BERLIN — A divided Germany rose from the ashes of the Nazi defeat in World War II, weathering the Cold War to transform into one of the good guys. Modern Germany quickly molded itself into the standard-bearer of global pacifism, a hotbed of youth culture and the tree-hugging Lorax of nations in the fight against climate change.
But, just like that, the image of the “cruel German” is back.
Germany — more specifically, its chancellor, Angela Merkel — has faced years of derision for driving a hard bargain with financially broken Greece, which has received billions in bailouts since 2010. But for both Germany and Merkel, the concessions extracted this week from Athens appear to have struck a global nerve. By insisting on years more of tough cuts and making other demands that critics have billed as humiliating, Berlin is wiping out decades of hard-won goodwill.
In the aftermath of the deal with Greece, the hashtag #Boycottgermany — calling on users not to buy German products — has started trending on Twitter. Evoking Hannibal Lecter, the cannibal from “The Silence of the Lambs,” some are sharing caricatures depicting Merkel as an E.U.-eating “Angela Lecter.” A cartoon portraying Wolfgang Schäuble — Merkel’s even-harder-line finance minister — as a knife-wielding killer from the Islamic State militant group has gone viral.
Germany was one of more than a dozen nations that insisted on a tough deal with Greece. But Britain’s Daily Mail singled out Germany, saying Greece had surrendered to austerity “with a German gun at his head.”
In the United States, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman this week noted the hate mail he had received from Germany for repeatedly criticizing its tough line on fiscal reforms. The Germans, he wrote, had suggested that as a Jew, he should know “the dangers of demonizing a people.” To that, Krugman responded with sarcasm: “Because criticizing a nation’s economic ideology is just like declaring its people subhuman.”
In Greece, those actively supporting the austerity deal are being heckled by their countrymen as “Nazi collaborators.” Another image making the rounds on social media shows a doctored version of the European Union flag, its circle of gold stars against a blue background reshaped into a swastika.
French daily Le Figaro declared that “conditions were imposed on a small member state that would have previously required arms.” In a commentary that sneered at Merkel’s “half smile” after the deal was reached, Britain’s Guardian newspaper argued that rather than being cruel to be kind, the terms of the bailout were simply “cruel to be cruel.”
In its online edition, even Germany’s own Der Spiegel magazine decried the Berlin-led demands as “the catalogue of cruelties.”
In a country that can be highly sensitive about its brutal past, some Germans are beside themselves. On Friday, the German parliament is set to vote on whether to green-light rescue talks under the onerous new terms. It is expected to vote yes. In any case, some argue, the damage to Germany’s image has been done.
“Merkel, Schäuble and [Vice Chancellor Sigmar] Gabriel in two and a half days burned the trust that had been built over 25 years,” Reinhard Bütikofer, a German politician from the progressive Green Party, declared during an emotional outburst on local television. “The heartless, dictatorial and ugly Germany again has a face, and that is Schäuble.”
He finished by saying, “I am upset, as you can see, very upset.”
But much of the nation seems to be taking the latest round of German-bashing in stride.
Indeed, many here see it as simply further evidence that no matter what they do, theirs is always going to be the country that others love to hate. This is a nation where rules will not be broken, where pedestrians wait for a green signal at empty intersections before they cross. And that is the way the Germans like it.
That mind-set, many here insist, has helped Germany rebuild into an efficient, competitive and modern economy that is the envy of Europe. As the largest economy and de facto leader of the 19-member euro zone, Germany has rules that many here believe must be respected. They find it disturbing, even insulting, that some would equate German calls for fiscal restraint with the inhumanity of the Nazis.
If some Germans have chided Merkel and Schäuble, even more have expressed support. “Now we are saying no,” declared the conservative German tabloid Bild, referring to the recent Greek referendum on austerity measures. One German user on Twitter dared the rest of the world to boycott German products: “Go ahead. Boycott all german goods. cars, aspirin, beer, chip cards, printed media and antibiotics. Have fun.”
Some here assert that Germany’s firm stance on Greek debt may instead work in its favor. Christian Rieck, a professor of economic theory at the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, said the tough posture will help because it shows Germany’s “ability to follow through.”
And, perhaps most important for the chancellor, Merkel is getting pats on the back from German voters. Walter Dombrovski, a 51-year old graphic designer in Berlin, said, “We have to stay tough.”
“There are rules,” he said. “Nobody pays any taxes in Greece. Not just the rich, also the little people don’t pay taxes. And they carry a bundle of cash in their pocket at all times. Corruption is a part of everyday life there.”
But others here believe Germany is being shortsighted and heading down a dangerous path of disunity with the rest of the continent.
Martin Glaser, a 51-year old Berliner who works in public relations, said: “I think it is a scandal. To humiliate a country in this way is not acceptable.”
“Even though the polls show that there is widespread support for Merkel and Schäuble, I think that many Germans would say that they don’t want this kind of Europe,” he said. “A Europe which is ruled by Germany in this way is not the democratic Europe that I would like to have.”