Remarks by Germany’s finance minister about Greece have everybody blaming Germany for “being mean.” The New York Times reports on the controversy around Wolfgang Schäuble, who has said that the Greeks would be better off leaving the euro for a while:
Mr. Schäuble, after helping to negotiate a deal expressly intended to keep Greece in the eurozone, has suggested several times that Greece would be better off leaving. He has come to represent, in many eyes, the hidden face of German power. In Greece, he is portrayed as a Nazi. Even an Italian weekly, L’Espresso, showed him on its cover with the headline: “This man scares us, too.”
It may be too soon to say for sure whether the harsher German tone signifies a turning point in its role within Europe or if it is the transitory result of circumstances. But for many in Europe, especially on the center left, the Greek crisis “revealed a more brutal Germany, embodied in Schäuble,” said Hans Kundnani, the author of “The Paradox of German Power.”
There are lots of things to criticize Germany for, as we have in the past. However, on this point, Schäuble has a defense: what he said was true. Greece really would be better off leaving the euro. Schäuble and others are hinting that it would be much, much easier to forgive a lot of Greek debt and give the country a boost if it gets out of the euro context, where everything needs to be done by the rules.
One can quibble with the rules that Germans want in the Eurozone, but there is really no way a group of very different countries at quite different places culturally and economically can share a common currency unless there are clear rules—and clear consequences for breaking them. It isn’t harsh or mean to say that; it is realistic and appropriate. German public opinion won’t support any other kind of currency union, and there is nothing wrong with German politicians speaking for the people who elect them.
What is driving the French, Spanish, and Italian rhetoric here is as much as anything a hope of guilt-tripping the Germans into underwriting the deficits and debts of the Latin bloc. But it’s getting harder to guilt the Germans into writing big checks. Seventy years after the end of World War Two there are people of voting age in Germany whose great grandfathers were too young to have fought in Hitler’s war. What Hitler and the Nazis did can never and should never be forgotten or glossed over, but the link between Germans today and the Germans of 1944 is getting more tenuous all the time.
Meanwhile, Germans have had to rediscover a sense of national identity. Without it, the unification of the country and the integration of east and west (still something of a work in progress, but much farther along than it was a decade ago) would not have succeeded. But the west Germans have had to pay through the nose for the privilege—something like $1 trillion spent and more still to come. That’s a lot of solidarity.
Today, the new country is still developing its identity, which is very far from the kind of chauvinism of Hitler’s time or even the Kaiser’s era, but is also different from the relentless “post-nationalism” of the West German era. It’s anybody’s guess how this process will work out and how it will mesh with the European loyalties and associations that most Germans also feel. But it’s unlikely that all of Germany’s neighbors will welcome the change—especially France, which is Europe’s big loser under the new dispensation. In the old days, Germany’s self-imposed post-nationalist hair shirt allowed the French to indulge their own national egotism to the fullest, preening themselves as the leaders of Europe and seeing a divided, guilt-ridden Germany as an excellent horse on which France could ride.
So far, Germany has done better with its eastern and northern neighbors than with Club Med. The Balts and the Poles are reasonably happy with the ideas that Germany wants to use in building a new Europe; the Finns and the Dutch if anything wish the Germans were just a little tougher on the garlic-eating miscreants of the sunny south.
Americans for their part need to invest in understanding Germany—and even sympathizing with it. There’s no doubt that Germany, and Europe, are in trouble. The euro makes things worse; without the common currency there would be no need to try to run such a tight ship. Countries would have a lot more room to go their own way, and perhaps to grow a bit faster. Germany needs friends that it trusts enough to listen to when, as will inevitably happen, the burden of holding the continent together becomes financially challenging and psychologically demanding. Berlin doesn’t see that kind of friend in America today. When we criticize German policy there is a feeling that we haven’t put in the time and the effort to understand the German point of view, much less come to understand the difficult choices it faces and the responsibilities it bears.