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Photo Gallery: Leading Euro Naysayers in Germany

Foto: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/ dpa

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.
Von Stefan Willeke

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.

Predicting an Inevitable Collapse of the Euro

A man is going for a stroll in an upscale residential neighborhood of the Bad Godesberg district of Bonn, the former capital city in western Germany. He says that he stood at the "cradle of the euro," together with then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl and then-Bundesbank President Hans Tietmeyer. Joachim Jahnke was a member of the SPD and served as a head of section in the Ministry of Economics. Now retired, the 74-year-old dispatches weekly newsletters that often argue against the euro. "The deutsche mark was a sort of ersatz nationality," Jahnke says.

Jahnke can speak at length over how the euro can still be saved -- through a comprehensive minimum wage in Germany, for example or through transfer payments to Southern Europe. But he also says: "The Germans will eventually be fed up with constantly paying for things." Unless something serious happens, the euro will break apart in three to five years, Jahnke predicts. Opponents of the common currency believe that time is on their side. It's like leaving a box of matches on a bench near the edge of a forest. Eventually someone comes along and puts a lit match to a dry branch.

If the common currency no longer existed, Europe's crisis-ridden countries could devalue their national currencies and strengthen their economies, because prices for their products would drop and their markets would become more competitive. This is an important argument for euro opponents -- and it's correct. But if the euro were to disappear, Germany's export economy would collapse, because the German currency would then appreciate substantially. Unemployment would rise sharply, and the engine of the economy would be eliminated. This is also true, and it's something that opponents of the euro don't like to hear. But there is also another important question: What would happen to Europe if it were deprived of the common currency?

Saving What Can Still Be Saved?

Heiner Flassbeck took the first morning flight from Geneva to Berlin. He was a state secretary under former Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine, and both men failed in rapid succession. But that was in the last millennium. Most recently, Flassbeck was working as chief economist for a United Nations organization, and he now lives in a French village outside Geneva. "Germany does everything right," say his neighbors. Flassbeck claims the opposite is true, but the French don't believe him. Perhaps it'll be different in Berlin.

The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which is associated with the Left Party, has invited Flassbeck to speak, and the auditorium is full. Flassbeck has a dark tan and is wearing a suit and tie. A few days earlier, he appeared at a conference sponsored by the Ver.di public services union, and he has also recently spoken in Basel, Warsaw and Paris. He was interviewed by the German business newspaper Handelsblatt, and he has written articles in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. Things are suddenly going well for Flassbeck, and even he seems surprised.

He refers to the economy as a machine that requires servicing. But the leftists in the room don't like the word "machine," and they aren't interested in servicing anything. When a member of the audience calls him "Heiner," Flassbeck frowns disapprovingly. During the break, he stands at a bar table and grumbles about the "drivel" he is forced to put up with here. The leftists are engaged in ideological debates, Flassbeck says, whereas he is here to talk about numbers.

If he established a party, it would have only one item on its platform: Flassbeck is right. Of course, he had long anticipated that Europe was heading for a crisis. He can now repackage the theories he has always espoused and, in doing so, make himself seem younger than he is. Flassbeck glances at the vats of soup covered with napkins and rails against "this Socialist fare." He has no objection whatsoever, he adds, to eating lunch in a restaurant instead.

Before long, Flassbeck is sitting at a restaurant table in Berlin's trendy Mitte district, trying to choose between ravioli with or without truffles. With truffles, he finally decides. "I have studied all the world's financial crises," Flassbeck says, and he concludes that what Europe needs to do now is "to save what can still be saved."

But what will be left of the euro zone if the crisis-ridden countries withdraw?

"Germany," Flassbeck replies. "Hmm, the Netherlands, Belgium…"

France?

"No, France has to exit."

Finland?

"Yes, Finland."

Germany, Finland, Holland and Belgium. Is there any political vision left?

"Oh," says Flassbeck, "the political vision is dead, anyway."

The truffles are excellent, he adds.

Chancellor Merkel's much-repeated response to the euro crisis has been: "If the euro dies, Europe dies." It has been an important sentence, but it still lacks a rationale. Without it, the remark feels like an empty claim, and yet the issue deserves more than that.

In recent weeks, there has been much talk about debt, supportive bond purchases and bailout funds. But it would be more convincing if the economic reflections were not disconnected from the social dimension. The appeal of the European Union and its precursors has always been how they aim for immediate goals in order to achieve more distant ones. The common market was intended as a first great step on the road to political successes. The experiment began with a transnational organization creating a common market for coal and steel, while the common currency followed almost 50 years later. The idea was that Europe would begin in the wallet but not end there, that it would start on a small scale and then grow larger. The idea was also to weather crises, tolerate unreasonable demands and follow through to the end.

