Reading a review, not long ago, by John Lanchester of Michael Lewis’s book Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World in the New York Review of Books, I was struck by the following quotation of an unnamed German official explaining why there was no credit boom in Germany.
“There was no credit boom in Germany,” an official told Lewis. “Real estate prices were completely flat. There was no borrowing for consumption. Because this behavior is totally unacceptable in Germany.”
For a generation or two after World War II, the rest of the world was thankfully spared such expressions of insufferable German self-satisfaction. But as memories of the second World War gradually fade, and the victims of German megalomania are rapidly disappearing, it is apparently again acceptable in Germany to make statements as unbearably self-congratulatory as the horrendous quotation recorded above. And lest I be misunderstood, I am in no way suggesting that it is only Germans that are capable of the barbarities committed in World War II by the Nazi regime. “It can’t happen here” is a conceit too often refuted by bitter experience for anyone to feel very confident about his country’s (or his own) conduct in extreme situations.
There would be no point in highlighting an absurd statement by a tone-deaf German official if the statement did not reflect the views of many Germans, and none more so than the German Chancellor, Mrs. Merkel, though she is surely far too adroit a politician ever to express such a view within earshot of a journalist. But clearly the smug conviction in the utter rectitude of Germany’s anti-inflation posture and of the German insistence that the burden of discharging the sovereign debts incurred by the debtor countries fall entirely on the individual countries, and not on the Eurozone as a whole (i.e., not on Germany), stems from the moral certainty that the debtor countries are asking to be forgiven for “behavior that is totally unacceptable in Germany.” What self-respecting German could possibly agree to absolve those countries from the consequences of actions that no German would ever dream of undertaking?
That is the hubristic mindset that impels Mrs. Merkel and her countrymen to lead the European Union into the abyss. The whole point of the European Union was somehow to embed and contain Germany within the democratic framework of a larger union in which Germany might play an important, but never a dominant, role. For almost 60 years, the Federal Republic of Germany was in almost every way an admirable modern European state, playing a cooperative and constructive role in both European and world affairs. But especially after reunification, Germany has gradually assumed an increasingly preeminent role in Europe, and now the fate of Europe, and perhaps of the world, again lies in the hands of a German Chancellor, a leader perfectly attuned to the sentiments and intuitions of her people, and utterly oblivious to the consequences of what she is about to do. What we are witnessing is not a Greek tragedy, but a German one. But, I greatly fear that we shall all suffer the consequences of her misplaced confidence in the uprightness of her position and in her flawed understanding of Germany’s national self-interest.