Being a Germany watcher in the early 21st century can often feel like being an expert on ancient Greece: You kind of missed all the exciting bits. Alas, that seems to be changing. At the same time an economic cyclone is threatening to wreck one of the world’s more deceptively combustible societies, Germany is also emerging as the fulcrum of Vladimir Putin’s strategy to salvage his war in Ukraine by breaking Western solidarity—a gambit that now involves a credible nuclear weapons threat. For a country with an almost uniquely pathological fear of inflationary shocks, populist politics, and nuclear technology, the winter of 2022 is shaping up to be a horror show.
What is currently grist for German nightmares may also turn out to be a genuine tragedy for the entirety of Europe, as well as the United States. For several decades, Germany was able to build strong domestic cohesion, a solid social welfare system, and limited income inequality on the back of a strong manufacturing sector and competitive exports. This kept unemployment low, wages stable, and politics bland. Their high quality of life often came at the expense of poorer members of the eurozone, but few Germans could argue with the result: the world’s fourth-largest economy and one of its most steady and apparently sane political societies.
But the last two years, and the last seven months in particular, have revealed this model to be something of a Ponzi scheme. The entire German system, it turns out, depended on a never-ending supply of cheap Russian gas, immaculate just-in-time Chinese supply chains, and ever-expanding foreign markets. No other country bet more on the end of history, and we all know how that turned out.