Germany and Greece, competing morality tales?

Germany and Greece, competing morality tales?

Contemplation of the current unpleasantness of the Greek economic difficulties reveals a cultural conflict with two very different ideas of how Europe is being constructed. By J BROOKS SPECTOR

The joke is sometimes told that Germany is a nation whose biggest problem seems to be that it produces more history than it can usefully consume by itself. The 20th century would certainly seem to have borne this out. Perhaps part of their problem as well is that their energetic overproduction sometimes floods the rest of the world’s history and politics markets as well.

For a thousand years, Germany was, in the words of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, back in the 19th century. “This territory is to a very great extent occupied by one race … and yet to the present day Germany is little more than a geographical expression.” The point was that the geographical space now called Germany then encompassed dozens and dozens of free cities, principalities, church lands, and miniature kingdoms, a map full of Ruritanias, all within the delimitations of the so-called Holy Roman Empire. For most of its existence that was a ragtag affair that was not particularly holy, unconnected to anything Roman, nor much of an empire. Even after the Treaty of Vienna in 1815 and following Napoleon’s overturning of Europe’s old order, Germany continued to comprise several dozen independent mini-states, along with an expanding Prussia and the ever-distrustful Habsburg lands, and all of them within the rickety German Confederation.

In the midst of the 1848 rebellions and revolts that rocked the conservative order in Europe, German democrats, revolutionaries and artistic romantics had gathered in Frankfurt, hammered out the idea of a new, unified, bourgeois Germany and they offered this country’s crown to the king of Prussia – who promptly rejected the idea that such an ensemble could offer anyone an imperial crown. Thereafter, once such revolts were finally stilled, Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian chancellor, determined that, yes, Germany would be united, but it would happen under the leadership of Prussia and would happen via the expenditure of “blood and iron” – through three wars to bring together most of the German nation. The first war was in alliance with Austria against Denmark to seize two small, northern provinces. Then the second was a conflict with Austria to demonstrate Prussia’s new dominance in Central Europe. Then, finally, the third was against Napoleon III’s France. Thereupon, Bismarck determined that the new German Empire would be proclaimed in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors.

Along the way, the idea of Germany as a nation and culture, as opposed to that miscellaneous collection of toy-like statelets took hold in language, music, literature, and art – in addition to the political and economical manifestations of that movement towards unification. That nationalism probably received its strongest boost culturally through the operatic output of Richard Wagner, drawing as he did upon the legends and tales of his idealised German nation. Such ideas had political consequences, of course, once they were married to the exuberant industrialisation and militarism of late Wilhelmine Germany. With the outbreak of World War I, this led to the European-wide catastrophe that spun out of that crucial historical moment.

The German defeat in that war set the stage for a vengeful peace treaty and the imposition of a huge burden of reparations to be paid to the Allies, the partial dismemberment of Germany, and the creation of a weak central government unable to manage the nation’s finances successfully. This, in turn, created the fiscal catastrophe of 1922-23 in Germany with millions ruined by the destruction of the country’s currency and those pictures of people pushing wheelbarrows of nearly worthless currency in order to buy a sack of potatoes. That proved fertile ground for the eventual collapse of political will by a moderate social-democratic centre and the rise of Nazi extremists in 1933.

That, in turn, led to the even greater pan-European (and global) tragedy of World War II, with many millions killed in battle, in the Nazi death camps, and by disease, starvation and forced migrations during and after the war itself, all across the continent. With the peace arrangements at the end of this war as set out by the victors, beyond large-scale territorial changes across the continent, this time, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation, and its capital, Berlin, was similarly divided among the British, Americans, French and Soviets for occupation.

Prior to the end of the war, then-US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau had recommended permanently carving Germany into several successor states – and strictly limiting its industrial and financial heft. These proposals were a precursor to the eventual division of the country into zones of occupation. As the Cold War became a dominant theme of the post-war world, and with Germany itself split between the Russian zone and the three western ones, as the two sides became ever more watchful, Europe had come to be divided, as Winston Churchill had famously said, “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.

