As German national identity at last becomes more 'normal', Andreas Kluth ponders what that means for the country's view of its role in Europe and the world.

One generation after its fall, the Berlin wall, once so inhuman and deadly, has become alternately art and kitsch. It was art on 9 November, the 25th anniversary of its breaching. Eight thousand white helium balloons marked the line where the wall once snaked through the city, past the famous Brandenburg Gate and through narrow alleys. Berliners and tourists, about a million of them, thronged into the city centre and squeezed together, rather as the crowds of East Germans had done a quarter of a century earlier when they first pressed through the checkpoint at Bornholmer Strasse. A collective expression of delight rose with the balloons as they were released and the 'Wall of Light' flew away into the misty Berlin night sky.

The rest of the time, the wall endures mainly as kitsch. At Checkpoint Charlie, tourists get their picture taken next to enterprising young men dressed as soldiers of the Allied powers. Then they go around the corner to rent a Trabi, the iconic East German car whose two-stroke engine emitted the characteristic stink and noise of the communist dictatorship. These rental Trabis, however, are painted in safari hues and other jaunty colours. In groups they exit a parking lot across from the finance ministry – the building where Hermann G??ring had his office during the Nazi years, where East Germany was founded in 1949, where after reunification an agency privatised the East's state-owned enterprises and where Germany's finance minister today manages the money flows of Germany and the eurozone. The tourists in their rental Trabis are blissfully unaware of most of this, shrieking as they race around the block a few times before heading off to Berlin's other attractions.

And thus a liberating sense of near-normality has settled over Germany, a country that until recently assumed it could never have a 'normal' relationship with its past and its identity, so replete with shame, guilt, atonement and division. The new and more relaxed feeling first emerged in 2006, when Germany hosted the FIFA World Cup. In a nation where (at least in the former West) flag-waving had been more or less taboo since 1945, Germany's black, red and gold colours suddenly burst out everywhere. Flags adorned balconies, cars, prams and human bodies (both clothed and naked). But the flags of the other nations competing in the World Cup were also well represented, and neither the Germans nor their visitors perceived this motley mix of patriotisms as anything other than a great big party.

And yet, in Germany, patriotism will always have an asterisk attached to it. It may run hot in football, where passion is the point. But in other areas, and especially in Germany's official bearing and its signals to the rest of Europe and the world, pride is always accompanied by the requisite humility and restraint, lest somebody somewhere espy chauvinism in the mix. Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, personifies this style with her unpretentious and unassuming body language.

One telling moment occurred during the night of 22 September 2013, after the results of the national election had come in. Merkel was the evening's clear winner, and she stood with other leaders of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), on a stage to celebrate. Hermann Gr??he, the CDU's manager at the time, exuberantly flapped a little plastic German flag back and forth. If he and the flag had been American or British, nobody would have thought anything of it. But this was a German stage. Merkel deftly took the flag out of his hands, flashed him a curt and motherly glance, and put the flag away to celebrate in the (appropriately controlled) German way. The journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit has called this style 'cool nationalism'.

Twenty-five years ago, Germany's European partners barely dared to hope for such a development. When the wall fell, the leaders of Britain, France, Italy, the Soviet Union and other countries instinctively feared an atavistic resurgence of the old German nationalism. With respect to reunification they shared the sentiment that the French writer Fran??ois Mauriac once expressed: 'I love Germany so much that I am glad there are two of them.' Only the United States and Spain immediately saw the prospect of German reunification as a good thing for Europe. The general view, instead, was that reunification brought back the centuries-old 'German question': What would a united and powerful Germany's role in Europe be, and would it dominate the continent?

The scepticism of Fran??ois Mitterand, the French president, had the most concrete consequences. France understood European integration as a deal in which the economically superior Germany voluntarily defers to the political primacy of France. Germany then had the Deutsche mark, a currency so strong that the German central bank in effect dictated interest rates to the whole of the European Union, including France. It was 'Germany's nuclear bomb,' as Mitterand said. He meant that Germany's currency was the power-political equivalent of France's nukes. So Mitterand insisted that Germany Europeanise (that is, give up) its currency before he would give his blessing to reunification. Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor at the time, understood and agreed. Et voil? : the euro.

The history of Germany since reunification – the evolution of its zeitgeist and self-perception – can now be told in three chapters, roughly mapped to decades. During the first decade, the German question did not come up because the nation was busy with its own business, focussed inward on the Herculean task of integrating the (now lowercase) east and west. Even today, that remains a work in process. GDP per capita in the east is still only about two-thirds of that in the west, and the difference in wealth is much greater because most Ossis (easterners) never accumulated or inherited any to begin with. Years of net migration to the west have left swathes of the east depopulated. This struck me most vividly when I once made the mistake of visiting the birth house of Friedrich Nietzsche in a town called R??cken in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. The place was a ghost town: in the middle of a sunny day, nothing moved – no man, woman or dog – on the main streets. But the east also has successful regions and clusters. Dresden, for example, is comparable to the thriving cities of Bavaria. And the west has its own downtrodden regions – Bremen or the Westphalian rustbelt look a lot like parts of Saxony-Anhalt. The faultlines no longer run neatly along the former border, and the remaining disparities are no more pronounced than those in Belgium, Italy or other EU countries. So the task of splicing east and west together has receded in urgency. Many young Germans have lost interest in the topic. It is boring.

During the second decade after reunification, Germany's attention thus shifted to a different – but still internal – challenge. Its economy was called 'the sick man of Europe'. German weakness, not strength, was the problem. So Gerhard Schr??der, Merkel's predecessor as chancellor, launched the only ambitious package of reforms in the generation since reunification. At its core was a bid to liberalise Germany's labour market. People were prodded harder to get off welfare and to find and take jobs, even low-paying ones. In a parallel effort, unions and employers, in Germany's idiosyncratically corporatist business culture, agreed to keep wage growth moderate, often below inflation. In effect, this amounted to an internal devaluation against Germany's European and global trading partners. It boosted German employment and exports but, as we now know, at the cost of increasing imbalances within the eurozone.

