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.