Wed, Apr 03, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Is Germany too powerful for Europe?

Twenty years ago, Germany’s economy was stagnating. Today, as the eurozone crisis deepens, this giant is keeping Europe afloat. But what does it want in return? German sociologist Ulrich Beck believes that his country has become a political monster

By Stuart Jeffries  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

In his novel Fatherland, Robert Harris envisaged a hellish scenario — Hitler won World War II. Decades later, the Greater German Reich extends from the Rhine to the Caspian Sea. The rest of Europe, though notionally consisting of independent states, is really under the Nazi jackboot.

Sound familiar? Of course not. That nightmare never came to pass. Happily, Germany does not rule Europe.

Or does it? Munich-based sociologist Ulrich Beck argues in his new book that the eurozone catastrophe has given birth to a political monster: a German Europe.

When, on July 1, Croatia becomes a member, the EU will contain 500 million people and be the largest market, and trading bloc in the world.

“The new German power in Europe is not based as in former times on force,” Beck said in German Europe. Which is a consolation.

“It has no need of weapons to impose its will on other states,” he said. “It has no need to invade, and yet is ubiquitous.”

His homeland’s latest iron Chancellor, Angela Merkel, rules Europe, imposing German values on feebler client nations, bailing out southern Europeans with their oversized public sectors, rampant tax evasion and long lunches.

“In the countries most harshly affected by the crisis, many people think they are losers because the austerity policy pursued jointly by Berlin and Brussels deprives them of their means of livelihood — and also of their human dignity,” Beck says.

Other Germans do not see it quite that way. The official line from the German embassy in London is that Germany is helping other European economies to become globally competitive and more able to take on emerging markets.

“Germany was among the first to have started this endeavor and therefore might temporarily be a little ahead of others,” embassy spokesman Norman Walter said. “Our main political drive over the last few years has been to increase competitiveness in all eurozone and EU member states.”

To get a different perspective on German domination of Europe, I consult a stand-up comic: Henning Wehn, a German comedian who is tired of being called an oxymoron by Britons and is in the middle of a UK tour.

The blurb for his show goes: “According to Henning, there’s no shortcut to success, hard work will eventually pay off and there is no shame in paying tax.”

How this transmutes into comedy is anybody’s guess, but it seems to suggest that Wehn believes slacker Europe needs a German economics lesson.

“Well, economically Germany is mainly dominant because it is the country with most people,” Wehn said. “It also has several things that explain its economic success and from which others can learn — our system of apprenticeships, our building societies that help entrepreneurs. When [British Prime Minister] David Cameron spoke about strivers and skivers, that reminded me of a Swabian saying: Schaffe, schaffe, Hausle baue. It means: ‘Work, work, build your little house.’ That sort of striving is deep in German identity.”

The worry is that Germany thinks of itself as a nation of strivers bankrolling a continent of skivers.

“German money [is being] thrown away on the bankrupt Greeks,” ran a headline in the tabloid Bild, while Focus magazine had a cover image of the Venus de Milo giving the finger to the world.

“If Ireland and Greece sank into the sea tomorrow, Germany would be quietly relieved,” said Simon Winder, publishing director at Penguin and author of Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern. “Germany today reminds me of the British Empire, burdened with non-lucrative colonies that it has to defend when all it’s really bothered about is India. The problem for Germany is that it has no India, just, as it were, lots of Sierra Leones.”

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