“Europe has to solve the German problem”

In this interview with the German newspaper Wirtschaftswoche, Brendan Simms outlines why a federal European state is necessary.


Historian Brendan Simms challenges Europe to draw lessons from 500 years of European history – and to pressure Berlin into a true political union.

Mr Simms, do you enjoy provoking?

I want to spark a discussion and help build a better and stronger Europe. I am convinced that a consideration of history helps us to draw the right conclusions. But I do not want to provoke. What makes you think that?

You speak of a “German problem” that has overshadowed Europe for centuries. Many Germans will feel offended by this choice of words.

This may seem so at first sight. But it is not meant in that way. First and foremost: I have high respect for Germany, and have lived there for many years. Without German culture, we would be a lot poorer. And also economically and politically, Germany has done a lot for the continent over the past decades. Without Konrad Adenauer or Helmut Kohl, to mention but two, Europe would not have come as far as it has. Unfortunately, the governments in power since Kohl have not been equally visionary. They are lacking in insight and the willingness to plan further into the future – and so the European Union is in one of its worst crises today, not to mention the Euro. Due to the politics of Berlin, but also because of the weakness of European powers such as France and Italy, Europe again stands before a problem that has existed since the 15th century: the “German problem”.

What is the “German problem”?

There are two central questions to this. Firstly: How should the continent treat Germany – the big, populous and economically dominent country in the heart of Europe? How can Germany be contained, how can we prevent it from becoming too strong and from dominating Europe? The “German problem” is simply the natural power of the country, and its internal divisions. Religiously – think of the reformation and the Thirty Years War – and also politically. First divided into Herzogen and Fürstentümer, then after the Second World War into East and West, democracy and communism. Berlin can shake the European balance if it is unstable internally – or too powerful externally. If a powerful Germany is bound by a political framework, there are consequences. This was the case at the beginning of the 20th century – it lead to the First World War, even though this naturally was not the only reason for catastrophe, as the new book by Christopher Clark shows.

And the second aspect?

The second question is, how Germany can today be mobilised for the West, for democratic values and collective security. In pre-modern times it was about the defense of the Holy Roman Empire against Turks or the French. After 1945 the question was how Germany could contribute economically and militarily to the defense against Soviet communism.

What has all of this got to do with today? Germany is neither a military threat, nor does Berlin have to defend democracy against external enemies.

I agree with you. I do not see a military confrontation originating from Germany. Additionally, we have left the question of internal stabilisation of Germany behind. We do not have to worry about this anymore. The country is reunited and one of the most stable democracies in Europe. There is, however, the question of whether Germany is aware of its responsibility in foreign policy. Especially now, as Germany is slowing down sanctions against Russia. For me this question about foreign policy remains: How can one further integrate Germany, and mobilise it for Europe at the same time? This has not been resolved until today – quite the opposite, in fact. Firstly, since the EU and NATO expansions to the East, Germany is surrounded solely by friendly states in its neighbourhood. It does not feel the geopolitical suffering of peripheral states to the East anymore. Secondly, Germany is again threatening to become overly powerful in Europe. The country is the undisputed number one in the EU. What Chancellor Merkel proposes will be done. The best example for this is austerity politics, which was executed against a majority in Europe. It was solely focussed on saving – without simultaneously demanding reforms of the labour market, public finance and the training of young people. Germany is not infallible. We do not need “more Germany”, but “more Europe”.

So without Germany there would not be a crisis in Europe? You can not be serious.

It is a drastic formulation. But if you were to replace “Germany” with “the German problem” in your question, I would agree. Of course other states have made mistakes too: Greece recklessly ammassed debt, Italy is almost traditionally unstable and France is consistently losing its competetiveness. All of this results in an overly powerful Germany. You can argue about what triggered or what is responsible for an overly powerful Germany. The fact is: Germany sets the tone – and Europe is currently making the same mistakes as after 1453.


