Germany knows a thing or two about being punished for bad deeds, but in recent weeks the country has been the poster child for the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.
There is no other way to describe the reputational black eye Germans received as a result of the drawn-out Greek bailout negotiations that culminated last week in the approval of a deal struck with other eurozone countries.
No country has done more than Germany in recent times to raise living standards and democratic norms across Europe, which is one reason the country that once bedeviled the continent emerged as the world’s most admired nation in a 2013 BBC poll conducted in 25 countries. But over this summer, it’s been stunning to see how easily we can be lured back into embracing darker stereotypes of those bullying, inflexible Germans.
The prevailing narrative of the Greek crisis in U.S. media, and on social media, was that the poor Greek people and their idealistic young Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras were being driven to the brink by heartless creditors, led by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. The Germans, and their “troika” of servants—the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—had saddled too much debt on the Greeks, imposed counterproductive austerity policies on its government and demanded humiliating reforms that violated Greek sovereignty.
It’s hard not to empathize with the people of Greece; the country’s GDP shrank by a staggering 25 percent in just five years. But the prevailing narrative of a morally tidy showdown between stingy, stubborn Germanic creditors and their victimized Greek debtors overlooked a number of inconvenient truths.
For starters, the Greek debt crisis was triggered in no small part by the 2009 revelation that the Greek government had falsified its economic data to make the country appear a member in good standing of the eurozone. A second fact often overlooked: This is actually the third bailout in the last five years, and in 2012, the Greeks did benefit from a $117 billion write-off of debt owed to private banks. Third, much of the roughly $380 billion in remaining debt is owed to sovereign nations, meaning that the true creditors in the story are German, Dutch, French, and other European taxpayers, not greedy banks or faceless international bureaucracies. Fourth, while Greece did adopt painful fiscal austerity in recent years, it has been slow to carry out many of the needed structural reforms (such as privatizing state-owned enterprises) it agreed to under the previous bailouts. This would be akin to a U.S. company gaining protection from creditors in a bankruptcy proceeding, without engaging in a difficult reorganization to make it a more viable enterprise going forward. The bloated and inefficient Greek state accounted for a stunning 59 percent of the nation’s GDP in 2013.
Furthermore, the issue of whether to provide more aid to Greece this summer was never solely a bilateral German-Greek issue. The countries most adamant about being tough on the Greek were not the Germans, but poorer eastern European Union member nations. But the only “real people” in too much of the coverage of the drama were Greeks, at the expense of people elsewhere in Europe who are understandably frustrated at bailing out a nation where many express their European solidarity by not paying their own taxes.
Among pundits eager to portray Berlin as the villain of the saga, a favorite charge (pushed by Thomas Piketty, among others) has been that the Germans are ungrateful hypocrites. Their own national debt, after all, was substantially reduced by international creditors in 1953. The extent to which this analogy has been repeated without any curiosity as to the underlying facts, or context, is a distressing case study in uncritical groupthink. A good portion of the debt at issue in 1953 dated back to the vanquished Nazi regime and its predecessors; after World War II, the Federal Republic had assumed responsibility for it (at old exchange rates favorable to creditors) as an act of good faith, as part of Germans’ larger sense of atonement. Germany literally lay in ruins, and was divided, and there was no doubt about whether the German people were doing their part to dig out of the rubble and make amends. That debt hadn’t been accumulated in just a few years while the country was simultaneously violating the terms of its obligations, as in the case of Greece.
It’s especially galling to hear Americans chide the Germans for their supposed lack of generosity, when you consider how differently Germany and the U.S. have reacted to the distress of less fortunate regional economic partners. German taxpayers invested for decades in the development of peripheral European Union members, spent trillions to develop Eastern Germany, and will now pay a good chunk of a third Greek bailout that will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 billion.
In contrast, the United States has refused to incorporate into the North American Free Trade Agreement the type of regional development funding that Europeans deemed essential to a functioning common market. And when Mexico faced an existential debt crisis in the 1980s that was far more severe than the one Greece is experiencing, Mexicans could only have wished that Washington had reacted to their plight as Berlin has reacted to the plight of Greeks.
After walking up to the cliff and contemplating a break-up of their currency union, the leaders of Greece and their European counterparts in Berlin, Paris, and Brussels all blinked, and worked out a deal to keep Greece in the eurozone, at a painful cost to both sides (more money coming out of the pockets of other European citizens, more painful austerity for Greeks). This was a case of political and historical imperatives trumping economics, at least for now.
The European Union is a monument to Germany’s atonement for its past sins. From its very inception in the 1950s, when it was born as a coal- and steel-producing union, what eventually came to be known as the European Union was considered by its French architects as a means to subvert German nationalism, and to make its repentant people pay more than their fair share for a common project largely directed by the French.
When Germany suddenly had the opportunity to end its postwar partition a quarter century ago with the fall of the Soviet Union, French and other European leaders pressed the Germans to abandon their cherished currency and symbol of hard-won stability, the Deutsche mark, in favor of a shared European currency. The more intensely Germany was bound to a broader European Union, the theory went, the less likely a reawakening of a troublesome German nationalism. And so, Germany agreed to the euro once Europeans went along with German reunification.
I remember visiting Germany’s Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in 2000, in the immediate aftermath of this transition. I asked Fischer if Germany could ever become a normal country again, fully off probation, fully atoned, fully entitled to wave its own flag, at least alongside that of the EU. Not really, he said, and then he talked passionately about Germany’s need to always act within the Atlantic and European communities.
But the ensuing years have proven bullish ones for German nationalism. Berlin surprisingly refused to go along with the United States in its showdown with Saddam Hussein. World Cup successes (as a host and contender) emboldened Germans to pull out their flags and cheer on their country as if it were no longer on probation.
But maybe the most shocking development has been the degree to which the European Union has come to be perceived as a project inspired by Germany, as opposed to one imposed on it. Henry Kissinger once said that Germany was to be pitied because it was too big for Europe but too small for the world. So it was perhaps inevitable that the EU would come to be seen as a projection of German influence. The euro, which initially Germans were so reluctant to adopt, proved a competitive boon to German exports, by raising costs in the rest of Europe.
This monetary straightjacket of 19 very different economies sharing the same currency has had its economic pluses and minuses, but the initial impetus to take this plunge into the economic unknown in the 1990s was all political—the goal of reinforcing a broader European identity across the continent. And whatever its economic merits, the political endeavor is backfiring: The shared currency has only strengthened nationalist sentiments. Try sharing a credit card, and thus your credit rating, with a very diverse group of friends, and sooner or later you’ll also find that it’s not easy to cheerily embrace the “we’re all in this together” plan.
Europe’s integration over time, and Germany’s role in it, is a nuanced, complicated tale, and Americans have a vested interest in its success. Lazy caricatures of Germany that harken back to World War stereotypes may make a dry economic tale more entertaining, and seduce us into thinking we’re rooting for the supposed underdog. But it is a disservice to the truth and our national interest. The Germany of Angela Merkel, not a socialist Greece, is our indispensable ally, the democracy that shares our values and can still teach us a thing or two about improving the lives of people beyond its borders.