Prefatory note: Having traveled on business throughout Germany deploying complex information technology projects, I can vouch for the German predilection with rules, process, programs, and structures. In the end, everything we set out to accomplish as part of our project rollouts we did so on time and on budget thanks to the hard work of our German team members. A nagging irritant that we had to endure, however, was an unflagging emphasis on frugality. This quality of the German character borders on the religious and we are seeing it play out on the international stage. Lest there be any doubt how foundational the belief in frugality is for the German nation, no less a luminary than the great philosopher Immanuel Kant stated in his tome on metaphysical morals that, “Frugality in all things is the reasonable behavior of an honorable person.”
President Trump, during his administration, repeatedly pointed out that Germany had been shirking its 2% of GDP defense budget target agreed to as recently as 2014. This is the case despite the fact that the United States keeps over 36,000 troops stationed in Germany at a cost of nearly $6 billion and to which Germany contributes only about 18% of that total in the form of in-kind services. In addition to the troop levels stationed in Germany, the Department of Defense has something in excess of 15,000 civilians in country. Germany’s economy, of course, is the direct beneficiary of so many Americans spending their hard-earned dollars on its soil.
To be sure, Germany is not the only nation which chooses to finance national defense on the cheap. But as the largest economy on the continent – at $3.6 trillion, Germany’s GDP is roughly 20% greater than either the United Kingdom’s or France’s – one might expect a less tightfisted commitment than the historically anemic 1.2% of GDP which Germany spends on defense. This is a puny sum indeed. In fact, on a per capita basis, Germany spends no more on defense than does the economic basket case that is Greece. Incidentally, as impoverished as the nation of Greece is, it is one of only ten countries of the thirty NATO alliance that meets its 2% obligation. In fact, Greece spends more on defense as a percentage of GDP at 3.8%, than any other NATO country. Clearly, it is a great comfort to the Europeans that the United States watches their backs, while picking up the tab on roughly 20% of NATO’s expense budget.
The niggardly German defense budget has onerous security consequences for the country and the continent yet there was a new-found outrage at President Trump’s plan to redeploy approximately 12,000 troops stationed in Germany to other theaters such as Poland. President Trump’s plan, predictably, was rescinded by the Biden administration. That the United States would have weakened NATO by removing approximately 30% of its troops from Germany was a spurious claim. It is Germany, by its actions, who is seemingly not committed to NATO or its own security.
Consider that fewer than half of Germany’s fighter jets are able to fly their missions for lack of parts, and German soldiers are moved to hide their army’s lack of materiel by using broomsticks in lieu of non-existing heavy machine guns during war games. The German argument for its lack of financial commitment to NATO’s defense is as specious as it is creative. It goes something like this: national defense goes beyond military spending. Some types of development aid, the German government says, should count as defense spending. In a nutshell, this is a way of saying that the harboring of more than a million Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees is tantamount to protecting Europe’s borders from aggressors!
DOES DEVELOPMENT AID INCLUDE WORLD WAR II REPARATIONS?
It is curious that Germany’s apparent magnanimity does not extend to owning up to the disaster and carnage it caused with its aggressive militarism during the better part of the twentieth century. Greece represents a tragic case in point.
During WW II, Greece lost more lives than the United States or the United Kingdom. Roughly, ten percent of the population of Greece – approximately 500,000 souls – perished during the Katochi, or occupation, at the hands of the Butchers of Berlin largely through executions or the famine caused by the destruction of crop fields and animal stock. What is more, the Nazis looted Greek banks, took out sham loans, and confiscated all of the available gold, silver, nickel, and copper in the nation. In Thessaloniki, home to 50,000 Jews, of whom 96% were murdered, property theft was widespread in the hands of the Nazis and collaborators within the Greek government including a succession of three quisling prime ministers.
The Nazis destroyed houses, farms, public buildings, schools, hospitals, ports, canals, roads, train tracks, and bridges. Similarly, most Greek shipping and all telephone communications were destroyed. In addition, over 1,700 villages were burned to the ground many with the elderly, women, and children hunkered down in their infernal dwellings unable to escape. The Nazi savagery outdid itself in the small village of Distomo located northwest of Athens. In 1944, following an ambush of a Nazi unit by Greek irregulars the Waffen SS returned to massacre 228 men, women and children. The carnage was severe as women were raped before being murdered, infants were bayoneted, the village priest beheaded, and the town burned to the ground. Beyond these atrocities, the Nazis appropriated much of Greece’s antiquities from a number of public and private museum collections as well as from archeological sites. German officers, and before them Italian soldiers of one stripe or another, had a field day boxing and crating antiquities which they then shipped back to their countries of origin. Antiquities which could not be carted off, were wantonly destroyed as to preclude any possible restoration.
The German devastation was so complete that Greece became devoid of the infrastructure, the institutions, and the systems, essential to properly function as a modern nation. In the aftermath of the war, Greece predictably descended into civil war, chaos, and more death. The de-Hellinization of the country was now complete.
WHO OWES WHAT TO WHOM?
It was clever double-dealing that Germany, in league with the Troika – the triumvirate of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank – dished out a crippling dose of austerity and browbeats the small nation of Greece on the international stage to meet its loan commitments while it steadfastly refuses to acknowledge its own obligations. We have seen this movie before: Germany made its last payment to American claimants of WW I reparations in 2010.
