Hurray! Merkel won the day! It took a long night of backroom bargaining, but except for that Tory, David Cameron, all European Union members agreed to save the euro, save the economy, save the world! It had been on the brink of disaster, Sarkozy warned on the eve of the meeting: unless we reach agreement “we will have no second chance”!
German newspapers, full of this arcane story for days and weeks, have scrutinized every furrow in Angela’s brow, analyzed every cheek kiss between her and Nicolas Sarkozy in Berlin, Paris, Marseilles, or Brussels, and waited in cold morning hours. But it was worth all the effort. Or was it?
Picking one’s way through the financial gobbledygook about bond interest rates, special funds, ratings, and the like, two key words emerged from the earnest conferences and all-night debates. “Austerity” was one, “discipline” the other.
Those “weaker sisters” at Europe’s edges, Ireland and Portugal on stormy Atlantic coastlines, Greece on even stormier Aegean cliffs, and maybe crucial Mediterranean states like Spain and Italy as well, simply lacked discipline. German mass media parsed that for their readers: living beyond their means, no proper tax collection, corruption, and, in Greece, pure laziness. “And should we risk our good money for those nogoodniks?”
True, these countries failed to meet strict Prussian standards, which may not be any cleaner but at least manage to look that way. And even if the greedy tactics of financiers on Wall Street or in Frankfurt were much the same as those of their Greek, Portuguese, or Irish colleagues, they and their governments were far wealthier and less threatened by bankruptcy.
But the blame really should be shared. In Greece, Goldman Sachs led the wolf pack with huge sums of usually derivative assistance. It seemed so generous then — and proved so costly later. Then, too, huge sums went for German arms purchases, like U-boats. Sure, who can predict future relations between Greece and Turkey? Better play safe, warn German armament dealers, grinning when quarrels boil up over Cyprus or some Aegean island, groaning at any step towards peace; after all, they also hawk U-boats to Turkey. Even poor Portugal, menaced at worst by high seas, was pushed into big German weapons purchases.
No, Germany does not export only Mercedes, Porsches, or Rhine wines. Its weapons sales, from Leopard tanks for Saudi Arabia, submarines for Israel, or Heckler & Koch automatics for almost any eager purchaser, surpassed a trillion euros last year, winning it a bronze medal surpassed only by the USA and Russia.
Its big exports, military or less deadly wares from Daimler, Bayer, or Siemens, helped it to keep its head above water while others gasped for air . . . or euros. Its growing economic power somehow seemed visible in Merkel’s stance, less good-natured and friendly, more steely and hard-jawed. Now Germany can throw its weight around, in Europe and beyond, spiting even old mentors and buddies in Washington now becoming rivals.
Earlier limitations disappeared when East Germany was swallowed in 1990. Then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl set the line: “Germany has closed the books on its former history; in future it can openly declare its role as a world power, a role which now needs expanding.” Foreign Minister Kinkel was even clearer: “Two parallel tasks must be mastered: inside our country we must again become a single people, outside it the time has come to achieve something we twice failed to accomplish. In agreement with our neighbors we must find our way to a role corresponding with our desires and our potential. . . .” His reference to Germany’s two-time failure, now requiring consummation, was truly scary. A deputy of Merkel’s party recently brought this up to date: “Now it’s time to talk German in Europe!”
The treaty more or less agreed upon in Brussels would sharply limit deficits, require members to submit their budgets for review by the European Commission, and thus make the economy of every European Union country from Estonia to Malta subject to decisions from above, with stiff penalties for straying out of line. That is part of what’s meant by “discipline.”
What such discipline enforces will be “austerity.” Many samples are already available; Portugal, Greece, and now Italy must cut their budgets radically to save the euro. And, as in the USA, the 1 percent may have caused the mess but the 99 percent must pay to clean it up. Higher sales taxes on consumer goods, the boot for thousands of civil service workers, steeper taxes for small homeowners, the pension age postponed, benefit cuts — all that is part of the required austerity. And when Greeks objected, they got more of the discipline, bad enough with the dismissal of a premier for proposing a democratic referendum but far more painful with batons on their heads, gas in their eyes, and cuffs on their wrists. Athens and Oakland have much in common! The formula is simple as A-B-C, like Angela-Boehner-Cantor.
Every fair economist agrees that cutting wages and salaries and attacking pensions are pure poison in rough times. As the New York Times editorialized: “A pact that binds all members to more austerity in a time of recession is exactly what Europe does not need right now.” Nonetheless, it still permits big profits for the big boys, with government help, even in the countries hit hardest but above all in Germany, where more austerity is also in the plans, though not all too loudly or visibly until after the 2013 elections.
This exposes another facet of this many-sided gem. Whenever a country’s economy weakens, the underpaid, overworked, or jobless suffer most. If there is a well-organized Left or a strong union movement, it is possible to fight back, even against odds symbolized by pepper spray and plastic cuffs. The Greek, Portuguese, and Italian unions have demonstrated a real fighting spirit. Where these elements are lacking, or have too often capitulated, growing dissatisfaction can turn to the right, marching with heavy martial boots and blaming the lack of jobs or affordable homes on immigrants frantically seeking asylum from worse misery in their own warmer but far poorer homelands.
Eighty years ago the Jews were blamed. Today it is Algerians, Turks, Arabs, or all Muslims, with their minarets, head cloths, and “different” names. Or the “Gypsies,” for centuries good for a pogrom or two. In one European country after another, extreme rightists have gained strength, either in jacket and tie, mouthing social demands, or else openly flaunting terrifying slogans and gestures from the past. And always attacking “foreigners” and leftists in word and sometimes bloody deed. Their advances threaten the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Norway, worst of all perhaps Hungary, already full of fascist echoes from the past. How well will Franco enthusiasts be represented in Spain’s new government? Can Marine Le Pen, more modern but not more moderate than her fascist father, win second or even first place in coming French elections? There is plenty to shudder about!
