In the early 1820s, in Berlin or nearby, Heinrich Heine wrote what is probably the most famous German language poem. Perhaps autobiographical, it is not thought Heine’s lines had much to do with the politics of his time. Much of his later poetry however, was concerned with social and institutional evolutions of European society.
Reminiscent of this powerful tradition of engaged German poets and writers, a recent effort by Gunter Grass published by the Sueddeutsche Zeitung launched a scathing attack on Germany’s treatment of the Greek crisis.
In a poem directed at the German government, the European Commission and German public opinion as a whole, Grass chastises the insensitive treatment made of European Unity by a continent unaware of its own cultural legacy. References to the Third Reich lurk beyond the surface of his elegant verse. Antique imagery and modern anguishes converge in a chilling vision of Europe killing Socrates yet another time, and laying to waste its most valuable treasure: democratic institutions.
Meanwhile, be it for alarmist statements or patronizing chiding, European commentators contemplate what they call the continent’s decline with helpless disappointment. As a glittering stream at dusk, it seems Europe’s prosperity has gone, and with it any hope for the future. Fear is the order of the day, would say Dominic Moisi.
Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin,
Ein Märchen aus uralten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.
Die Luft ist kühl und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fließt der Rhein;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt,
I wish I knew the meaning,
A sadness has fallen on me.
The ghost of an ancient legend
That will not let me be.
The air is cool in the twilight
And gently flows the Rhine;
A mountain peak in the setting sun
Catches the faltering shine.
The Anglo-Saxons have been vocal of late, in their criticism of German economic policy and attitude towards the sovereign debt crisis. The Economist and Handelsblatt were recently seen cartoon-clashing over whether Mrs Merkel was letting the world economy sink (because of her refusal to mutualise debt and allow further ECB lending) or keeping it up in the face of a sinking world economy (because of…?). David Cameron perorates self-righteous speeches admonishing unclear solutions to problems he doesn’t define – other than by saying they are not Britain’s but that Britain suffers from them. Several eminent economists have criticized the German ordo-liberal stance towards European monetary policy, and so has the French Left throughout a busy campaign year.
But financial decision makers in Germany are becoming acutely aware of their own vulnerability, as reminded by (former Deutsche Bank boss) Josef Ackerman in a recent article. Financial analysts would call this contagion. Many financial analysts and economists would, like medieval doctors watching their primitive indicators, check their models and wait for signs of health or disease. High GDP growth, low unemployment, investor confidence, cheap credit, Lorelei…
Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar,
Ihr gold’nes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar,
Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme,
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
The highest peak still gleaming
Reveals enthroned in the air,
A Siren lost in her dreaming
Combing her golden hair.
With golden combs she caresses
Her hair as she sings her song;
Echoing through the gloaming
Filled with a magic so strong.
The Lorelei is a tall majestic rock overlooking a bend in the Rhine. In Heine’s poem it becomes an enthralling siren luring sailors to their death in the bend’s treacherous eddies.
In a similar leap of faith, German public opinion has followed the sirens of economic strength, defended with populist grit by Mrs Merkel’s government, and egoistic greed by the country’s financial establishment. Each in their own land, European countries have followed similar paths since the subprime crisis, and let themselves be lured by the illusion that better “grades” was available. With just a bit more growth and just a bit less unemployment, with less spending and more tax incentives to reassure the markets, investment will return, and prosperity; so went the story. Dear investors, credited with so much influence, so much clout that they could drive an economy with the sheer power of capital. As if creativity, dynamism and belief had nothing to do with prosperity. As if all that mattered was how much money was on the table.
But Germany’s economy is weak on many accounts, not least its threateningly unstable age pyramid. With births under population renewal rates since the early eighties, Germany does not have the labour force to pay for its baby boomer’s pensions. Low unemployment was achieved through a reduction in working hours (and wages) agreed to by industry workers, and part-time positions for a majority of female employees. These create situations of low income making domestic demand anemic. Germany’s domestic economy is in a de facto recession, and its growth is only driven by exports, a third of which go to the Eurozone (compare with 7% to China). The image a thriving economy led by high-quality exports to the booming East is deeply flawed, as is that of a tight ship trawling its deficient partners in its wake. In fact, careless consumption by debt-laden partners is a part of what keeps Germany afloat.
An ironic illustration of this was given earlier this June when one of the largest German solar panel manufacturers was rescued from bankruptcy by massive orders from Israel and… Greece. The name of the company is Solon. Gunter Grass would give the story a bitter smirk (Solon was an Athenian leader of 5th century BC, giving the city a democratic code that bears his name).
Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe,
Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh’.
Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn,
Und das hat mit ihrem Singen,
Die Lorelei getan.
The boatman has heard, he is bound
In throes of desire and love.
He’s blind to the reefs around,
He sees but the Maiden above.
And now the wild waters awaken,
Then boat and the boatman are gone.
And this is what with her singing,
The Lorelei has done.
Heinrich Heine’s poem does not say how the Lorelei is to be avoided. It runs the story as a Greek tragedy: an inevitable course of events. Perhaps using wax earplugs as Ulysses did would help. Sticking to watching the path ahead rather than listening to the sirens of economic power could do for a start.
In a now fully connected macro-economy, any one country’s interest becomes that of all others, and no option can be individually taken without affecting partners the world over. There is no “out there” any more where profits can be made that will not affect anyone. A country’s trade surplus is another’s deficit, and both are only sustainable together.
Fortunately for Germany (and the world), the Merkel government is not the only voice from within its political spectrum seeking to address the European crisis. In a recent publication, SPD leaders Gabriel, Steinmeier and Steinbrueck have revealed ambitious views on a European management of employment, financial regulation, common growth and public administration issues. Crucially, it comes with a vision of a strengthened economic, financial and social union.
This is a difficult road to tread, as it implies changes to a number of arrangements countries have negotiated over the years and are loath to reconsider (CAP, rebates, tax havens, cohesion policy). Large businesses lobby their government as hard they can. Trade unions are not always in favour of change, especially if it harms the interests of their members – often dressed as those of “social justice”. Powerful interests are at stake and the temptation to hold on to what seems to be guaranteed positions of economic and commercial strength is as strong as a whirling Rhine eddy working its suction on a light fishing boat.
But the Lorelei of economic power needs to give way, and the flow of creative trade to resume. It is particularly difficult for Europeans to accept since it implies accepting to come to terms with the loss of a sense of security associated with might – as in might over lesser partners. As the world moves on from 20th century polarizations, being competitive means letting relative power diminish for those rich nations who have enjoyed political prominence in most of the last three centuries. But it doesn’t have to mean lower living standards.
Justice is not justice unless it applies to all. And the world needs Europe to stand for justice, democracy, and human rights. Now’s the time.
Gunter Grass, ‘The schame of Europe”, http://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/gedicht-von-guenter-grass-zur-griechenland-krise-europas-schande-1.1366941