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

The latest euro crisis over Cyprus bears out Beck’s analysis. According to BBC Newsnight’s Paul Mason, the Germans want to “avoid creating a moral hazard, rewarding a country that has sold itself as a rule-free playground for Russians who want to keep their money.”

For German politicians, and not just those of Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union, that irresponsible nonsense cannot go on for ever: It is time for Cyprus to wake up and smell the austerity.

Beck argues that Germany is teaching Cyprus a moral lesson, namely that, as he puts it: “Suffering purifies. The road through hell, the road through austerity, leads to the heaven of economic recovery.”

It is a very German lesson, borne of the philosophies of religious reformer Martin Luther and sociologist Max Weber, and is based on the protestant work ethic.

That does not play too well in Nicosia: Hence all those “Merkel — Kaput” banners waved by soon-to-be redundant employees of Cyprus’ Popular Bank.

However, what are the Germans getting out of teaching allegedly slacker Europeans how to run their economies?

For Beck, Germany’s European dominance has given the nation a new sense of identity after decades of Nazi guilt and provides liberation from what he calls the “never again syndrome” — never again a Holocaust, never again fascism, never again militarism. After World War II and the Jewish Holocaust, Germany was in ruins morally and economically. Now, in both senses, it is back, he said.

The origins of German economic dominance predate our current crisis. More than 20 years ago, Germany made a sacrifice for Europe at Maastricht in the Netherlands when it agreed to put the deutschmark to the sword so that another currency could be born.

“The tragedy for the Germans is that they viewed the euro as their great, healing gift to the rest of Europe, an act of self-denial in which they cashed in their totemic deutschmark for the continent’s greater good,” Winder said.

Since the fall of Adolf Hitler, it has been Germany’s self-imposed obligation to help build a Europe where the petty nationalisms that had ruined the continent in two world wars could be definitively overcome.

It is all about vergangenheitsbewaltigung, which means (roughly) the struggle to come to terms with the past — and, in particular, a Nazi past.

(Maybe Britain will in time undergo its own vergangenheitsbewaltigung for its imperial shame, but that is another story.)

“The Germans no longer wish to be thought of as racists and warmongers,” Beck says. “They would prefer to become the schoolmasters and moral enlighteners of Europe.”

It is a moot question whether the rest of Europe wants to be on the receiving end of German enlightenment.

“Germany’s chorus of ‘I-want-to-teach-the-world-to-sing’ doesn’t play too well in Tring or Extremadura,” Winder said.

However, that is the Teutonic song: Two decades ago, Germany after reunification was once as Greece is today, with a stagnating economy and 5 million unemployed. However, thanks to neoliberal austerity and taking on the Protestant notion that “suffering purifies,” the Germans were able to realize a jobs miracle.

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