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Is a German 'Fourth Reich' emerging?

Europeans accuse Berlin of using the euro crisis to boost German power.

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A statue of the euro in front of the European Parliament building in Brussels, Belgium. (Mark Renders/Getty Images)

BERLIN, Germany — It may have been a bad idea to send a German. And his name certainly didn’t help matters.

When Horst Reichenbach arrived in Athens recently to head a new European Union task force to help the country deal with its debt, the Greek media instantly dubbed him “Third Reichenbach.”

Cartoons appeared of him in Nazi uniform. A Greek tabloid showed a photo of his office with the headline: “The new Gestapo headquarters.”

The Greeks are not alone in harboring suspicions toward Germany, which occupied the country during World War II. The British conservative press is up in arms. The Daily Mail went so far as to accuse the Germans of attempting to use the euro crisis to “conquer Europe” and establish a “Fourth Reich.” Meanwhile in Poland, Germany’s supposed imperial ambitions became an issue in the recent elections.

And as the euro crisis has deepened, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pushed for the EU to have a greater say in the domestic governance of the euro zone’s seventeen members. Among other measures, she has called for real European power over countries’ budgets.

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With Italy now getting sucked into the debt spiral, Merkel has warned that deep structural reforms were needed quickly. “That will mean more Europe, not less Europe," she has said repeatedly, most recently on Monday at a meeting of her conservative Christian Democratic party. Likewise, party members reportedly want more power for Germany in the European Central Bank, by changing its voting system so that it is based on economic strength. Currently, each member country has one vote.

Here’s the rub: when the German leader calls for greater European power and influence, pretty much everyone interprets that to mean German power and influence. As the richest and most populous country in the union, Germany’s influence vastly overshadows that of the Brussels-based eurocrats.

Indeed, when people have a beef about the EU, they no longer complain about Brussels. They complain about Berlin.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. On the contrary, after World War II, a major impetus for creating the European Union was that it would curb German power. Countries that had waged war against each other twice would tie their economies so closely together that future conflict would be impossible.

A similar calculation helped fuel the rise of the euro zone. As the price for accepting German reunification, the French president at the time, Francois Mitterrand, demanded that Germany give up its precious deutschmark and commit to a common currency. The goal was to buffer German power, not to bolster it.

Reluctant hegemony

In practice, while the member states big and small always had a supposedly equal say, the heart of the union has long been the Franco-German relationship. From the outset, Germany was to provide the economic firepower, and France the political leadership. That was how the Germans like it.

“Germans tended to lead from behind, and allow the French symbolically to occupy a major role,” said William Paterson, professor of German politics at Aston University in the UK. Now, however, the French economy appears increasingly shaky, with its banks deeply exposed to the debt of weak peripheral countries. Paris is desperately attempting to hold on to its coveted triple-A credit rating. The traditional relationship has tilted power toward Germany.

For all the talk of “Merkozy,” it’s increasingly clear that the German chancellor is in the driver’s seat.

“Germany does everything it can to portray an image of evenness, and a balanced relationship” with France, said Olaf Cramme, director of the Policy Network think-tank based in London. However “the relationship has become extremely one-sided, and Germany is calling the shots,” policymakers in France have told him, he said.

Berlin seems not to be completely comfortable with this role. Germany is a “reluctant hegemon,” said Paterson. Debtor countries “look to Germany to get them out of the mess,” he said. “This puts the Germans in the unenviable position of: if not Germany, who?”

Exacerbating the tensions, Germans grumble about the costs of the euro zone. Their politicians in turn appear patronizing toward the countries in trouble, lecturing them about fiscal responsibility.

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This, of course, ignores the many benefits that Germany has derived not only from the common