Germany's tug-of-war with Greece

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks -- and the Acropolis too!"

-- headline, Bild newspaper, March 4

Sometimes they cut to the essence of the story, those tabloid-headline writers, even when they haven't got the quotation exactly right. What the German politician quoted in the Bild article cited above actually said was: "A bankrupt party must use everything he has to make money and serve his creditors. . . . Greece owns buildings, companies and several uninhabited islands, which can now be used to repay debt."

What the politician meant, though, was more accurately reflected in that Bild headline: The Germans are fed up with paying the bills of everybody in Europe, they don't want to bail out the feckless Greeks with their flagrantly inaccurate official statistics, they resent being Europe's banker of last resort, they object to the universal demand that they plug the vast holes in the Greek deficit in the name of "European unity" -- and for the first time in a long time they are saying this out loud. Not only are tabloids demanding the sale of the Acropolis; Germany's deeply serious paper of record, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has pointed out that while the Greeks are out protesting having to raise their pension eligibility age from 61 to 63, Germany recently raised its pension age from 65 to 67: "Does that mean that the Germans should in future extend the working age from 67 to 69, so that Greeks can enjoy their retirement?"

With an unerringly poor sense of timing, the Greeks have, in response, chosen this moment to flaunt their own resentments. One Greek minister complained to the BBC that the Nazis "took away the Greek gold that was in the Bank of Greece, they took away the Greek money and they never gave it back." The mayor of Athens has demanded 70 billion euros (about $95 billion) for the damage the Nazis left behind after the war. The Greek consumer organization, not exactly thankful for the German bailout or Europe's demands for Greek budget cuts, has called for a boycott of German products. Officially, the Germans have described these comments as "not helpful." Unofficially, the German press is foaming at the mouth (see above), for once accurately reflecting the views of German politicians and German voters.

What's curious is why this is happening at this particular moment: After all, the Germans have been paying for European unity -- not just the currency but also the farming subsidies, assistance to poorer regions, highways in Spain and Ireland, and so on -- for decades without much complaint. In Warsaw, some children's playgrounds display signs declaring that they have been "built with European money," most of which presumably comes from German taxpayers. So why are German taxpayers suddenly complaining about the Greeks?

The obvious answer has to do with that poor timing: Germany is still effectively in recession, unemployment is relatively high and the new ruling coalition has sworn to curtail spending. In other words, for the first time in a long time Germans are feeling a direct pinch on their incomes, their pensions and state institutions, including schools. If they don't feel like bailing out other people at this moment in the economic cycle -- particularly people who enjoy an earlier retirement age -- no one can blame them.

The less obvious answer is related to those comments about Nazis. For the driving force behind the creation of the European Union in the 1950s was Germany's guilt about World War II: Although other countries had different motives, the whole point of European economic and political unity, from the German perspective, was to drown the nation and its singular history in something larger and more palatable.

Along the way, Europe acquired other reasons for existence: The euro -- the continental currency that has been rendered wobbly by Greece's national debt -- was created to help the single European market compete with the United States. But political feelings run deeper than economic needs, and without that fundamental German urge to sacrifice national sovereignty, the whole thing will fall apart.

Which is why this wave of German indignation over the Greek bailout is so important: After all, Germany is now run by a generation with no personal memories of the war. Germany's historical debate is now focused on the fate of Germans who suffered from wartime bombing and postwar deportation, not on the fate of Germany's victims -- in Greece or anywhere else. Sooner or later, Germans will collectively decide that enough sacrifices have been made and that the debt to Europe has been paid. Thanks to the ungrateful Greeks, with their island villas and large pensions, that day may arrive more quickly than we originally thought.

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