Modern Germany,benign force for good or menace?

Angela Merkel sacrifices the EU to save the refugees, but will she be rewarded?

A knockout blow for the EU?A knockout blow for the EU?

Following the death of Günther Schabowski we were reminded that the Berlin Wall was brought down by accident. When reporting his death much of the press called him 'the blunderer', and 'former communist'. The Berlin Wall was started in 1961 and was by virtue of that mistake by Schabowski made redundant in 1989, that's 28 years. And then some 26 years later another German blunderer and also a former communist, Angela Merkel, makes a mistake on immigration policy and walls, of sorts, start to be built again by some EU countries. Beyond the notion of human frailty, stupidity and the like we don't really know why Schabowski made his mistake. Perhaps with Merkel it's different, but then perhaps not? She's not beyond frailty and stupidity herself; but it has been suggested she had her eye on what, following the example of Tony Blair, we might call her legacy. Perhaps the Nobel Peace prize beckons, time will tell? But for the moment she must make do with some minor reward from Time magazine, with gushing prose normally used to describe Hollywood stars they named her person of the year.

In some ways Blair and Merkel are two of a kind. He started wars which led to instability and as a by-product of that many people felt the need to move. Merkel finishes the job by inviting them to come to Germany and then, by implication, the EU. So what is it about Merkel? She is being super bossy and arrogant at a time when Germany might be unravelling, and who is to blame for that? Modern Germany is worthy of scrutiny on a variety of fronts, not least that modern political Germany cares only to define itself in post WW2 terms. With few exceptions there's little or nothing heard from them that's pre-WW2. They seem incapable of disentangling the good from the bad, so they simply jump to 1946 and begin there. This is blame shift and victimology on a grand scale, and it won't do. The implication is that German success is obvious, it's all their 'Wirtschaftswunder', the economic miracle. But is it? The Allies controlled so much of post war Germany and along with the generosity of the Marshall Plan it might be said that the only way was up. Also the Germans are famed for their spirit and work ethic, what could go wrong? Well recently quite a lot!

To understand this, to see it as they do, outsiders will have to adopt not only the German concept of the economic miracle but narrow it further. For example popular German political thinking says that no more apologies for the war are needed because of their industrial might, which they see as a 'common good'. They make all those wonderful cars, end of story, or so they think. So cars it is and let's look at Volkswagen. Even before the Volkswagen emissions scandal this over-emphasis on their motor industry was not a viable position, so post-scandal it's ridiculous. There can be little sympathy for a country prepared to define itself in so shallow a way knowing, as must have been the case, that this was so weak a strategy. However, it's very hard for outsiders to understand the no more apologies stance as the very name Volkswagen is forever linked to the pre-war years. In 1932 Adolf Hitler was impressed by the idea of a 'peoples car', a project begun by others but into which he invested much idealism and energy. Oddly enough it was this plus the corruption within the Nazi party which held the idea back. And again oddly enough modern Germany finds itself at ease holding onto this pre-war name for such a major industry.
Original and better styled VW.Original and better styled VW.
Some of the ramifications from the pre-wars years also took far too long to resolve. One of the key features of the Nazi peoples car idea was a savings scheme for would-be-purchasers. Following the defeat of Germany the new management at Volkswagen deemed the money invested 'lost' and denied any responsibility. This irked the investors, ordinary Germans who simply wanted a car, and cared nothing for the Nazi party. The investors started a court action in 1950 which took till 1961 to be resolved in their favour with the final payments not being made until 1970. As the Volkswagen company was by then at the height of its success with the VW Beetle, a direct descendent of the very same model that pre-war they had hoped to buy, this looked like very bad faith from the Volkswagen management. Also at this time Volkswagen had begun its policy of buying up rivals from within the German motor industry, they were absorbed and their brand names disappeared leaving Volkswagen with less competition. By today this policy has been expanded to include companies from all over Europe, the full list is -

Audi, Seat S.A., Skoda, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Porsche, Ducati, Scania and MAN.

Looking at this list you do wonder if the idea developed by bankers, 'too big to fail', has been taken over by Volkswagen. Perhaps even converted to,far too important to be bothered with the rules'. This would be odd as Germans are generally obsessed by rules and abiding by them. Or so we are told. During the recent Greek financial crisis it was the Germans who led the mob who wanted to punish Greece. At one time the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, suggested he might send 100 tax inspectors to Greece to 'help' them. Later on financial commentators reminded us that Germany frequently broke EU laws but when this happens seems not to attract so much attention as when the smaller and poorer nations of the EU do the same thing.
VW Beetle production at its height.VW Beetle production at its height.
Also the Volkswagen emissions scandal caused many industrial experts to cast doubts about German management styles as the original Volkswagen scheme set up in 1946 has, with little alteration, remained in place. The question must be is what was ideal for post-WW2 recovery still relevant today? For example the state of Lower Saxony holds about 20% of Volkswagen shares and is represented on the company’s supervisory board. This position is legally enshrined in what is known as the 'Volkswagen law' so there are both voting rights and responsibilities to be reconciled. But what good is it if real supervision rather than tokenism is not possible? The German press are sure that Merkel has lobbied Juncker in Brussels on the emissions rules on behalf of the German motor industry. So was she duped into this or did so willingly, again time will tell. Another scandal involves the allocation of the 2006 Football World Cup. This may seem trivial but Germans are not supposed to do bribery only common sense!

Then take the proposed closure of all German nuclear power plants by 2036, this was under Merkel brought forward to 2022. It was true that Germany always had a very active anti-nuclear movement, and also true that originally Merkel had always been very keen on nuclear power. Why not? You would have thought that the worlds finest engineers, as they would have us think, could build nuclear plant fit for purpose?

