The Image Problem

Berlin, July 2015.

The headlines of German papers today say everything you need to know. The Frankfurter Allgemeine is, as usual, full of useful tips for how to handle the exasperating upstarts in Athens. It’s also happy to report that German tourism in Greece set a new record this year. For its part, the Süddeutsche Zeitung gets to the heart of the matter, with a lead article on Germany’s “image problem”; and what a problem that is.

After all, what’s a thrifty Teuton to do on a European continent so lacking in appreciation and understanding? Thank heavens, the Süddeutsche has just the thing. Angie, it tells us, should get out on the road more and show those poor Peripherians up close what an understanding gal she really is. Maybe she can stroke each and every of them on the cheek and whisper in their ears the hard truths about what it takes to be a real European: “No pain, no gain.”

But it falls to Neues Deutschland, Germany’s once and future organ of the Socialist left, to show us where the image problem really lies. Today’s front page, upper half: a German translation of the now widely circulated interview with a forlorn Yanis Varoufakis after his resignation, telling all about the negotiations that never were. Front page, bottom half: a terse reminder of how far we have–or haven’t–come to get where we are now. One of the last post-Holocaust trials before the generation that brought us “Arbeit macht frei” is completely dead and buried, and it’s “Four years for the book keeper of Auschwitz.” That’s right, the book-keeper! Four years. This is not quite as much time as Germany’s Strangelove of fiscal discipline, Dr. Wolfgang Schäuble, has had to decimate the Greek economy. But do I really need to elaborate on the symmetry here? Ach, the image problem!

Make no mistake about it: in Europe, the German Diktat is back with a vengeance, and with it the old nationalist halo of German cultural supremacy is starting ever so gradually to flicker on again, like a light bulb after a power outage. No amount of solemnly orchestrated Holocaust remembrance days or punctual professions of love for “the European idea” can keep this hidden for long. As Varoufakis said in his illuminating interview: in the Eurogroup, it all worked “like an orchestra”, and the conductor — well, who said the days of the authoritarian Chef-Dirigent were over and done with?

Everywhere you look in the German media, it seems, that old banality of evil is letting its numbers-crunching face be seen. Especially on television, and especially on the talk shows, which are stacked to the ceiling with “Eurogroupies” of the Merkel/Schäuble variety. Frequently, this face wears the thick-rimmed glasses of a credentialized expert in economics. Just as often, it’s a well-groomed politician from the one of the Christian Democratic sister parties.

Usually, the face drones on above a neatly ironed tie about “abiding by treaties”, about the evils of Greek bureaucracy, about how the new government in Athens never does its “homework” or makes “concrete proposals”, about how the Greeks just refuse to roll up their sleeves and turn that old jalopy of a clientelist economy into the burnished Latvian or Slovakian or Irish race car of modern Euro-competitiveness. Usually the face lies bald-facedly about what’s actually happened in those other laboratories of austerity, or about what was or wasn’t said in the endless Troika negotiations, or about who offered this and refused that. And more often than not, the lies go unchallenged.

To be sure, the faces of German austerity aren’t usually as uncannily Adolph-Eichmann-like in their appearance as Jens Spahn from the CDU, who just last night on the “Anne Will” talk show repeated the ubiquitous line about how Tsipras “walked away from the negotiating table” before the Greek referendum. (Who was it that coined that phrase about lies becoming truths by repetition?) The face is just as likely to be bloated and Social Democratic, like Sigmar Gabriel, now known for his especially virulent Greece-bashing, which is neither very social nor very democratic.

Or it might be a bit more multi-culti, like Green Party chief Cem Özdemir, who, to his credit, criticizes Merkel & Co., but also has some stern things to say about those “unprofessional” lefties in Athens. Or it might even be as wild and crazy as the European Green Party’s favorite child-love-advocate-turned-war-monger, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who told Anne Will that, while he disapproves of the way Merkel is doing things, that doesn’t mean he was for the “Oxi”, which he actively campaigned against. These days on the German TV-talk circuit, real leftists and–yes–actual Greeks are few and far between.

We’ve entered a dark period for Germany’s image, no question about it. All those years of paying for police protection in front of any Jewish place of business, worship or remembrance. All those little brass Stolpersteine to remind us at once of the victims of Germany’s own brand of militarized exceptionalism and of Germany’s exceptional post-war remorse. All that expense of moral capital, all that famous reservedness about wars of choice in far-flung places, all that enthusiasm for the transnational European idea– and where are we now? In Europe, once again, we’re at the treacherous intersection of rising nationalism, finance-driven “techno-democracy”, and flailing capitalism. For Germany, and even more so for Greece, this is much more than just an image problem.

Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Crakow.

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