Special Reports / The most important elections in Europe

Finance and remembrance

Jarosław Kuisz · 17 September 2013
When the financial crisis arrived on the Old Continent from the United States, it turned out that Berlin was the only capital that managed best to cope with it and that it slowly began to take over the initiative in the EU. Germany’s growing domination conjured up the ghosts of the past. There is nothing more convincing than the current crisis that economic policy must be accompanied by a more efficient policy of remembrance.

 

When the world leaders were buttoning up before they set out for their trip to the G-20 summit in Petersburg, Joachim Gauck and François Hollande went in an opposite direction. The presidents met in Oradour-sur-Glane which is not well known outside France. In 1944, the German army, resorting to methods which were rather prevalent on the eastern front, murdered nearly all its residents. After the war, General Charles De Gaulle made a decision not to rebuild the destroyed Oradour-sur-Glane leaving it as it was in memory of the massacre victims (642 people). Today one may still see the skeletons of the 1930s cars that had been burnt down, and have a bird’s eye view of the burnt-down interiors of buildings.

For all our troubles – Germany

When the financial crisis arrived on the Old Continent from the United States and it turned out that Berlin was the only capital that managed best to cope with it, and what is more, that it slowly began to take over the initiative in the EU, strong anti-German sentiments began to take the upper hand in almost entire Europe. As if against widespread laments about the declining standards of school education about the past and excess of political reconciliation gestures, the economic crisis forces us to look at that problem from a different perspective.

Firstly, Germany has become a distorting mirror of reform failures experienced by many EU states. Nearly all over Europe the economists began to recall the reforms of Schroeder’s government of several years back and continue until today to factorize the assumptions underlying the „Hartz” program and its implementation. More flexible forms of employment combined with lower taxes imposed on the richest – in the comments about Germany one could hear a new tone of fascination with the „German economic miracle”, as if it were the second opening of Wirtschaftswunder. But what conclusions have been drawn by experts? It seems that „Analysis”, a BBC radio program, is representative in that context, because after a comprehensive analysis of the German work culture a conclusion was drawn that it was not directly applicable in Great Britain. It was also added by way of a consolation that the situation in the UK is not that bad. After all Oxford and Cambridge continue to stand ahead of German universities in the rankings. So much for an illuminating conclusion.

Populism and ghosts of the past

Secondly, Germany’s growing domination conjured up the ghosts of the past. One may sometimes get an impression that to some EU citizens all reconciliation gestures between the peoples of Europe have become meaningless. It is understandable that the current crisis was compared in the whole Europe to that of the 1930s and to its atmosphere. But along with the crisis of the Euro zone and financial difficulties faced by individual states the wave of anti-German sentiments began to rise. One may ignore the flurry of caricatures and memes on the Internet as practically unimportant. So as various xenophobic slogans during street protests in southern Europe which could be viewed as pathetic episodes in the vein of infamous speech in the European Parliament that Silvio Berlusconi addressed to Martin Schulz. But the situation is different when similar arguments are voiced these days by the politicians of the mainstream political scene turning them into an element of the debate about European affairs. The way a prominent left wing politician and minister of the current French government, Arnaud Montebourg, did (on 1 December 2011) when comparing in public Angela Merkel’s policy to that of Bismarck’s at the time he had been struggling for a dominant position in Europe. In recent months one may have come across similar examples in Eastern Europe. At the time of the last presidential election in the Czech Republic concerns were voiced that Karel Schwarzenberg was perhaps too German to represent his country. No wonder then that recently „The Economist” displayed on its cover the German eagle bashfully hiding its beak behind a wing. The special report’s title– „The Reluctant Hegemon” – was self-explanatory.

***

The foregoing is happening at the time when German politics are represented by people who had once lived in communism. It is paradoxical that the odium falls on the heads of people who had personally experienced History. Chancellor Angela Merkel lived nearly 35 years in the GDR and according to her biographers the Prague Spring rather than Paris barricades was her 1968. And Joachim Gauck became a symbol of an honest squaring of accounts with communism. Their experience is closer to the experience of those who remember the countries of peoples democracy with their absence of freedom of speech, secret service and the policy of shortages. As Timothy Garton Ash has recently observed it is here that there are still the springs of great enthusiasm for the European project – the enthusiasm which is so hard to find in Western Europe (with Great Britain as a meaningful example).

It is therefore not accidental that people like Gauck appreciate the meaning of the past for present day politics and make gestures like the one he made in Oradour-sur-Glane. There is nothing more convincing than the current crisis that economic policy must be accompanied by a more efficient policy of remembrance. One cannot rely any longer on historical ignorance of the prospective generations of Europeans.

* Original text in Polish. Translated by EUROTRAD Wojciech Gilewski.