Germany's attention at this point was still focussed inward. Its interests were economic and its self-identity almost parochial. There was little pressure, from outside or inside, to rethink Germany's international role. Aside from a few notable exceptions – such as when Schr??der sent German soldiers to help their allies stop the slaughter in Kosovo in the late 1990s – Germany kept out of international conflicts wherever possible, even when its closest partners, such as the US, France or Britain, had serious crises to solve. Guido Westerwelle, Merkel's foreign minister until 2013, called this stance one of 'strategic restraint'. The allies grew annoyed and accused Germany of ducking behind its past and pretending to be a huge Switzerland.

Many Germans, in their cool nationalism, took that as a compliment, of course. What's wrong with being Switzerland? If one had to summarise the German postwar identity, it would be mercantile, well-behaved, obedient to international and European rules and norms, and otherwise unthreatening, undemanding and almost apolitical. Psychologically, this was still a reaction to the guilt, shame and atonement culture of the immediate postwar years, only now it resided in a larger and reunified body. Germans like to be liked and hate to be hated.

This entire complex of self-definitions is crumbling in this third decade since reunification, which is only half over. It is a decade of successive crises that are external but require deep internal changes in Germany. First the euro crisis cast Germany in the unaccustomed role – which it has still not unreservedly accepted – of regional leader. What began as a debt crisis soon revealed itself to be a disease of deeper imbalances within the eurozone, imbalances which had emerged during the previous decade because of both the largesse of the crisis countries and the German reforms. Germany had to do something. So far it has done just enough to keep the eurozone together, and – of course – always and only as part of the EU's institutions.

These rescue measures have raised old German fears. Germans once again saw themselves disliked or even hated in such countries as Greece, which they had once occupied. At the same time, they came to see the EU's response as a cumulative softening of rules and institutions. From the German point of view, breaches include those of the 'no bail out' clause in the EU treaties and of the euro countries' internal deficit and debt rules. The most controversial breach, however, is the flexible interpretation by the European Central Bank (ECB) of its own mandate. In the German view, that mandate encompasses price stability and nothing else; in the view of Mario Draghi, the ECB's (Italian) president, it includes the purchase of bonds to keep the eurozone together and growing.

The result in Germany has been – as it could also be in the US, but not in France or Britain – a succession of court cases brought by individuals to Germany's supreme court, which only adds to the general impression there that something illegitimate or even illegal is going on in the euro rescues. This suspicion has even inspired a new party, the Alternative for Germany. Simultaneously, Germany's neighbours see their stereotypes confirmed: the Germans are inflexible and obsessed with rules. Perhaps most unsettling to Germans is that they increasingly see their traditional partner, France, among those critics. Rules, norms, and even the Franco-German tandem: one by one, German assumptions about Europe are being called into question.

The biggest shock to Germany's self-definition, however, came this year with Vladimir Putin's aggression in Ukraine. All the countries affected were once invaded and terrorised by Germany: the aggressor, Russia; the victim, Ukraine; and the horrified neighbours, from Poland to the Baltics. Toward all these eastern countries Germany has tried to show its new and good face since the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt in the 1970s. Even in the present crisis, many Germans (called Russlandversteher, 'Russia-understanders') cling to this empathetic response and try to see matters from the Russian point of view.

But again it is the breaking of rules and norms that Germans regard as the bigger, almost existential threat. Since 1945, Germans feel that borders must be sacrosanct and kept out of politics – one of the first gestures by Helmut Kohl after the Berlin wall fell was to remove all doubts that Germany would forever recognise the Oder–Neisse border with Poland. V??lkisch (ethnic) propaganda to move borders by force is to postmodern Germans an atavism, a throwback to the worst elements of the past. And that is the way of Putin.

As in the euro crisis, Merkel thus understood that there was no alternative to German leadership. The old protector, the US, is less committed to Europe since its 'pivot' toward Asia and preoccupation with other challenges. Poland, Germany's other partner besides France (the three coordinate in a forum they call the 'Weimar triangle'), is desperate for Germany to be even tougher toward Russia. Britain seems oddly absent. And the EU may have a 'high representative' for foreign policy (Italy's Frederica Mogherini), but when diplomats like Henry Kissinger want to talk to Europe (as he once said), they are still not sure whom to call. By default, therefore, they call Merkel.

And so, kicking and screaming, the Germans are being dragged into a debate they never wanted to have. It is a version of the old German question again: What is Germany's proper role today, in Europe and beyond? Joachim Gauck, Germany's (mainly ceremonial) president, made the debate explicit in a speech at the beginning of 2014. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister, and others are continuing the conversation (in what they call a 'review 2014' of foreign policy). Germans tell pollsters that they don't want Germany to play a bigger role. But they increasingly fear that Germany must.

Slowly, as the decade progresses, they will get used to that new role. What will save them is this new near-normality of their national identity, their cool nationalism. A new generation understands that it is fine, even for Germany, to have national interests and to defend them, as long as Germany heeds two lessons. First, those interests must be defined as preserving international order as such – the rules and institutions that Germany has come to rely on. Second, Germany must always lead only as one part of common institutions such as the EU or NATO. In short, Germany must never again go it alone. It may lead, but never dominate. It must understand its power, but use it in a way that is not hot, but cool.

Andreas Kluth is Berlin bureau chief of the Economist.

This article appears in edition 21.3 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas.