The strange sado-masochism of Anglo-German Relations, and what it can teach us about the euro crisis

Dr Gunnar Beck

Although born in Düsseldorf, one of Germany’s larger cities, I went to university and subsequently worked and lived in Britain for many years. I now divide my time between Germany and London and am accustomed to and enamoured by many things British. There remain others, which I still struggle to understand. One is the common law which still strikes as most ‘uncommon’ law but which fascinates the sociologist within me as an ingeniously subtle and effective method of social control. Another was brought home to me during a recent telephone conversation with a Canadian friend, who was on his way to Edinburgh for his grandmother’s 105th birthday. To my enquiry as to her health he responded that she was doing fine but that her general alertness had been rather clouded of late by a sudden relapse into Germanophobia. “You know, Andrew”, she apparently confessed during one of their extended telephone conversations, “I am terribly worried about those Germans and what they may do to our boys.” The grandmother, of course, spent all her life in rural England and Scotland, never visited a theatre of war, married a man too young to serve in World War I and too well qualified to serve on the frontline during World War II, never suffered a bombing raid by the Luftwaffe, and had sons who too were spared frontline service in Germany or North Africa. She also did not lose a single close relative or friend in either war. “I’ll try to find out more about those fears,” Andrew said, “if, that is, she’ll back from the trenches.”

World War II ended nearly seventy years ago and most of the remaining war veterans will die in the next ten years. British, like German, society has undergone profound social and economic change in the last fifty years. Such change, many agree, has not been uniformly for the best. British hostility to Germany, by contrast, appears timeless and unchanging. To many it seems to offer all the comforts of an old certainty. My friend’s grandmother, despite her years, thus appears to have her fingers firmly on the nation’s pulse. When I came back from my Christmas holiday two years ago, my minimalist TV choices for the day (I only have the minimum number of channels which I cannot prevent my internet provider from offering me free of charge) included two World War II movies and an all day Nazi special on the History Channel. The all day special consisted of ten hours of “The Nazis – Lessons from History” followed by six hours devoted to ‘Auschwitz’. The next day there was a Holocaust special, followed over subsequent weeks by programmes about ‘Hitler’s women’, ‘Hitler’s animals’, ‘Hitler’s shoehorn’, and so forth. I can barely remember a week of British TV without at least one programme devoted to World War II or the Third Reich, although in November of most years World War I tends to take over for a week or two, and occasionally wartime documentaries are crowded out by more imminent broadcasts of Anglo-German clashes on the football pitch. When the Pope visited Britain two years ago or so, it was not always clear whether media and street protests were fuelled by disapproval of Catholic moral teachings or by the Pope’s nationality. Several television programmes and newspaper articles were devoted to the Pope’s ‘early years’ in the Hitler youth, a time when he was barely in his mid-teens and membership of the Nazi youth organisation was compulsory. An English friend at the Bar told me that some time ago an English trial judge, when faced with a plea of discrimination on the grounds of nationality by a German plaintiff, could not resist pointing out that one had to bear in mind that anti-German feeling and prejudice form part of Britain’s national heritage and cherished national memory. I have not come across this case, but germanophobia, the implication seems to be, is part of what it means to be British.

Of course, as often happens, it is tempting to exaggerate. Firstly, the British media’s obsession with the Third Reich often coincides with anti-German sentiment, but the two are nonetheless distinct from each other. Secondly, Germanophobia has to be considered in the context of a certain general xenophobia in the tabloid press which often revolves around sporting events, and after nearly a quarter of a century spent in England, I am not sure who is more disliked: the French or the Germans. Thirdly, Britain’s enduring fascination with World War II is, of course, a sign of national nostalgia just as much as of anti-German prejudice. The older generation in particular see it as the last great act of national collective effort and self-assertion, the final episode in the history of the Empire before its imminent dissolution. Many are alienated by aspects of modern British life, the European Union, and the growing Americanisation of British business, politics and social life; they look back on the war as a golden age of ‘one nation’ solidarity, moral certainty and ultimate triumph. Finally, anti-German feeling though more vocally expressed in Britain, is common in many European countries. Recent Greek media reactions to German demands for closer economic scrutiny of other members of the Eurozone have demonstrated this feeling only too clearly. President Hollande of France won, rather than lost votes, when he promised greater to opposition to Germany, and Italy – Germany’s wartime ally – is often just as anti-German as many other EU countries. Ireland and Finland, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Baltic states are probably the only EU member states where anti-German rhetoric is not part of media culture.

While wars of aggression, war crimes, human rights violations and even genocide are hardly German inventions, Germany has had the misfortune of going through its most militaristic and ‘adventurous’ phase in foreign policy relatively recently in history, which is forever preserved by extensive documentary and pictorial evidence. The Nazis were responsible not only for probably the most systematic and comprehensive, but also the best-documented crimes of genocide. Still, it is difficult to explain the abiding obsession with Nazi Germany in the British media and elsewhere or why German history is still largely reduced to the twelve years from 1933 to 1945, and why it still seems impossible in Britain to criticise any aspect of German economic or foreign policy, especially on EU matters, without some kind of Nazi connotation or similar historical insinuation lurking somewhere in the background. Austrians, who, on a per capita basis, more than fulfilled their quota of ideological wrong-doing in Nazi Germany, have not been accorded a commensurate share of the blame. The same, though subject to one crucial qualification, can probably be said of Japan. Why has nearly a lifetime of peaceful and liberal-democratic development in Germany done so little to put the Third Reich into some kind of historical perspective? The answer cannot simply be that collective guilt is a reality and Germany’s wrongs are unparalleled. Part of the answer has to be Germany’s own masochistic attitude to its past in addition to the powerful and abiding political interests both within Germany and abroad that constantly ensure ever-recurring reminders of Germany’s Nazi past.

British obsession with Nazi Germany’s past is mirrored by Germany’s self-flagellation about it. In a recent television interview, the well-known German self-styled political philosopher and social critic, Caroline Emcke seriously defended the notion of collective guilt from a Kantian perspective. Even the otherwise eminently rational Jürgen Habermas has endorsed this view, at least occasionally. Kant, of course, was an individualist and believed in private conscience and individual moral responsibility; he would have dismissed the notion of collective guilt as irrational nonsense. German politicians, above all, still go out of their way to remind their countrymen of their country’s special responsibility for European integration, to Germany’s eastern and western neighbours alike, asylum seekers, the state of Israel, ethnic minorities and non-EU immigrants. When the former Social-Democrat politician Thilo Sarrazin drew attention to the catastrophically low birth-rate amongst native Germans, the economic burdens and social problems of immigration, and the general failure to integrate the country’s minorities, he was widely denounced as a crypto-Nazi, a racist, and a divisive and dangerous right-winger. Little wonder that in Germany’s pluralistic society, where the right to free speech is enshrined by one of perpetuity clauses of the German Constitution, he was quickly removed from his post as a director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, and there were many who demanded his expulsion by his Social-Democratic Party. Earlier this summer I published a couple of newspaper articles in which I questioned the standard view that Germany had been a great euro winner in economic terms. I was surprised by the resonance, often curious and surprisingly approving. I even received a phone call from a large public German TV channel requesting an interview. Unfortunately no one there appeared to have read my piece. Everything including time, venue and length of the interviews had been agreed, when suddenly my interlocutor interrupted me and said: ‘Oh, you are not in favour of Eurobonds. I am afraid, we cannot use in that case.’

Reunification slightly qualified Germany’s obsession with the Third Reich as Germany now had the ‘good fortune’ of having a second authoritarian regime to deal with, but Chancellors Helmut Kohl, and Angela Merkel, have continued to speak of European economic and political integration as Germany’s special responsibility and obligation to history. Helmut Kohl, for example, the father of the euro whom the then Greek foreign minister Theodoros Pangalos famously likened to a character in one of Rabelais’ novels, ‘a giant of bestial force and a child’s brain’, repeatedly described European unification as the other side of the coin of German reunification. The self-declared historian Kohl, whose doctoral thesis on the ‘Development of the Political Parties in Rhineland-Palatinate in 1946 and 1947’ had to be withdrawn from ordinary university libraries lest its intellectual merits be too closely scrutinised, never offered his countrymen a full explanation of the deeper logic beneath the link between reunification and European integration. It is now that we know that President Mitterand apparently insisted monetary union as a price for his assent to reunification.

