Power points: an Irish-German affair


Germany has long had a love affair with Ireland, but recent economic developments have put a strain on the relationship. So how does Europe’s most powerful economy view Ireland, and what does the future hold for the alliance?

IRISH VISITORS to Berlin usually head to the television tower or the Reichstag dome for views of the German capital. Few Irish know of the spectacular view atop the 20-storey tower in the Ku-damm Karree shopping centre – even though they own it.

Despite a prime location on Berlin’s leafy Kurfürstendamm boulevard, the labyrinthine shopping centre has been largely vacant for years. With its dirty grey facade and ghostly passageways, the Karree is the embodiment of the German-Irish complex.

When Sean Mulryan’s Ballymore group bought the centre for more than €200 million in 2007, locals agreed it was an astronomical price for a problem property. The centre had never worked because there was no room for anchor tenants on the street front, which was occupied by two historic theatres. To solve that problem, the Irish investors decided they would flatten both to make room for a new €500 million development.

“Ballymore were arrogant and naive in equal measure,” says one well-placed source. “They under-estimated everything – except the purchase price.” Protests against the demolition prompted a tense stand-off, then the financial crisis hit and Nama moved in on Ballymore’s assets, including the Ku-damm Karree.

“It was a high price for a site that didn’t work. Ballymore took a chance and that money is gone now,” says Ralf Bock, Ballymore manager for Germany. Two-thirds of the money paid was Ballymore’s own money, he says, and one-third came from Bank of Ireland. “But it’s a property the Irish taxpayer can be sure will rise in value, their money is safe.”

Ballymore is under pressure from Nama to offload the property. There’s talk of a Turkish shopping mall mogul moving in but, with nothing concrete, key tenants are moving out.

For now, the Karree is a Nama-controlled wreck, cast adrift in a perfect storm of ambition and hubris. Deals like this triggered the eurozone crisis, welding Ireland and Germany together like never before.

For decades, we happily snapped up German jobs, kitchens and cars. German visitors to our island, meanwhile, embraced a surrogate heimat – an idealised homeland even more green and lush than the one Hitler co-opted and poisoned for generations.

Each had something the other wanted – their economic strength for our lightness of being.

Then, after an economic reversal of fortunes, Germany took a dive while flights to Berlin filled up with Irish men thumbing property portfolios. Some were serious players with serious cash, others were fly-by-nights out to make a quick buck with other people’s money. Few were aware of Article 14 of Germany’s post-war constitution, which states: “Property entails obligations. Its use shall also serve the public good.” It is this cultural blindness that has come back to haunt us all, as our EU/IMF programme confronts us with our largest partner. The question is: does the German-Irish relationship have a future or will, as a German saying goes, money matters end the friendship?

Before considering what they think of us, it’s worth considering what, if anything, we know of them.

The boom years opened Irish eyes to European delights, from Swedish design to Spanish wine, but Germany remained trapped in central casting. The two most popular German films of recent years dealt with Hitler and the Stasi. In one major Dublin bookshop last week, only eight of the more than 100 books in its German section were not devoted to dictatorship. The fiction section is almost German-free; the biggest success of recent years, Hans Fallada’s Nazi drama Alone in Berlin, was first published 65 years ago.

A visit to a similarly-sized Berlin bookshop reveals an embarrassment of Irish literary riches: Binchy and Banville, Enright and Tóibín. German public radio this year produced not one but two marathon radio dramatisations of Ulysses.

On Sunday evenings, millions of Germans indulge in soft-soap dramas with whimsical titles such as Our Farm in Ireland. Irish folk festivals are a weekly occurrence.

During Euro 2012, everyone here had a laugh over “Angela Merkel Thinks We’re Working” – from the Bild tabloid to the lady herself – while the best-selling broadsheet described Irish fans’ Field of Athenry farewell as a “goose-bump moment”.

“We’ll miss the Irish fans,” wrote the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily. “Free as birds and gloriously uninhibited.”

Germany’s love for Ireland is complex and deep, and exists in a separate dimension to the eurozone crisis. Polls show repeatedly that Germans make a clear distinction between Ireland and Greece: like Angela Merkel, they think the Irish are working but that the Greeks are not.

