Research Problem and Summary

In just a generation, Germany has once again become the most powerful country in Europe. My current project, Dangerous Power: An International History of German Unification, 1969-1993, explains how it came to be so. 

Today, as millions of refugees pour onto European shores, they dream of building their new lives in Germany’s cities. As the euro courts disaster, as Greece defaults on its loans, as the other Mediterranean economies spiral into decline, credits and stimulus packages from Germany remain the best hope for recovery. In the absence of coordinated EU fiscal policy, the Berlin government and the Bundesbank dominate European finance and monetary relations. German firms control subsidiaries across the continent, and the arms of German industry reach into nearly every market in the world. As tensions with Russia rise, the Germans remain the west’s indispensable intermediary with Moscow, simultaneously condemning Russia’s bid for a renewed “sphere of influence” while keeping Russian energy supplies flowing into western Europe. The Federal Republic of Germany remains America’s most valuable and reliable European ally.[i] The U.S. figures as the world’s most powerful country, and Germany is Europe’s most powerful country. Any American objective requiring European approval or consensus is hopeless without imprimatur from Berlin.

A generation ago, such a position for Germany remained inconceivable. Dependent upon the victors of World War II, torn between east and west, burdened by its Nazi past, Germany lay “subject” to any “requirements as may now and hereafter be imposed on her.”[ii] Destroyed, dispirited, and divided, the German nation remained under military occupation, forbidden from acquiring nuclear weapons, relegated to observer status in the United Nations, capped in military size and scope, and with sectors of its economy ceded to international control. How then did Germany become a world power?

Many scholars have explored Germany’s place within the international system, but to-date, there has not been a focused, exhaustive historical study of Germany’s bid to overcome its dependent status and to rise to world power. My project chronicles that transition in international affairs. By focusing on U.S.-West German relations, it shows how Bonn leveraged its relationship with the United States, often exploiting the conflicting and inconsistent European policies across five American presidential administrations—from Richard Nixon to George H. W. Bush. It shows how the Germans transformed liabilities into opportunities and how Bonn gradually recovered its capacity for political action, simultaneously accepting “the system of structural dependencies that had evolved on the European continent” and shaping the multilateral networks that grew up around that system for its own ends.[iii] Through coordinated and consistent diplomatic effort from Bonn, institutions once designed to contain German power—NATO, the Western European Union, the international nuclear weapons régime, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe—ultimately came to be dominated by Bonn (and then Berlin). Arrangements intended to harness German wealth—the EC, European monetary cooperation, the G7—ultimately facilitated the Federal Republic of Germany’s benign hegemony over western Europe.

Nationally divided and deprived of their sovereignty, the West Germans exercised the only influence in international affairs that they could—by pressing for greater multilateral cooperation and for economic integration. Across the last two decades of the Cold War, they shaped the institutions that would outlive the east-west conflict and would guide European order into the next century.


THIS PROJECT HAS ENJOYED FINANCIAL SUPPORT FROM THE FOLLOWING INSTITUTIONS: 

  • Seven Society 
  • Stresemann-Gesellschaft e.V. 
  • Texas A&M University 
  • Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation 
  • U.Va. Corcoran Department of History 
  • U.Va. Institute of Humanities and Global Cultures 
  • U.Va. Office of the Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
  • U.Va. Office of the Vice President for Research 
  • Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
  • Andrew W. Mellon Foundation 
  • Buckner W. Clay Endowment for the Humanities 
  • Bankard Fund for Political Economy 
  • Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation 
  • Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
  • John Anson Kittredge Fund
  • Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg 
  • Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation 
  • Rheinland-Pfalz Staatskanzlei
  • Scowcroft Institute for International Affairs 

[i] Pew Research Center, “Germany and the United States: Reliable Allies,” 7 May 2015.

[ii] Declaration Regarding the Defeat of Germany and the Assumption of Supreme Authority by the Allied Powers, 5 June 1945, in Documents on Germany, 1944-1985 (Washington: U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, 1986), 33.

[iii] Helga Haftendorn, Deutsche Außenpolitik zwischen Selbstbeschränkung und Selbstbehauptung, 1945-2000 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2001).