There is no denying that German–U.S. relations were ruffled, if not rocked, by last September’s election. During the summer, polls indicated that the Social Democratic Party and its leader, Gerhard Schröder, would lose because of popular anxiety about the economy, especially unemployment. Four years earlier, when Schröder was first elected chancellor, he declared that he would be unworthy of reelection if the number of unemployed, then four million, was not dramatically reduced. Last summer, however, the figure had risen to almost ten percent of the work force. Schröder was saved by the disastrous flooding of the Elbe River. He was very visibly everywhere, comforting victims and promising all kinds of government assistance. It was a compassionate and caring role that only the chancellor could play, putting his Christian Democrat challenger at a distinct disadvantage. Schröder appeared as the man in charge, and his polling numbers rose accordingly. The public had always been more receptive to his personal charms than to his party, and Schröder played his part to the hilt.
Then, just before the election, Schröder seized on the issue of Iraq. Since World War II, and for understandable reasons, Germans have been frightened by the prospect of involvement in another war, any war. They were most particularly frightened by the idea of a preventive or “preemptive” war, the kind of warfare Germany had practiced in the last century with catastrophic consequences. Schröder played skillfully on this anxiety, declaring that under his leadership Germany would have no part of what was depicted as reckless U.S. belligerence toward Iraq. Many Germans viewed his position as the mark of strong and trustworthy leadership, while others thought it irresponsible and self–serving. His Christian Democrat opponent was hardly more eager to go for war but addressed the question in more balanced terms, accusing Schröder of jeopardizing relations with America, a crucial and long–standing ally.
Yet the more nuanced language of Edmund Stoiber gave the impression that he was irresolute and wavering. While Schröder’s talk about a “German way” of doing things alarmed foreign observers, it went down well with most Germans. It seems unlikely that Schröder intended to mobilize anti–American sentiment among Germans, for, in fact, such sentiment is relatively weak. The academic and media left notwithstanding, there are few nations in the world less anti–American than Germany. Schröder’s purpose was to project an image of strong and decisive leadership, and in that he succeeded.
Keep in mind that Germany is securely integrated into, and is one of the most fervent advocates of, the European Union. Germans are keenly aware that German nationalism has been tried and found disastrously wanting. There is no doubt that Germany has benefited economically from the EU, even if there is unhappiness about its having to bear a disproportionate financial burden in support of EU structures. Germany strongly backs the inclusion of Central and Eastern European countries in the EU, and cherishes the particular hope that within a few years relations between Germany and Poland will be as uncomplicated and amicable as its present relations with France, which was for centuries the “archenemy.”
The present economic weakness of the country is a new experience after decades of prosperity, which helps explain why it played such a large part in the 2002 election campaign. Germany is accustomed to thinking of itself as the motor force of European recovery, not the laggard that it has become. The main problem, in the view of most observers, is the overregulation of the labor market with its excessive protection of workers that makes it prohibitively expensive to create new jobs. Wages and social security entitlements are among the highest in the world, and powerful unions, integrated across the lines of various industries, pose a formidable obstacle to change.
Of course, the economic problems are related as well to the worldwide recession, and a general recovery would no doubt significantly improve the situation. There is another factor, however: the long–term economic burden resulting from the reunification of Germany in 1989. The magnitude of this burden was at first greatly underestimated. The total breakdown of the socialist economies of Eastern Europe, on which East Germany was almost entirely dependent, occurred with startling rapidity. More than a decade later, and despite the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars from the former West Germany, the East is far from achieving the levels of employment and affluence to which West Germans have long been accustomed.
Economics, however, is not the most important burden resulting from the reunification of Germany. Forty years of Communist rule devastated the East culturally. This is true in education and also—more than in other Communist–dominated countries—in religion. In the former heartland of the Lutheran Reformation, Protestant Christianity is now a small minority. While dechristianization is massively evident in the East, the situation is not all that different in Western Germany. Since the 1960s, both Protestant and Catholic churches have been steadily declining in membership and influence. This is in sharp contrast to the first two decades after the war, when Germany was eager to reclaim its place in Western culture and to distance itself from the ruins of Nazism. Cultural reclamation included affirming Germany’s specifically Christian heritage, which was helped by the fact that the churches had been less morally compromised than other institutions during the Third Reich. In the years immediately after the war, there was a strong sense of Christian renewal.
