'No matter how grim the outlook or how politicians squabble over what to do, Germans stick to their idealistic concept of Europe'
Leaders fiddle as Euro burns” reads a headline in an English paper that I picked up from a pile with its German counterparts, all of which seemed less alarmed, even languid in their take on what appears to be the biggest challenge the European Union has ever faced.
Why the comparatively relaxed tone, I wondered as I walked through the streets of the German capital where the always-too-early Christmas lights had just been switched on — where’s the good old German angst? For all I could detect in the current mood was a feeling of indifference mixed with uncertainty, a kind of dry suspense of the sort you might find in a Thomas Mann novel.
Perhaps this was what Timothy Garton Ash alluded to when he reported that Mann’s post-1945 wish to see “not a German Europe but a European Germany” had a new variation in Berlin: “a European Germany in a German Europe”.
Outside Germany, this might look like a weirdly teutonic state of being, fuelled by a sentiment akin to ignorance or even just a narcissistic guilt complex. Ever since Angela Merkel styled herself the mother of Europe (or at least indulged in playing one part of the Merkozy double act), the assumption abroad has been that the Germans could end the crisis immediately if they wanted to.
So were they unwilling to do so because of their history? The national myth is after all that the Weimar Republic’s hyperinflation of 1923 brought the Nazis to power. However forcefully this has been suggested, by British commentators in particular, it couldn’t be further from the reality as seen from within Germany.
Despite the risk of a break-up of the eurozone, German EU leaders have taken great pleasure over the past few months in rehearsing the idyllic notion of the EU speaking with one voice following the Lisbon Treaty. In similar fashion, some sections of the German intelligentsia (as much as it is common for their British counterparts to do the opposite) have been discussing Europe as if humming “Kumbaya”. In other words, the divide through Europe doesn’t just run between north and south or for and against keeping countries like Greece in the eurozone — it is an intellectual one as well.
No matter how grim the outlook may be or how politicians squabble over what to do, Germans (at least those of the decision-making kind) stick to their idealistic concept of Europe, a concept which often borders on the utopian.
Oddly enough, this sentiment hasn’t changed despite polls that suggest a small majority wants to scrap the euro and return to the deutschmark, or the criticism that the Chancellor received for failing to get Greece to shape up, or the fear of a new recession. It is as if nothing can shake the German belief in the union.
Not even the newfound sense of urgency when the EU began planning for what had previously been held impossible — the departure of Greece from the eurozone, perhaps even from the union — could change that.
There was only slight irritation when Greek cartoonists depicted Horst Reichenbach, the German director of the EU’s task force on Greece, in a military uniform — an allusion to the Nazi occupation during the Second World War. This indifference is all the more astonishing since it’s not just Greece that is on the brink of collapse, it is Italy too, a country the German chattering classes have felt attached to ever since Goethe visited it in 1786.
This may be a sign that Germans are just uncomfortable with the world’s eyes being on them. In any case the combination of indifference and idealistic belief doesn’t indicate, as some have suggested, that the trouble with Germany is not that it is a forceful power but that it is not forceful enough — thus avoiding making hard choices or accepting responsibilities. The challenge is on an altogether smaller scale.
The last year has seen a surge in raw and slightly petty grassroots protests: Swabian pensioners protesting against the redevelopment of a railway station in Stuttgart or ponytailed geeks of the anti-copyright Pirate party entering the Berlin senate for the first time — these are the forces that have shaped public consciousness much more than the possible snowball effects of the still abstract idea of a united Europe.
The challenge Germany faces, if it is to remain the strongest country in Europe, is not about forgetting the past, dealing with its history, or striving for greatness. Instead, it is more about reconciling its newfound political energy on a local level with the noble but at times oppressively utopian ideal of Europe.
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