After centuries at debt's door, Berlin's €68bn tab is no surprise
BERLIN DIARY:A new books suggests the German capital’s history can be written on the back of an IOU
GERMAN DOUBTS about bailouts don’t stem from Athens, but Berlin. New arrivals to this capital of 3.5 million people soon learn about the city’s staggering debt of €68 billion.
But when did Berlin buck the German culture of frugality to become a debt champion and basket-case economy?
Some point to the costs of the city’s cold war division, others go back to 1945 when big companies like Siemens fled the city with their machinery before the Red Army arrived.
A new book, Debts in Berlin, suggests that the city’s entire history can be written on the back of an IOU.
Published by Berlin’s City Museum, the book is a hilarious romp through centuries of debt-related scams, poems and songs, such as: “We’ll drink our granny’s house away/ with the first and second mortgage.”
The book contains a list of Berlin bars where you can still drink on credit; to sober up, the editors point out that Berlin’s annual debt interest of €2.5 billion would, if stacked in a pile of €100 notes, make a tower 97 times the height of the Brandenburg Gate.
Dozens of historical episodes reveal just how deeply ingrained debt has become in the Berlin mentality.
The first recorded Berliner in debt was Thilo von Hamelin in 1289, who bought 84 pieces of lumber on credit from a Hamburg businessman to rebuild houses destroyed in a Berlin fire. Within a few years, though, he was buying and selling debt like a modern-day financier.
The business of debt had well established itself by 1517 when the indulgence salesman Johann Tetzel spent a profitable few months in the city.
He was getting ready to move on when a Berlin man asked if it was possible to buy an indulgence not just to purge past sins but for future sins, such as highway robbery? For a small premium, Tetzel was happy to make the sale.
A few days later, leaving Berlin with his trunk of indulgence takings, Tetzel was confronted by masked highwaymen.
He told the bandits he was a man of God and implored them not to risk their mortal souls by robbing him, whereupon one of the men revealed his face and, waving his indulgence, relieved Tetzel of his trunk.
Pre-war wit Kurt Tucholsky once noted that business in Berlin was possible – not because of its businessmen but in spite of them.