Meet our rescuers

Sat, Mar 24, 2012, 00:00

Germans have been cast as merciless during the euro crisis. DEREK SCALLYsits down in Berlin with young and old to get their take

FOR FIVE YEARS a crisis has had hold of Europe. The difficulty in getting a grip on it, with its complex, open-ended narrative, makes it tempting to reach for easy answers and populist pantomime. And so European peoples are reduced to familiar cliches: the lazy Greeks, the feckless Irish, the merciless Germans. The latters’ return from central casting, with their revived urge to dominate, has been a central feature of this crisis.

Take the trouble to talk to ordinary people in Germany, though, and you will hear attitudes at once more nuanced and more familiar then you might expect. Like its neighbours, Germany is a nation worried about making ends meet, and Germans are as ambivalent as their neighbours about the idea that the key to solving this drama lies in Germany.

There are flashes of frustration at the feeling of being saddled with others’ debts. But that soon gives way to an unshakeable, unsentimental determination that, in Europe, we are still better together than alone. So forget all you’ve read about the crisis and “the Germans” and read what ordinary Germans think of this mess.

IT’S A BLUSTERY SPRING afternoon in Berlin’s eastern neighbourhood of Friedrichshain. To the right, the choppy, glittering waters of the River Spree; to the left, a remainder stretch of the Berlin Wall containing a mural with the slogan “Paradise out of the darkness”. Beneath the Kremlinesque turrets of the nearby Oberbaum bridge, once a cold-war link between East and West Berlin, house music is thumping from a spontaneous street party.

In the lounge of the Eastern Comfort, a floating hostel ship, eight young Berliners discuss the euro-zone crisis over coffee and cake – Germany’s cherished fourth meal of the day.

With little prompting the group run through all the important issues in the crisis in a calm, considered way that would put most politicians, let alone journalists, to shame.

The main difference between these young people and their peers elsewhere is that, as they admit, none has felt the crisis personally.

“We rent a room in our flat to new arrivals, and in the last years we have seen an extreme number of people from Italy looking for work, mostly architects,” says Markus, a 35-year-old actor. “Only then do you realise how bad things are elsewhere.”

Two things are at play here: unlike its neighbours, Germany, as a whole, is economically sound. At the same time Berlin, like many crisis countries, is a beneficiary of this economic strength.

This group know about high unemployment in Italy, Spain and Greece, the countries that dominate the headlines here. Ireland is off the radar in Germany, and the group are surprised to hear the Irish jobless rate is now higher than in the notoriously jobless German capital.

Louisa, a 27-year-old media consultant who went to Alexandra College in Dublin, also rents out a room in her flat – in recent weeks to a new arrival from Ireland.

“I’ve a lot of friends in Ireland, but this woman explained how depressing and scary it was, how her friends are vanishing,” she says. “The Irish are experienced in crises, but it wasn’t clear to me how bad it was. Here we often make sarcastic remarks about this crisis without personally feeling it.”

As mobile young people, recent travels have reminded them not to make sweeping statements about others – nor to swallow as gospel the portrayal of the crisis in the media or political discourse. A tabloid headline or burning flag reflects the disposition of a newspaper or protester, they say, not a nation.

“From the German media we learn that Germany is the bogeyman in Greece, but I was in Greece and heard nothing critical about the Germans, just complaints about Merkel,” says Tobias, a 28-year-old journalist and blogger.

German tabloid headlines and populist editorials have, they say, left their mark on public opinion here. The attitude that Germans are being asked to pay for everything in the crisis is, they suggest, becoming more common, particularly among older generations. That in turn influences politicians, they say, making them anxious not to annoy their voters. But this group of younger Germans are less critical of the politics of bailouts.

“We’re not gifting people money; we’re giving guarantees and loans with interest,” says Ben, a 25-year-old business student. What annoys him, he says, is the blinkered national narratives and an inability or unwillingness to see the crisis linkages. “Our banks fired up the property markets in these countries, so they share responsibility for the crisis, but that’s something nobody says here.”

As the conversation progresses, the group are divided for the first time on the slippery issue of crisis solidarity and responsibility, particularly on Germany’s role.

“Do you think we as Germans, given our history, have a special responsibility to help others?” asks Louisa. “When I walk about the centre of Berlin and see the bullet holes in building facades it does make the past very present for me in all of this.” Around the table heads shake vigorously in disagreement.

“For me that’s a historical thing; it’s too abstract,” says Ben. “Often I have the feeling we’re solely reduced to the second World War. That annoys me.” What about the Marshall Plan used to rebuild postwar West Germany, Louisa asks: does that oblige Germany to help neighbours in need now? More heads shake.

