The New Old German Problem

Reflections on Germany

Munich -- I’ve been walking the last two days through Munich. Much of the city core was bombed out by the allies by spring 1945. Yet today there is little evidence of such destruction. The museums are among the best in the world, the streets and parks spotless, the infrastructure superb, and the people as hard at work as ever. To walk an urban street in Germany is a different experience from say in Athens or Istanbul — traffic follows law, pedestrians are respected, horns are used rarely, trash is absent. In other words, things work and work well.

Such observations sound stereotypical these days, but to even the casual observer the difference between life in Germany and much of the eastern and southern Mediterranean seems far greater than the divide between a Minnesota and Mississippi. For someone who has lived in Greece and occasionally visits Germany, it becomes increasingly clearer each year why the European Union won’t work. Germans work and create wealth. Yet  under the present system, they do not receive commensurate psychological rewards — and they increasingly receive insufficient material compensation as well.

And history shows us that an unhappy Germany is a very dangerous thing indeed.

Memory Lane

Let me explain by a brief historical detour.

After the unification of Germany in 1871 and its subsequent alliances over the next decades with Austria, Europe was not sure how to handle its powerful German-speaking center. In the twenty-first century it is politically incorrect to suggest that culture matters, though most privately grant that the German work ethic, cohesiveness, and competence all lead to economic and financial clout that eventually ends in superior political — and ultimately military — power.

In the last century and a half, there have been all sorts of ways to check that German dynamism from spilling over its borders. The idea of a two-front British/French/Russian alliance was supposed to dissuade Germany from expanding its sphere of power either westward or eastward. Nonetheless, wars usually followed, and it was no solace to the millions who perished in World Wars I and II that such anti-German containment, largely aided  by the entry of the United States into two wars, eventually led to the defeat of Germany — for a time.

Try, try again

After the war, a divided Germany,  shared European fear of Soviet communism, and a nuclear France and Britain all in various ways ensured there were supposed to be no more worries about Germany for a half-century.

But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the implosion of the Soviet Union, a newly ascendant Germany — once the costs of East German unification were absorbed — was supposed to be integrated into the new utopian European Union with it common currency, the euro.

That is, the unstated idea was that natural German economic strength could be harnessed through new tariff-free markets for its export-driven economy, whose goods and services would help bring eastern and southern Europe up to northern European standards of living. Germany would be captain, but still a team member, and all would pay homage to its star for leading the team to victory.

So cash-flush German banks loaned the European poorer nations easy money to buy all things German. The EU would both guarantee the debts, and reap the benefits at large — as Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain would begin to see their infrastructure and lifestyles match those of France, Germany and the Netherlands. Southern siestas, strikes, tax evasion, and low worker productivity would all be nullified by northern European largess.

The Supposed End of History

As a result, instead of the old deadly inter-European rivalry, for a while a continental culture did indeed emerge. Prosperous Europeans from the Mediterranean to the Baltic  embraced socialism, utopianism abroad, childlessness, agnosticism, and a fashionable anti-Americanism, ensuring no more 19th-century nationalism or 20th-century wars.  At least all that was what we were lectured about for the last twenty years by European chauvinists and dreamy American liberals.

Yet such dreams were always predicated on some dubious propositions.