75 years ago, the United States won World War II – today they are a nation in decline. The well-known historian Heinrich August Winkler explains in an interview with Chillreport why there is hope for the West despite Donald Trump.
The 20th century was thought to be the American, but the US is now a long way from the influence of yesteryear. Instead, its global influence is diminishing. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump wants to win the November 3 election with aggressive slogans. But his populist agenda is anything but new, explains historian Heinrich August Winkler in an interview with Chillreport.
Not only in the US is deep uncertainty, the European Union is also in crisis. How should one deal with Hungary and Poland, which are dismantling the rule of law? Is the political culture of the West on this side and on the other side of the Atlantic about to end? What mistakes has Germany made since reunification – and how can they be corrected? You can read the answers of the leading German state historian here:
Chillreport: Mr. Winkler, September 2 is a historic date: 75 years ago Japan surrendered, World War II in Asia ended, and the US triumphed as the leading power in the West. Today President Donald Trump’s martial “America First” is over. What happened?
Heinrich August Winkler: Not everything about Donald Trump’s politics is new. For example, the slogan “America First” did not experience its historic premiere through Trump. It comes from the deeply nationalist, anti-Semitic and isolationist opposition to former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the early 1940s. Trump has followed suit.
Like his historical role models, the US president uses aggressive populism to achieve his goals.
Trump is a legacy of isolationist populism in the United States. Political populism is an American invention: the term came up in the late 1800s when the People’s Party was founded, a movement mainly supported by Midwestern farmers who relied on direct democracy, agitated against the urban elites and against all. types of immigration. The Trump presidency is by no means a break with the previous political history of the United States, but a link in a series of developments.
Trump’s presidency primarily illustrates America’s social divisions. Many European observers are still amazed at how uncritically the traditional Republican Party supports Trump’s behavior.
That can also be explained. Before Trump’s election, there was a decisive turning point: the Republicans, the “Grand Old Party”, were to some extent conquered by the tea party movement. Their xenophobic motives and the ‘America First’ demands resurfaced in Trump. These elements need to be placed in a broader context to understand the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election.
Heinrich August Winkler, Born in Königsberg in 1938, taught contemporary history at Humboldt University in Berlin until his retirement. Winkler is one of the most important German historians, his publications such as “The long way to the west“or the”History of the west“are standard works. The publishing house C.H. Beck (Munich) has just published Winkler’s new book”How we became what we are. A Brief History of the Germans“published.
In fact, the Democratic Party made it quite easy for Donald Trump to win his election four years ago.
That’s right. After the defeat of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, a self-critical debate began in the party, culminating in Clinton and her team’s accusation that they campaigned too much for the needs of the liberal supporters in the big cities, while the concerns of the regular voters have been neglected in the workforce in the “Rust Belt”. I think this criticism is very justified.
Can we get a similar surprise in the November 3 elections as we did four years ago? Trump is trusted to perform virtually all tricks and disruptive maneuvers in the election campaign.
With Trump you have to be prepared for the worst, American democracy is in danger right now. But I am confident that civil society in the US will be so strong that any attempt by Trump to create dictatorship-like conditions will be doomed to failure.
Even though Trump is trying to torpedo postal voting?
The new head of the US Post has clearly contradicted Trump for his statements about the postal vote. He is still in office.
Heinrich August Winkler: The historian is an expert in the history of the West. (Source: Reiner Zensen / image images)
The fact that we need to talk seriously about whether an election in America in 2020 will be democratic is a scandal in itself. About 30 years ago, the US was the undisputed leading Western power, today it looks like a dizzying giant. Don’t you think that’s great?
There was a historic moment that conservative publicist Charles Krauthammer in 1989/90 called the “unipolar moment”. That was when the East-West rivalry ended with the collapse of the Soviet empire – while the US remained the last superpower. At the time, political scientist Francis Fukuyama coined the term “the end of history” …
… which, however, turned out to be an illusion.
Correct. With the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 at the latest, the vulnerability of the US became clear. Since then, it is only possible to speak of a supremacy of the United States with reservation. At the same time, the rise of the People’s Republic of China took place around the turn of the millennium. For more than a decade, we have been living in a multipolar world with a number of “global players”, perhaps also in the early stages of a new bipolarity. The time of the unipolar moment has passed.
So the US is actually all the more dependent on its allies in Europe. Instead, Donald Trump ardently complains about Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel. Is the transatlantic friendship about to end?
Transatlantic cooperation is currently being tested, but I think it is wrong to talk about the end. Europe and America are still linked by a common political culture, that of the West. The special German-American relationship is also not about to end. Also for very practical reasons: Europe simply is not able to strategically replace the US on a global scale. When Joe Biden has a new US president next year, he will be more constructive and cooperative towards Europe and Germany. But as a historian I can of course only speculate about the future.
It’s always easy to talk about America’s problems, but there is also cause for concern on our side of the Atlantic.
So let’s talk about what to criticize about German and European politics.
Gladly. Let’s start with ourselves: what do you think is wrong in German politics?
