The Washington Post Column

Germany is Tired of Paying Europe’s Bills

“Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks. And sell the Acropolis too!”— headline, Bild newspaper, March 4, 2010

Sometimes they cut to the essence of the story, those tabloid headline-writers, even when they haven’t got the quotation exactly right. What the German politician being quoted in the Bild article cited above actually said was, “A bankrupt party must use everything he has to make money and serve his creditors. … Greece owns buildings, companies and several uninhabited islands, which can now be used to repay debt.”

What he meant, though, was more accurately reflected in that Bild headline: The Germans are fed up with paying Europe’s bills. They don’t want to bail out the feckless Greeks with their flagrantly inaccurate official statistics; they resent being Europe’s banker of last resort; they object to the universal demand that they plug the vast holes in the Greek budget deficit in the name of “European unity”; and for the first time in a long time they are saying it out loud. Not only are tabloids demanding the sale of the Acropolis, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s deeply serious paper of record, has pointed out that while the Greeks are out protesting the raising of the pension age from 61 to 63, Germany recently raised its pension age from 65 to 67: “Does that mean that the Germans should in future extend the working age from 67 to 69, so that Greeks can enjoy their retirement?’

With an unerringly poor sense of timing, the Greeks have, in response, chosen precisely this moment to flaunt their own set of resentments. One Greek minister complained to the BBC that the Nazis “took away the Greek gold that was in the Bank of Greece, they took away the Greek money and they never gave it back.” The mayor of Athens has demanded 70 billion euros for the ruins the Nazis left behind after the war. The Greek consumer organization, not exactly thankful for the German bailout or Europe’s demands for Greek budget cuts, has called for a boycott of German products. Officially, the Germans have described these comments as “not helpful.” Unofficially, the German press is foaming at the mouth (see above), for once reflecting accurately the views of both German politicians and German voters.

More curious is the question of why this is happening at this particular moment: After all, the Germans have been paying for European unity—not just the currency but the farming subsidies, the assistance to poorer regions, the highways in Spain and Ireland—for decades without ever complaining much. In Warsaw, one sees children’s playgrounds proudly bearing signs declaring that they have been “built with European money,” most of which presumably comes from German taxpayers. So why are those German taxpayers suddenly complaining about the Greeks?

The obvious answer is to do with that poor timing: Germany is still effectively in recession; unemployment is relatively high; and the new ruling coalition has sworn to curtail spending. That means that for the first time in a long time, Germans are feeling a direct pinch on their incomes, on their pensions, and on state institutions, including schools. If they don’t feel like bailing out other people at this particular moment in the economic cycle—particularly people with an earlier retirement age—no one can blame them.

The less obvious answer is related to those comments about Nazis. The driving force behind the creation of the European Union, back in the 1950s, was Germany’s guilt about the war. Although other countries had different motives, the whole point of European economic and political unity, from the German point of view, was to drown the German nation and its singular history into something larger and more palatable.

Along the way, Europe also acquired other reasons for its existence: The euro—the European currency that has been rendered wobbly by the Greek national debt—was created to help the single European market compete with the United States. But political feelings run deeper than economic needs, and without that fundamental German urge to sacrifice national sovereignty, the whole thing will fall apart.

Which is why this wave of German indignation over the Greek bailout is so important. After all, Germany is now run by a generation with no personal memories of the war. Germany’s historical debate is now focused on the fate of Germans who suffered from wartime bombing and postwar deportation, not with the fate of Germany’s victims—in Greece or anywhere else. Sooner or later, the Germans will collectively decide that enough sacrifices have been made and that the debt to Europe has been paid. Thanks to the ungrateful Greeks with their island villas and large pensions, that day may arrive more quickly that we thought it would.