But you cannot help wondering if following the Japanese power plant failure at Fukushima she thought she saw another opportunity to be admired on the world stage. The German press were not too happy with Merkel, Der Spiegel wrote -

Germany is witnessing a stunning political about-face. Less than six months ago, the coalition government of Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) extended the life spans of Germany's nuclear reactors by up to 14 years. The chancellor called it a "revolution" at the time, while Vice Chancellor Guido Westerwelle was full of praise, saying that a responsible energy policy could not "do without nuclear energy."

Her remarks at the time of the disaster, March 2011, also seemed inept perhaps even condescending, she said she noted the 'helplessness' of Japan. This suggested she had failed to spot that Japan is a technological equal to Germany. Der Spiegel also wrote -

Many feel her new course is not credible, and it is legally, financially and politically risky.

But inevitably focus on modern Germany always comes back to Merkel, again it's odd that German leaders are always given so much power given passed experience. For when it comes to her handling of the Syrian refugee crisis it was clear Merkel has been an idiot, she has made the situation worse. There is also the tendency to try for profound statements. Having created mayhem by the open door policy to then first declare the situation was 'far from over' then demand the other European nations do their bit to help was far from profound it was arrogant. It is said Merkel also frets about the future, 'can the middle ground hold', that sort of thing.

So how does all this come about? Well we must consider what life was like in East Germany prior to the fall of of the Berlin Wall. East Germany was formed in 1949 and formally known as the GDR, the German Democratic Republic. It was occupied by the Russians following the defeat of Germany in WW2 and now its citizens were to begin life under communism. Some of them would have known life before the defeat of the First World War. This would have been in stark contrast to life during the war and the ruination that followed. Although the years 1924 to 1929 were good for the German economy, though not all of its people would benefit, progress came to a stop due to the Wall Street crash. From then on, 1929 to 1949 most East Germans would have longed for a better life. And would wait even longer to get it. Hence the fall of the Berlin Wall brought the end of 75 years of at least upheaval if not hardship. Such a time leaves its mark on a country and its people. You 'got by' rather then prospered and it took a certain attitude to do so. East Germany kept its people in check with the Stasi, perhaps the most ruthless police force of the entire communist bloc.

So upon the reunification of Germany two very different countries came together on the basis of a shared and distant history, language and not much more. However, on a practical level there were immense differences and difficulties and they have had a huge impact on German life outsiders may fail to understand. In some ways the reunification was yet another ill-thought through policy by the EU who saw only a chance to build mass to their pet project and cared little for the detail. For what the EU had acquired was a population that was not in the manner of the West Germans, we did not know these people at all. And perhaps it is this cunning and devious spirit we see taken up by the management at Volkswagen!

There is much else wrong with modern Germany. Like a favourite child is allowed more room and is spoilt so Germany has had the Euro. The single currency is to its advantage, and an unfair advantage when compared to other countries and like the spoilt child they have come to rely upon this advantage and now see it as a right. On the one hand Germany proclaims itself as a world power but on the other has a currency you also find in countries like Greece. Whilst it's true Greece is not a failed state in the manner of some African countries it's not without its problems and the overall effect helps the German economy. Other countries with strong economies and a currency to match see Germany very much as the spoilt child because of this. We should wonder how strong the German economy would be if it really 'stood alone'?
Work by René MagritteWork by René Magritte
Then there is defence and once again the past is used as a reason for Germany being different. This stance has meant that Germany under-spends on defence when compared to other countries and economies around the world. Countries that by other measures Germany is happy to be compared with on the basis that they are at least equal too and possibly even superior to them. Some might say sensibly, others selfishly, Germany did not take part in the Franco-English military action in Libya. At the time both the German government and press made it plain that 'they were different' and would not take participate.

But time moves on and now Germany is contemplating action against ISIS in Syria. But the bottom line here is that the 'spoilt child' has for far too long left the rest of Europe to carry the burden of costs of European defence. Which if, due to complications following the tide of immigrants from Syria goes wrong, and many people predict just this, will become more awkward and costly. But there seems to be a change of attitude. The German vice-chancellor, Sigmar-Gabriel has said Saudi Arabia must stop funding Islamic extremism. In a way this is rather funny as Saudi Arabia acts as the spoilt child of its region always asserting its difference and superiority over its neighbours. And in the past Germany has been quite happy to contemplate arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But the relationship could be over for now following the cynical offer from Saudi Arabia to build 200 Mosques for the influx of Syrians welcomed by Merkel, as Saudi Arabia has so far not allowed a single refugee to come to them. Gabriel said that -

We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over, the Saudi regime is funding extremist mosques and communities that pose a danger to public security.

Fine words but a bit late as Merkel, his coalition partner, will be aware that German industry will be getting worried about its position. Volkswagen sales are well down and the worry is that this may spread to become a general reaction against anything made in Germany. What sales teams would describe as 'brand damage'.

But the real responsibility lies with the German public, do they want 'more Merkel', will they vote for either her or her party again? Again time will tell but not the glossy superficial USA magazine type but the hard reality of domestic politics. After leaving office Tony Blair bagged the job of Middle East envoy and made a mess of it. So what could Merkel do after office? When eventually Gordon Brown threw in the towel there were no lucrative job offers for him. Touring the lecture circuit speaking about 'how I got it wrong' was never going to happen was it? So let's see what happens to Merkel!

Footnote -

The work, Time Transfixed, by the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte, 1898 - 1967 seems to have similarities with our third picture above showing the VW factory at Wolfsburg churning out its famous car through a special opening in the factory wall.

Magritte would have lived through the period of German transformation brought about by the defeat following first World War and its aftermath. But died whilst the Berlin Wall was still in place. Even so he would have know the absurdities that underpin not just modern Germany but the whole of the EU too.