Germans: Europe's most-hated people or themselves victims of a flawed euro?

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
© Michael Dalder
To varying degrees, Angela Merkel has now managed to alienate the USA, Russia and the rest of Europe. Germany urgently needs to tackle negative perceptions of the country.

Oscar Wilde was fond of citing the philosopher George Berkeley. Whether it was because he enjoyed his fellow Irishman’s writings or because Berkeley was a Trinity College Dublin grandee is moot. When I lived in Berlin, almost every German would reference Heinrich Boll’s Irisches Tagebuch when learning of my nationality. The famous work, in which Boll describes his experiences in post-war Ireland, has inspired a million camper-van trips down the western Atlantic coast.

Of course, this made a welcome change from the usual mention of “U2” that Irish folk get around Europe. That said, a Turk once bellowed “Johnny Logan!” and a Luxembourger high-fived me in Sochi, then nodded and exclaimed, “Chris De Burgh!” Its high time Germans ditched the Boll and Bono and started to read Wilde and Berkeley.

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Dubliner Oscar is one of the most quoted men in history. He once mused that “true friends stab you in the front.” Greeks ought to be mindful of that. However, it’s his view that “success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result” that seems apt here.

Good for Germany; bad for Greece

Germany’s current prosperity is no accident. It has been achieved by breaking the backs of the eurozone’s periphery. The plain truth is that the chaos that has engulfed the currency area since 2009 has benefited Berlin. By keeping the euro's value down, Germany gets an artificially low exchange rate. This allows its export volumes to rocket. If the euro strengthened or Germany reverted to the Deutschmark, this competitive advantage would disappear. So where is the incentive for Berlin’s bigwigs to ‘fix’ the single-currency?

Of course, the philosopher Berkeley had a different approach. Hailing from the empiricist tradition, he lived in a time of great debate between his ilk and the rationalists. The former believed that all knowledge comes from experience while the rationalists imagined that knowledge comes from inside us. The Kilkenny-man famously mused “Esse ist percipi: To be is to be perceived.”

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It’s pretty clear that none of the German elite have read Berkeley. They seem to neither care nor notice how they are perceived. Or perhaps I am wrong and they are reveling in being hated by most of southern Europe these days. Of course Boll did observe that “one ought to go too far, in order to know how far one can go.”

The double act of Wolfgang Schauble and Merkel seem to be channeling the 1972 Nobel Prize winner. Of course, Margaret Thatcher predicted this. In 1989, she said: “'we beat the Germans twice, and now they're back.” So too Francois Mitterrand, who a year later warned Thatcher that reunification would result in Germany gaining more European influence than Hitler ever had. His gloomy forecasts included a return of the "bad" Germans, according to notes made by Thatcher's foreign policy adviser, Charles Powell.

The 'bad' Germans?

Have the ‘bad’ Germans taken over? I’m not so sure. Instead, it seems more likely that Germans are merely ignorant to the suffering of the eurozone periphery. Let’s look at it from their perspective. In the 1990’s, while most of the world enjoyed boom years, Germany struggled under the weight of reunification. This economic state of stasis lasted well into the first decade of this century. Even 10 years ago, Berlin itself was a fiscal wasteland with youth unemployment in excess of 30 percent.

The initial euro years didn’t really benefit Germany. The currency’s strength made life difficult for exporters while countries like Ireland and Spain ’got rich' in temporary bubbles. In recent years, things have changed; Germany was seen as a safe haven for investors during the 2008-10 Global Financial Crisis. The euro’s travails weakened exchange rates and made German goods cheaper abroad. Meanwhile, a resource-price boom in Russia and the Middle East helped open new markets.

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Not only Germany is doing relatively well. The Netherlands, Austria and Luxembourg have barely flinched during the ‘eurozone crisis.’ That’s because there is no ‘eurozone crisis.’ There are localized problems, to differing extents, in the likes of Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece. A kind of stagnation stalks nations like Belgium and Finland. In 2014, total German exports ballooned to €1.1 trillion, with an 11 per cent rise in sales to China alone. Furthermore, we’ve even had times when foreign investors have paid Germany to borrow money at negative interest rates.

As Fintan O’Toole noted last week in an excellent Irish Times piece: “This year alone, Berlin has saved an estimated €20 billion in borrowing costs because of the Greek crisis. It would be cynical to suggest that Wolfgang Schauble as finance minister has an interest in keeping the threat of Grexit alive (as he did again last week), but in terms of hard cash, he does.”

Then there is the German public, which has enjoyed both full employment and wage increases over the past few years. Voters from Kiel to Regensburg see no incentive to bailing out Athens. Merkel herself rules by opinion poll. This is why she’s managed to lead the, notoriously fractured, CDU party for 15 years. If Germans (and their tabloid press) suddenly began to feel sorry for the Greeks, she’d change tack in less time than it took her beloved German soccer team to put 7 goals past Brazil in last year’s World Cup.

New tensions; old prejudice

The downside is that Merkel’s policy - a product of German public opinion- is alienating everybody else. Since 2012, levels of anti-German sentiment in Europe are higher than at any time since the 1940’s. Political magazines all over the continent are increasingly promoting front-pages with Merkel presented as either Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm or a Nazi. Take the current Marianne, for instance. Worryingly for German diplomats, the French weekly is regarded as strongly pro-European.

Meanwhile, long simmering tensions between Berlin and Washington seem to have boiled over into outright animosity. Here the New York Times absolutely slams Germany for its position on Greece. A week earlier, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung laid into the NYT, dismissing it (with good reason) as “the foreign policy mouthpiece of the US government.”

Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman, who along with former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has spearheaded the US campaign against Germany’s policies, was filleted last week by Sueddeutsche Zeitung. The venerable German paper - long seen as pro-American - accused Krugman of being part of an “anti-German hate campaign.”

Then there is Russia. In the past few years, Merkel has managed to undo 45 years of ‘Ostpolitik’ - a rapprochement between Berlin and Moscow launched by former Chancellor Willy Brandt. Brandt’s policy was continued by all subsequent German leaders until Merkel kyboshed it in favor of attempting to expand the EU - read NATO - deeper into Eastern Europe. Thus we had the bizarre scenario where German politicians leant tacit support to neo-Nazi groupings during the Kiev coup last year.

If Berkeley was right and ‘to be is to be perceived,’ Germans and their government are storing up a lot of future trouble. As Arnulf Baring predicted back in 1997: “When we Germans demand monetary discipline, other countries will blame their financial woes on that same discipline, and by extension, on us. More they will perceive us as a kind of economic policeman. We risk once again becoming the most hated people in Europe.”

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.