Send in the Clowns

Berlusconi montage. Roberto Grimmi, 2008.

Modern politics is so often the preserve of spin, of carefully shaped, focus group-tested utterances, that it can be shocking when someone says what they mean. So it was, when Peer Steinbrück, a leading German socialist politician, and his party’s presumptive nominee for Federal Chancellor in the fall elections, spoke with frankness about the results of the recent parliamentary elections in Italy.

Speaking to a Social Democratic Party gathering in Potsdam, Steinbrück pronounced himself appalled that, “two clowns” (in the personages of Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo) had won the election. Grillo, according to Steinbrück, readily admits this and uses it as part of his populist appeal, while Berlusconi is, “a clown with a testosterone boost.” One could look at this as merely a case of stating the obvious. After all, Grillo is in fact a popular comedian, while Berlusconi’s sexual and financial escapades seem ridiculous as well as disgusting. But although they might be apposite in certain mundane respects, there is a deeper dimension to Steinbrück’s comments.

From the years of national consolidation in the late 19th century, the theme of superiority vis-à-vis the other states of Europe has been a leitmotif of German cultural and political discourse. Max Weber, one of the most eminent and influential German thinkers of the early 20th century, spoke of the cultural inferiority of the Poles in his 1895 inaugural address in a manner that clearly indicated that his audience accepted this characterization without the need for argumentative support. The essence of this view, which was shared by many Germans across the political spectrum, was not merely chauvinism born of economic competition, although that too was an important matter. It was alloyed with the view that the politics of more peripheral states in Europe simply didn’t matter. Thus Weber could write, in a piece composed in the midst of the First World War, of the irrelevance of the Danes, Swiss, Dutch, and Norwegians to the political conflict then underway.

This tendency was intensified immeasurably by the rise of National Socialism, in which nationalistic chauvinism was central. Although this mode of thinking was chastened by the collapse of Hitler’s regime in 1945 and the division of the country along the border of the Cold War, the feeling that Germany (be it East or West) was the bearer of an innately superior culture was never fully absent. In the decades following the war, both East and West Germany participated in the developmentalist politics surrounding decolonization in Africa. Both hoped to use their willingness to render assistance to the benighted peoples of the decolonizing world as a means of reintegrating themselves into the community of civilized nations.

Though this reciprocal version of the mission civilisatrice was a distinct improvement from the policies undertaken by the German Empire in Tanganyika and German Southwest Africa, it was nonetheless clear that the premise of German interactions with Africa remained suspect. West German Foreign Office reports from the late 1950s and early 1960s explicitly characterized engagement in Africa as redeeming the work begun in the colonial period. One Foreign Office dispatch from Cameroon noted the fondness with which older Africans still remembered that the Germans had once brought “Christianity, education, and hygienic progress.”

The attitudes of German public figures toward southern Europe are not exactly of a piece with the heritage of colonialism, but there is nonetheless a certain degree of continuity. In the decades since the fall of communism, one long-term goal of German economic policy has been the formation and solidification of regions to the east and south where low cost labor could be had and where hot money from German banks could be profitably invested. This policy was coterminous with Germany’s rise to economic and political leadership in the context of the formation of the European Union.

The result has been a relationship between Germany and southern Europe that might best be described as codependency. Through the agency of the EU, Germany holds the economies of Spain, Italy, and Greece in a vice grip, binding them to a currency that can’t be devalued no matter how severely into recession their economies sink. The response in German public culture to the prospect of any sort of currency expansion is generally quite negative. The Bundesbank has generally taken it as its brief to keep prices stable and inflation low.

The most common reason given for this is the desire of Germans both within the financial community and without to avoid a repeat of the hyperinflation of the early 1920s. This has partly to do with a failure of memory, in the sense that it was not the period of hyperinflation that caused the Weimar Republic to collapse, so much as the catastrophic deflations sparked by the policies of Heinrich Brüning in 1931 that really precipitated the final crisis. A still more important impulse may simply be that expansion of the monetary base often reconfigures the relationship between debtors and creditors (at least in the short run) in favor of the former.

The bases of the financial problems in southern Europe are quite varied, but the narrative that ties them together in the German psyche is the same. Profligate people have run up serious debts and now they must be made to pay them, or to live with the consequences of not doing so. But those consequences are not to include departure from the EU. Thus the Germans are embroiled in a relationship with southern European countries which is in many ways similar to that which they once were with Africa; hoping for self-interested reasons that the blessings of civilization, defined here as fiscal responsibility, will be taken up by the nations of the European third world.

And thus we return to the Peer Steinbrück and his unfortunate moment of excessive candor in Potsdam. Public reaction has been critical. A poll published in the weekly Bild am Sonntag found that 56% of respondents thought that Steinbrück should apologize, while 72% thought it inappropriate for a potential candidate for chancellor to discuss leading politicians from allied states in such terms. On the other hand, the head of Germany’s most famous circus gave an interview with the DPA news agency in which he rejected the comparison on the basis that it was insulting…to clowns.

At a more general level, the term “ungovernability,” a feature of conservative critiques of modern society since the 1960s, has started to creep into discussions of the southern European debtor nations. While originally this term was used to designate societies burdened by too many normative claims (i.e. as in the case of those raised by the new social movements), more modern employers of the term simply mean it to suggest that these societies cannot create a consensus to pay their debts.


Photograph courtesy of roggimiPublished under a Creative Commons license.

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