In 2015, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Dimitris Mardas, announced that Greece was owed roughly $305 billion according to calculations made by the country’s general accounting office. This is a sum that includes actual damages, interest, and inflation. This marked the first time the reparations claim had been formalized with such precision and it’s entirely credible. The Germans, of course, have scoffed at the notion that any monies are due inasmuch as there is no strict legal basis on which Greece can press its claim. This is another German cultural trait at work known as besserwisser or knowing better. The key, however, is whether the reparations owed the Greeks by its Nazi occupiers hinges on legal niceties or on the moral and ethical behaviors expected of civilized nations.
Ironically, Germany was the principal beneficiary of our financial and moral largesse in two important ways: 1) In 1948, when the Soviet Union blocked all road, canal, and rail access to West Berlin it was the United States which did the heavy work in airlifting 2.4 million tons of supplies into the beleaguered city. The United States flew 76% of the roughly 300,000 sorties delivering fuel, medicines, and food to a city on the verge of famine. 2) Approximately two-thirds of Germany’s war indebtedness, much of it provided by the Marshall Plan, was forgiven. In effect, the Marshall Plan treated the former belligerent Nazi regime as it did the Allied nations of the United Kingdom and France. If ever you wondered what explains the German Wirtschaftswunder or economic “miracle” in the aftermath of the war this is a good place to start looking.
The other place to look is rooted in a world of collective amnesia. The current roster of household names representative of German industrial might, names such as Audi, BASF, Bayer, BMW, Bosch, Daimler-Benz, Hoechst, IG Farben, Krupp, Porsche, Siemens, VW, gives rise to the question of how these companies were able to not only survive Hitler’s reign but to thrive during the war years and in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat.
The answer is twofold: 1) As author David de Jong has made painfully clear in his meticulously researched book Nazi Billionaires, industrialists such as Friedrich Flick (a member of Himmler’s Circle of Friends), August von Finck, Herbert Quandt, and Rudolf-August Oetker were an integral part of Hitler’s war-making machine. They were also key players in the forced sale of Jewish-owned businesses to non-Jews. The process of aryanization, as the Nazis termed it, was coercive and extended the original business owners little but a token purchase price. As de Jong further points out, these four thugs in business suits were members of the Nazi Party and one, Oetker, was a Waffen-SS officer. 2) Most shamefully, Germany’s industrial might was built on the backs of over 300,000 slave laborers, and over one-million forced laborers many of whom toiled in factories owned or controlled by Hitler’s favorite magnates.
The United States should not fall prey to Germany’s dilatory approach to meeting its financial commitments to NATO. Germany has stated that it will meet its 2% target by 2031 although the Russian invasion of Ukraine might accelerate that schedule. It’s reasonable to assume, therefore, that if the Germans are not alarmed about Russian tanks racing down the Autobahn then neither should the United States.
GERMANY PLAYS BOTH ENDS AGAINST THE MIDDLE
Maybe our concern with Germany’s well-being is overblown as the nation is a deft double-dealer. Two examples should make the point: 1) Germany’s sermonizing to America about staying in the Iran Nuclear Deal has little to do with mitigating Iran’s threat as a nuclear power. (In fact, the deal does not permanently thwart Iran’s non-peaceful uses of nuclear power. It does, however, enhance Iran’s ability to finance terrorist activities). What it has more to do with is the fact that Germany is Iran’s largest trading partner in the EU. The export-based German economy has no scruples. 2) Germany and Russia have been schmoozing about the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that runs under the Baltic Sea and is designed to double the existing supply of gas to Germany. Nord Stream 2 is already built – Nord stream 1 has been in operation for years – and simply awaits certification. The two pipelines are majority-owned by the Russian state-owned Gazprom. The geopolitical consequences of such a move would result in increasing Russia’s leverage over the continent’s smaller states, and box Poland out of the gas transit business. A further consequence of Germany’s reliance on Russian energy, while also making nice with the Kremlin, could also explain its slow-walking heavy arms shipments to beleaguered Ukraine.
When it comes to Poland, especially, the United States cannot welch as Germany has done to nations so many times before. Poland is a staunch United States ally whose recently deployed Patriot missile defense system is meant to counterbalance Russian cruise missiles stationed along the Polish border. The nation is stable, democratic, with a strong and growing free market economy, and always wary of the antics of Germany – and, for all practical purposes its agent the European Union. As I point out in my essay, Globalization: An Anti-Democratic Nightmare in the Making, Germany casts a long shadow over Poland. One can only hope that the first line of the Polish national anthem, “Poland has not yet perished”, will hold true to form.
If German arrogance knows no bounds neither should our vigilance. Consider that a member of the Bundestag – the German parliament – and leader of the third largest political party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Alexander Gauland, said recently that “Hitler and the Nazis were a speck of bird s— in over 1,000 years of successful German history.” That a member of parliamentwould liken Hitler’s diabolical reign to a “speck” iscallous and worthy of censure.
Notwithstanding the brazenness of Gauland’s comment, however, he ignores – or chooses to ignore – his own nation’s history. Long before – millennia before – the more recent horrors perpetrated by German aggression during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Germany has visited death and destruction on its neighbors: Austria, Bohemia, France, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Russia come to mind. German aggression has indeed persisted for a very long time. As the great first and second century Roman historian Tacitus, a keen observer of the German peoples, remarked “He [the German] thinks it tame and spiritless to accumulate slowly by the sweat of his brow which can be got quickly by the loss of a little blood.” In the end, Tacitus observes “…the Germans have no taste for peace.”