on Mon Dec 5 21:09:49 2011, in response to EUEUEUEUEU Olog, posted by RockParkMan on Sat Nov 12 14:58:17 2011.
They are also starting to exhibit the kind of tendencies that George Santayana warned against.
European financial crisis? Not in Berlin
As Europe faces a make-or-break week, ordinary Germans seem more concerned with having fun, says Bruno Waterfield.
By Bruno WaterfieldIf Europe is on the brink of an economic catastrophe; it certainly did not feel like it among the revellers who flocked at the weekend to the Christmas market on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has issued dire warnings that the euro crisis poses an “existential” threat for peace and prosperity, tearing down the global economy and the Continent’s nation states with it. Now, ahead of this week’s make-or-break summit in Brussels, the rest of Europe is looking to the Germans to ride to the rescue.
6:30AM GMT 05 Dec 2011
But the mood was not so much pessimistic as hedonistic among Berliners taking time out from their shopping to relax with a warming glass of Gluhwein in the cold rain. “We don’t want to talk about the eurozone crisis. We are here for the shops and now it’s time to get drunk. We don’t want to talk about all that bloody crisis stuff,” cried a group of women, sentiments that raised a cheer on tables nearby. In fact, among the shoppers, the international pressure pushing Germany into a historical leadership role that its people do not want seems more likely to generate resentment and feelings of injustice than anything else.
Veronica Kampf, 20, a student from Munster, mingled with the crowds dressed as Santa Claus to hand out chocolates and leaflets. A Christian campaigner, she was there with other young people from Papenburg’s Josua church to talk to consumers about the real message of Christmas. “It’s not fair that we Germans are always asked to save the world. It’s stupid and it is everyone’s responsibility, not just Germany’s. We already pay enough taxes,” she said. “I’m more concerned that some people are more interested in Coca-Cola and shopping than knowing what Christmas is really about than this crisis.”
Under an animated, stuffed reindeer head, singing Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Florian Schmidt, 24, put down his mulled wine to get serious. He doesn’t buy the argument that Germany’s historical mission is to save Europe. “I don’t think Germany should have the main responsibility for saving Europe. The EU is supposed to be a community of independent states, so there should be equality. All countries need to share the responsibility to save Europe — not just Germany,” he said. “Why just us? Why are we so special?”
Schmidt said that he and other young Germans were sick of being told that Germany’s history meant it has an extra duty to act. Last week, Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, made a dramatic demand that Germany step in to save the euro. “Your size and your history” mean a “special responsibility to preserve peace and democracy on the Continent,” he told a Berlin audience. “I demand of Germany that, for your sake and for ours, you help. You know full well that nobody else can do it. I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.” Young Germans are much less haunted by history, and Schmidt said that he found the Polish speech “too much”: “We have been feeling guilty for over 60 years. It’s over; we’ve had enough of being guilty. We’ve had to get over it; why can’t everyone else?”
The rejection of Germany’s historical burden for instigating two world wars and for the Holocaust was unanimous on the Alexanderplatz. The view of Andreas Dirksen, 29, watching his daughters on the carousel of a traditional roundabout, was typical. “I am the third generation after the war. It is now time to stop the guilt tripping,” he insisted.
Both Dirksen and Schmidt also rejected another historical argument — one that is often made by Chancellor Merkel when she refuses to let the European Central Bank print the hundreds of billions of euros that many believe is the answer to the crisis.
In a speech to the Bundestag in October, the German leader warned that ECB involvement raised the specter of 1920s stagflation leading to the economic slump and the collapse of the Weimar Republic that ushered in Nazi rule and the Second World War. “No one should take for granted that there will be peace and affluence in Europe in the next half century,” she warned.
But Dirksen was not impressed. “The Weimar days will not be repeated,” he said. “The state and institutions are stronger and better prepared. History will not repeat itself; it doesn’t work like that. People inside and outside Germany are exaggerating and using history to scare us one way or another to suit their own agendas.”
One reason why Germans do not feel the heavy hand of history on their shoulders is because their country’s economy has been performing so well and, as a recent opinion poll found, a majority simply do not feel “personally affected by the crisis”.
This weekend, the popular magazine Der Spiegel noted with bemusement that Germans were far more sanguine about the looming euro calamity than they have been over bird flu or nuclear power, which was abandoned after the tsunami in Japan damaged the Fukushima nuclear reactor. These events triggered “hysterical over-reaction,” suggested Der Spiegel. “Shouldn’t Germans be panicking these days because the euro could soon be history? Europe worries about its money — Germans go shopping.”
Indeed, unlike in the rest of Europe, Germany’s Society for Consumer Research (GfK) is predicting a bumper Christmas for retailers this year. Mind you, pollster Klaus-Peter Schoeppner thinks this spending spree is a “flight from the real world” and that people will wake up with a hangover when an expected recession bites next year. “We bail out banks, we save states, we save Europe – but people ask what will become of me,” he said. “The sense of injustice is growing.”
Nevertheless, and contrary to the tabloid headlines, Berliners did not blame highly indebted Greece for triggering the crisis with profligate spending. Eating his bratwurst washed down with a glass of Berliner Pils, Klaus Hoehbauer, 48, a middle school teacher from Straubing in Bavaria, insisted that it was not the fault of Greece that the euro had not been built on “fiscal union”. He supports a new EU treaty “to put it right”.
“To blame only the Greeks is not fair. When they were taken into the euro system the situation of Greece should have been looked at properly and the rules complied with. We have to change the treaties. Doing what we are doing at the moment is just about buying a little more time,” he said.
In fact, many people are more annoyed with the French, “who are like us”, than with the allegedly feckless southern Europeans, who have a “different mentality”.
A particular grievance is pensions. Germans must work until they are 67, whereas the French can retire at 62 or earlier. Like most Germans, Dirksen said he supported tougher spending rules in the eurozone but also a “level playing field” in social benefits as a condition of Germany acting to help. “We have to save the euro. But in return the rules must be changed. Otherwise we are the stupid ones who work and pay off all the debts until we are 67 while our French neighbors can finish at 62. There should not be exceptions on pensions,” he said. Drinking in an Alexanderplatz bar with her daughter, Grit Rauchfuss, 48, from Thuringa in eastern Germany, said that she felt a strong sense of injustice over calls for Germany, “always us”, to make sacrifices to save the euro.
“In France and all those countries they hold big demonstrations about changing pensions while we stupid Germans pay all the bills. Even in our country we have poor people and bad social conditions. If Germany has to pay everything then the German people will suffer and our social services, our pensioners’ houses, our schools will get worse,” she complained.
Rauchfuss is among the growing number of Germans who now regret giving up the Deutschmark for the euro. An opinion poll in September suggested the number who wanted the old currency back were now in a majority. “It was a mistake,” she said. “Everything got so expensive afterwards — and before the euro, we didn’t have these problems with an economic crisis.”