Sunday, February 23, 2003
Germany: Stagnant and Unsettled - 23rd February 2003, 22.07

In the furore that unsettled the West for the early part of this month, France was viewed as the Satanic motor behind the 'coalition of containment' and Germany was bring up the rear because of a lame duck Chancellor. This view underestimates the level of anti-American sentiment in Germany and transforms the largest country in Europe into an insignificant cipher. That view should be reconsidered.

As the Washington Post reports, the German citizen has been starved of economic and political freedom. The political system of his country is stagnant and does not appear capable of overcoming the interests that oppose reform. Their leader lied in order to be re-elected. Yet, whilst they decry political decay and criticise the moribund state of their economy, most are unwilling to endure the pain that change will require.

As a result, stagnation deepens and people grumble. Die Zeit political editor Martin Klingst writes of the "naked rage" many feel "when they look at their paychecks these days and see how little they have left after deductions from their salaries for pensions and national health insurance." Too often, they look for others -- foreign workers, lazy East Germans, corrupt politicians -- to blame.

This is a dangerous and unstable impasse. It is compounded by opposition to war on in Iraq, a peace dividend that is redefining German identity and injecting a component of populism into German politics.

One student, a woman from Leipzig, said that Schroeder's declaration of opposition to war in Iraq was the first time she had ever felt "proud to be a German." Not long ago, that same phrase -- Ich bin stolz, Deutscher zu sein -- was a slogan used by far-right nationalist groups; you would not have heard it at a dinner table full of thoughtful university students. But I took it to mean that being against the United States -- and "for peace" -- has become a way for Germans to feel good about a society that otherwise is not working as well as it used to.

The German economy grew by 0.5% last year and, pundits suspect, that this anaemic increase has reversed itself. The official unemployment rate now stands at 4.27 million.

Despite the geopolitical orientation of Central Europe towards the Atlantic, the area remains the economic hinterland of Germany. These countries, above all others, are aware of what Germany is capable of, given their schizophrenic attitude towards power. A more vigorous national identity, born of an anti-American reaction, political disillusionment and economic anger, is a potential catalyst for the type of populist movement that we have seen in other European countries over the last decade. Such a movement will assert Germany's powerful but atrophied economic and political muscles and may well wrench a large part of continental Europe away from the Atlantic Alliance.

Germany bears watching.


Post a Comment

Blog Archive