Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

21 April 2012

Germany and America I

[The second and third posts in this three-part series are here and here.]

With China’s rise in our new multipolar world, Germany and America have become, by default, the leaders of what we used to call the “West.” This essay explores Germany’s increasingly important and positive role in world affairs. The next essay will discuss the possibility that America might, under adverse circumstances, retrace Germany’s disastrous steps from the last century.

Introduction: reasons to look ahead, not back

Introduction: reasons to look ahead, not back. Britain’s empire is long gone, its economic power a fading memory. So Germany and America are now the world’s two great Protestant powers.

If you consider economic power and political influence (as distinguished from raw numbers of believers), Christianity as a whole is not doing too well. Catholic Southern Europe and Catholic Latin America are wallowing in various levels of economic stagnation, even decline. Germany is the economic engine and increasingly the leader of Europe. Chile leads South America in every measure of average wealth and economic well-being; although Catholic, too, it has South America’s greatest proportion of European descendants, many of them with German roots.

There are clear reasons for this state of affairs, clear cause and effect. But for a moment, let’s focus on facts. Asia is rising and the so-called “West” falling behind. Catholic societies in particular are in a state of slow but steady relative decline. And, except for millions of converts, who comprise a small proportion of all society, Asia has little to do with Christianity. The West’s only two remaining serious competitors to Asia are the two remaining Protestant powerhouses, Germany and America.

That’s why the recent spate of political cartoons satirizing Germany sticks in my craw. One example shows an impossibly stocky German wearing a Kaiser Wilhelm helmet and holding a skinny, disheveled hobo, labeled “Spain,” by a neck leash. The message is clear: once again, nasty Germany is throwing its considerable weight around, as it did in the last century’s two world wars, seeking to dominate its neighbors.

The cartoonists have enough cultural sensitivity not to use Nazi symbols, which still rub many people raw. But references to the Kaiser suggest that there is some inherent aggressiveness in German culture that Germans can never expunge.

Let’s be honest about one thing. The Holocaust happened. Germany started the most terrible war in human history by going on an armaments binge, annexing Austria and invading Poland. Then it gave that war an unprecedentedly evil tinge by planning (and nearly completing) the systematic, industrial-scale slaughter of “outside” ethnic groups, including its own Jews, other Jews and so-called “Gypsies” (Roma).

These events were real, and history never should forget them. But Germany itself hasn’t.

Virtually alone among the perpetrators of atrocities against humanity, Germany has come clean—as far as it is possible to do after the fact. Its record of remembrance is better than that of most other major powers. Perhaps it has more to remember, but it has done a far better and more honest job than any others, including us.

More to the point, 67 years have passed since the end of World War II and the Holocaust. Germans who fought in that war and participated in the gassings and burnings would have had to have been at least 15 in 1945. If still alive, they would be 82 today. Even to understand what was happening and perhaps be influenced by Nazi thought, a German would have to have been eight years old, or 75 today.

We are now in the third postwar generation. Just as China is no longer “Red,” today’s Germany differs incomparably from Adolf Hitler’s Germany.

So let us look at it as it is today, not through the lens of postwar fear, fatigue and triumphalism. When we do, we can dimly see a society that, in many ways, is both admirable and enviable:

1. Acknowledging and remembering the awful past. Human societies generally have trouble acknowledging their crimes. Japan has never fully confessed its wartime atrocities in Asia, including the brutal rapes of Nanking and large parts of China and Korea. You can search its textbooks in vain for mere mention—let alone serious treatment—of these atrocities in Japan’s history.

In this respect, Japan is hardly alone. Turkey has never acknowledged its Armenian genocide, now approaching a century old. Russia has never apologized for stomping its iron boot on the necks of Eastern Europe and the Baltics, nor for Stalin’s mass deportation and slaughter of various non-Russian ethnic groups (which ultimately only weakened Russia itself and assisted the Nazi invasion).

We Yanks ourselves are not entirely guiltless. We have never apologized for our wartime atrocities in Vietnam, including sowing large parts of the country with land mines and Agent Orange, which still kill children and cause cancer today. And how many today recall the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo and the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? It’s not enough just to say “they started it” and feel smugly justified in incinerating hundreds of thousands of mostly innocent people.

