One country’s moral evangelism is the rest of the world’s intolerable smugness.
- By Paul HockenosPaul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).
OOne year ago, Germany was named the “best country” in the world, according to a poll by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The poll relied on criteria measuring entrepreneurship, power, public education, and quality of life, among others. But for a growing number of Germans, the important thing was that it offered confirmation of their own self-image. Their country slipped to fourth in this year’s poll, behind Switzerland, Canada, and the United Kingdom, but that seems unlikely to do much to dim the self-confidence of a country enjoying a surging economy and growing international cachet.
Whether the field is migration or manufacturing, fiscal policy or renewable energy, Germans increasingly believe that they, and they alone, know best, at least judging from the attitude newly on display everywhere from newspaper columns to parliamentary speeches to barroom chats over beer. In German the phenomenon is summed up in one word: Besserwisserei, a know-it-all attitude, which the Germans themselves admit is somewhat of an engrained cultural trait.
But it’s increasingly clear that one country’s allegedly evidence-based Besserwisserei is another country’s intolerable smugness. Just ask Germany’s European neighbors, and others, including the United States, where resentment of Germans has been percolating for years, under constant threat of bubbling over.
Resentment is only one part of the problem posed by Germany’s self-satisfaction. The other is the growing threat that cultural vanity will begin to shade into self-defeating political egotism. Besserwisserei may be a cultural trait that reaches back centuries, but Germany wields more power in Europe today, particularly in the European Union, than at any time in recent memory. And the Germany of Chancellor Angela Merkel hasn’t hesitated to throw it around. The rest of Europe certainly notices that things are increasingly done Germany’s way, even when the German way arguably — or as some of the country’s critics suggest, plainly — isn’t best. The big question for the future of Europe might be whether Germans will notice, too.
The charges of egotism and high-handed behavior are relatively new. In the 1949-to-1990 Bonn Republic, West Germany was a humble subordinate of the Western alliance. Its meekness and rock-solid commitment to the good of the EU, in which political power was more widely distributed than it is today (mostly in the direction of Paris), stemmed from the World War II crimes committed by Nazi Germany. The postwar country’s sovereignty was held in check by the Western allies (and in the east by the Soviet Union), and its leaders fought to loosen the corset bit by bit through benevolent deeds. The West Germans were on their best behavior so as not to look aggressive or power hungry. Unification was a taboo topic, while national pride was shunned. And it was playing the good Germans (and the good Europeans) that paved the way to German unification in 1990. By then, most — but not all — of Europe trusted Germany, understanding it as a democracy willing to sacrifice its immediate interests for a European community that returned Germania to the family of normal countries.
The difference, explains Sir Paul Lever, a former British ambassador to Germany and author of Berlin Rules, is that Germany is in the driver’s seat. “Germany is more powerful than ever, especially within the EU, not because it chose to be, but because there’s no one else there capable of leading right now,” he says, pointing to France’s weakened position in the union. But Lever’s not of the opinion that the Germans are conceited, rather “they’re simply following their own self-interest because now they can,” he says, noting that other European countries have freely chosen to fall into line.
German high-handedness is eliciting angry charges of “moral imperialism” from Hungary, and its central European neighbors, including Slovakia, Poland, and Croatia, largely concur. Meanwhile, during the first round of the French presidential election, candidates from more than one party chastised Merkel for dictating a German eurozone policy. “We order it, you obey, and tout suite,” is how the German publisher Wolfram Weimer critically summed up Germany’s new modus operandi during the bailout negotiations in an article titled “Virtuous Totalitarianism”. U.S. economist Paul Krugman repeatedly blasts Germany for “moralizing” on European fiscal policy, namely Germany’s obsession with budget discipline, which he considers entirely counterproductive. Since Germany’s setting of the onerous terms for the eurozone’s recovery packages, beginning in 2011, surveys in Europe show that many fellow Europeans consider Germans arrogant, insensitive, and egotistical (while, strangely, praising their dependability and influence in Europe).
What’s ignited the latest storm of unhappiness with the Germans is the country’s whopping trade surplus ($271 billion in 2016), which balloons from year to year with no apparent end in sight. The problem with this is that Germany’s surplus leaves many of its trading partners, such as the United States but also France and southern Europe, with unbalanced current accounts in their bilateral trade with Germany, which exacerbates their (in some cases, chronic) export-import imbalances. At worst, a sustained negative trade balance adversely affects growth, stability, and employment. Germany’s surpluses have grown so large that even the International Monetary Fund takes it to task for the sin.
