Anyone with a sense of humour, especially of the sardonic variety, will have been mildly amused by the recent antics in Germany, a country not usually known for its wit. For years, Germany has been busily occupying the moral high ground of Europe. “We not only have the biggest economy and most prosperous industries,” one could hear Berlin proclaiming, “we also know right from wrong!” This new-found self-confidence was highlighted in German eyes in June when Chancellor Angela Merkel received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.
The joke, however, is that Germany, while basking in American approval, has lately also shown Europe another, less admirable side of its political culture. Stern intransigence in a moral cause, which has been a German characteristic at least since Luther, can sometimes tip over into hysteria. This summer we have seen both.
It began with what sounded like the worst nightmare of any German Green worth his linen waistcoat. After weeks of contradictory advice that caused a Europe-wide slump in salad vegetable sales, the German authorities confirmed that beansprouts from an organic farm near the idyllic Lower Saxon village of Bienenbüttel were to blame for the outbreak of E. coli. The particularly lethal bacterial strain involved has so far claimed more than 30 lives. Until this outbreak, raw beansprouts were the height of culinary fashion, replacing traditional dishes like sauerkraut to become a staple part of the diet of health-conscious Germans.
The health scare was short-lived, but officials warned that about 100 people will require kidney transplants and many other patients would continue to suffer for the rest of their lives. Farmers in Germany and elsewhere demanded compensation. Under the Common Agricultural Policy, the European taxpayer will ultimately foot the bill, particularly for the Spanish, whose cucumbers were initially deemed unsafe to eat without any proper scientific backing.
Was this a case of German angst, as it must have seemed from abroad? In the case of Germany’s abrupt exit from nuclear energy, there was no doubt. Leaving the scientific issue aside, this decision highlights the quietly hysterical anxiety peculiar to modern German society. When, at the end of May, Mrs Merkel announced the shutdown of all the country’s nuclear plants by 2022, many wondered what the reason was for her sudden change of heart. As recently as March, when the Fukushima accident in Japan prompted a new wave of panic, Mrs Merkel (a physicist by profession) was still sticking to her longstanding policy of extending the lifespan of Germany’s plants.
Whether or not her latest move is truly a change of mind or just a sly preparation for a future alliance with the Greens-which has become the agenda-setting party-her move isn’t showing great results. Voters have viewed her turnaround with cynicism.
Ever since the 1970s, large parts of the German electorate have had an implacable (and mostly irrational) aversion to nuclear power. Despite the fact that the earthquake in Japan was on the other side of the world, the prevailing question in debates was what it meant for Germans. Rumours of panic-buying of Geiger counters turned out to be untrue, but it was somehow revealing that people were prepared to believe them. True, Germans are not the only ones who fear another Chernobyl. Italians recently voted overwhelmingly against Berlusconi’s proposal to build new nuclear power stations. But this is very different from closing down a large industry that produces a quarter of Germany’s electricity. And, by the way, Italy regularly suffers major earthquakes, most recently at L’Aquila in 2009; Germany doesn’t.
One may interpret this existential angst as a form of concern for the world as a whole, but the tone in which Germans called for action suggested that it was more about safety in their own backyard. The mood is inward-looking, even reclusive. Hostility to nuclear power resonates with the mainstream of German society. Today, the Greens are on the upswing. This spring they humiliated Mrs Merkel in Baden-Württemberg, which her Christian Democrats had ruled for six decades, and in the city-state of Bremen. The stereotypical image of the bearded Green in a hand-knitted jumper has been replaced by that of the yummy mummy.
Ironically, while priding itself on the novelty of its self-confidence, Germany may be losing its grip. Every so often the moral certainty that Germany is behaving as well (or better) than its neighbours turns into self-centred hysteria. When that happens, instead of the politics of liberty and progress, we get the rhetoric of beansprouts and nuclear power plants.