After the Berlin blockade by Soviet forces to prevent shipment of supplies to the near-ruined city, on 23 May 1949, the three western zones were brought together to form the Federal Republic of Germany as the gap between the western allies and the Soviet Union grew deeper. Five months after West Germany had become a new, smaller Germany, the Soviet zone was itself rechristened as the German Democratic Republic. Although many Germans continued to long for the creation of a reunified nation, visionary European political leaders such as Luxembourg’s Robert Schumann and French diplomat Jean Monnet began pushing for a different idea – the creation of European-wide economic integration, with this effort leading in 1957 to the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC). Assimilating West Germany into this visionary structure seemed to those leaders, as well as the era’s dominant German statesman, Konrad Adenauer, the most appropriate path to contain any form of revanchist feelings in Germany and to focus German attention on economic, as opposed to military or political, goals. This would help forestall any potential reprise of conflict between historic antagonists like France and Germany – and not, incidentally, serve to strengthen the West (via the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in its face-off against massive Soviet and other Warsaw Pact forces perched just over the next hill on the other side of the Hulda Gap in Central Germany. The EEC – and eventually the European Union (EU) – became the economic embodiment of a sense of European unity that had been ticking away as an ideal since Charlemagne’s time.

Even as the German economy recovered from war devastation, aided by a United States-funded Marshall Plan that demanded trans-national economic integration and planning, as well as a ferocious work ethic, well-managed government accounts, and a high national savings rate to fuel domestic investment, the great German fear of a reprise of the catastrophic hyper-inflation and the devaluation of the mark in 1923 haunted the German national psyche – spanning generations.

Most recently, as the Greek financial crisis began in earnest and the Greek government could not make its payments to international financial institutions as they came due, its banks had to be shuttered, and as Greek authorities pled for another bail-out to allow the government to stay in business (underscored by the results of their referendum), the German worldview, its weltanschauung, came into increasingly deep conflict with perceptions of Greece’s problems.

Playing out like a real-life version of Aesop’s fable of the spendthrift grasshopper and the more provident ant, Germans – Chancellor Angela Merkel, other leaders, and a majority of ordinary citizens alike – took a take-virtually-no-prisoners approach. They insisted Greece had to sign on to undergo a full workout of its finances (like a bad debtor confronted by an angry loan officer); it had to bite that bullet by implementing a deep austerity plan for real this time around; it had to accede to real reforms of its tax administration, open up protected sectors of the economy such as inter-island transport, and, above all, pay back the damned money it had already borrowed from the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the EU – and then squandered. And the country had to stick to it this time.

To most Greeks, this amounted to a slow motion surrender of their hard-won sovereignty and a major dent in national pride. Of course the Germans were not alone in their demands. The Scandinavian and Eastern European members of the euro zone pretty much lined up behind the Germans this time around as well and made the deal stick, despite all those demonstrations in Athens.

But the problem has been more than just an economic one. At its core there is also a fear that the collapse of the Greek economy or its retreat from the euro would begin the demise of the euro zone and the EU, and amount to the great rolling back of nearly 60 years of a seemingly inexorable process of pan-European integration. Allowing the Greeks to “get away” with further fudges could be seen as a turning back of the clock to that earlier fragmented Europe, as opposed to the continental system now in place.

Moreover, it could encourage other weak sister economies – Spain, Portugal and Italy – to insist on special terms, just like the Greeks, if they got into deeper trouble. Never mind that the actual euro zone system is a rickety compromise between full economic union with one powerful central bank and one treasury or finance ministry with real powers in contrast to what exists now, as well as the gap between real political integration and the union’s frequent political disharmony. All of these fears required an eliding around some inconvenient bits of history such as the fact that, at least initially, Germany’s reconstruction was substantially abetted by generous foreign aid and some surprising debt forgiveness for other European nations, rather than simply the virtues of Teutonic perseverance, thoroughness and diligence.

The Greek financial crisis, then, may be read as a clash of cultures and understandings about history. For the Greeks, what they see is a grinding, unpleasant universe where they have no way forward other than even more belt tightening and the hardheartedness of their erstwhile partners in the European adventure. By contrast, for the Germans and their supporters, this has been a morality play where Zorba finally has to put down that ouzo, stop his dancing and, finally, get back to work, lest they destroy the future of European economic integration and further unity. And they must start by paying back at least some of the money they took while the getting was good. DM

Photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (L) adjust their earpieces as they inform the public about their previous talk during a press conference in the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 23 March 2015. Tsipras is expected to present a list of reforms, hoping to unlock bailout funds to prevent Greece from running out of cash next month, Greek government sources said. EPA/STEPHANIE PILICK


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