The article explores German leadership in Europe – mirrored in national-populist media discourses in Britain, Greece and Poland to engage with populist ideas of European integration as a ‘German plot to take over the continent’. Accusations of Brussels’ institutions being modelled after German blueprints and therefore discrediting the EU as another attempt of German imperialism constrain Berlin’s ability for effective and legitimate European leadership. By applying role theory, this article argues that these populist discourses should not be quickly dismissed as political folklore. Rather, it is suggested that such readings deserve more attention and therefore, the article asks: Why do these ideas and images resonate so well? The argument presents three supportive contexts of a German leadership paradox which – together with vivid WW II memories – lead to the persistence of populist discourses as a series of crises impact the EU: 1) Germany’s Nazi past; 2) German nation-building partly resembling European integration processes; and 3) like the EU, Germany projects its interests in terms of normative power (or Zivilmacht), thereby constructing and recognising their respective selfs in ‘civilising missions’. Again, the paper does not aim to strengthen such populist readings but instead advocates to adress them more openly.