The shadow of history has made German politicians too fearful to articulate their country’s economic and political structure as one of the more successful amongst the larger medium-sized states. They have needed the umbrella of the European Union and the cover of French approval to advocate some aspects of this structure to the rest of Europe. In the process, Germany has relinquished its own currency, monetary policy and a variety of less well known constitutional prerogatives and aspects of fiscal autonomy. This has often been done against public opinion or at least in the context of latent public scepticism. All opinion polls in the 1990s showed that the vast majority of Germans did not want to give up the Deutschmark, yet Germany’s leaders went ahead and did so. One poll was particularly revealing. When responding to question 5 about whether they were in favour of a common currency, most Germans dutifully said ‘yes’, only to answer overwhelmingly ‘no’  to question 9 which asked ‘Are you in favour of the abolition of the Deutschmark?’ The poll illustrates what has been and continues to be at the heart of the campaign for further EU integration in Germany: Germany’s disturbed sense of national identity and its inhibitions in asserting legitimate national interests except under the politically correct, safe umbrella of a common EU policy. Germany is well advised not to forget its painful past, but the historical bequest of nearly seventy years of painful self-examination appears to have left a twisted instead of a sound but moderate sense of national identity. Germany’s rhapsodical incantations of ‘nostra culpa’ have fostered irrational policy-making instead of enlightened and democratically accountable policies. The Euro might prove to be the crowning example of a post-war history of German false consciousness turned on its head. Having joined hands with France and pushed half of Europe into the euro under the guise of a common European destiny that now seems at least premature, Germany now feels psychologically incapable of calling an ‘end to the affair’.

Nearly seventy years on, the spectre of Germany’s Nazi past shows no signs of being laid to rest. The reasons for this obsession go beyond British Germanophobia and German self-hatred – both within Germany and abroad. To begin with, German political leaders have been telling their people that to be good Germans they must above all be good Europeans, an attitude illustrated by the fact that there is no political party in Germany that is even mildly critical of the EU and that all political parties voted in favour the Euro despite their voters having misgivings about the project. The euro crisis has not changed these facts. Over the last year, the Bundestag has approved several euro rescue packages with overwhelming majorities. These packages involve potential liabilities for the German taxpayer of many hundreds of billions of euros. Furthermore, German politicians, more so than others, desperately want to be liked by their counterparts, particularly when they go abroad. Their road to likability has involved establishing their communautaire credentials and the regular grant of transfer payments, aid and financial handouts to countries within the EU and beyond.

Outside Germany, there are multiple motives and reasons why the Holocaust and Germany’s Nazi past will not be laid to rest. Firstly, in a world where practically no one ever agrees on anything except on the facts that excessive bank bonus payments are inevitable, yet also that the financial markets cannot be regulated and that the end of the welfare state is inevitable, where very few shared ethical assumptions exist, everyone can nevertheless still agree that, whatever the disagreements between them, nothing can ever be as bad as what the Germans – a term all too readily used in place of the Nazis – did during World War II. It is a kind of minimal ethical commitment everyone can safely concur with, and one that costs very little indeed. Indeed, it leaves everyone with the comfort and assurance that one’s conduct, however bad, does not, at least, fall below the all-time low set by Germany.

Secondly, the Nazis also serve as a convenient spectre that can be readily evoked whenever Germany or a German politician might do something that others do not like.  ‘The Germans yet again’ was a rallying cry when Chancellor Merkel argued that some kind of mechanism must be put in place to prevent budget deficits of Eurozone member states from spiraling out of control. Similarly, references to Germany’s Nazi past are never wholly absent, either when critics express dissatisfaction with the Pope’s stance on modern materialism or birth control or with his warnings against opening the EU to Muslim and non-European states.

