The saga of Europe’s debt crisis can be dispiriting for anyone interested in the future of the Old Continent.  There is, however, another, perhaps larger story lurking beneath the tales of billions and bond yields, and that is the story of Germany’s changing role.  Although French President Nicolas Sarkozy gladly rushes toward any camera or notebook to present France in her traditional role as the leader of Europe, the truth is that the real power is in the hands of the woman so often seen by his side these days.  No, I do not mean his rock-star wife (and more recently the mother of his daughter), Carla Bruni, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  La Grande Nation, whose own financial rating is shaky and whose banks are holding disconcertingly large amounts of potentially worthless Greek bonds, is far too weak and economically exposed to play the decisive role.  Rather, it is Germany, with her more balanced budgets and healthy trade surplus, that is expected to deliver more than a quarter (and counting) of the total funds cobbled together in the infelicitously named European Financial Stability Facility.

Thus is it Mrs. Merkel’s government that bears the greatest responsibility in organizing the bailout.  It was the German parliament’s vote in late September that attracted so much attention as the German people’s representatives voted to commit more than 200 billion German taxpayer euros to help save Greece from the consequences of decades of fiscal folly.  At the same time, though, neither Mrs. Merkel nor her colleagues were shy about expressing their frustration with their profligate southern cousins.  Merkel herself raised eyebrows and hackles this summer with her criticism of “lazy” Southern Europeans, and even included the ominous fillip, “Yes, Germany will help, but Germany will only help when the others try.”  Furthermore, all three of the parties in Germany’s current coalition—Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU); its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU); and the liberal Free Democratic Party—have had to wrestle with growing internal resistance to Germany’s role as Europe’s piggy bank, and have indicated that future expansions of the bailout are far from automatic.  CSU Chair Horst Seehofer spoke for many in his party when, after the Bundestag vote of September 29, he said that the Germans were prepared to go “this far, but no farther.”

For those familiar with the history of European integration, the crucial role of Germany in resolving the current crisis should not be much of a surprise.  What is unusual is that undercurrent of resistance and resentment, the suggestion that Germany is no longer willing to shoulder stoically her implied responsibilities.

German (more precisely, before 1990, West German, though I will use German for everything related to the Federal Republic of Germany) diplomacy in the postwar world was marked by an unusual degree of voluntary restraint.  The pattern of German deference to and enthusiasm for both Europe and the Atlantic Alliance was directly tied to postwar division and occupation.  For the Federal Republic, governed from the sleepy university town of Bonn, every act of voluntary restraint was a product of both necessity and inclination.  Haunted by Germany’s murderous behavior in the first half of the 20th century, the Federal Republic was eager to prove that it could be a respectable member of the community of nations and was willing to pay a relatively high price for admission.  Konrad Adenauer’s policy of Westbindung aimed to regain sovereignty and respectability by linking Germany’s fate to her western neighbors’.  For Adenauer this was as much a matter of conviction as strategy—he strongly believed that a united Europe, built around Franco-German reconciliation and allied with the powerful United States, was vital to the survival of the West, and that only a Germany that was accepted by the Western nations could ever hope to gain full sovereignty and eventual reunification.  In this formulation, Germany needed to become less frightening to her neighbors before she could hope to be accepted as a “normal nation.”

Thus, even after achieving nominal sovereignty in 1955, the Federal Republic accepted limits to that sovereignty.  Adenauer led the Federal Republic into NATO, but the Germans also accepted limitations on their freedom to produce nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and agreed that the Bundeswehr, alone among NATO forces, would be under NATO rather than national command.  The United States and her Western European allies wanted German soldiers to help defend Western Europe, but they also wanted guarantees against German militarism.  Adenauer was willing to make that deal, even if it meant that the Federal Republic would be not quite equal to its nuclear neighbors in Britain and France.  There was no small truth to the idea that NATO was intended to keep “the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.”

That commitment to cooperation was even more pronounced in European policy.  From Adenauer onward, the Federal Republic enthusiastically supported the process of European integration and embraced the goal of supranational authority over national sovereignty.  Adenauer especially sought close partnership with France and recognized that Germany was in no position to claim a leading role in Europe.  Thus, while the British have demanded and received rebates on their contributions to the European budget, and France has collected heavy subsidies for her agricultural sector thanks to the Common Agricultural Policy, the solid Burghers of Germany have been consistent net contributors to Europe with nary a complaint.  Alone among the states of postwar Europe, the Federal Republic even included elements in its Basic Law announcing its willingness to transfer sovereign authority to European organizations.

Even outside the narrow confines of European policy, the Germans had been at pains to make sacrifices for the common good.  During the gradual crisis of the gold standard in the late 1960’s, when huge dollar surpluses held abroad threatened the stability of the dollar, the Germans were models of restraint.  While France demanded and received payment in gold, even sending special Air France jets to New York to collect the bullion, the Germans, in the now famous “Blessing Letter” of March 1967 (written by the president of the German Bundesbank Karl Blessing to Fed chairman William Martin and kept secret at the time) assured the Americans that the Germans would neither exchange their dollar holdings for gold nor remove German gold held in deposit in the United States, as part of a policy “to play [their] full part in contributing to international monetary cooperation.”

Nationalist critics of both the left and the right, who dreamed of somehow trading German unity for neutrality in the Cold War, claimed that this pro-Western policy undermined chances for German unity in the immediate term.  Although this led to occasional fireworks in the Bundestag and in the editorial pages of Germany’s leading newspapers and magazines, Adenauer’s successors, of all parties, generally maintained this sense that voluntary restraint was crucial to Germany’s future.