Constantinople was being sieged by the Ottomans then. The defenders held their stand for two months and waited for help from the West. It was in vain. The Ottoman Empire expanded and annexed Vienna in 1539. Only then did the Holy Roman Empire react and helped defend one of the greatest Central European cities against the Ottomans. I now fear that Europe is making similar mistakes. Russia in annexing Crimea and reaching for Eastern Ukraine. And the European Union? It is hesitant and does not find its means. It takes days for Europe to formulate a common stance. The decision-making is often painfully slow. The Ukrainian crisis clearly shows that Europe finally needs a strong European foreign policy. We should take the history of Britain or the United States as an example.

What can we learn from these examples?

Here too we can learn from history: England and Scotland were rivals for a long time. Then France threatened to extend its power to the British Isles. So England and Scotland united. It was simply about defending common values. It was the fight of parliamentarians against French absolutism. Equally in the United States, formerly divided into small states, the colonies united and channelled their power to survive against foreign forces. In both cases it was successful.

So you are suggesting for Europe to imitate Britain and the United States, to build a political union – and to shift significantly more power to Brussels?

We should transfer the economic and military competences to Brussels that Europe needs to master the Euro- and Putin-crises. Other competences could be returned to the member-states. It is, by the way, often argued that the European Union has brought peace to the continent. This is wrong. It was not the EU, but NATO that did this. But united Europe has achieved a significant improvement of living conditions, especially in Eastern Europe. The developments in the Balkans, Slovenia and Slovakia are very impressive. But the EU core countries have also prospered in the common market. This should not be forgotten. Now it is about defending a common position and common values in a globalised world. This is only possible together. Europe has to follow the British and American path: create a political union, a common foreign policy and a joint army.

You are forgetting the decisive difference between the United States and the European Union. Unlike in the United States – and in Britain – Europe has great differences in itself. We have different languages, different histories and different interests.

On the contrary: England and Scotland only united because they did not get along for such a long time. In 1787, the United States were also not as united as you say. Proponents of slavery were opposed to freedom fighters and agriculturally-dominated states were different from industrialised districts in the East. Exactly because the states and citizens were so different, the American founding fathers realised: we have to work together. They needed common values and a solid political framework, to bundle their powers. The same is true in Europe today.

Especially Great Britain, your prime example, does not want to get involved in a closer European Union. The British are considering a referendum on the EU, and Scotland wants to become independent.

It is ironic that Scotland is considering a step back, especially in the current situation. After all, Britain is a success story. We have an unsure situation in Europe and at our external borders: I am not sure how Scotland wants to protect itself alone. The call for a referendum was for me unexpected and wrong. With a view towards the British referendum, I want to say this: we do not necessarily need a European Britain, but we do need a Europe that is ready to learn from the Anglo-American experience. What bothers me about the referendum is the time at which it comes. We can ask questions about EU membership if we know in which direction the EU is moving. But nobody is able to tell at this point. This is why the question does not make sense now, but once the Euro zone gets together to build a unified state it would. Then, but only then, the British have to decide how they want to position themselves towards the new conditions on the continent.

What is your future perspective for Europe: will the continent integrate more closely, or do you foresee a division?

I support a political union through the Project for Democratic Union, a think-tank that I initially set up with three partners in Munich. We support a conversion of the Euro zone into a federal state. By now we have established offices in London, Brussels and Budapest. I believe that a step towards a true European Union is the best way for Europe. With Germany in its centre, Berlin would be deprived of its power, solving the “German problem” – and Europe would be strong and important enough to perform on the international stage.

What if that does not happen? 

A second option would be to continue as we have so far. This would mean that Europe is not strong enough to tackle serious problems, even against the will of single nation-states in case of emergency. That counts for internal reforms, but also for competition with foreign nations – for example in the question about Ukraine. And the worst scenario: to increasingly shift back European power to the nation states. Germany would again become stronger, or leave the European Union entirely. This would be a return to old thinking and old problems that have existed in Europe for centuries.

Print Friendly