Screen shot 2014-10-16 at 16.06.03

—Stephen Green

Stephen Green, author of Reluctant Meister, met with Haus Publishing over coffee and explained how understanding Germany’s past can reinvigorate the EU and make sense of British domestic politics and Sino-Japanese frictions.

Haus Publishing. It came as a surprise, considering your past at the head of HSBC and as Minister of State for Trade and Investment, to see you author a book on the history of Germany. Could you tell us a little about your credentials for writing Reluctant Meister?

Stephen Green. My credentials are really a lifetime’s engagement with Germany. I studied German literature at school and have been involved with Germany on business, both as a banker and latterly as Britain’s trade minister over the years. It’s always been a country that I’ve been fascinated by. German culture is one of the greatest phenomena in the cultural experience of humankind. On top of that, the new Germany is the centre of the new Europe. Therefore, I think it’s very important to know more about the German story, whether you’re a businessperson, part of a think tank, a politician or anyone else.

HP. Why have you chosen this particular moment to write about the history of Germany?

SG. This is a year of anniversaries. The fall of the Berlin Wall twenty-five years ago created the new Germany and opened up Eastern Europe. Therefore, this year marks the 25th birthday of the new Germany and the new Europe. That, to me, is quite as important as the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death or the 300th anniversary of George I – the Elector of Hanover – ascending to the British throne. These are all historically interesting and important anniversaries, but it is this forward-looking anniversary that makes this book so timely. With every year that passes, you also see more and more the centre of gravity of European political leadership shifting to Berlin, whether with the eurozone crisis or with the Ukraine crisis, where in both instances Germany is uncomfortably in the lead. So understanding the new Germany – in particular its robust and successful democratic and economic systems – and the way in which Germany has come to terms with its own particular past is highly topical.

HP. The EU might be led by Germany but the recent crises you mention have made it clear that the EU has trouble speaking with a unified voice, especially when it comes to political and monetary matters. Is the EU still a credible actor on the world stage?

SG. I think the future of the EU is a huge challenge. It has to become more flexible, competitive and outward looking. But what is happening to the EU on the world stage is a loss of market share with the rise of Asia and a newly vibrant American economy, a complex geopolitical environment where we have moved from a unipolar to a multipolar world. The US, obviously, still has superpower status but is no longer the single global superpower. Russia, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is now flexing its muscles in the area it considers its sphere of interest. And then, more importantly still, there is the rise of China. In that context, the EU has to find its way forward, both geopolitically and economically.
Moreover, the EU has difficulty speaking with one voice. Indeed, it doesn’t speak with one language. It is 28 member states with more than twenty mother tongues. So there’s an incredible amount of variety in Europe and you might well ask the question: Where is the European identity? I think the answer to that question doesn’t mirror the kind of bland uniformity you find from one end of America to the other. This isn’t what Europe is. But we do have common interests and common values. Its important for us to recognise what those are and it’s important for us to build government structures that enable policy-making to be efficient and responsive to democratic yearnings. So yes, there are plenty of challenges at the moment. People talk a lot about the democratic deficit, for example, and recently we have seen a resurgence of the nationalist right in several member states, including the UK with its strong eurosceptic voice. So there are plenty of challenges.
What I think we all have to discover is our common European identity, for all our continuing national consciousness and local identities. We have to learn to be comfortable with multiple identities. The one country in the whole of Europe which is best at that, for historical reasons, is Germany. For centuries, because of the nature of the Holy Roman Empire, Germans have been used to thinking of themselves as coming from their Heimat and from their Land, as well as being part of the German culture, and then latterly, since the 19th century, having a polity that embodied that culture. For particular historical reasons that polity was fraught. It had a difficult birth from the time of Bismarck onwards and never settled crucial issues such as the position of Austria in the Second Reich and its relationships with the rest of Europe. So it’s been a difficult past. Nevertheless, underlying all of that is a sense of layered identities, which the Germans are deeply used to and which other Europeans – including the British – need to get used to.

HP. This brings to mind the question of the British identity in the wake of the Scottish referendum.

SG. Yes, and this is why, at the moment, this is very topical for the British. We faced a challenge to the national identity, and there can be no coming back to the status quo ante. That challenge didn’t come out of the blue. British identity has far too long been treated as if it is a highly centralised, uniform identity run by a London-based establishment – not by the English necessarily, as many in the establishment are in fact Scots. I believe that at the root of this issue is the Irish debacle – which was arguably Britain’s worst colonial experience. Yet, at no point had British taken stock of the implications of this experience for their own self-understanding. We failed to come to terms with the need to accept a layered identity and to recognise the importance of regional cultures and of regional governance. This appreciation of layered identity is natural to Germany. So you had Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Württemberg and Austria, which embodied separate identities and separate loyalties, yet shared a common language and culture. Even though this layered German identity was at times complicated by religious differences, it was nonetheless shared.