Against this background, Germany’s record is remarkable. Not only has it acknowledged the Holocaust; it has built monuments and museums. Germany has laid bare its crimes in its schoolbooks, and every educated German knows about them. Periodic retrospectives in German news media keep the memory alive, even three-quarters of a century after the fact. If it’s memory you want, Germany has it.

2. The influence of culture. Germany’s confession and contrition are neither accidents nor anomalies. They are logical consequences of Germany’s Protestant culture.

When Martin Luther nailed his manifesto against indulgences to the church door in Wittenberg, he was not just attacking the Catholic Church’s obscene wealth and all-pervasive power. He was changing Christians’ concepts of God and morality.

When an all-powerful God rules humanity through an all-powerful Pope, a good Christian’s duty is merely to submit. Even in matters of conscience, you do what you are told. For sins and crimes, you do prescribed penance, take absolution from your priest, and walk away with a free spirit.

Not so, said Martin Luther. A Protestant’s relationship with God is personal and direct. No cleric can command you, and none can absolve you. You stand naked before the Universe, alone. Only your own conscience and Reason can absolve you.

So when German Protestants slowly came to know the full enormity of their wartime crimes, they were rightly horrified. They had no Pope from whom to seek absolution. They had to look inside themselves. The result was the most honest, forthright and painful state of genuine contrition in human history.

To be sure, that’s what the gravity of the crimes required. But few other cultures ever suffered the same level of repentance. Germany’s Protestant culture did, precisely because it imposes individual responsibility before God. And from there it was only an intellectual baby step to individual responsibility before one’s fellow humans. (The Nuremburg Trials helped, but in the end, contrition came from the Germans themselves.)

3. German renunciation of force. Genuine contrition for the Holocaust and Germany’s other wartime crimes is hardly the end of what makes today’s Germany admirable. It’s just the beginning.

One sign of genuine contrition—the only really reliable one—is change. Nazi Germany brought disaster on the world, and perpetrated the Holocaust, by attempting to impose its will on others by force. In contrast, today’s Germany has virtually renounced force, including the death penalty for criminals. That’s a clear sign of thoughtful repentance.

Germany has armed forces but is extremely reluctant to use them. It has no nuclear weapons, although it could develop them in mere years. It doesn’t even want them on its territory, although it permits US forces to keep them. Germany has decided to renounce force and lead, if at all, only by example.

4. Social cohesion. Man is a social animal. Or, if you prefer, “No man is an island.” We live and thrive—or we suffer—together, in community.

As the community goes, so goes the individual. The “good life” requires support and nurture from a healthy community. It comes from a delicate balance between the individual and the community.

Communist societies like the Soviet Union and “Red” China got it wrong. They put all their eggs in the community basket and crushed the individual. We are getting it equally wrong by going to the other extreme, where rampant individualism and economic predation push what’s left of our middle class into poverty.

In contrast, Germany appears to be getting it just right. There the ratio of CEOs’ pay to the average worker’s is about ten to one. Here, the ratio is over four hundred. Germany has huge corporations, like ours, but every one has representatives from labor on its board of directors. Those members don’t control the boards, but they have real power and are listened to.

Finally, Germany recognizes natural gradations of abstract reasoning power in its education. Rather than push everyone toward college and aggrandize abstract reasoning and desk jobs, it educates people with practical and manual skills, too.

These are the reasons why Germany, on a per-capita basis, leads the world in manufacturing despite its relatively high wages and standard of living. It makes use of, and carefully nurtures, all the talents of all its people.

The irony is that we Yanks used to do the same. Once we had an egalitarian society with the world’s strongest social cohesion. Once we had educational paths for people whose skills are practical and manual, not just abstract. Once those paths extended from “shop” courses in junior high school, through work-study programs in high school and college, to apprenticeships and lucrative careers in machining, building and technology.

Now those things are haphazard at best. Everyone wants to get rich quick by becoming a “celebrity” or making a killing in finance. The results you see in the ruins of our society all around us.

Germany provides a pleasant contrast. Germans don’t like paying taxes any more than anyone else. And their Protestant work ethic nurtures plenty of individualism. But they have come to the conclusion that everyone is better off when people help their neighbors, both individually and through rational social structures intelligently designed for that purpose. The results of their better approach, both inside and outside of Germany, are rapidly becoming more widely known.