Everyone knew this was part of the bargain, even if some in the Federal Republic complained that Germany was “economically a giant, but politically a dwarf” (a comment attributed both to Willy Brandt on the right and to Franz Josef Strauß on the left).  The fact that Germany was indeed enough of an economic giant both to be the powerhouse of Europe and to fund an ever-rising standard of living made the bargain easy for Germans to accept, even as the web of international political and economic commitments restraining the German giant helped ease the potential fears and resentments of her neighbors east and west.  There have been moments where the Federal Republic acted on its own that raised some concerns among its allies, such as when Willy Brandt embarked on his Ostpolitik in the early 1970’s, just as there have been moments when German leaders lectured their neighbors on the superiority of German thrift and financial management, as under Helmut Schmidt in the late 1970’s.  Even in those cases, however, the Federal Republic saw its role as a primary supporter of a status quo that provided stability and security for Germany and her neighbors.

Adenauer’s calculation ultimately paid off, though it took four decades to do so.  As communism in Europe swept toward the dustbin of history, Helmut Kohl was able to draw on an alliance with Washington, on the Franco-German European partnership, and even on the improved relations with the Soviets produced by Ostpolitik to secure German reunification within a Western framework.  To the Americans, Kohl promised that a reunified Germany would remain a member of NATO, with all the restrictions on German military organization that implied.  France overcame her quite natural reluctance to see a reunified Germany precisely because Kohl promised François Mitterrand that even after reunification he would push ahead with European integration.  Kohl’s promise culminated in both the Maastricht Treaty and the euro, designed to bind Germany permanently within a European web.  (Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain, which had no great love for either European integration or the Germans, was unable to overcome her reservations.)  Meanwhile, Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to both reunification and reunited Germany’s membership in NATO in return for very large German financial assistance.  Far from hindering reunification, in the end the policy of self-restraint made it possible.

Reunification, however, spelled the beginning of the end of German voluntary restraint.  With the last vestiges of the occupation regime gone and Germany, for the first time in modern history, at peace with all her neighbors within universally accepted borders, it was time for Germany to be a normal state, whatever that meant.  As long as Kohl remained in office—which he did until 1998—there were no big surprises: Germany kept her military out of the Gulf War but contributed a substantial sum to its costs, and continued to be a strong advocate for European integration.  Nevertheless, observers of the German scene noticed a growing frustration with the limitations on German power, and in various circles one could read of the need for Germany to assert her right to normal national interests and to political influence more commensurate with her great economic power.  This expressed itself in calls for Germany to receive a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.  More directly, the growing desire for Germany to be more assertive found expression in the last-minute opposition to the abandonment of the Deutschmark in favor of the euro.  Despite the strong commitment of Kohl’s government, and the adoption of convergence criteria demanded by the Germans to guarantee the common currency’s stability, many Germans regretted the loss of their nation’s greatest modern accomplishment.  As it turns out, they were probably right.

Despite those rumblings of discontent, real change began with the departure of Kohl and the accession of the Social Democratic/Green government of Gerhard Schröder.  First, Schröder and his foreign minister Joschka Fischer demonstrated a surprising willingness to break with the tradition of German military restraint by embracing an active role in NATO’s war with Serbia in 1999.  The Germans even made adjustments to their constitution to participate in the 2001 occupation of Afghanistan.  Those sorts of normality were welcomed in Washington and in much of Europe as examples of Germany accepting broader responsibility.  Thereafter, however, Schröder played the flip side of normality, as the Germans demonstratively refused to participate in the Iraq war.  In a famous rebuke to Donald Rumsfeld, Joschka Fischer dismissed the case for war at the 2003 Munich security conference with the simple phrase, “We are not convinced.”  Schröder squeaked out a narrow reelection victory in 2002 by trumpeting his opposition to the conflict, essentially running against George W. Bush.  That was normal, too—using foreign affairs for domestic purposes—but was much less popular in Washington.  Schröder even spoke vaguely of pursuing a “German Way” in foreign relations, based on national interest.  Although he was never very clear on what that would be, the very fact that he and his advisors suggested there could be a legitimate German Way outside of the usual postwar traditions was an important milestone.

Schröder left office in 2005, replaced by Merkel, first in a grand coalition of Christian and Social Democrats and now in a center-right coalition, but the process of normalization has continued, for better or worse.  It means that the Germans no longer feel the same pull to put Europe first, or the same reluctance to lecture their neighbors on policy.  Normality also means they can abandon Atlantic as well as European connections in the service of domestic political tactics, however misguided.  Thus, in March 2011, Merkel’s government, facing a crucial state election and not wanting to lose any votes by disturbing the antimilitary consensus, abstained from the U.N. vote on the Libya operation, choosing to side with Russia and China and against Britain, France, and the United States.  They still lost that state election, and never did convince anyone that their vote was anything but a short-term calculation.  Nevertheless, the decision to vote against their former patrons was a further sign of Germany’s transformation.

Which brings us to the current European crisis.  With the survival of the euro very much hanging in the balance, and threatening to take the European Union down with it, Europe is rather in need of determined leadership.  Germany also has a vested interest in the preservation of the euro, for the simple reasons that the German export economy depends heavily on selling to her European partners, and the German financial sector does a booming business in euro transactions.  But it is no longer clear that the Germans can be counted on to make sacrifices for the common good on general principle.  Merkel has done a solid job in hammering out deals, though one does not get a sense that there is much conviction behind them.  Perhaps that will be enough.  Perhaps.

The problem is not that Germany is somehow becoming different from her partners.  Germany is becoming more like them—becoming more focused on short-term political and economic interest.  That is normal, but it is making Germany’s partners nervous.  This normalization is a process that bears close examination in the months and years to come.