Geithners of Germany on U.S. namesake: ‘We have another mentality’

(Michael Birnbaum / THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Yvonne Geithner runs a hair salon in Zeulenroda, Germany, the town from which Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner’s grandfather emigrated in 1908.

(Michael Birnbaum / THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Yvonne Geithner runs a hair salon in Zeulenroda, Germany, the town from which Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner’s grandfather emigrated in 1908.

ZEULENRODA, Germany — Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner’s grandfather emigrated from this hilltop town in Germany’s tough-luck southeastern corner in 1908. The Geithners who remain have this to say: Don’t forget your roots.

The Obama administration has been pushing European governments not to slash spending in the middle of a recession and suggesting that the 17 euro-zone countries defend themselves against rising borrowing costs with overwhelming piles of money as they work to overhaul their finances. Germany, which as Europe’s largest economy makes the key decisions, says that approach would only worsen the crisis in the long run.

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In this ex-Communist town of 10,000, sharp church steeples pierce the horizon and empty lots have replaced the factories that once put the region to work. The native Geithners fret about inflation, tut-tut about what they see as America’s rat-race culture and say the American who shares their last name has strayed far from the herd. They would welcome him back any time.

“We have another mentality in Germany,” said Yvonne Geithner, 43, who owns a hair salon that is tucked at the end of what was once a sprawling textile factory. Americans are far more comfortable living on borrowed money than her fellow Germans, she said. “We’re much more worried about security, about stability.

“We are brought up this way. We get it with our mother’s milk,” she said.

Zeulenroda looks on its grandson with a touch of civic pride and a bit of bemusement. No one left in town can claim with certainty a relation to the man who shares their unusual last name, and curious Geithners who have written to the American clan say they have heard only silence in return. Still, there was a flurry of excitement in 2008 in the local news media when Geithner was nominated.

More workaday concerns soon intruded, such as: How do we keep our young people from moving away? Will the euro survive? And why is America, among others, pushing Germany to use its hard-saved money on bailing out other, less prudent countries?

The ladies who stop by Yvonne Geithner’s Talking Heads beauty shop try to avoid their worries as they get their highlights and haircuts, she said, but sometimes the chitchat turns more serious underneath posters of American movie stars such as Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn.

“Everybody fears that the money that has been saved will be gone or only worth half after the euro crisis,” Geithner said. “You only have to put one and one together and you know what’s coming,” she said, referring to the hyperinflation in 1920s Weimar-era Germany and the shaky currency after World War II and Germany’s reunification.

A community of skeptics

Timothy Franz Geithner’s family steamed across the Atlantic on a ship called the Kaiser Wilhelm II before Germany’s currency troubles started. Now, he and President Obama have pressed German Chancellor Angela Merkel to ease calls for harsh austerity in countries such as Spain and Greece that are in a deep recession and to do more to foster economic growth in her country and elsewhere.

But as the European Central Bank discusses pushing down borrowing costs for struggling countries such as Italy and Spain, a measure tacitly supported by the Obama administration, Germany’s central bank has emerged as the main opposition. It sees itself as a defender of the stability of the euro against the onslaught of those who want the bank and its monetary printing presses to pursue a more wide-ranging salve for Europe’s economic ills.

Germany’s skepticism is shared by many ordinary residents. To Yvonne Geithner — whose husband says he thinks there’s a chance he’s related to the treasury secretary but isn’t sure — the American efforts to push Germany to unleash its resources against the euro crisis are simply off-key.

“From a historical point of view, it’s funny that Herr Geithner is thinking that way,” she said.

Zeulenroda’s leaders say they’ll take any help they can get. A furniture factory that employed 14,000 people at the time of Germany’s reunification in 1990 is out of business. The town has shrunk by a quarter since then and is the same size as it was in 1908, when Timothy F. Geithner’s family left its rowhouse on Brunnenstrasse. Unemployment, at 8.2 percent, is higher than Germany’s overall 6.8 percent, although the town is doing better than other areas of the former East Germany.

“We’d like to invite Geithner here and have him take care of our finances,” joked Dieter Weinlich, Zeulenroda’s mayor.

Geithner has passed through Germany frequently during the financial crisis to press the American case to Europe’s most powerful decision makers. Just weeks ago, he dropped in on the vacationing German finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, at an exclusive island resort. But Zeulenroda is hours away from anyplace that could be considered a financial capital. If he has visited the old family seat, it was low-profile.

Geithner, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment for this article.

Wishing for ‘security’

For many of Germany’s Geithners, the United States might be a fine country, but it long ago lost its attraction as an immigration destination.

“For me personally, it’s not the life I want to lead,” said Alexander Geithner, 20, who is studying to become a civil servant and wrote to Timothy F. Geithner’s parents to ask whether they had a copy of their family tree so that the two families could compare notes. In the United States, Alexander Geithner said, pop culture focuses on rags-to-riches stories, but the safety net is so frayed that chances to strike it big are low. “In Germany, most people are down to earth and looking for a good education and a good job so that they can be satisfied” — not rich, he said.

His father, Thomas Geithner, 47, an electrician, concurred.

“It’s always important to have security,” he said. “It’s Germany.”

Petra Krischok contributed to this report.

 
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