The hysterical republic

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 24 March 2011

Once upon a time, there was a country in central Europe that was known for engineering brilliance, military discipline, as well as its literary, musical and scientific achievements. But despite these features, or maybe also because of them, the country in question was never loved and often feared. And that was before Germany started two World Wars and committed one of the worst genocides in history.

Today’s Germany has little in common with the country that used to trouble the world so much. Its trendy capital Berlin now attracts more tourists than Rome and is especially popular among young Israelis. There are British authors celebrating the ‘German Genius’ in voluminous books though we are still waiting for a BBC documentary on the Teutonic sense of humour. A recent global opinion poll confirmed that no other country had such a positive image as Germany. Its 62 per cent approval rating beat even the Canadian do-gooders.

A relaxed Germany, loved and trusted by the world – it sounds too good be true. And it is. Behind the façade of likeability lies a country suffering from a collective personality disorder. The Germans of the past were so bad that the Germans of the present will do anything to be good (or at least appear good). Unfortunately, in dealing with their image neurosis they are trying far too hard for any self-respecting nation wishing to be taken seriously. One only needs to look at the German reaction to the Japanese double disaster, the North-African uprising and the continuing euro crisis to see Germany’s hysterical narcissism at work.

The Japanese catastrophe shocked the world. Other countries showed genuine empathy with the victims and quickly offered their help. The Germans, however, managed to make it their very own event. If the earthquake had shaken Stuttgart instead Sendai, and if the tsunami had washed away Mecklenburg-Vorpommern instead of Miyagi, the attention could not have been greater. That was because the Fukushima nuclear disaster reopened the German debate about nuclear energy.

A day after the tsunami, there was a spontaneous rally of some 60,000 concerned Germans. They were not expressing their solidarity with Japan but demanding the immediate shutdown of Germany’s nuclear reactors. Two days later Chancellor Angela Merkel announced to reconsider the nuclear power although her own government had pushed through parliament reactor licence extensions only months earlier. Another day later, the first reactors were shut down and taken off the grid.

Fukushima had necessitated a rethink of nuclear power, Merkel said. Not in Japan, to be precise, but in Germany. Thankfully Merkel stopped short of instructing the Japanese how to follow the Germans’ move towards renewable energies.

Her compatriots were more forthright. A minister complained about a lack of information by the Japanese authorities. Another wondered whether Japanese building standards had not been strict enough. The national carrier Lufthansa stopped its flight to Tokyo for fear of contamination, never mind that thousands were trying to get out of Japan. Meanwhile, a German search and rescue mission returned home after just three days as they found it too difficult to achieve anything. “At least we tried,” one of the rescue workers said.

And so Japan’s national tragedy helped to make the Germans feel better. They had tried to make a difference (every effort counts!), taught the world a lesson about nuclear power, and successfully managed to block out the terrible pictures of faraway flooded villages. In their hurry to do everything right, they only forgot to send a thank you note to the Japanese.

If Germany’s reaction to the tsunami was embarrassing, its response to the Libyan crisis was plain hypocrisy. For weeks, foreign secretary Guido Westerwelle had not missed an opportunity to talk about the importance of democracy and human rights in the Middle East. As leader of the liberal Free Democrats he can draw on an endless reservoir of phrases and metaphors to express his support for liberal and democratic values. If nothing else, this qualifies him for Germany’s top diplomatic job.

The Germans were playing it carefully, though. In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya they were only demanding things once they seemed to be happening anyway. Before Westerwelle or Merkel started talking about ‘orderly transitions’, the dictator in question had usually packed his suitcase and withdrawn the funds from his Swiss bank account.

In Libya however, Germany’s ingenious strategy backfired. Germany had never been willing to participate in any military operation anyway. At least not ahead of crucial state elections (which may also explain Merkel’s sudden change of mind about nuclear power). So when Gaddafi looked weak and certain to follow Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, the Germans began talking about ‘orderly transition’ once again. But then Gaddafi unexpectedly recovered, continued slaughtering his own people – and the Germans had a problem.

They could not just walk away from the demand of Gaddafi’s removal. Neither did they want to change their minds about participating in a military operation, officially for fear of civilian casualties. So they abstained on the Security Council resolution only to find themselves isolated from their American and European allies and in an unusual alliance with China and Russia.

To aggravate the diplomatic blunder, Merkel then tried to explain that her abstention deep down was meant to be an approval. The Germans are having their black forest gateau and eat it. Staunchly on the side of human rights and democracy, yet uncompromisingly pacifist: there was something for everyone in Berlin’s declarations. For the world’s favourite country they once again reserved the moral high ground, Germany’s new place in the sun.

It has become a pattern of German foreign policy not only to be right all the time but also to let others know so that they can duly acknowledge Berlin’s wisdom. When Ireland and Greece needed help, the Germans were ultimately willing to grant it. Provided, of course, the Irish took German advice on how to reform corporate taxation and the Greeks learnt a lesson in German fiscal discipline.

Merkel will undoubtedly have some words for Portugal, too, with its embattled Prime Minister José Sócrates seemingly headed towards losing a parliamentary vote on a new austerity package overnight, which would spark a full-blown political crisis there.

Whether they’re demonstrating to the Japanese how to phase out nuclear power, tell the North Africans how not to get rid of oppressors, or instruct their European partners on how to run their countries: The Germans relish in their new role as the world’s would-be conscience. However, their self-righteousness can only be mistaken for moral rectitude if you are far enough and do not happen to be a Japanese tsunami victim, a Libyan rebel or the Greek prime minister.

The narcissist Germans increasingly behave like ill-mannered children on the international stage. Perhaps it would be wise to treat them like that. And ignore them.

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