For four years, Europe has been trying to solve its financial difficulties. Those who hold political power – especially Germany and France – are attempting (with limited success) to devise solutions that would allow for the continued inclusion of countries like Greece in the Eurozone, and that would still guarantee the survival of the common currency in the long run. Time is passing quickly, and the hesitancy of politicians in Europe’s capitals has only deepened the crisis. Europe cannot agree on a fiscal pact and balanced budget requirements.
Nowhere are the problems more acute than in Greece. Financial speculators have raised their bets against Greece and inflicted much harm on the Greek economy and welfare state. In Greece, this has resulted in feelings of intense animosity that are primarily directed against Germany. Extreme parties have embraced populist slogans, and shameless media outlets have guaranteed their circulation and repetition. German politicians have been portrayed as members of the governing elite of the Third Reich.
While anti-German sentiments don’t run as deeply in France, Germany’s western neighbor also exhibits its fair share of animosity, or at least of biting criticism. For the past year, some politicians and newspapers have taken to a quote by Georges Clemenceau, who commented after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I (a treaty that included provisions for heavy German reparations): “L’Allemagne paiera!” Germany will pay.
Reparations from the Treaty of Versailles finally came to an end on October 3, 2010. Two years later, Germany is facing the prospect of new payments. This time, it’s not out of responsibility for a continental war, but to remedy the ills of the Eurozone and compensate for decades of debt-financed budgets by reckless governments elsewhere.
During the run-up to the French presidential elections in late 2011, some politicians resorted to statements that were dumb rather than anti-German. Arnaud Montebourg, who later became Minister of Industrial Renewal under prime minister Ayrault, didn’t hesitate to argue that Angela Merkel pursued nationalist policies à la Bismarck. Another French parliamentarian, Jean-Marie Le Guen, compared a meeting between Merkel and the former French president Sarkozy to an appeasement meeting between former French prime minister Edouard Dadalier and Hitler in Munich in 1933. Outrageous comparisons aren’t the norm, but they help to create discrepancies between Paris and Berlin that are amplified by both countries’ media outlets.
The rhetoric of Greek, French, and even Italian politicians and journalists reminds us of two old observations: the idea of “reduction ad Hitlerum,” first formulated by the German-American intellectual Leo Strauss, and “Godwin’s law,” named after the American Mike Godwin. Strauss remarked that one could discredit the arguments of one’s opponent by associating them with Hitler, while Godwin observed the probability of a Hitler comparison in online discussions approaches 1 as the length of the discussion thread increases. We might see confirmation of both of these observations in the things that have been said and written about the German government, and about Germans more generally, since the early days of the Eurozone crisis.
Caught in its own history, Germany has emerged as the perfect scapegoat of the crisis. The country is either accused of pursuing pan-German fantasies (if it assumes leadership responsibility in the Eurozone) or of being egotistical (if it refuses to lead). Like the Franco-German alliance, Germany’s position is poorly understood by other European countries.
But why do we tolerate it, 67 years after the end of World War II and 55 years after the inception of the precursor to the European Union with the Rome Treaties, that incomparable things are compared? The anti-German rhetoric reveals the fragility of the European project and the anti-European skepticism that, fueled by politicians and journalists, increasingly resonates in the streets of Paris or Rome.
Of course, Berlin hasn’t done a good job of explaining its domestic and foreign policy. But even if we can assign partial blame to German politicians for poor crisis management, we must not forget that much of the responsibility for the current mess lies with politicians from other countries, who have ignored basic fiscal maxims and who presided over debt-financed budgets for decades.
The states who have refused for several months to face reality, despite the pressure from rating agencies and financial markets, bear most of the responsibility. Now, they appeal to German solidarity and argue that the country must not keep the benefits of its imprudent success to itself.
Germany presents us with a story of economic success. But who in France or in the rest of Europe is aware of the downsides? Who knows about the Hartz-IV reforms, which reduced unemployment benefits and increased the number of Germans living in precarious conditions? Who is aware of the economic and industrial problems of the Ruhr area, which has been badly hurt by the decline of coal mining and heavy industry? Who knows the realities of Germany’s federalist system of governance? Few do.
Here, we have reached the outer limits of Europe and of the famed Franco-German alliance, whose foundations are growing more brittle by the day. The situation in Europe is complicated and troublesome. We stand a far cry removed from the call of the French Nobel laureate Aristide Briand, who remarked after his return from the Locarno Conference in 1925 that “I have been there, and I have spoken the European language. It’s a new language, but we have to master it.”