Germany’s lesson for China

Andrei Lungu | 5 September 2019

On September 1st, the world commemorated 80 years since Germany’s invasion of Poland, which marked the start of the Second World War. Over the next 5 years, German troops went on fighting all over Europe. The war eventually ended, not with the surrender, but the destruction and partition of Germany. It was the second time in just three decades that Germany tried to install itself as the ruler of Europe. The attempt ended in failure again, this time with the continent in ruins.

Eight decades later, Europe is the world’s most peaceful and prosperous continent, integrated in a tight political and economic union. At its centre sits the undisputed leader of the European Union, Germany. It is the EU’s economic and political driving force, the largest trading partner of almost all EU members, while German companies dominate the European market. On July 16, Ursula von der Leyen, the former German Minister of Defence, was elected President of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch. A German will finally lead Europe.

Chinese leaders are know as keen observers of history, whether in the form of analyses of the rise and fall of great powers, or the lessons of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet, there is no story more important and instructive for them than the one of 20th century Germany. Germany and China share an essential geopolitical feature: both are, unambiguously, the leading power of their region, yet neither is large enough to be able to dominate its region though sheer military strength.

Modern Germany was forged through “blood and iron” under the rule of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. But while force was successful in unifying German-speaking territories, it failed to deliver further victories for Berlin. As Germany grew richer and more powerful at the start of the 20th century, it was no longer content with its position in the hierarchy of European powers and wanted to impose itself as the hegemon of Europe. The result – the First World War – brought untold suffering. Germany lost because it confronted a wide coalition of enemies. It was supposed to be “the war to end war”.

But it wasn’t. Just 20 years later, Germany was at it again, engaging in an even harsher, deadlier and more destructive war. Once again, while Germany was clearly the most powerful European country, it found itself incapable of defeating all its enemies, who banded together to resist the aspiring hegemon. Germany could have defeated any other European power in a head-to-head war, but not all of them. The consequence was the complete defeat and destruction of Germany, which was partitioned by the four winning powers, the ultimate humiliation.

The story could have ended there. But Germany was lucky: its Western occupiers had no interest in keeping the country poor or divided among themselves. Western Germany was accepted back in the community of nations, this time as a liberal democracy. World War II also taught German and European leaders a clear lesson, as they vowed to do anything possible to avoid another cataclysmic war. This is why the European Union was born, first as a simple European Coal and Steel Community, but with the dream to one day create a political union that would make war on the European continent unthinkable. Germany willingly abandoned its militaristic mindset and accepted this new European paradigm.

The past 70 years proved that this was Germany’s wisest decision. The German political elite of the early 20th century would have dreamed to see a German Minister of Defence control a European political body. Blood and iron never managed to turn this dream into reality. It was political compromise, peace and economics that did. Half a century of militarism could not secure Germany’s domination of Europe. It was only when Germany demilitarized and abandoned all nationalist or geopolitical ambitions, that it attain its rightful place in Europe.

Today, Germany is a peaceful, prosperous, democratic, secure and stable country, accepted and acknowledged by European states as the continent’s most powerful and influential country. To achieve this, Germany had to give up its nationalistic ambitions: while the territory of Alsace-Lorraine alternated between French and German control over the century before the founding of the EU, Germany abandoned any claim of ownership; Königsberg, the original capital of Prussia and the home of Immanuel Kant, is now Kaliningrad, but Germany has no desire of taking it back from Russia. The dream of seeing all territories inhabited by German-speaking people under Berlin’s control has long been abandoned, but it doesn’t even matter. Today, any German speaker in the EU could easily move and start a new life in Germany.
Germany had to abandon nationalism and hard power in order to achieve prosperity, influence, respect and even admiration from its old enemies. This is Germany’s lesson for China, as we commemorate 80 years since the beginning of the world’s most destructive war.

Today, China is in a similar position to that of Germany at the dawn of the previous century: a rising great power, with an ever more powerful military and expanding geopolitical demands. While China is the Asia-Pacific’s leading power, if it will decide to walk on the path of hard power, it will find itself challenged by a coalition of countries, such as Japan, Vietnam, Australia, India, or the United States. The German story shows very clearly where this road leads.

But the German story of the past seven decades also offers hope and a roadmap for China, which can end up dominating the Asia-Pacific, accepted as the region’s greatest power, while also becoming a secure and prosperous country. To do this, Chinese leaders need to do what German leaders did after the Second World War: give up nationalistic ambitions and the mindset of hard power, abandon military expansion, compromise with neighbours, assuaging their fears and cooperating to build an Asian economic and political community over the next decades.

Only when Chinese leaders will abandon their propensity to solve political issues through hard power, while embracing compromise, cooperation, free trade and economic liberalism, will China find its place in the Sun. At that point, China will be respected and admired throughout Asia and the world, the Chinese people will enjoy prosperity and friendship across the region, Chinese companies will dominate Asian markets, while Chinese leaders will have the influence to shape the Asia-Pacific. One day, a Chinese might also be elected as the leader of a future Asian Union.

Developments in China and its neighbourhood over the past years risk to transform this dream into a fading illusion. Big ships, fancy rockets, advanced fighter jets and images of glorious victory in battle are exciting, but history is quite clear about where they lead. When a nation invests countless billions in its military, it will inevitably face the pressure to put it to good use. Once the military machine starts running, it doesn’t stop – it is stopped. If this is the path on which China will tread, it might enjoy some temporary victories, but decades from now, future Chinese leaders will look back and realize what a mistake it was. China can have the future it wants and deserves. But only if it learns from Germany.

A shorter version of this article was published in South China Morning Post. You can read the article on the SCMP website.

Photo Credits: The Reichstag building in Berlin, in 2008 (Flickr/Maxpax); The headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels (Flickr/Sébastien Bertrand)


Andrei Lungu​

Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

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