European Sensitivities: We and the Others
Polish record-breaking attempt with a European flag: Where are these aggressive tones coming from? (Photo: European Parliament)
8 May 2012
Suddenly, he’s back: the ugly German. On Wednesday, we will celebrate Europe Day in the EU and at the same time we ascertain that even in Europe, the image of Germany is sometimes loaded with resentments. How can we rectify it? By Klaus-Dieter Lehmann
The Goethe-Institut conducted a playful survey asking our European neighbours how they perceive us. It contained ten questions – who are the most important Germans, what is the best book/film/building, what do you like best and least about Germany and so forth. More than 13,000 people from 18 countries of Europe took part and the results were published in May 2011.
The lonely couple at the top are Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Angela Merkel. Literature is also dominated by Goethe, followed closely by the Brothers Grimm. In music, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Nena’s “99 Luftballons” topped the list. And Germany is very popular and even more so due to the Berlin hype. There are hardly any differences in responses from the European countries. So, is it a friendly look at a Germany plagued by self-doubt?
Where are these aggressive tones against Germany in recent international reporting coming from then? Suddenly, the image of the ugly German is back. The media offer ever new waves of indignation; clichés and bogeymen celebrate a jolly resurrection. Apparently, the consequences of the financial and economic crisis have already left a deep mark and the reciprocal polemic reporting has additionally fired up tempers.
The largely economic focus of the EU federation of nations is obviously not enough to develop a sense of joint responsibility and a consciousness of solidarity. Germany, the strong economic power, is both chastised as the EU’s scapegoat for triggering the tough austerity measures and proscribed as a would-be hegemonic power.
Europeans do not tell a mutual historyThe joint European Treaties were undoubtedly a historic feat: the creation of Europe as a place of liberty, security and free movement of persons and goods. Yet, Europe is rather hesitant in its political further development. The Council can still ignore the will of Parliament in important policy fields. There are a proven series of democratic deficiencies in the EU. The Europeanized circumstances urgently call for corresponding political organizational structures that include sovereignty of the people.
The dominant market-economy thinking of our society plays another major role in the hapless search for a viable European identity. While the market economy system once only involved the production of goods and services, recently we are experiencing its effects permeating all spheres of life. Everything must be relegated to the principles of utilitarianism and profitability. Jürgen Habermas speaks of colonialized living environments.
Sport, the arts, recreation, quotas, and marketable information on Facebook – everything follows this principle. This way of thinking endangers the principles of the caring society, in addition to making political trust dwindle. Add to that the restriction of political decision-making freedoms in times of crisis through so-called practical constraints, which then are declared a state of emergency outside the law or comprehensive emergency powers.
Europe is neither a melting pot nor a salad bowl, but a mosaic; a composition made up of pieces and colours, held together by a more or less binding substrate and a framework of democratic basic order, constitutional state, and practised peaceful coexistence. Perhaps it is therefore wise to more closely examine the bilateral relations between Germany as a middle country and its neighbours, to better recognize European processes and not only demand them in the abstract. For Europeans still do not tell a mutual history, but have separately experienced cultures, which could, however, be joined to form an experienced European background via orientation debates.
We don’t want a German EuropeThe new attention paid to Germany in all sectors – industry, politics, and culture – not only surprises us, but also the European scene. We are not necessarily experiencing something entirely new, but an interesting reissue of familiar perceptions of the others and ourselves: from outside the ambivalence, from inside the insecurity. The outside perception follows the pattern of admiration and acceptance here, reservations and conspiracy theories there. In some southwest European countries enthusiastic praise is joined by the old metaphors of suspicion and fear of the bigger neighbours almost synchronously and in new intense news coverage.
Our own German perception and self-portrayal, by contrast, is still marked by deep-seated insecurities derived from the trauma of the 20th century that was marked by stroppy crowing and ducking. The Germans have been handed a new leadership role that they do not really want to take on. The fact that one cannot always be popular when bearing such responsibility is largely denied both by the population and by politicians. It is not that the Germans did everything right and the others did everything wrong. It is not about Germany’s role model function, but about examples that may be helpful. It is a true irony of history that of all things the joint currency of the euro has led to a new inequality in Europe. The euro, once thought to serve to domesticate the reunified Germany, becomes the source of new German economic dominance.
We should be happy for the acknowledgement and we ought to talk of ourselves and our singularities, we ought to woo confidence and make clear that we do not want a German Europe, but a European Germany. In the light of the dramatic situation we ought to stay calm and not overreact. We are not living in heroic times. The big guys are never popular, especially when others are financially dependent on them. Our country may be dynamic as can be, but we are more dependent on Europe than any other country. We ought to utilize our middle position amidst many neighbours to create equilibrium between north and south, east and west. The guideline for a newly relevant Germany is genuinely deliberate European commitment.
