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A Fourth Reich?

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus   |   Jan. 23, 2012 at 6:27 AM   |   Comments

PARIS, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- There are moments, as this European drama of debt and deficit grinds on, when one wonders what Cecil von Renthe-Fink might have made of it.

A Prussian aristocrat and German diplomat who joined the Nazi Party in 1939, Renthe-Fink is one of those footnote figures of history who nonetheless embodied something important for his own time and for our own.

Having been the German plenipotentiary in Denmark, in 1943 he was moved to Vichy France to keep an eye on the nominal French head of state, Marshal Philippe Petain who was trying to open discreet links to Charles De Gaulle and the Free French movement overseas and to the British.

He succeeded in keeping Petain under control but Renthe-Fink's real claim to fame lies in a memorandum he drafted in August 1943 for Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop on the idea of a united Europe.

It was to be a confederacy under German leadership "based on free cooperation among independent nations." He proposed a customs-free economic union with a single central bank and eventually a common currency. There was to be a common transport plan to build an integrated system of railroads, river and air transport and autobahns, and a special plan for agriculture.

"Only by uniting can Europe maintain the position it has hitherto occupied in the world," he wrote.

The purpose of the confederacy was "to end the period of intestine wars and overcome European particularism." The key to the process was that the confederacy "does not mean domination, but a mutual relationship of trust and loyalty instead of the imperial methods of the former era."

His plan, written as the British and Americans had invaded Italy and as the German armies were reeling in retreat on the Eastern front, never went anywhere while Hitler remained in power. But as a prototype for today's European Union it looks uncannily accurate, with one exception, Britain, whom he described as "the continent's ancient enemy."

"Germany's fight against England is the European War of Unification," he wrote, and from his grave Renthe-Fink doubtless shared the delight with which many Europeans have greeted Britain's self-imposed isolation from the latest plan to rescue the eurozone.

And from Britain has come endless suggestions that today's Europe is unfolding according to Renthe-Fink's plan. The Daily Telegraph declares: "The euro crisis will give Germany the empire it's always dreamed of." The Daily Mail announces: "Rise of the Fourth Reich, how Germany is using the financial crisis to conquer Europe."

Germany's Der Spiegel magazine tried to analyze not only the overheated British reaction but also developments in Germany that triggered it, like the proud assertion that "suddenly German is being spoken in Europe" by Volker Kauder, the parliamentary leader of Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union.

And his counterpart on the left, SPD parliamentary leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier, chimed in that there are Germans who already anticipate "Britain's departure from the EU." And Brits bridled at the threat to the City of London when Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that "no country, no financial center and no financial product can be unsupervised from now on."

And yet the curious feature of this so-called Fourth Reich is how reluctantly the Germans themselves seem to approach the idea. Their foreign policies are relentlessly pacifist and their defense budget isn't much more than half of what the Brits and the French have been spending.

German policy in the euro crisis has been to avoid leadership and to reject the kind of full-blooded economic integration that Europe's federalists seek. Berlin has repeatedly turned down suggestions of a common euro-bond, backed by all the member states.

Above all, Germany doesn't want to be stuck with the bill for rescuing this Europe that is alleged to embody its long-held dream of a German-dominated continent.

The Germans know, because they have tried and counted the cost of their failure, that it cannot be done. Nor do today's Germans want to do so. What they want is for feckless Italians and Greeks to work hard and pay their taxes and control their debts like Germans do and not expect Germany to continue paying Europe's bills.

The harsh reality is that Germany will be less and less able to do so in the future. The Germans know that they have one of the lowest birthrates in Europe. They remain today the country with the largest population in Europe but within 25 years they will be outnumbered by both the French and the British who have Europe's highest birthrates and will this in the future have Europe's main potential labor force.

Today there are fewer than 7 million little Germans below the age of 10. There are 8 million little Brits of that age and 8.2 million little French boys and girls.

That is the ultimate refutation of the dream of Cecil von Renthe-Fink and the irony of modern Europe. They have created a Europe that rests and depends on a strong and vibrant German economy but we are running out of Germans.

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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