There’s no reason for Ireland to have a German complex on the matter of who owes whom, considering the one-way traffic during the eighth century, when Irish monks brought learning back to central Europe after the dark ages.

“During the first thousand years of [German-Irish] relations, Ireland has been the creditor,” wrote John Hennig, one of many Germans who found refuge from the Nazis in Ireland – another source of credit.

ASK IRISHpeople what they associate with Germany, they are less likely to mention the Nazis than the strong work ethic, economy and engineering prowess.

That’s not surprising: take a close look at the yellow cranes used to build the Titanic a century ago in Belfast and you’ll see the logo of Krupp steel on the side. Even Titanic’s builder, Harland & Wolff, was co-founded by Hamburg-born Gustav Wilhelm Wolff.

Interestingly, the slogan of German efficiency – Audi’s “Vorsprung durch Technik” (ahead through engineering) – was devised by Sir John Hegarty, the son of Cork emigrants.

These cultural links cannot hide cultural distance. Here language is key: for many Irish, thanks to the nuns’ love of French, German remains a forbidding barrier. That said, numbers learning German at university are rising slowly, with the hope of employment on graduation.

This cultural barrier has lead to many sticky misunderstandings in German-Irish relations. Heinrich Böll’s green-tinted Irish Journal provided Germans with idealised views of Ireland for decades. But the Irish reception for Böll’s documentary Children of Éire provoked huge controversy on its Irish broadcast in 1965 from viewers who didn’t appreciate his literary take on their happy but barefoot children.

The tables were turned in 2007 when ex-German ambassador Christian Pauls remarked that economic success had left Ireland a “coarse” place. Some were put out by his remarks, while others applauded his openness and agreed with his assertion.

A year later, author Jeannette Villachia picked up the theme in her book A Year in Dublin, relating to her readers a well-known Irish economic pundit’s “entertaining” explanation for the Irish boom: “After the euro’s introduction, his countrymen were able to ‘plunder the savings of Germans’ at ‘interest rates that were good for us but bad for them’.”

Dr Gisela Holfter, senior lecturer in German at the University of Limerick, says German-Irish relations – particularly in recent years – have been burdened by positive and negative stereotypes on both sides.

“The German side still happily thinks of Ireland as the green country,” she says, “while on the Irish side, there’s an idea of Germans living the high life that doesn’t correspond to the low social welfare and minimal wage increases in the last decades.”

PERCEPTIONS OFGermany’s economic rise, while dictating reform terms to poor programme countries, has caused no small resentment. Few know that Germans have seen negligible pay rises in two decades, or that many feel their standard of living is slipping as their society ages. The German giant feels vulnerable.

On a drizzly Saturday night, a group of German visitors on a “civil society tour of Ireland” is gathered in the Teacher’s Club on Dublin’s Parnell Square for a talk on Ireland’s economic crisis.

Any romantic notions are shattered on hearing the rates of Irish youth unemployment and personal indebtedness. The sympathy is palpable, but eyebrows rise when they hear about popular resistance to property tax and metered-water. Both are long a reality in Germany.

“Water is free here?” asks one.

“Regardless of how much you use?” asks another.

No one mentions that the standard Irish dole payment is twice the German equivalent.

“For most of my life we’ve always paid as I think you should when you are in a strong financial position,” says Waltraud Grampp, one of the German visitors. “I feel now there is a hole in our wallet but people still want to dip in, expecting to find more money than is actually there. Their ideas of German wealth are obsolete.” The central disconnect of the eurozone crisis is the belief outside Germany that Europe’s largest member could and should do more, while polls show a majority Germans feel overwhelmed by the existing demands let alone future expectations.

“Everyone in Ireland is being pumped up by populist outrage at the indignity of having to live within our means, and blaming Germans for it,” says Peter Sutherland, a former European Commissioner and chairman of Goldman Sachs International. “I think Irish people are generally sympathetic to the German view. Talk of ‘the Germans’ is dangerous if we lose sight that our interest lies in the success of the European project.”