There is no question that the anti-German resentments are particularly strong in Greece at present. Yet if we look more closely we notice that these are primarily anti-European thought patterns. Germany is the focus not only but mainly because it is the leading economy of the EU. The conformity of opinion produced not least by the media is formative. The incessant depiction of the EU as a domineering authority turns anxieties over the future into aggressions. Nonetheless the cultural events and the language courses held by the Goethe-Institut are overcrowded as never before, even during the general strike. Polite German visitors continue to be met by Greek hospitality.
Mobility is temporaryIn Portugal, Germany traditionally has a good reputation. Yet here, too, the basically positive attitude is mixed with scepticism. They precisely observe what is going on in German politics compared to the past. Nonetheless, the tone remains moderate. Portugal wants to solve its problems. High unemployment among young people is a critical factor. The Goethe-Instituts offer tailor-made language courses for those who are looking for work in Germany, preferably in the medical and engineering sectors, special courses for job applications and interviews. Medium-sized enterprises as well as hospitals are particularly active. Some even take on the costs of the language courses.
The same applies to Spain. The Goethe-Instituts in Barcelona and Madrid organize events and promotional days on the German-Spanish labour market, on vocational prospects with the German language, and on mobility in Europe. When young southern Europeans decide they wish to work in Germany, then they ought to receive as efficient support as possible to aid their success. Learning the German language is part of that. It is part of shaping their own lives and careers, combined with acquiring qualifications. It is very helpful for the industries in Germany that need skilled professionals. The mobility and freedom of movement of the European labour market were always a political demand. Now, it is no longer abstract, but offers an opportunity, even if this arises from exigency.
Today, mobility is no longer a decision made for life, but temporary, dependent on the particular circumstances. When the United Kingdom opened its labour market years ago, many Poles answered the call. Many have long returned to Poland. These young people who wish to shape their own lives are no Euro-sceptics. They place their hopes in a common labour market.
Fear of German inactionPerhaps such experiences are more suitable for learning to understand Europe than a Europe prescribed from above or a re-shifting of competencies among the Member States. France and Germany have learned to live together. Relations are sound and they seek out reciprocal agreement in political and economic issues. The ever-growing number of town twinning agreements is astonishing. Almost half of today’s 2,400 twinned towns arose over the past twenty years. That is definitely proof of a functional civil society.
By contrast to western European societies, the central-eastern European societies have been Europeanized non-synchronously. The turning point of 1989 is perceived as a “return to Europe,” meaning less EU integration than the opportunity to regain and evolve their identities as democratic national states after being affected by the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships. The national state was again given the status of a concept for progress.
The EU accessions implemented in 2004, at first a project of the elites, were expected to deliver the benefits of greater mobility on the labour market and for travel, access to new forms of education, improvement of consumer behaviour, and a rise in bi-national partnerships. All in all EU integration is seen positively with the exception of the crisis-ridden countries of Hungary and Latvia. Hardly any animosities have been revived in the states created after 1990 such as Slovenia, Slovakia, and the Baltic states. Their understanding for the German position in the euro crisis is great.
Poland’s self-assurance in turn leads to a relaxed stance towards Germany, as reflected in a statement by Poland’s foreign minister: “Today, I fear German power less than I do German inaction.” Hungary is breathing new life into old animosities; Germany plays less of a role in that. Only in the Czech Republic do the media reveal historically grounded images and the fear of German dominance.
Europe is cultureNorthern Europe has an easy relationship with Germany and its European policy. This applies particularly to Norway and Finland. There, Germany is mainly Berlin, where the largest artists’ colonies exist outside of their own countries. Sweden now perceives its image of Germany as dated; developments in the arts and education in particular are perceived positively. In United Kingdom it is less a matter of the image of Germany than of the image of Europe. Here, the official government policy is marked by less to no Europe at all. The image of Germany has improved, similarly to the Netherlands.
Hence, it is a multifaceted image on which the relations of our European neighbours to Germany are built. The dwindling confidence in Europe, the growing gap between north and south, and the restriction of European reforms to urgent purely fiscal measures, however, further increase the uncertainties. Times of crisis cannot be dealt with by politicians declaring their strategy as the only alternative. They must examine options and convince citizens. Most of all, they must introduce a new decision-making process. Europe is not Euroland. Europe is also and in particular culture and education.
It is a matter of the political power of culture and of common European values. Culture is not a private playground for artists and intellectuals, it is also not the base material for commercialization; it is the foundation of our society’s being open and generating new ideas. It is a matter of joint responsibility for Europe as a cultural region that belongs together. Blaise Pascal used a nice image for it: “A multitude not brought to act as unity is confusion. The unity which is not multitude is tyranny.”
If Europe is to grow together, then it must shape its neighbourship relations in many individual facets through practical action: the neighbourship to immigrants, the neighbourship to states between which historic boundaries exist, the neighbourship to the states bordering Europe. This is first and foremost a cultural duty.
The author is the president of the Goethe-Institut. This essay first appeared in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit (issue 19/2012).