“We didn’t create the structural problems in these countries, and I doubt very much whether we will solve anything by pouring more money in,” says Andre, a 29-year-old software developer and musician.

On the one hand, this view reflects the official view of the Merkel administration. Yet these young Germans have a distinct distance from older generations on the crisis, particularly on whether it needs to be projected through the lens of Germany’s 20th century history.

They disagree with the 80-plus generation of the former chancellor Helmut Kohl that this past creates concrete obligations in the present. Yet they share Kohl’s abhorrence of Berlin using its current economic strength to dominate political plans for Europe’s future. In that, they are scathing of the generation that separates them.

“A government politician here said last year that Europe was once more speaking German,” says Andre. “Such a stupid, terrible thing to say. It hangs in the air. You can understand how that damages the mood towards us.”

Opinion is divided on the euro zone’s first decade. Some see this crisis as proof that it was a mistake to try to share a currency without a common rulebook. Others say the economic union, with its benefits and flaws, had to be let run ahead first, to prepare public attitudes for closer ties.

“I think we have pulled together a lot closer than any could have imagined before: even economic mentalities are becoming more similar,” says Ferdinand, the economist. “But as long as we don’t have real democratic legitimacy in European institutions it’s asking too much to expect people to hand over budgetary responsibility permanently to Brussels. You see already in Greece how well that goes down.”

ACROSS TOWN, FAR from the hip and edgy Eastern Comfort hostel boat, lies the sedate neighbourhood of Wilmersdorf. On a busy street the sign for the Kegel-König promises “German food and bowling”.

Inside the decor is tired 1980s: canary-yellow walls and wood-effect vinyl flooring. In a backroom overlooking a car park, six men and two women, mostly pensioners, sit at two tables of four, engrossed in their game of cards. They are playing the popular game of skat, which some suggest is a close fit with the German character.

“It’s not a game for gamblers but for people who can count,” one retiree, Kurt, says with a laugh. “You need to be good with numbers and have a good memory,” adds Wolfgang, the 52-year-old head of the skat club, getting up to give a tour.

In the basement, the lights flicker on to reveal a sizeable bowling alley, anno 1960. Wolfgang ran this bar and bowling alley for a decade but gave up when the new owners – Irish investors – jacked up the rent.

“I understand they want to make a return on their investment, but they wanted too much money,” he says. Pointing at a sizeable hole in the basement roof, he adds: “I had to battle with things like this for years. I don’t understand why the new owners don’t invest in their property.”

In cards as in business, Germans are not known as a nation of gamblers. Perhaps the greatest political challenge of this crisis has been explaining to older Germans why they, a cautious nation of savers, are being saddled with what they perceive as the gambling debts of others.

The popular argument in Ireland, that it was German savings and pension funds fuelling the casino capitalism in Ireland and Greece, is not something older Germans see as relevant. Loans are loans: legal agreements that should be repaid. If you can’t afford the repayments, you shouldn’t take out the loan.

Back at the skat table Christiane, a feisty 78-year-old owner of a butcher’s shop, explains her generation’s attitude to money.

“We worked hard to rebuild this country but always tried hard to keep some money over,” she says.

“Today all people know is money for nothing from the state. Welfare recipients and now countries. Maybe we will have to let Greece fall, not because we want to, or because we think Greeks are bad people, but because it might be best for all.”

No one at the table rails against the Greek people; their targets are Greek politicians, whom they believe are incapable of keeping their word. They have choice words, too, for their own politicians who let Greece into the euro zone without, as they see it, proper administration and book-keeping.

The skat club have long ago given up trying to comprehend the crisis numbers, but they do sense the crisis is an embodiment of something gone wrong in our capitalist culture.

“Bertolt Brecht once said that you can only eat as much as you can vomit. This crisis is about greed, and morals have gone out the window,” says Günther, a 62-year-old retired civil servant. “I only wish the wealthy would be asked to pick up more of the tab, not Greek pensioners or people here who work for €400 a month.”

They are anxious to knock on the head the notion, firmly held elsewhere in Europe, that Germany is a rich country. Reforms a decade ago have left basic dole payments at €374 a month. The low-wage sector has exploded in the past decade, leaving one in 10 Germans working for less than €9 an hour. Almost a million full-time workers earn less than €1,000 a month, according to a study published on Wednesday.

“We are worried that all this debt will all be put on our shoulders and we won’t be able to carry it,” says Christiane. “We won’t know for years how this turns out, but Merkel is no fool. She’s a clever girl.”