5. German reunification. The speed and success of German reunification after the end of the Cold War is but one aspect of Germans’ social cohesion. West Germans grumbled at their high taxes and the enormous investment the West had to make in the East. But they paid.

Today, the process of reunification and rebuilding is nearly complete. It is now a mere twenty-three years after the Berlin Wall fell. Yet in that single generation, Germans equalized grossly unequal societies of West and East, restored their traditionally successful culture and social cohesion, and became a leading economic and manufacturing powerhouse.

That was an extraordinary achievement. We have given it far too little publicity and analysis here in the United States.

In 2005, I had a chance to see first hand just how extraordinary. I visited the ancient university town of Rostock and the neighboring tourist/leisure port of Warnemunde, on the Baltic Sea.

Both towns are in former East Germany. As I walked around them, I could not for the life of me tell where I was in Europe, except for hints from Germanic architecture and German signs. The upscale, bright and neatly maintained shops and homes, with window flowerpots, the rows of sailboats and yachts in the marina, the polished cars on the streets and the open-air markets selling leather goods, clothes and souvenirs—all could have been almost anywhere in Europe.

All these things bespoke a prosperous, vibrant society at one with a unified Europe. And all arose in spite of wartime devastation and two generations of Communism’s heavy hand. The contrast with Russia’s generally dowdy and decrepit St. Petersburg, once Peter’s “window to the west,” was breathtaking.

6. European unification. The process of European unification is, of course, still under way. But what better society to lead it than one that has just completed a similar process in unifying its own people?

Germany paid a price for starting the last big war. Its had its territory utterly devastated and split for 44 years, it people divided, and many impoverished by Communism. In its own reunification, it learned many practical lessons in how to heal economic systems and make societies work. Now it’s applying those same lessons in a larger field, namely, Europe as a whole.

The rest of Europe is, of course, reluctant to follow Germany’s lead. Memories of past conflicts and tragedies linger. France has always seen itself as the leader of continental Europe, and Britain can’t decide whether it’s continental, American or none of the above. Its isolated island culture may yet doom it to separate mediocrity.

But in the end, German perseverance and talent are likely to prevail. Germany seeks now to lead by reason, not force. And it seeks partners, especially France. It was, after all, a German-French partnership (1 and 2) that stanched the flow of bankruptcies, made the bankers take their “haircuts” on Greek bonds, and is building a new EU economic firewall. Anyone who discounts Germany’s contribution to this glowing future is underestimating its perseverance, discipline and resolve.

7. Clean energy. In a world still struggling to free itself from American post-Cold-War hegemony, Germany and China are among the few truly independent and powerful voices. Perhaps for that reason, Germany has taken a bold step in securing its energy future.

Faced with increasingly scarce and more expensive oil, Germany had a stark choice. It could rely on coal (its traditional energy source and the world’s dirtiest fuel) and turn itself into a Dickensian hell. It could rely on nuclear power, and risk a Fukushima or Chernobyl on its own territory.

Germany chose neither. Instead it chose to make a huge bet on wind and solar power. With the cleverness of German engineering, that choice is likely to be a stunning success. But it evoked a collective gasp from other advanced nations, all stuck in a never-ending spiral of reduced supply of, increased demand and higher prices for, and more frequent and more devastating accidents involving, fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Is there any question that Germany, once again, is leading the way here? Wind and solar power have no fuel cost and produce no pollution. They don’t contribute to global warming. And they do not suffer from scarcity; nor are they likely to do so in the foreseeable future. So their prices are likely to go down, not up, as time goes on.

After making a huge and risky investment in reunification within the last generation, Germany now is making another in the energy future of our species. Wasn’t that the kind of thing we Yanks used to do?

8. Economic stabilization. There is much talk about the “conditions” that Germany is imposing on its contributions to the EU’s various economic stabilization funds. There is also much talk about German reluctance and taxpayer grumbling.

But actions matter, not words. Germany is investing in European unification and stabilization in the same way, and to the same extent, as it invested in its own. If the success of the first is only half as good as the success of the second, Europe will be much stronger, wealthier, happier and healthier as a result.

Conclusion Grumbling is a prerogative of taxpayers everywhere. The important question is “do they pay”?