Thirdly, reminders – sometimes express but usually implicit – of her Nazi past have been a convenient and almost fool-proof trigger to extract financial aid and assistance from Germany, as recent Euro aid packages agreed to in the face of widespread scepticism of the German population, amply demonstrate. The latest proposals for an extended permanent eurozone rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism or ESM, involve sums which would be the total exposure of Germany’s loans, guarantees and other liabilities connected with membership of the eurozone to a grand total of twice the size of Germany’s annual federal budget, and rising by the week.

Fourthly, memories of genocide and other crimes committed under the Third Reich are easily evoked when uncomfortable questions are raised about the financial implications and social consequences of the mass influx of refugees and illegal non-EU immigrants into Western and Central Europe. It is effectively impossible to initiate a dispassionate discussion about the consequences of immigration for the survival of the welfare state in any large European state, particularly in Germany.

Finally, the whole machinery of human rights movement, conceived and set up under the immediate impact of WW II and the Third Reich, has lost perspective. The courts have since vastly extended the meaning and scope of many human rights, but a rational discussion of the interpretation now attached to many rights  is still impeded by unhelpful references to the past. For instance, the talk about the need to prevent another Third Reich, genocide or wars, bears little or no meaningful relationship with issues such as whether the right to privacy should extend to abortion or whether there should exist a right to family reunion and fertility treatment, both key issues in current human rights law, both in Europe and the US.

Very rarely, even German patience runs out. The largest EU Member States are entitled to the most votes in the EU’s Council of Ministers and when Poland suggested that it be given a larger share of the votes, because the Polish population of around 40 million would be much larger had it not been for World War II and German occupation, even German masochism reached its limits. Poland’s demands were just an extreme example of the extent to which references to Germany’s Nazi past are used as a bargaining tool and the distorted effect they have on political debate. At the same time, the German remain politically naïve. When the ECB was established, each eurozone central bank was accorded one seat and one vote. The Bundesbank, in other words, has one vote only just as the Bank of Greece, that of Cyprus and the central bank of Malta. Germany’s leaders effectively relinquished price stability and fiscal prudence long before the onset of euro crisis, they did so when they allowed the Southern European which never shared Germany’s historical commitment to price stability, a structural majority on the ECB council.

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed long ago, if one stands next to a river, it is never the same water that runs past. Similarly, history does not repeat itself exactly and neither do historical disasters. Nazism was a historical phenomenon of its times. It exploited a number of universal traits of human psychology and responded to particular needs of Germans at the time but it is no more likely to replicate itself than Soviet Communism, Mao’s Cultural Revolution or Pol Pot’s regime.

Europe’s pathological obsession with Germany’s past and above all Germany’s own historical pathologies have an unhelpful and infantilising effect on European politics and impede rational debate and policy-making. Further economic and political EU integration should be assessed on its economic and political merits, not out of a fear that Germany must be contained. The same should have happened with plans for monetary union within the EU. Germany herself would show greater maturity and democratic consciousness if issues such as immigration, German military interventions abroad, and relations with the Middle East could be discussed dispassionately, without a nebulous feeling of collective guilt and without constant references to wartime atrocities. The saga of the euro is a case in point. Most Germans did not want it in the 1990s, both because of the commitment to price stability which was not shared by other EU countries and because the Deutschmark had become the one symbol of German national identity which was not discredited by Germany’s Nazi past. Despite public concerns, the German political establishment unanimously pushed through the project of monetary union, notwithstanding public scepticism.

The same pattern quickly reasserted itself when the euro crisis began to unfold in 2009 and 2010. Over the next two years, the Bundestag had approved aid packages which entail potential liabilities for the German taxpayer of several hundred billion euros and rising. Recent opinion polls have revealed consistent and rising public opposition. There is no doubt that the readiness of the Germany’s political leaders both to defend the euro at potentially disastrous cost to the Germany economy which could precipitate the relative economic decline of the major eurozone economies by several decades, remains fuelled by an abiding sense of Germany’s never-ending guilt – a pathology which is cleverly exploited by the Southern European economies in distress. Nothing else could explain the degree of unanimity amongst Germany’s political establishment in the face of widespread public apprehension no less than obvious and well-founded economic doubts both about the degree to which Germany has been a euro beneficiary and, more importantly, about Germany’s ability to pay.

