While other European capitals are full of angry protesters, in the sweltering German streets this week you’ll see crowds of young men draped in the flag and young women painted with its black, red and gold stripes, gleefully singing the national anthem.
The word “Europe” may inspire fear, rage or defensive anxiety elsewhere on the continent these days, but for a great many young Germans, it means little beyond travel, food and soccer. As Germany faces Greece in a symbolically loaded Euro 2012 showdown Friday night, polls show that Germans under 40 have little interest, one way or another, in the continent’s crisis.
It is an awkward moment: Chancellor Angela Merkel, after letting the continent’s crisis slide into a debt emergency that is threatening the viability of Spain, Greece and Italy, is now demanding “more Europe” as the alternative – more economic and political union, to prevent a future collapse.
But she is facing a generation gap that is threatening her ability to act, as the generation of Germans who came of age after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 – and long after the struggle to come to terms with the Nazi past had been resolved – no longer see the continent’s unity as a national obligation.
“I think a lot of my generation don’t think too much about Europe,” says Marc Hofmann, a 27-year-old political science student from Hamburg. “They take peace, and cheap and easy travel, for granted. They don’t know how much effort was needed to get to this point and they don’t know how much Europe influences their lives.”
Mr. Hofmann’s mother, 67-year-old Annelore, looks at the European crisis rather differently. She is part of the “1968 generation,” many of whom faced up to their parents’ Nazi-era roles and wanted to create a continent where a world war and a Holocaust couldn’t happen again – and then struggled again to help their eastern neighbours back onto their feet after communism ended. For them, it was vitally important to put an end to national borders and competing currencies, and turn Europe into a single community.
European and German unification, she says, “was a very important step to me … so the current crisis doesn’t make me question European integration.”
The 1968 generation was a divided group. Some, like former chancellor Helmut Kohl or Green Party ex-foreign minister Joschka Fischer, believed that atoning for the Holocaust was the sole German project, and this meant creating institutions that would render high-powered nationalism obsolete – whether the Brussels-based European Union, the 17-nation euro currency or even shared European military ventures.
But, as Ms. Merkel asks her country to struggle again to prevent a continent-wide crisis, many feel that those passions aren’t shared among the children of the ’68ers.
“My sense talking to younger Germans is that they feel much less sense of responsibility for the Nazi past – in the sense that it’s something that concerns them or should determine, in some way, German policy choices,” says Hans Kundnani, an expert on German generational politics with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Young people take Europe for granted – it’s just been there, there isn’t a sense of it having been something that required a struggle to create,” Mr. Kundnani says. “This argument about it being there to prevent war just doesn’t have any more traction … There isn’t a sense of crisis among young Germans.”
It isn’t that Germans under 40 are apathetic or apolitical, the surveys show: It is just that they increasingly tend to see the world through a national, rather than continental, lens. This is the generation that elected dozens of members of the anti-copyright Pirate Party to state legislatures in recent elections; they’re involved in “Occupy” protests and, especially, in Germany’s large-scale ecological and anti-nuclear protests, which take place entirely on a national or local level.
A decade ago, Germans were more likely than almost any other nationality to view themselves as “European” first and as citizens of their country, region or city second. This is changing fast. A poll taken last year by the firm Eurobarometer found that only 50 per cent of Germans felt that European Union membership was a “good thing,” compared to 60 per cent the year before and even higher numbers earlier. Similarly, only 23 per cent of Germans feel that Germany has a responsibility to bail out Greece (although the lion’s share of Greece’s debts and economic relationships are with Germany).
Experts say that the post-1989 generation is less polarized over Europe – their parents either adored or detested continental unification. They, on the other hand, simply don’t think about it very much at all, in part because they’re immersed in it. Spanish and Greek kids worry a lot about Europe, because it’s the part of their unemployment and economic misery. Young Germans don’t think much about Greece or Spain at all – and certainly don’t feel like they have a moral obligation to those countries.
“My parents are of the post-war generation whose parents in turn were still denounced as Nazis,” says Henrik Luechtenborg, a 28-year-old Berlin author. “That post-war generation had to deal with the European Union – they had to help build it up. … They were interested in establishing Germany as a sovereign state in a common Europe. … But a lot of young people only get seriously involved with Europe today when they profit professionally themselves. … They aren’t really worried about Greece and Spain.”
There is one remnant of the 1968-era thinking, though: A sense among some young people that Germany not only owes nothing, but that it looks wrong to have Germany taking the lead in solving the European crisis (even if it’s the only country with the resources to do so).
Among some politically active young Germans, there is a worry that talk of “leadership” (which in German is fuhrerschaft and sounds equally alarming to German ears) is misplaced. “Generally the Germans now like to believe that Germany should be saying what should happen in the EU and Europe,” says Sven Krumbeck, a 22-year-old Pirate Party member who was elected to the Schleswig-Holstein state parliament in May. “I think that’s a bit conceited.”
With files from Josie Le Blond in Berlin
Editor's note: An earlier version of this online article incorrectly spelled Marc Hofmann's name. This online version has been corrected.