During the years of the East-West conflict, we have become accustomed to the US taking responsibility for our security in an emergency. This attitude has survived reunification – thus complicating the urgently needed debate on whether Germany should also take more responsibility in the military field. Instead, we have often failed to act convincingly as a peacekeeping force for Europe.
As a larger and economically stronger country, reunified Germany did not want to deter its neighbors in Europe.
Certainly, but we Germans have not asked ourselves the urgently needed question of what it means for our country to become a nation-state again in 1990 – albeit one of the post-classical kind that exercises parts of its sovereign rights together with other states and transfers others to supranational institutions. Has.
Despite its integration into the EU, Germany’s behavior is often viewed critically by partner countries.
We Germans often get proof that we are the leading moral nation in Europe. I remember the European rifts during the refugee crisis in 2015. There is certainly cause for German self-criticism. And we should not feel that we are morally superior to other European states from the sense that we have learned exemplary lessons from our guilt-ridden past before 1945. Our neighbors rightly view this as a new variant of German arrogance.
Palace of Versailles on January 18, 1871: In the presence of Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian King Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor. (Source: image broker / image images)
The “nation” is a phrase that is viewed critically in this country.
We Germans have destroyed our first nation-state, the Reich founded by Otto von Bismarck. There is no doubt about that. But to conclude from this that the nation-state is necessarily obsolete is risky. More than any other country in Europe shares this assessment. That should be clear to us, and it should be discussed: why do we Germans find it so difficult to understand that many European countries have nothing to do with the term “post-national democracy”?
A term that the historian Karl-Dietrich Bracher coined for the old Federal Republic.
Bracher described the Federal Republic as a “post-national democracy between nation states”. But we must realize that in those states in Europe whose independence we trampled Germans in World War II and in some cases even World War I, there has been a greater need to preserve their own identities than in ours. the case is. After 1945, a process of turning away from nationalist traditions gradually began.
More likely in the old Federal Republic before 1990, right?
Yes, many of the old German prejudices against Western democracy have survived more in East Germany than in the old Federal Republic. In West Germany, a new German self-image has been agreed in long debates. This was the only reason why in 1986 the philosopher Jürgen Habermas could express his pride in the unconditional opening of West German society to the political culture of the West. The state-proclaimed anti-fascism of the GDR led to much less of a rejection of German national views than the free formation of opinion in the western part of the country.
For East Germany, the “Long Way to the West”, as you called one of your most important works, is not yet completed?
Given the radically different development in a divided Germany, this is not surprising. The distance to everything “strange”, which is much greater in the east than in the west, is an example of this. This is one of the inherited burdens of the division of Germany, which has not been completely overcome even 30 years after unification.
On the positive side, October 3, 1990 finally resolved the “German question” about the unity of the country.
This October break should really be a reason to look back. Because the German question has even been solved in a threefold sense: first, reunited Germany in unity and freedom – the two great demands of the 1848 revolution – has finally entered the circle of Western democracies. Second, the border and territorial issue was finally resolved by the binding recognition of Poland’s western border on the Oder and Neisse. And third, membership of the united Germany in NATO and the European Union solves the security problem surrounding Germany.
Berlin on the night of November 9-10, 1989: The fall of the Berlin Wall made the reunification of Germany possible. (Source: image broker / image images)
At the same time, however, conflicts remain. You have regretted the arrogance that Germany shows towards its neighbors. But what should German politics do if the governments in Hungary and Poland attack the rule of law?
We must defend the political culture of the West. Not only in Germany, but also at all European levels. That is why we must find a credible European response to the challenges of Budapest and Warsaw. If that fails, the European Union will cease to be a community of values.
The correct answer is difficult to find. The unanimity principle dominates in the European Council, so Hungary and Poland could avoid unpopular decisions, such as lifting voting rights, by covering each other.
That is a central challenge: the liberal democracies within the European Union must oppose the illiberals. If this is not possible through formal resolutions of the EU institutions, then through resolutions at the intergovernmental level. The fundamental question is whether the European Union wants to remain more than an economic association in the future. Dismantling the rule of law within a Member State of the EU is clearly contrary to the principles of the union of states enshrined in the 1993 Copenhagen accession criteria and the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. hesitate.
What will it look like if we look beyond Europe? The West has lost its primacy in the world, you said earlier. But how can his model of liberal democracy still hold its own?
The West is in danger, not least because of itself, but I am a little less skeptical about the future of the West than I was in 2017.
The appeal of the Western model is uninterrupted worldwide. This is currently apparent from developments in Belarus. The protesters’ demands for freedom and the rule of law cannot be suppressed in the long run, neither in Belarus nor in neighboring Russia. And in China too, I cannot imagine that in the long run the emerging middle class and the working class will accept the extremely restrictive maneuvering of the party and the state.
That sounds very optimistic.
A certain amount of optimism can sometimes be a downright moral duty in the sense of my Königsberg countryman Immanuel Kant.
Mr. Winkler, thank you for speaking to us.