The Limits of German Patience

(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.