By Aaron Kliegman
On May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II in Europe. Since then, Germany has clearly changed for the better, becoming a liberal, flourishing democracy. But exactly 75 years later, on VE Day, Germany has learned the wrong lessons from World War II — to the delight of today’s tyrants.
For most European countries, VE Day is a time to commemorate the liberation of a continent from oppression and genocide. For Germany, however, the day is naturally uncomfortable, bringing to mind the nation’s not-too-distant barbarity. Not that Germans need a reminder — they still feel guilty about World War II and the Holocaust, and they act out of a sense of that guilt.
Indeed, Germany is obsessed with its Nazi past, constantly — perhaps eternally — trying to atone for it. This sad reality was painfully obvious when, in 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited one million migrants into Germany. Germans welcomed the migrants with such jubilation at train stations. To quote the British author Douglas Murray, they were elated “at the sight of people breaking into their country rather than trying to break out.”
To be clear, World War II isn’t so much on the minds of Germans throughout the day; rather, it’s always there in the background as a cornerstone of Germany’s culture and policies, subconsciously influencing the behavior of German leaders — just not in the way it should.
Germany didn’t seem to learn — or simply forgot — from its Nazi experience that war is natural and peace an aberration, not the other way around. Peace doesn’t just happen — great powers, countries with the ability to wield influence on a regional or global scale, achieve it.
“The preservation of peace,” writes the American historian Donald Kagan, “requires active effort, planning, the expenditure of resources, and sacrifice, just as war does.” Such efforts include “maintaining a strong military … and the willingness to use it when necessary.” When great powers disarm instead, as Germany has done, believing coercion invites rather than prevents war, conflict becomes more likely. Belligerent tyrants are emboldened to push further unless they meet resistance.
World War II is the best, and deadliest, example of this international principle. The Western democracies chose to appease Hitler and refused to arm themselves until it was too late. If London, Paris, and Washington had maintained strong militaries after World War I and demonstrated a willingness to use them, the bloodiest war in history may have been avoided — or, at least the Allies would have been prepared from the start, preventing Nazi domination of continental Europe.
And yet, today the German military is impotent. Berlin has refused to invest in defense, and most Germans don’t seem to care. Never mind that the German Defense Ministry found in 2018 that only about one-third of its military assets are operational, or that most of its weapons systems are unavailable for deployment. Germany is unable to defend itself, let alone anyone else, and is proud of it.
Germany also didn’t learn — or forgot — the need to stand up to murderous, antisemitic regimes that seek to kill millions of Jews — and what can happen when the world instead appeases such regimes. Indeed, Germany’s efforts to assuage Iran, which seeks to destroy Israel, home to 6.7 million Jews, is quite remarkable. Rather than pressure Tehran to stop supporting terrorism and respect the Iranian people’s human rights, Berlin has sought to provide Iran’s Islamist regime with sanctions relief and business deals.
As I wrote in 2018, Germany sees “negotiations and reconciliation, bolstered by trade and other forms of economic interdependence, as the only way to settle conflicts between states … [Diplomacy] is the way to keep conflict at bay, to keep the barbarians — those who believe in the efficacy of hard power — from entering the city gates.”
To German leaders, everyone, no matter how hostile, will be seduced by the West’s goods, services, and liberal way of life with enough time — including the brutal men who rule Iran.
Most crucially, Germany didn’t learn — or forgot — the importance of defending Western civilization.
In his book, The Strange Death of Europe, Murray writes that Europe has “lost faith in its beliefs, traditions, and legitimacy.” This is in part because Europe feels deeply guilty for its violent past and in part because of an “existential tiredness,” a feeling that Europe must begin a new story for itself, turning the page on its history. Germany is the country most prominently championing this self-shame, tossing aside Western civilization and all of its virtues as historical relics.
Of course, FDR and Churchill fought the Nazis to save Western civilization from Nazi Germany, which sought to create a very different system. In many ways, the European theater of World War II was about preserving the heritage of our Western values and political order, which prioritizes liberty.
What all of this means in practice is European leaders, like Merkel, want to avoid or eliminate anything they believe led to war in Europe’s dark past, such as borders and ideology. In reality, disputed borders trigger conflict — clear boundaries act as a deterrent — but European elites nonetheless feel that borders invite war. The same goes for ideology — if Europe doesn’t really believe in anything, be it religion or Western civilization, then the continent won’t return to what got it into conflict in decades past.
The European Union (EU) has, far from its original purpose, become a utopian attempt to remedy these issues, a society that slowly erases the nation-state. Again, Germany leads the way in this effort.
So, while Germany has fundamentally changed from its Nazi days, becoming a vibrant, tolerant society, it seems to have learned the wrong lessons from World War II. Rather than recognize the efficacy of hard power, Germany believes appeasement creates peace. Rather than recognize the need to stand up to expansionist tyrants firmly, Germany believes economic engagement will satiate them. Rather than recognize the power of Western civilization, Germany believes it needs to evolve beyond it.
What a way to view the world. Fortunately for Germany, America is there to defend it and Western civilization. Berlin can play around on the monkey bars while Washington protects it from the bullies. And there are always bullies in this world, looking for vulnerable countries to push around.