In Germany the fascistic National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) has won seats in some East German state elections and Berlin boroughs. Yet, usually under four percent, it has not equaled the big gains in other countries. It is present all the same, however, building up local bases and waiting for more German austerity — whose approach is more muffled here than elsewhere but ominously audible just the same.
Those on the left, in and outside the Left party, never ceased warning of this danger, or acting on it. Whenever and wherever Nazi goons marched — they average two, three, even five marches in different areas almost every weekend — they are met by counterdemonstrations, most decisively last February in Dresden, where 18,000 anti-fascists stymied Nazi plans for a rally and a march. For years the left called for a ban on the NPD, so as to cut off the hundreds of thousands, even millions, in government subsidies received for their election results — their main financial source. A ban would also remove the avid protection they get when they march and spread anti-foreigner hate propaganda. An attempt to ban them in 2003 failed; so many agents of the Verfassungsschutz (Constitutional Protection Agency, like the FBI) were in leading NPD positions that a court trial was impossible without exposing the agents . . . and their active roles. The government backed down. It has continued to treat NPD men and their allied thugs like decent citizens. Or else “nasty right extremists” were balanced against equally “nasty left extremists.” The most hostile attention was always directed leftwards.
Suddenly this crumbled. Two Nazi terrorists died in an explosion, a third one, a woman, surrendered to the police. They and their accomplices had murdered ten Turkish and Greek retail dealers in past years, also a policewoman, injured 22 people with a bomb blast, carried out bank robberies, and tried to wreck a synagogue. They had never been caught. Then more accomplices were arrested and new facts divulged. Hitherto oblivious politicians suddenly discovered loudly how much they opposed right-wing extremism and mourned the victims of Nazi hatred whom they had hitherto not cared about in the least. All in all over 180 people had been killed by right-wingers in 20 years while the authorities preferred to attack the left, some of whose unrulier advocates (or were they provocateurs of the police?) occasionally threw bottles and stones at Nazis — or maybe at cops protecting them.
It was soon evident that the Verfassungsschutz, charged with monitoring terror — with at least 130 agents often in leadership positions in the NPD, which had clear ties to the Nazi thug scene — somehow failed to prevent, report, or even notice the killings, which all went unpunished. Nor had they found the perpetrators, who were hardly unknown in their home territories.
Despite the feigned shock in the media and most parties, this was hardly news. Like the Intelligence Service (for foreign spying), the Verfassungsschutz had been run for years largely by Nazis. Its president from 1955 to 1972 was Hubert Schruebbers, a Nazi Party member and vicious prosecutor who sent Jews and anti-Nazis to prison, to concentration camp, and to their death. His hatred of Communists obviously got him the job after the war regardless of his past. His vice-president from 1951 to 1964, formerly a Nazi colonel, had taken part in deportations of Jews; other top managers had been active SS or Gestapo men in Holland, Poland, the USSR, France, and Norway, often with great experience — in torture and murder. These men died off, but their followers often maintained traditions and connections when, after reunification, West Germans moved in to teach East Germans about democracy.
In the first days after the murders (and probable cover-up) came to light, all parties agreed that the NPD must be banned. But gradually doubts arose: states run by Christian Democrats are not eager to withdraw their secret agents in the NPD. They are dragging their feet. But if a second attempt to ban the party loses in the courts, it would be a big boost for the Hitlerites.
Broad generalizations about ruling parties in Germany are risky. But there is a long historical tradition, not only in Germany: in times of great stress the economic powers that be always prefer the extreme right which does not threaten their property, stock portfolios, and bonuses to the left which does threaten them. This new euro agreement will hardly prevent such stress nor protect that lower 99 percent of the population. It is already doing the opposite, with each country citing cuts pushed through in weaker neighbor countries to justify new cuts of its own, thus pushing down the entire European level. And austerity requires discipline — also the violent kind mentioned above.
Who are the powers that be? A major contender for one title would be Josef Ackermann, CEO of the Deutsche Bank, with his 9.6 million euro income (2009). He just hit the headlines because of a letter bomb addressed to him, allegedly from an obscure Italian anarchist group. This temporarily pushed the Nazi killer story from the headlines; yes, we were back to left extremists again. The bomb, discovered before it could hurt anyone, came at such an appropriate moment that it even caused cautious skepticism among some cynics.
But Ackermann’s Deutsche Bank does deserve attention. It was one of the prime lenders to Greece, not far behind Goldman Sachs. It was also a major player in the mortgage-foreclosure racket in the USA, a cause of and a winner in the whole recession misery. Few in the media liked to recall that the Deutsche Bank was a main player in World War One finances, then a key supporter of Hitler’s rise to power, a profiteer from the occupation of most of Europe, and a direct investor in the Auschwitz death camp. It now employs 100,000 people in all the world and is not only powerful in Germany. Its close ties to Angela Merkel became embarrassingly visible three years ago when it was learned that she had treated Ackermann to a luxurious private birthday party in her headquarters in Berlin, comparable to the White House, and with about twenty-five select friends chosen by him.
Though Swiss, he is surely the most powerful man in Germany and beyond; she is still the most powerful woman, now in most of Europe. The close cooperation and collusion between these two, with a European crisis still threatening and a right wing reserve in the background, makes one wish devoutly that all on the left, now with new Occupy models, can move forward. They are now and could well be even more urgently needed in the years ahead.
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).