Who’s afraid of Germany? (2): Europe sprechs German now

22 November 2011
Berliner Zeitung Berlin

Gerhard Polt in a still from "Man spricht deutsh”
Gerhard Polt in a still from "Man spricht deutsh”

“Europe is speaking German,” trumpeted CDU deputy Volker Kauder. Just let’s not overdo it, warns the Berliner Zeitung. An association of free democracies should look a bit different.

As Gerhard Polt captured it in his great 1988 film Man spricht deutsh (“German Spoken Here”) there was a time when one could have an innocent laugh at his caricature of Bavarian tourists in Italy.

Two years before German unification it was perfectly clear that this ignorant German chauvinism was indeed to be found around campsites and well-entrenched at ‘Stammtische’ (tables set aside for regular customers) in pubs here and there – but that the West German political class thought and acted profoundly European, with no hint of any hegemonic ambitions.

Now the British writer Timothy Garton Ash has recommended a new verb be added to the English language: to ‘kauder’, which plays on the German word ‘Kauderwelsch’ for ‘gibberish’.

It would mean: ‘to trot the language of pub-corner conversations out onto the European political stage’. Ash was referring to the speech given this week at the CDU convention by the Chairman of the CDU/CSU coalition, Volker Kauder. In it, the confidant of Chancellor Merkel declared, with some verve: “Europe is suddenly speaking German!”

Historic achievement of Konrad Adenauer

Kauder wasn’t referring to the project driven by the Union, as persistent as it is unsuccessful, to make German the common European lingo in Brussels. He was referring to the German dictate of a European savings and stability policy – or, one might say, austerity policy. Not even 25 years later, the caricature has become a reality.

Europe is afraid of German superiority, and the Germans find nothing wrong with it. Germany’s rulers celebrate it as a success. The conviction expressed by the tourists in Polt’s film – that Italy would be a beautiful country if it weren’t for the Italians – isn’t so unlike what’s being heard today in Berlin's government district.

Following the catastrophes brought about by the drive for German hegemony engaged in by von Bismarck, Wilhelm II and Hitler, which ended in the complete political and moral collapse of the German nation-state, the integration of the Federal Republic into the (western) European Community has always pursued two goals: a return to the international community, and insurance against Germany ever again aspiring to great power.

It is a historic achievement of Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl that they pursued this policy for decades, both credibly and successfully. But when in 1990 it became foreseeable that a reunited and much stronger Germany would re-emerge in the middle of Europe from the two previously divided German states, there was no longer quite the same assurance about the status quo in the neighbouring countries, and in some German circles, too.

Arrogant horn-blowing

Helmut Kohl and his followers responded with a quote from Thomas Mann: “We do not want a German Europe, but a European Germany.” As a pledge they even gave up the German mark, the loved and cherished symbol of Germany’s postwar miracle.

But with that there began a change in mentality, subtle at first, but becoming finally tangible with the 2009 ruling on the Lisbon treaty by Germany’s Constitutional Court, a ruling that stresses the sovereignty of the German nation-state in a way that aims at a German Europe.

Indeed, it took the euro crisis to turn a theoretical legal opinion into a political practice, and of a much more rigid sort than the Karlsruhe judges could ever have intended.

It is in some way a meritorious act on the part of Volker Kauder that, with his self-righteous and arrogant horn-blowing, he has pierced through the fog of diplomatic feel-good verbiage.

But what does it have to do with a democratic and diverse Europe where all are equal before the law when, under German leadership, the austerity measures dreamed up in Berlin are imposed on the southern countries of the eurozone as an inherent necessity that there is no alternative to, and implemented by so-called governments of experts?

Merkel's passion for Europe

And how is the political pressure from Berlin on the European Central Bank supposed to square with its much-proclaimed independence? It may be to Angela Merkel’s credit that she has not pushed herself forward into this role. But the economic might of Germany, acquired through the highly successful euro and Germany’s austerity policy of recent years, is forcing her now to look after Germany’s own interests.

And so the Greek desire for a referendum was met with threats, and even France was brought onto the German course; and so the path will lead in the end to a core Europe stamped with German designs that will consist only of the eurozone countries – and soon perhaps only the strongest of those.

Angela Merkel's passion for Europe, discovered just now, sounds good. But it’s a very different Europe than the union of free and equal democracies its mentors once dreamed of.

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