A successful end to eurozone depends on politics and economics, but also perception. While Europe’s leaders have used the crisis to begin pooling financial and budgetary competences, they guard jealously their own national competence on the political-crisis narrative.

Few German politicians, for instance, have suggested a link between Ireland’s property bubble and German banking misadventures in the IFSC, or the unwitting contribution from German savers.

“No one tells the people here that part,” said ex-foreign minister Joschka Fischer at a Berlin discussion in April. “I don’t see in this a master plan but a bit of the reality is being kept from view.” Meanwhile, Ireland’s narrative began with one one extreme – “we all partied” – and swung to another – “you are not responsible for the crisis”.

“I don’t subscribe to that view,” says Lucinda Creighton, minister of state for Europe, of the Taoiseach’s December address. “Not so long ago we were praying for outside entities to take control of a rapidly deteriorating crisis. Quite quickly, self-criticism of what got us to this point turned into criticism of anyone else.” She says that clear-eyed engagement with the largest EU member, our partner for better or worse, is essential if Ireland is to argue its case in Europe.

“I agree with the German view that there is no magic wand or pool of money that can make our challenges disappear,” she says. “We need to cut costs to make Europe relevant to the global economy. Where I disagree is on banking debt, lumping it on to sovereign debt. My firm view is that this euro crisis will continue until we deal with that challenge.”

From Fassbender to King Friedrich: the love affair between Germany and Ireland

Michael Fassbender (pictured above) is one of those rare things: a ginger German. With a father from Heidelberg and a mother from Larne, Co Antrim, he was born in Germany but moved with his family at a young age to Killarney, Co Kerry. He first rose to prominence in a TV ad for stout, as the man who crossed the Atlantic to raise a pint and heal a rift with a friend in Boston. Film roles followed, including 300, Hunger, Shame and, most recently, Prometheus. Asked by fans how he lost so much weight to play the hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger, Fassbender, with dry German humour, replied: “By not eating.”

In German interviews, Fassbender chats happily about his Irish childhood in Killarney, in particular his stint as a tardy altar-boy, regularly showing up late for Mass – with the keys of the church. In that sense, Fassbender seems to feel more like a tardy Irish Catholic than a punctual German Protestant. “In Catholicism there are these rituals and images: we have, if you will, a better show than the Protestants,” he told Germany’s Cover magazine.

Fassbender has brought sexy back to German-Irish relations, something sorely lacking since the days of Lola Montez. Born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Sligo, Lola caught the eye of Bavaria’s King Ludwig I (also pictured above) in 1846 by claiming to be an exotic dancer from Spain. Although married, the king took up with the girl from Grange, even making her the duchess of Landsfeld. Bavarian citizens put up with their king’s cavorting, but their patience snapped when his courtesan began meddling in state affairs. Ludwig was forced to abdicate and Lola had to flee. She never saw him again, but she remained a duchess. In those days, titles were a girl’s best friend.

She wasn’t the first Irish person to fall in with a German king of ill repute. In 1734, James Kirkland from Ballygar, Co Longford, was recruited by King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia to serve in his army. He served in a special division known as the Tall Guys – at 6ft 8in, Kirkland was a towering sensation, his acquisition part of the king’s indulging in what he called his “weakness for tall soldiers”.

Kirkland is described as “of good inches . . . but by no means a beautiful man”. He was paid £1,000 “on condition of his giving up his person”, as well as £60 as three years’ wages. Kirkland stayed in service until the king died and today his portrait hangs in Berlin’s German Historical Museum.

The beginning of recorded Irish-German relations lies in an unfortunate incident. Cillian, a pious if mouthy monk from Co Cavan, was travelling Europe when he converted the duke of Würzburg in 689. Unable to leave well enough alone, he told the newly baptised duke that, having married his brother’s widow, he was in violation of scriptures. Hearing this, the scorned wife sent her soldiers to find Cillian and his companions, Colmán and Totan, and had the three beheaded. Cillian left behind his bible in Würzburg, which survives to this day. In its margins are some of the oldest written examples of old Irish.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.