Harold James: History Blinds Europe to a Germany Worth Emulating

Roundup: Historians' Take

Harold James, a professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University, is the author, most recently, of “The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle.” The opinions expressed are his own.

A familiar specter is haunting Europe: How to live with a powerful Germany that seems to act according to its own interests, and whose policies are driven by domestic politics.

Headlines across Europe are stoking old fantasies and fears. Yet, this time, the appropriate answer to that question is surprising, even shocking. The best way to deal with a resurgent Germany is for its partners and neighbors to imitate the institutional features, including monetary and fiscal stability, that have made that country so successful and powerful.

That will require overcoming a long history of troubled relations. The so-called German problem dominated European and world affairs from 1871 -- when the German Empire was proclaimed by Otto von Bismarck in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles -- until 1945, when the Nazi regime was defeated....

The real attraction of the modern German model shouldn’t be interpreted in terms of the occasional flourishes of Bismarckian rhetoric in parliamentary speeches. The appeal of Germany lies instead in its particular model for generating wealth and prosperity in a globalized world economy: the development of dynamic export industries, based on competitive advantage, in a world of technological progress. That is the model that is now attracting Germany’s neighbors but also reformers in southern Europe.

Those German or North and Central European initiatives are ferociously resisted by a plethora of vested interests, in Mediterranean Europe and in France. The German model involves fiscal restraint as an essential condition for private-sector initiative. That template isn’t a vehicle of German power politics in a 19th-century sense, but rather a building stone for economic success.

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