In Defense of Germans

Can I say a few words in defense of Germans? The Euro crisis that’s been building for years now, with Greece as its molten core, is hard to comprehend. I mean, I get the general idea. Two dozen nations (give or take) are united by one currency but lack a governing entity that can set fiscal policies. It’s like trying to run an orchestra without a conductor. But is it in fact true, as Paul Krugman has been repeating for years, that Brussels and its technocrats are “trying to run Europe on the basis of fantasy economics”? For an untrained person, the fine points (or any points) of macroeconomics and international finance can get pretty murky.

What has been clear is the role increasingly assigned to Germany, at least here in the United States: villain. A recent article from the New York Times, ominously titled “Germany’s Destructive Anger,”  faults the Germans not merely for being selfishly shortsighted in their economic policies, but for being rigid, vindictive, self-righteous and dyspeptic. The article is by an economist, and that’s significant. Most “average” Americans may only vaguely know that a Euro crisis is happening (“you mean, the soccer thing?”), but if you sketch for them the outlines of the current situation, most will say that the Greeks need to clean up their act and pay their debts. Why should the Germans be blamed?  But the opposite opinion prevails among economists, almost all of whom see Germany at fault. The main points:

1) Austerity in Europe has been a mistaken policy. When financial crisis hit here in 2008, our government responded with bailouts, government spending, and cheap money to inflate the economy. Europe should do the same.

2) Germany fails to grasp its own self-interest. If lesser countries are allowed to leave the Euro zone—or forced out—it will over time almost certainly damage Germany’s powerful export machine. But Germans are choosing to punish Greece, rather than taking a coolly systemic view of the situation.

3) Germans are conveniently forgetting the role debt and debt forgiveness played at critical moments in their own history: after World War I, when massive debt destabilized governments and led to fascism; and after World War II, when the victorious allies chose the Marshall Plan (another proposal, the Morgenthau Plan, which sought to keep Germany perpetually under-developed, was rejected), forgave war debts, and laid the foundation for the postwar “economic miracle” in West Germany.

Increasingly, though, the critique rests on the idea that Germans are mean and vindictive.

Another Times article asserts a German desire to “humiliate” Greece, and characterizes the prickly and unlikeable finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, as emblematic of “a Germanic embrace of the rules and a Nietzschean attitude.”

I can’t address the economic issues, but I will say this, from my experience of living for six years in Germany: the “German as villain” is way off base.

By any scale of civic virtues, Germany and Germans would score high. The country’s efforts to atone for Nazi genocide have made it, according to Holocaust legal scholar Lawrence Douglas, “the poster boy for national self-reckoning, the rare instance of a land willing to face down its monstrous history.” German foreign policy reflects a strong disinclination, both broad and deep in the populace, to use or threaten military force. The country’s willingness to accept refugees and offer political asylum over the decades has been almost without peer. Its politics remain freer of xenophobic belligerence than that of most other European countries. Its environmental policies with respect to solar power, green technologies, waste disposal and recycling, greenhouse emissions reduction, nuclear power, and the whole array of Umweltfreundlich (environmentally friendly) measures, place it far ahead of us. Its support of the arts and artists is generous. And when it came to reuniting with the former Communist German Democratic Republic, (West) German taxpayers took on a staggering burden, in the neighborhood of $2 trillion –as if, one commentator remarked at the time, the U.S. decided to bring all of Mexico up to the American standard of living and do it within ten years.

While generalizations are of course tricky, as a people I have found Germans to be pacifistic, reasonable, responsible and notably open to hearing, and respecting, the stories and views of people very different from themselves. This is a political culture in which Toleranz is practically worshiped, and conflict and belligerence instinctively abhorred.

My German friends are resigned to the readiness with which the world perceives the ugly German bully. One close friend, an environmental biologist in Leipzig, emailed back regarding the two articles from the Times. “Well, anyone who insists on holding people to their contracts isn’t very popular these days—in this case, German politicians.” As for vindictiveness, he writes, “It’s the Greek politicians who strike me as vindictive, demanding additional war reparations seventy years after the end of the war.” But he quickly lapses into a kind of rueful humor I recall well from my years there. “Shall we take a trip to Greece?” he asked. “It’s a beautiful country. And as a German I am eager to contribute to the economy there.” 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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