There’s wide agreement, among German economists too, that the country’s export prowess is in large part the product of a low euro, low oil prices, and relatively low wages in Germany. Indeed, German exports benefit immensely from a euro that, for Germany, is undervalued. (The value of the one-size-fits-all common currency has to fit, as best as possible, every economy in the 19-member eurozone. The compromise rate is thus comparatively high, say, for Greece, Italy, and even perhaps France, while disproportionately low for Germany.) Critics, such as the IMF, claim that Germany, at the very least, has to rectify the imbalances by spending more and raising wages. The balance-negative eurozone countries say Germany has to give back, too — not just take.
“The reason why Germany is so successful in exports,” David McAllister, a leading German Christian Democrat, told Foreign Policy, “is that its products are highly competitive, of very high quality. We carried out hard reforms to make this happen,” he says, referring to measures streamlining the welfare state and unshackling the labor market. McAllister, a believer in balanced budgets, acknowledges the disapproval going around, but responds, “Those countries criticizing Germany might like to ask themselves why they aren’t as successful, and instead of complaining look at why Germany is, and learn from that.”
In other words, do it our way and shut up about it.
The surplus is just one place where the Germans tend, in the eyes of their peers, to wax pedantic and treat economic policy as a moral cudgel. There is no better example than Merkel’s famously lecturing the indebted countries of southern Europe to run their economies like the typical Swabian hausfrau, who is industrious, penny-pinching, resourceful. The implication, which some German politicos expressed out loud, was that in contrast with the Swabian housewife, the southerners were lazy and spendthrift. Moreover, Germany has managed to impose its fiscal conservatism on Greece and the other southern European economies: austerity, debt reduction, tight loan repayment schedules.
It’s not just that Germans seldom acknowledge the economic misery that many of their European neighbors are forced to endure. Germany, for example, boasts an all-time low youth unemployment rate of 6.6 percent, while in Greece and Spain 48 and 42 percent, respectively, of young people are out of work. It’s also that German conservatives feel inclined to crow about their newfound influence — a little too loudly. In 2011, in front of the Bundestag, Christian Democrat Volker Kauder announced, “Now all of Europe is speaking German!” — referring to the budget discipline that all eurozone countries have signed up to now, some of them against their better judgment.
Not everyone agrees that this amounts to arrogance. Philosopher Wolfram Eilenberger denies that any apologies are in order. “Even when Germany does something obviously decent and generous, like taking in so many refugees, it’s accused of arrogance and unilateral behavior,” he says. “We can’t be as humble as we were in the Bonn Republic, because Germany has more responsibility now that it can’t shirk. There’s a new Germany that’s not aggressive or intolerant.”
Of course, another reason German smugness can get under the skin is the fact that Germany simply isn’t nearly as universally superlative as it might prefer to think. A close corollary of Besserwisserei has always been hypocrisy. So Germany may browbeat other countries about their deficits today, but other Europeans remember that in the 2000s, when the German economy was in the dumps, and again during the financial crisis, Berlin consistently ran budget deficits in excess of eurozone rules — and avoided penalties for it. The deficits were critical for Germany to get its economy going again.
Meanwhile, Germany insists that other countries follow its lead on climate change, shutting down nuclear power stations and switching to clean energy generation. But Germany is Europe’s biggest burner of dirty coal (seventh in the world), and it’s not on track to hit the Paris Agreement’s reduction targets for 2020. Its best-selling export is big, expensive, gas-guzzling luxury automobiles, including diesels. The Dieselgate scandal caught Volkswagen and other German car manufacturers cheating on emissions tests.
And it’s no accident that the scandal was uncovered in the United States, far from the reach of German political and cultural power — nor that Germany’s discussion about the scandal has been just as focused on how the German auto companies in question can be saved rather than about the financial or moral atonement they might owe. “It’s obvious that the EU should take over emissions testing and that the commission should impose huge fines on Germany,” Lever says. “But it won’t, because it’s Germany, that’s why. It shows how much power Germany has now.”
Photo credit: THOMAS LOHNES/Getty Images