Germany's austerity bears the mark of Luther
BUSINESS OPINION:IF THERE’S one nationality the rest of the world thinks it readily and totally understands, it is the Germans. Combine their deep involvement with Nazism and anti-Semitism and, voila! – 2,000 years of complex history vanishes.
Since the beginning of the euro crisis, this reductionism has come in the form of sifting through the fatal legacy of the Weimar era, the years of promising democracy that began in the defeat and humiliation of the first World War and ended with the Nazi takeover in 1933.
On the one hand, we’re told, the 1920s legacy of destabilising inflation explains Germany’s staunch aversion to expansionary monetary and fiscal policies today; on the other hand, the Nazi taint on the interwar years seems to prove for some that, even in 2012, the intentions of democratic Germany can’t be trusted when it comes to Europe’s wellbeing.
But we should read much deeper into Germany’s incomparably rich history, and in particular the indelible mark left by Martin Luther and the “mighty fortress” he built with his strain of Protestantism. Even today Germany, though religiously diverse and politically secular, defines itself and its mission through the writings and actions of the 16th-century reformer, who left a succinct definition of Lutheran society in his treatise The Freedom of a Christian, which he summarised in two sentences: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none, and a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all.”
Consider Luther’s view on charity and the poor. He made the care of the poor an organised, civic obligation by proposing that a common chest be put in every German town; the needy and deserving native poor, Luther proposed, would receive grants from the chest. Each recipient would pledge to repay the borrowed amount after a timely recovery and return to self-sufficiency, thereby taking responsibility for both his neighbours and himself. This was love of one’s neighbour through shared civic responsibility, what the Lutherans call “faith begetting charity.”
How little has changed in 500 years. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, a born-and-baptised daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor, clearly believes the age-old moral virtues and remedies are the best medicine for the euro crisis. She has no desire to press a secular ideology, let alone an institutional religious faith, on her country, but her politics draws from an austere and self-sacrificing, yet charitable and fair, Protestantism.
If Dr Merkel refuses to support so-called euro bonds, it is not because it would be like giving free money to the undeserving poor but because it would not help the redeemed poor take responsibility for their own houses and grow strong for both themselves and their needy neighbours. He who receives, recovers and profits from society in a time of need has a moral responsibility to pay society back by acting in turn as a strong citizen who can help fill the common chests and sacrifice for his now needy neighbours, who had once helped him. Such is the sacrificial Lutheran society.