HP. Would you say that a layered sense of identity is the secret behind German success and an important step towards a more capable EU?

SG. The German layered identity has a flexibility about it that all Europeans need to get used to in order to understand the notion that we are all on some important level Europeans with a lot in common with each other. We come from different cultures and communities, which overlap but are different. We have a variety about us that distinguishes us from the Chinese or the Americans but we need to find a way of working together and living together and being able to present a coherent geopolitical face to the world. This is Europe’s challenge. I think Germany is in the leadership role by virtue of its size and its position and its history, but also because the British have always chosen to marginalise themselves and the French have some quite significant troubles of their own. The centre of gravity within Europe is therefore shifting from Paris, which dominated the EEC, to Berlin, which is the centre of power and influence in the new EU.

HP. Looking outside the EU, do you think there are any parallels with German history and what we see in Russia, China and Japan?

SG. I think there are some lessons from the German experience that are relevant to other countries including Russia and China. I think this notion of layered identities is very particularly European and doesn’t apply in the same way to China, which is much more homogenous, or to the Russians, who certainly have their minority problems but don’t have a history of fragmented identity like Germany.
The relevance of the German experience to the Russians and the Japanese is that Germany uniquely in the post-war period underwent an incredibly painstaking, painful, slow but nonetheless reasonably complete job of – to use the great German word – Vergangenheitsbewaltignung. This dealing with the past, which didn’t come over night, took probably six decades to work its way through all of the issues. Maybe it is still not complete. Maybe for many individuals it will never be complete. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, it is an extraordinary achievement and has meant that Germany is increasingly comfortable in its own skin, whereas neither Russia nor Japan have done anything like that. Of course, they were in different positions: the Third Reich was unique. Nonetheless there are extraordinary evils that played themselves out in Russia – the purges and the treatment of ethnic minorities. In the case of the Japanese you have another extremely complex national psyche that hasn’t been able to properly address its own past. The result of that is a fractured relationship with China. If you go to Nanjing, where over a quarter of a million people were massacred by Japanese troops in 1937, you will find a memorial dedicated to the victims of this massacre. No Japanese government minister has ever visited that memorial. Compare that with Willy Brandt kneeling at the Ghetto Heroes Monument in Warsaw, for instance, or any number of individual gestures of remorse and reconciliation that you find in German history. The difference is stark and it affects Japanese self-understanding and its relationship with its neighbours to this day. The British experience with Ireland is of a different order, but is another example of a country which has not really come to term with its own past.
It is also relevant how the German experience in the 19th and 20th century fed on a sense of victimisation that was widespread in the German population. That feeling was born out of several centuries of maltreatment, particularly in the Thirty Years War and then later with French depredations under Louis XIV in the Rhineland, and not least under Napoleon. All the way through the 19th century, this resentment, this sense that outsiders had rampaged through Germany and created widespread suffering, was there and it nurtured a determination to fight back – an aggressive-defensive mentality that built up in the Wilhelmine period.
There are, therefore, lessons in all this for others. Some are very specific: 20th century Germany is not the only example of a country whose relationship with neighbours is influ- enced by a sense of past victimisation: to take just one (very large and globally increasingly influential) country, China has some clear parallels with the fast changing and emerging new power that was the Second Reich. It has a distinct sense of having been victimised and patronised by the West and then brutalised by Japan during that terrible century and a half, up to that moment in 1949 when Mao announced on the steps of the Forbidden City that the people of China had at last stood up. And now, just as the Second Reich did in the 19th century, it is taking its rightful place on the world stage. Like 19th century Germany too, it is rediscovering a pride in its ancient culture, having gone through a period when all that was belittled. It would of course be simplistic in the extreme to push the parallel too far; but it is easy to recognise the chal- lenges that a new international power in such a mood can pose – for itself and for others.
Or to take another particularly poignant example – this time of a small but determined and technologically gifted country: Israel has inherited an all too readily understandable sense of victimhood because of what happened in Europe and in the face of the sentiment that prevails in some Arab quar- ters that it should be wiped off the map. It faces the classic risk that aggressive defensiveness (combined with expansionary settlement policies) aggravates the very hostility it is respond- ing to. Is there a faint echo of the East Prussian mentality in this – or of the attitude to France of the Second Reich? Again, it would be provocative nonsense to push the parallel too far. But one thing is for certain: Israel has yet to find peace with its neighbours.

HP. Stephen Green, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.