Practically alone among Western democracies, Germany’s taxpayers are doing just that. They are investing in what remains of German reunification—a process that is already one of the most stunning postwar achievements. They are investing in a strong and more united Europe and, quite understandably, expecting influence in proportion to their investment. They are investing in clean, limitless, low-cost power for a civilized but healthy future. And they are investing in better and stronger governance of the EU, one of the very few human societies that is our own rival in the rule of law and, in that, truly something new under the Sun.

All this is admirable. The resulting prosperity, social cohesion, health and happiness inside Germany are enviable.

Yet memories of old ghosts remain. Soon most, if not all, of the old Nazis and Nazi sympathizers will be gone. Germany’s leader today is a woman, and ex-physicist who personifies Protestant Reason, self-reliance and Germany’s modern willingness to become a dynamic but peaceful part of a larger world.

This is not your last century’s Germany. This is more like the Germany of Goethe, Heine, Schiller, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Euler, Gauss, Planck and Einstein. That Germany existed not long before the psychotic break of Nazism, which itself had economic and political causes. It looks as if that old Germany might be coming back.

In a world so desperately seeking talented leadership, now is not the time to be looking backward. Now is the time to file away the old war movies, put the past on the back burner, and see what we can learn from one of the two human societies that is making an undisputed success of itself right now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

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  • At Fri Apr 27, 11:41:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Maqx said…

    I've been reading with interest how Bloomberg.com is covering the story of Germany and the rest of Europe.

    Have you considered the pros/cons of the German austerity stance in Europe as part of this essay?

    Do you think their fiscal ideas (and "leadership") will prevail? Or will it eventually force a break of the monetary union? As of now, austerity does not look to be working.

  • At Sat Apr 28, 11:18:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Maqx,

    Yours are very good questions, and thank you for them.

    Let me confess that I’m hardly an expert on the macroeconomics of the EU, which are extremely complex and controversial.

    So my answers here are more impressionistic than quantitative. But I hope they might help put things in better perspective.

    First of all, let’s recognize the importance of the EU surviving and prospering as an entity. I think those many Americans and few Europeans who deride the EU and want it to fail are ignorant of history and dangerously misguided.

    In my opinion, the EU is the second most important social and political innovation in human history, after the United States. In some ways it’s even more important than we are, because it’s newer, involves multiple different cultures and language groups, has admitted new members more recently, and has processes in place to admit even more. Its survival is crucial to the progress of world peace, global economic integration, and the rule of law.

    Although a few financial officials appear to dissent, Germany’s primary goals appear to be keeping the EU together and economically viable. Under Chancellor Merkel, it’s trying mightily to achieve those ends. That role is fitting and admirable for a country that strove to integrate the world by force, under a vile tyranny, only three generations ago.

    So I have absolutely no quarrel with Germany's present goals. In contrast, I have every quarrel with Britain's sitting on the sidelines, carping and feigning ideological superiority.

    Means are more problematic. Frankly, I don't know enough to determine whether Germany's call for austerity is economically too much, too little, or just right.

    I do think that Europe and the global economy would be better off if Spain, France and Italy were more like Germany. That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?

    I also think that Germany’s bark is worse than its bite. So far, whenever push has come to shove, German taxpayers have moaned and groaned but put up more money to prevent a global collapse. I also think Germans understand full well that they can't sell their manufactured products to a Europe mired in poverty.

    Politically, Merkel's present approach is a good wake-up call. It forces the rest of Europe to face up to the necessity of stopping doing business as useful and getting more disciplined and competitive.

    Merkel also has been absolutely indispensable in getting the private sector (namely banks) to stop trying to privatize gains and socialize losses. As we very slowly recover from the aftermath of the Crash of 2008, continuing her approach will be essential to maintaining global economic stability.

    As for the degree of austerity, I think it's much like going on a diet. Your doctor may tell you that you’ve got to lose weight now, for all sorts of medically correct and even urgent reasons. But people are not machines, to be turned off or on with a switch. The best diets are those that take into account human failings, work gradually to change unhealthy lifestyles, and accommodate occasional backsliding.

    So it is and probably will be with Europe’s “austerity.” I hope and trust that Germany, like a good doctor, will ultimately take that human approach. But, also like a good doctor, it has to start with getting the patient’s attention and making the patient take lifestyle changes seriously.

    That, I think, is what Germany is doing right now. It’s called “leadership.”




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