But that changed abruptly toward the end of the sixties, when the American–inspired protest against the Vietnam War swept Europe and produced the student revolution. Especially in France and Germany, that movement was powerfully influenced by neo–Marxist ideas, and in Germany by the “Frankfurt school”—led by such as Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Jürgen Habermas—which largely framed the public debate. The German student movement really was a cultural revolution directed against all forms of “repressive” authority—primarily the educational system, but also moral values rooted in Christianity, and emphatically the “authoritarian” family structure. The cultural revolution, including a new wave of sexual “liberation,” was at first seen as a youthful phenomenon that would soon pass, but its deep and lasting consequences are now obvious. The traditional system of higher education has been dramatically changed in most of the country. The classics, including the classical languages, survive only at the margins; the leading figures of the student revolution, now in their sixties, are predominant in the media, the universities, and the courts.
The traditional understanding of the family has taken severe hits. Article 6 of the Constitution provided very particular protections for marriage and family life, but last year the highest court declined to overrule new legislation that gives equal status to alternative forms of living together. Government–funded day care is explicitly promoted as a way of ending the family’s “supremacy over children’s beds.” The language of “cultural revolution” is employed not only by the critics of these changes but also by the proponents. They leave no doubt that cultural revolution is exactly what they have in mind.
Whether they will succeed is another matter. While many marriages end in divorce, and many people live together and have children without benefit of civil or ecclesial rites, the ideal held by young people is still that of a lifelong union of man and woman within the institution of marriage. The churches have a deep stake in supporting that ideal, which is grounded in Christian understandings and practices that have no real parallel in other cultures. The sociologist Helmut Schelsky predicted decades ago that—despite social convulsions and the high incidence of divorce—most people would still be attracted to the model of marriage as the lifelong union of man and woman, seeing it as the most likely route to personal fulfillment. In this, he seems to have been vindicated. After the secularization of the state, the institution of marriage and family holds the most secure promise for the religious socialization of future generations. Not for nothing do those who are most determined to effect a complete break between society and religion focus on undermining the legal and social status of marriage and family.
Despite that campaign, young people evidence a renewed appreciation of marriage and family. A greater challenge may be posed by demographic developments. There are fewer and fewer young people. In Germany, as in Western Europe generally and in Italy most particularly, people are not having babies. These countries would be on a trajectory of decreasing population were it not for immigrants from Muslim countries. There are no doubt many reasons why the original German population is not reproducing, including the secular individualism nurtured by affluent societies and the attitudes and practices associated with what John Paul II calls “the culture of death.” Having children is no longer considered a duty owed the future but is viewed as one of many possibilities to be taken into account in calculating personal satisfaction and securing one’s preferred way of life. To that end, contraception is assumed, with abortion as a backstop. Since the liberalizing of the law, there are in Germany more than 300,000 abortions per year.
The other side of the declining number of children and young people is, of course, the increasing number of old people. The decrease in population, some contend, could be compensated for by increased immigration. This assumes that immigrants will be fully integrated into German and European culture, which assumes, in turn, that we have a clear and confident sense of cultural identity. It is no secret, however, that over recent decades a large number of immigrants came not in order to be part of German society nor even to find work but to benefit from our social security and health services. Their self–interest is perfectly understandable. Many are not interested in learning the German language, and those from Muslim countries tend to live in ghetto–like quarters of the cities. At present, there are about three million Muslim immigrants in Germany, mainly from Turkey, while in France and Italy the Muslim immigrants come chiefly from North Africa. Moreover, since Islam entails also a different system of law, there are difficulties in accepting the secular order of law based on the German Constitution, especially since many Muslims are taught in the mosques that Islamic law is superior.