Many British euro-critics too who, in years of opposition and up to recently rightly never wearied of pointing out the contradictions and follies underlying the euro project, recently joined in the chorus demanding that Germany do more to ‘sort out the mess’ in the euro zone. It seems bizarre that, on the one hand, increasing numbers of Conservatives are openly discussing renegotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU while calling on Germany to sacrifice narrow economic self-interest to save the euro. It seems that for a country trying to get on top of its own debt problem the prospect of a eurozone preoccupied with its problems for decades and unable to push forward a coherent agenda for financial regulation becomes simply irresistible if, in addition, Germany, Britain’s main economic competitor in Europe, once again hopelessly overestimates her own economic resources and agrees to underwrite not only the eurozone’s public debt but also bail out Southern Europe’s insolvent banking sector, much to the relief of the City and British politician who, in the absence of Germany’s suicide drive, would then have to bail out their own banks for a second time. How annoying it would then be if, all of a sudden, Germany suddenly awoke from years of self-incurred political immaturity and decided to cut its losses and only to save its own moribund banks rather than everyone who holds toxic eurozone debt. And any country not beset by the kind of guilt complex which still clouds the judgement of Germany’s leadership, would do just that.  But it cannot be Germany’s course, or so its political certainly make the country think. Tony Blair who recently joined the chorus of those calling on Germany to agree to full ‘debt mutualisation’, has been advising his US and other clients for many months that his contacts in Germany assured him that the Germany government would do ‘whatever it takes’ to save the euro. He communicated the phrase to his US financial services clients five months or so before it was used in public by Mario Draghi. It originated, it seems, in Ms. Merkel’s government and whilst foreign politicians have been placed in the know for months, the German people are still misled.

German war guilt has been a major factor sustaining EU integration, it has been a key factor behind the introduction of the euro, and it remains the predominant motive behind Germany’s commitment to the euro rescue whatever the proxy official arguments about the alleged economic benefits of the single currency for Germany. It is high time memories of the last great war are buried to allow for more rational discussion of the economic pros and cons of the euro in its present form – ultimately, dare one say it, even Britain could profit from seeing Germany for what she is now: a country slightly larger than the other larger European countries except Russia (if present fecundity and demographic trends persist, Britain’s population is likely to surpass Germany’s somewhere around 2040), with an economy that has for few years only been in somewhat less bad shape than that of the other larger EU member states, but which is likely to be foolish enough to overextend itself once more in trying to salvage a lost cause. In the end, China which has so shrewdly refused to do what Germany seems so eager to do, namely to bail out the eurozone, will mop up what remains in Europe on ebay, and it is unlikely that it will make subtle distinctions between things German and British. We shall all be equal then.

6 thoughts on “The strange sado-masochism of Anglo-German Relations, and what it can teach us about the euro crisis

  1. This is an excellent analysis of the distorting role played by the obsession with WWII in human rights adjudication. I will post a summary on our site with a prominent link to this article

    • Dear Ms. English, thank you for your kind words. Pl feel free to do as you suggest. My sincere thanks, Gunnar Beck

  2. Pingback: EUtopia law is 1! | eutopialaw

  3. An amazing topic, people ought to always keep reminding Germans of their past. When it comes to France and Mr Holland, then shall we remind him of the “Collaboration” which severed in France at that time ? I was totally surprised as well by Poland’s extreme demands, never heard of those but i’m pretty shocked. It’s as if Ireland demanded the UK repair for the mass starvation between 1845 and 1855 (though the effects of the Great Hunger lasted much longer) because of the role of English lords during the Great Hunger with the confiscation of supplies….
    Germans should stop flagelling themselves. It is utterly preposterous to always blame them.

  4. This is an excellent article and one Germans and German Politicians would do well to read. What Herr Beck has written sadly exposes how modern nations can be so manipulative as to play on another nations guilt for their own gain. There is no comparison with the Germany of today against Hitlers Nazi Regime indeed it is ironically rich for Britain to be the Greatest German basher as their Empire period was far from glorious despite how it likes to portray it!

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