W.E. Patterson

Research output: Contribution to journalBook/Film/Article reviewpeer-review


In a celebrated phrase, the new unified Germany emerged ‘surrounded by friends’ in 1990.
This happy situation represented the culmination of 40 years of diplomacy by successive
West German governments. This policy had twin tracks. One involved being a Musterknabe
(model pupil) in the European Community. Germany’s interest was in cooperation rather
than unilateral leadership, which was judged to be unacceptable to other member states.
Alongside this policy of reflexive multilateralism, Germany pursued a policy of recon-
ciliation. Initially, the policy of reconciliation was centred on France and Israel but later
included Poland and Czechoslovakia.
In this magisterial volume, Lily Gardner Feldman traces the development of German
reconciliation policy in relation to France, Israel, Poland and Czechoslovakia. It is of course
an irony that the book appeared at a time when the exigencies of the eurozone crisis had
transformed the perception of Germany from ‘gentle giant’ (see Simon Bulmer and William
E. Paterson, ‘Germany in the European Union: gentle giant or emergent leader?’, International
Affairs 72:1, 1996) to unfeeling bully in the southern debtor states. This is not a view shared by the central or northern European states, which view Germany as a respected but now more
hard-edged member state.Feldman casts her net very wide in her explanation and draws some important comparative explanations. She rightly assigns central importance to the role of history, leadership, non-governmental institutions and governmental institutions, although these factors play out very differently in different contexts. One of the great strengths of this impressive
study is the way in which the four-cases approach allows the author to track subtle changes
over the decades.
In seeking to explain Germany’s reconciliation policy, two approaches have usually been
favoured. One approach sees it as the external face of coming to terms with the past (Vergan-
genheitsbewältigung). This does not quite work in terms of timing. Coming to terms with
the past occurred somewhat later than the beginnings of reconciliation with France and
Israel. In the first decade of West Germany’s existence, popular opinion was concerned with
German suffering in the exodus from traditional German settlements in Eastern Europe.
Coming to terms with the past really gained traction after the Frankfurt Trials of 1963-7.
The change of government in1969 led to a ‘second founding of the Federal Republic’; this
more morally based policy was a key element in reconciliation with Poland, which was
preceded by Willy Brandt’s famous Kniefall in December 1970 at the site of the Warsaw
Ghetto Uprising memorial in a dramatic acknowledgement of the scale of German crimes.
It is for obvious reasons a key element in German reconciliation with Israel.
The other explanation places it in a tradition of rational statecraft. It is important to
recall how weak and circumscribed the infant Federal Republic was. Its external trade
was governed by a dense network of discriminatory provisions symbolized by the Inter-
national Authority of the Ruhr. Removal of these obstacles was an existential necessity
for the Federal Republic, which was heavily dependent on exports. France held the keys to the lifting of the restrictions. There was no alternative to reconciliation with France and partnership at a European level if France were to agree to the lifting of the trade restric-tions. More widely West Germany was vitally dependent on the United States and this dependence necessarily entailed reconciliation with Israel. It has remained an important element in German foreign policy. The emphasis that Chancellor Merkel gives to recon-ciliation with Israel is very striking. Reconciliation with Poland and Czechoslovakia was a precondition of unification.A policy of reconciliation, so well covered in this volume, was conceived in a weak, divided semi-sovereign Germany. Germany is now by common consent the leading power in the European Union, perhaps even ‘the reluctant hegemon’ in the eurozone (see Paterson, ‘The reluctant hegemon? Germany moves centre stage in the European Union’, Journal of Common Market Studies , ). Historical memories which underpinned reconciliation are now fading. This raises the question as to its continued significance. Clearly, in the Israeli case, it will always remain central. It remains important in the Franco-German case and looks like receiving some added impetus under the new coalition government but the defining element in the relationship is the diering strengths of the two economies. Poland is now a rising self-confident power in the European Union and the current Polish govern-ment is less concerned with working through the past than with engaging fully in the European Union. Both Poland and the Czech Republic are massive recipients of German investment.The role of various non-governmental institutions, especially the churches, played a really important role in changing opinion within Germany. With a very large number of expellees, the Federal Republic might have been subject to the revanchist strains that plagued the Weimar Republic; the expellee organizations were an important ‘veto player’ on West German foreign policy until the Ostpolitik years. In helping to bed down reconcili-ation among the population at large, these non-governmental institutions performed an enormously valuable service and helped ensure that in contrast to some other states, the nationalist right is vanishingly small in the Federal Republic. The valuable role played by reconciliation in Germany is in stark relief to the Japanese experience, where its absence, also analysed by Feldman, has left a worrying legacy.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)473-474
Number of pages2
JournalInternational Affairs
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2014

Bibliographical note

Special Issue: The Great War


Dive into the research topics of 'Germany's foreign policy of reconciliation: from enmity to amity.'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this