The Rise of the Fearmongers Germany's New Euroskeptic Elite
Many Germans believe it is time to abandon the euro. They're part of a growing movement spurred by influential populists from the worlds of business and academia. Their arguments stoke fear but offer no clear alternatives.
The day the euro falls apart will feel like paradise, or at least if Dirk Müller is there to host the event. Müller can come up with an unforgettable melody for even the worst of calamities. And to do so, he needs nothing more than his warm, dark voice, which can even cloak horror in ghoulish but beautiful sounds. The refrain would probably consist of a quote Müller has repeated often, because it seems to fit to every occasion: "That's it, Mr. Müller. Mr. Müller, that's it."
But, at the moment, Mr. Müller still has a problem being Mr. Müller, because his voice is threatening to abandon him. He has spent too much time in TV studios lately, talking his new book "Showdown" onto the best-seller lists, and his voice has become hoarse. The man who likes to go by the nickname "Mister Dax," because he was once a well-known stock trader and gave a face to the German stock market (and its blue-chip DAX index), still has to endure this evening in Rottweil, a town on the edge of the Black Forest in southwestern Germany. He has taken a pill against hay fever, another against the flu and a cough suppressant. It's mid-May, a week in which the mass-circulation newspaper Bild is warning against inflation, the weekly magazine Stern is running a cover story titled "Is My Money at Risk Now?" and the local paper, the Schwarzwalder Bote, is running the headline "Passion For Europe in Free Fall." It's Müller time.
In a side room at a decommissioned power plant that has been converted into an auditorium, Müller is preparing for his appearance. With a cough, he announces his "grand tour through Europe." Perhaps there is no better way to illustrate Europe's condition than in a power plant that has lost power, where a red carpet is unrolled for a man who is a gifted speaker and who plays with his initials as if they were a promise -- Dirk Müller, DM (the symbol for the former German currency, the deutsche mark).
The parking lot outside is full. It's an ordinary Thursday evening in a German town, and close to 500 people have come to the event, for which tickets cost 69.90 ($94), about the price of entry to a pop concert. But the topic is Europe's crisis, and the event turns out to be one of the most heavily attended at the Neckartal Power Plant. In a few minutes, when Müller begins speaking, a few in the audience will pull out their notepads and jot down his key points. Müller has even secured the rights to the name "Mister Dax," which is how many people address him.
He steps onto the stage and turns on his laptop. He shows the audience a photo of American warships and talks about the "battle for future global dominance." He switches to an image of a paper airplane flying in a thunderstorm. The paper airplane is a 50 bill. "In my opinion, the euro cannot function," Müller says. Suddenly the laptop crashes and the screen goes dark. Müller could simply say: "Sorry, my computer crashed." Instead, he says: "The system has collapsed."
Müller is a warner. He warns against running Europe into the ground "out of convenience," merely for the purpose of preserving the euro, which, according to Müller, is much too strong for the weak countries in the south but too weak for the strong German economy. He warns against conditions like those in Greece. "Flags with swastikas on them; that's Greece in 2013." He warns against "lost generations" in Portugal and Spain. "The euro isn't bringing us peace," he says. "In fact, the euro is the spirit of discord."
"A potential for infection is developing," he says, "and it can break out at any time."
He insinuates, quips and laces his speech with sarcasm. He doesn't claim that the Americans tried to subjugate the International Monetary Fund (IMF), or that the IMF subsequently took Europe hostage. He expresses himself more deftly rather than allowing himself to be pinned to an ideology. He doesn't shout, and he remains perfectly pleasant. The top 10 percent of the German population owns two-thirds of all wealth in Germany, he says. He then stops and insists that he is not a leftist.
Growing Uncertainty and Unrest
A strange mixture is brewing in Germany. Week after week, the voices calling for an end to the European monetary union are growing louder. There are the people who represent the financial world, such as Müller. There is the new anti-euro party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which enjoys the backing of disappointed conservatives. And then there are also sociologists with ties to the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), such as Wolfgang Streeck, the director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. Streek sees the monetary union as the "Babylonian captivity of a politically emancipated market system." There is also Thilo Bode, founder of the European consumer rights group Foodwatch, who sees the drachma as the cure for the ailing Greek economy.
There is growing unrest on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum. Both camps are attacking the euro from the fringes, and both aim to collect support from the center of society. Intelligent people, including entrepreneurs, trade unionists, academics and party officials, are starting to team up. Many bill themselves as genuine Europeans. There are also a few conspiracy theorists, crazies and hard-liners. But most are presentable and educated.
Müller's appearance in Rottweil was scheduled for 90 minutes, but he ends up speaking for almost three hours. No one in the room interrupts him. At the end, once the roar of applause has died down, Müller signs autographs at the book table. So many people want autographed copies of his book that he can hardly tear himself away. He finally ends up standing at the bar in the lobby, talking about the history of money. The Frankfurt Stock Exchange, he says, used to be a place where small and mid-sized companies could raise capital, but those days are gone. Today, he says, the market is a place where gamblers meet, a system that is destroying itself and losing its purpose.
It's almost midnight when Müller finally leaves the former power plant. His chauffeur is waiting in the parking lot. Müller is quick to point out that the chauffeured car has only been rented for the evening. He also notes, with suspicious regularity, how little he actually profits from his speaking engagements, and that he only receives "a fraction" of the evening's ticket revenue.
Müller has latched onto a subject that appeals to audiences. The stock wave that he was riding for years is now being replaced by the euro wave. It could become seductively powerful.
Müller is also profiting from the crisis. He is about to go on a vacation in the Maldives, where he intends to put his mobile phone on silent and relax a little. When asked about what he plans to do with his free time, he says: "Nothing much, really."
Things happen during Müller's vacation that he doesn't hear about. Bernd Lucke, an economics professor at the University of Hamburg and head of the new Alternative for Germany party, tweets: "Many countries only want to stay in the euro because they are getting billions in aid payments." One of the responses on Twitter reads: "The agreements are just for the stupid sheep, not for the EU fascists." Someone else writes: "Don't worry, Gullible Fritz will go and work for someone else."
According to a new study from Washington, some 60 percent of Germans approve of the European Union, which is 8 percent less than a year ago. About two-thirds of Germans want to keep the euro, while one-third wants the deutsche mark back. A group of respected German economists has published a case for the euro. In polls, the anti-euro party fluctuates between 2 and 3 percent. In the last two years, SPIEGEL has run seven cover stories warning against a euro that is in acute danger, crumbling or softening. And yet the euro has stood firm.
- Part 1: Germany's New Euroskeptic Elite
- Part 2: Predicting an Inevitable Collapse of the Euro
- Part 3: Defining the Notion of 'Europe'