BERLIN — Klaus Scharioth, who served as Germany’s ambassador to the United States during both George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations, was born in 1946, the year after Germany’s surrender in World War II. His earliest impressions of America were of a magnanimous, generous country.
“It was never forgotten that the United States included Germany in the Marshall Plan, which you would not have expected,” he told me, speaking of American aid to rebuild Europe after the war. He remembers getting packages of food from the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, or CARE: “The victor sends the one who is defeated, and who began the war, CARE packages! Imagine that. It doesn’t happen too often.”
In the world he grew up in, America was seen as the guarantor of the liberal democratic order, an order in which Germany, abandoning its aggressive history, would come to thrive. And so for many Germans, it’s a profound shock that the president of the United States now attacks that order, while appearing to fawn over Russia.
“Germans have grown accustomed to the fact that the United States would always be their friends,” Scharioth said. “And it’s like when a very good friend leaves you. It hurts. I would say of all European countries, the Germans psychologically are the ones who are wounded most.”
I traveled to Würzburg, Germany, last week for a conference about the free press, where journalists from Russia, Turkey, Hungary and Poland, among other countries, spoke of the challenges of reporting in conditions of ever-increasing authoritarianism. Afterward I spent a few days in Berlin, speaking to politicians and foreign policy experts as Donald Trump threatened to blow up NATO. In both places there was a funereal sense — not universal, but pervasive — that the era of open societies might be ending.
“For me, the key thing is the Enlightenment,” Scharioth said. “I think that keeps the E.U. together, the values of the Enlightenment — a free press, religious freedom, minority protection, free elections, democracy, a free judiciary independent of all the other branches of government, tolerance, respect for others. I’m afraid the United States might no longer be speaking out for these values. And that makes me very anxious.”
Obviously, even before Trump, not everyone in Germany admired the United States the way Scharioth did. As in every country in Europe, there has been significant anti-American sentiment in Germany, particular on the far left and the far right. But those Germans who do believe in the best of American values are struggling to come to terms with a world in which the United States, whose support has undergirded German foreign policy assumptions for 70 years, can’t be trusted.
“The trans-Atlantic relationship is not going to survive eight years of Trump,” said Marcel Dirsus, a center-right-leaning political scientist at the University of Kiel. He’s not sure it can survive four. “What comes next is anyone’s guess,” he said.
That phrase “trans-Atlantic relationship” might sound like a diplomatic banality. But a world without it would be an extremely different place. America has long wanted Europeans to spend more on their own defense, but should every nation in Europe feel the need to significantly build up its military — and perhaps to nuclearize — the continent would likely become far less stable. There’s no reason to take for granted that most countries in Europe would remain open, pro-Western democracies.
Ironically, part of the original purpose of NATO was to prevent a return of German militarism: Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, once quipped that the organization’s purpose was “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” European integration was premised on American protection. Now that protection is no longer reliable, and to some, America itself seems like a threat.
When I met with Cem Özdemir, a member of the German Bundestag from the center-left Green Party, he spoke with awe of the Statue of Liberty and all it represents. “That was the dream of everybody in the world, that one day we would all live in democracies,” he said. “One day, we would all live in a world that is fair and just. If the guy in the center of this world is evil, evil has won.”
Özdemir was the first politician of Turkish descent to serve in Germany’s parliament and, as a former Green Party co-chairman, the first to lead a major political party. He has sometimes been referred to as the German Obama; an Obama bobblehead sits on the desk of his office. He was staggered by the turn America has taken.
“It reminds me of a James Bond movie,” he said. “You have a guy” — Putin — “who has a clear plan. Step 1, Step 2. It’s Brexit, it’s President Trump, it’s having Europe stumbling, it’s having authoritarian regimes getting stronger on a daily basis, it’s an escalation in Syria. He gets everything he wants.” But while the world seems to be ruled by Bond villains, he said, there is “no James Bond.”
Özdemir hopes that a more integrated Europe, anchored by a Franco-German alliance, can serve as a counterweight to mounting illiberalism. Knitting the countries of Europe even closer together will be a monumental challenge, since right-wing populism is on the rise within France and Germany as well as outside them. But he sees no other choice, given the existential threats to liberal democracy bearing down on Europe. “From the East we’re attacked by Mr. Putin, and now we’re also attacked by the White House,” he said.
It’s mind-boggling that one freakish American election, resulting in a presidency that a majority of Americans never wanted, could do so much damage not just to the United States but also to the global order that the United States created in the wake of World War II. But Germans know as well as anyone the havoc a single demagogue can wreak when the forces of decency are exhausted and unsure of themselves, and they can’t help seeing Trump through the lens of their own hideous history.
“When I talked to my American friends in 2016, I always reminded them of what happened in Europe,” Scharioth said. “Nobody thought in the early 1920s that Italy would become a dictatorship. Nobody thought that Germany, supposed a quite cultured nation, would get rid of democracy in a very short time. Maybe when you have this European experience, you might be more pessimistic than others.”