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Works and Days

The Limits of German Patience

June 3rd, 2012 - 12:48 pm

(Cologne, Germany)

I’m still in Germany, and keep noticing a predictable, but continually interesting, pattern in talking to Germans of all walks of life — tourists, hoteliers, guides, drivers, casual bystanders, or students. When Greece comes up (or rather is brought up by Americans), there is a noticeable tension. Brows tighten. German smiles momentarily vanish. A second later a forced recovery and grimace follow, accompanied by a sort of pained EU propaganda speech, along the lines of “Well, yes, we all have to get along” or “We Europeans of the Union must work something out.” Then after the platitudes, we are back to silence and a look to see whether their constructed optimism worked on you.

The Scratched Veneer

But then if you press with a polite question or two — something like an innocent (or perhaps not quite so innocent) “But is it really true that the Greeks find ways to retire in their fifties while you work to 67?” or “How did those deficits get so big without being detected?” — the façade crumbles. Your German friend takes a quick look to the side, to see whether anyone is listening. And then in a quiet, but soon to be louder and finally animated voice, he starts in on the “EU racket” and “How in the world is Germany supposed to pay for all these freeloaders?”

In minutes you begin to sense that the entire cohesion of the EU is predicated now on two dubious premises. One, of course, is 70-year-old war guilt. I do not mean that in the logical sense as it pertains to the use of victimization by Mediterranean debtors (after all, how can once fascist neutrals like Spain and Portugal, or the successors of Mussolini’s Axis Italy, piggy-back onto Greece’s World War II suffering?). Rather, there is a larger guilt about the Holocaust, Hitler, and starting a war that ended up killing 50 million and, obviously, wrecking Germany (Germans like to point out the extent of the 8th Air Force’s and Bomber Command’s destruction along the Rhine, where 60-80% of some of the larger urban centers were destroyed.) War guilt, then, looms as the lever to pry out German cash, and after three generations the Germans are getting tired of it.

The second premise touches on a vaguer issue — the near admission that with a wink and a nod German companies and banks set up a sort of mercantilism, in which a Mercedes or Siemens found lucrative markets in Mediterranean Europe, got banks to back buying on time, and then sold things on credit to dubious government-sponsored entities and private corporations. After all, the Athenians had no business having one of the highest per capita rates of Mercedes ownership in Europe. Did Germans really think that siestas and 9 p.m. dinners led to prompt repayment of Audi and BMW loans?

No Players Left?

In other words, Germans seem to admit that they were playing poker with amateurs, that they knowingly took the players for a ride, and that they now find themselves with all the chips and no one anymore with the wherewithal to keep on playing. And yet they don’t think they can start over and divvy up the chips, not just because to do so would be to forfeit their winnings, but also because they suspect that the game would repeat itself identically every five or six years. They are right, which explains why the euro in its present manifestation is doomed, and why the Germans are exasperated for doing everything rightly that is now condemned as doing everything wrongly.

Worrywarts?

The EU crackup and the looming costs for Germany — are Germans to work until 70 or are they going to put off another bridge over the Rhine, or pass up building an autobahn? — seem to lead to other — how should I put it? — “exasperations.“ The Muslim population in places like Berlin and Cologne is growing and not being assimilated. Meanwhile, the good-life, statist Germans are shrinking and aging with one of the most depressing fertility rates in Europe. The angst grows because the Germans themselves brought Muslims in, kept them as permanent second-class aliens, and now are quite confused over their proper status — both not wanting them to become full Germans (there is still a word, after all, Volk, in their language, which, like Raza, denotes a solidarity beyond mere shared citizenship), and yet resentful of their chauvinism and often militant Islamism. As one of my conversationalists put it, “Oh yes, the Turks — how can their sons somehow afford our BMWs?”

Indeed, the list of other exasperations is growing. The once beloved United Nations’ UNESCO bunch is likewise picking on poor Germany by “red listing” some of their tourist treasures. Must Germans really tear down their new super-modern aerial tram over the Rhine — an engineering marvel which resembles a designer kitchen as much as a cable lift — at Koblenz, or postpone building high-rise office towers and apartments in Cologne just to ensure UN World Heritage status for their Rhine gorge castles or the cathedral at Cologne (e.g., “So an Iran or Syria is to be judge of our heritage?”)?