Public expressions of concern about Muslim immigration are often dismissed as evidence of a “right–wing” phobia, and the concern can no doubt be exploited by extremists. But among thoughtful Germans and Europeans more generally there is a deep and haunting, although often unspoken, anxiety that increased Muslim immigration, combined with the higher birth rates of immigrants, is working fundamental changes in our societies. It is foreseeable in the not too distant future, for instance, that in some of our larger cities Muslims will no longer be a tolerated minority but a majority, and will make political claims consonant with their majority status. It is in this connection that one must understand the nervousness of German and other European leaders when it comes to granting Turkey full membership in the EU. With full membership comes the right to work and live in any of the member states, and the prospect of even more massive Muslim immigration. Both Europe and America have economic, political, and security reasons for cultivating close cooperation with Turkey, but it would seem that full membership in the EU is unlikely in the near future. In addition to the worries about immigration, there is the problem of Cyprus and, more important, the need to bring Turkey’s economic and legal system into line with European standards, including respect for human rights and, most particularly, for religious freedom, as witness the treatment of the dwindling Greek Orthodox community in that country.
The great challenge for Germany and Europe is the recovery of a culture rooted in Christianity. Without that, it is fair to say, there is no future for a united Europe. John Paul II made this point with marvelous clarity in his address to the Italian parliament last November. For the flourishing of an EU that is both European and a real union, economics is not enough. Yet, despite the urgings of the Pope and the demands of many Christian politicians, there seems to be little chance at this point that the EU Constitution will make explicit reference to God or the continent’s Christian heritage. The preamble of the German Constitution of 1949 contains such a reference, although it is doubtful that even the Germans would support that today. But the strongest opposition to such a reference in the European Constitution comes, not surprisingly, from the French, who are attached to that country’s still powerful laicist tradition.
Neutrality toward religion does not have the same meaning in some European countries, and increasingly in Germany, that it has in the U.S. It does not mean that the state should not favor one church or religious association over another, but that the state should not recognize the religious dimension of culture at all. The unembarrassed way in which American Presidents and other political leaders refer to God and invoke the religious dimensions of culture is hardly imaginable in Germany or France. The public silence about religion reinforces popular ignorance or indifference with respect to Europe’s cultural origins and their continuing importance.
It must be admitted that the churches themselves bear a large responsibility for this unhappy circumstance. Church leaders and Christian thinkers are still captive to the idea that Christianity must be made relevant by adapting its message to the assumptions and sensibilities of a secular culture. One might argue that almost the opposite is required. An unabashed proclamation of the cross and resurrection, of hope for eternal life, and of divine judgment might again make Christianity interesting, challenging, and something of a redemptive scandal. Christian preachers and writers might even find the nerve to speak of something so outré as obedience to moral truth. That Christianity proposes a different way of living, a different understanding of freedom and fulfillment, was in the early church one of its chief attractions. That could happen again, if Christian leaders have the nerve, the intelligence, and the faith for it. The alternative is more of the same: the false freedom of undirected choice, the futile efforts to satisfy insatiable appetites, the blunting of the human capacity for truth and transcendence. The alternative, in short, is the culture of death. And with that, the continuing perception that Christianity is simply irrelevant.
There is, I believe, no danger of an anti–American insurgency in Germany. More pressing problems have to do with economic stagnation and the still uncompleted tasks of reunification with the East. Those problems are generally recognized. More controversial is the discussion of the continuing march of the cultural revolution through German institutions, including marriage and the family, and the ominous implications of demographic decline combined with massive Muslim immigration. What does it mean to be German? What does it mean to be European? All the countries of the EU, including those now being admitted to membership, are being forced to ask the hard questions of cultural identity.
Whatever its economic benefits, the EU is presumably more than an economic union. Whether the EU is to be formed above cultural identities, or through cultural identities, or somehow around cultural identities, what Germany and the other member nations bring to the EU are cultural identities inseparable from their Christian origins and continuing influence. At present, that influence appears to be in decline, and some are clearly betting that it will, in time, disappear altogether. If they get their way, we face the possibility of an EU divorced from what is culturally identifiable as Europe. Many Europeans, including many Germans, are deeply and, I believe, rightly worried about that prospect.
Wolfhart Pannenberg is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Munich and founding director of the Institute of Ecumenical Theology.