Then there is Angela Merkel’s proposed shutdown of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants in the wake of panic about the Fukushima tsunami disaster. Once minor German concerns about geological fault lines and obsolete designs have now snowballed into a hyped-up nuclear terror (e.g., if the Toyota-building Japanese can have a disaster, then even the BMW-building Germans in theory could, too).

But from where comes the replacement electrical power? (The Ruhr today looks like Detroit and Cleveland should have.) There is still plenty of coal, but the green Germans pride themselves on being model globing warming alarmists. The German countryside is dotted with enormous windmills, but they seem to the casual observer to turn slowly, if at all. I have enjoyed about three or four hours of sunshine every other day, so I don’t think solar is going to save Germans from blackouts. In other words, Germans seem again agitated over their dilemma: the greenest of Europeans cannot survive through wind and solar power; their coal is politically incorrect; they have little natural gas; and now nuclear, which used to be a non-carbon, non-heating approved energy, is discredited. What is a good pan-European to do? Perhaps buy nuclear-produced electricity from a cash-hungry France?

Be Careful About What You Wish For

Another grimace comes from mention of their beloved Barack Obama. He too seems lately to be adding to German angst. Make no mistake about it and let me be perfectly clear, Germans, could they vote in the U.S., would reelect Obama by a wide margin. I’ll spare you the reasons (Bush comes up in the conversation, of course). But they are edgy with him nonetheless: Is it really a good time to be drawing down NATO and redeploying Americans to “Asia”? (As in “who will pay for our defense or ensure NATO solidarity as the EU unravels?”)

Resentments, or so Germans fear, are building against Germany and Germans themselves sometimes sound as if they fear their inner demons as much as do the French in the Alsace. Does Obama — “Polish death camps,” Austrian-speaking Austrians, Berlin Wall anniversary skipped, the old demand for speechifying at the Brandenburg Gate — appreciate the contours of Europe politics and the pretensions of the Atlantic Alliance? Germans assume that we Americans grasp their old postwar two-step that allows them to snicker about Americans (e.g., McDonald’s, Texas, George W. Bush, etc.) publicly and count on us privately. In sum, concerning Obama, there grows a flicker of realization that Germany proverbially should have been careful about what it wished for.

An Edgy Nation

Let me sum up. Germans are, just as the stereotypes go, thrifty, solvent, and an industrial people who played by all the postwar rules. To watch the Rhine is a dizzying experience as barges zoom by, as if on a three-lane highway, while rail cars roar in the background and the parallel autobahns are crammed, all beneath the steam stacks of the Ruhr plants. In comparison, California seems like it is in a slumber.

Germans rebuilt their country, renounced war and did not rearm, unified their bifurcated nation at their own cost, subsidized European development, were good EU and UN head nodders, are at the forefront of the green global warming cult, are rejecting nuclear power — and are terrified that they are unfairly not liked. I am not sure whether they are afraid that the world does not appreciate their efforts or that anytime the world does not appreciate German efforts, petulant Germans can become a bit scary to Germans themselves as well as to their neighbors.

I would be very careful to support Germany as much as we can in accordance with U.S. national interests. I would not, like Obama, encourage French-socialist calls for “growth,” which is a euphemism for inflating and stimulating European economies without commensurate structural reform at the expense of Germany.

I would also be careful about downsizing and redirecting NATO at a time when Germany has an anemic military and a growing list of envious if not angry rivals and former friends. I would cut Germany some slack (and I have been guilty in the past in print of not doing this) about its hypocrisies and strained multicultural internationalism, given its own psychological uneasiness about its past proclivities. And finally, at some point, cannot some American flat out state that it was Germany that worked hard, saved, invested, and prospered, and that is to be admired rather than caricatured and condemned? Texas is not responsible for California any more than Germany is responsible for contemporary Greece. An envious Europe seems to look at Germany the way that Obama has trained us to disdain those above the $200,000 in annual income Mason-Dixon line.

Yes, we might prefer to vacation in Florence or Santorini, but only because we are able to — given that there are for a while longer more wealth-producing Germanys in the world than there are wealth-consuming Italys and Greeces.

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