Vague 'Alternatives'

On a Friday afternoon, Bernd Lucke steps onto an ICE train at the station in the northern German city of Lüneburg, takes a seat in the dining car and immediately starts making phone calls. Lucke, chairman of the anti-euro party Alternative for Germany  (AfD), is speaking loudly and clearly, as if the conductor had asked him to make an announcement. He ends his call, puts away his mobile phone and keeps talking. He turns away a little and looks around, so that it is no longer clear whether he is having a conversation with the SPIEGEL interviewer, the other passengers in the car or the entire world. We lower our voices as a signal to Lucke to lower his, but the party leader doesn't take the hint. In fact, he starts speaking even louder, as if he were personally in charge of determining the noise level in the car. Though it wasn't intended, we end up having a panel discussion with Lucke in the dining car.

Outside, the sun peeks out here and there, but Lucke says that heavy rain showers are in the forecast for southern Lower Saxony. He is headed for Clausthal-Zellerfeld in north-central Germany, where he is scheduled to deliver a ceremonial address to the "Barbara Academic Sports Association." He says that he looked into whether his hosts might be somehow politically objectionable, but found that they were OK.

He leaves the car shortly before Hanover, where the train stops and the doors open. A young mother with a stroller is standing at the exit. Lucke rushes over and offers to help her. The woman can hardly say "No, thank you" quickly enough to prevent Lucke from taking control of her stroller. In Hanover, the weather is still pleasant. If it doesn't start raining, says Lucke, it'll be the weather forecast that was wrong, not him.

It's odd, he says, but a journalist from the Wall Street Journal was supposed to join him, and yet he hasn't heard from the man.

When asked to describe what constitutes the "alternative" in the name of his party, Lucke says that he had preferred the name "adieu" but failed to convince others. We have to ask him several times about the alternative, and about what would change in this country if Lucke could exert some influence, until he finally understands, saying that it's about politics and about structuring things, not just the euro. Lucke, the economics professor, suddenly seems highly inept, saying things like: "The government must become fiscally responsible. It has to take the will of the people seriously." He has no idea what alternative he is supposed to describe. He calls himself a European, but he has no use for Europe. He has done nothing but open a betting shop at which customers can place wagers on the demise of the euro.

When Lucke gets off the train in Goslar, a small historic city in Lower Saxony, a young man addresses him on the platform. The stranger walks excitedly alongside Lucke, and says that he initially couldn't believe that he had actually spotted Bernd Lucke, the man from the talk shows. But suddenly he was quite sure, he says. "It's very nice that you are gracing Goslar with your presence, Professor Lucke," says the young man, before he shuffles away. Lucke watches him go and says: "See?"

At home in Winsen an der Luhe, Lucke rides his bike to the commuter train station in the morning and takes it to nearby Hamburg, where he delivers his lectures, and takes the same train back home in the evening -- or at least that used to be his daily routine. Now he's a person whose opinion European politicians discuss in prime time. He gives them something to think about, although sometimes they have trouble coming up with answers. The fight against the euro has catapulted his life into the world of grand gestures. He would never admit it, but he owes a lot to the euro. He is a person who sticks to numbers and relations, but they say nothing to him about the underlying ideas.

Defining the Notion of 'Europe'

A story about Europe could begin in June 1914, and it could be about Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo. The ensuing events led to the outbreak of the World War I, which was a European war until shortly before it ended and resulted in carnage that had previously seemed unimaginable. A European story could also begin in 1870, when one of the Franco-Prussian wars erupted, which is commemorated by the Victory Column in Berlin. But a European story could also begin earlier, in 1813, at the Battle of the Nations, near Leipzig, when the European powers fought what was the biggest war in European history prior to World War I.

Also worth mentioning is the SPD's 1925 Heidelberg Program, in which there were suddenly calls for a "United States of Europe."

And then there was the Morgenthau Plan, which didn't materialize but called for the destruction of German industry after World War II. A far more extensive account would have to be devoted to the American Marshall Plan, the European reconstruction program that benefited Germany in particular. One could talk about solidarity, aid payments and borrowed trust. Or about overcoming the logic of war, about the attempt to abandon the categories of victory and defeat, and to replace them for a spirit of cooperation.

Perhaps the story should return to Sarajevo, where the 1984 Winter Olympics were held, an event that resembled a festival of cultures before the city was transformed into the hell of the Bosnian war eight years later. We would end up with a contradictory story, but it would be instructive, because it would tell us that Europe has already been tested more severely than by an economic crisis.

But to engage in this discussion, it's important to recognize more in the European Union than merely a series of financial transactions. One has to divine the historical dimension, and the sheer magnitude and importance of events. One has to have a political consciousness, or at least a memory -- and maintain it.

Tenacious Campaigning Against the Euro

On June 11, as Germany's Federal Constitutional Court is debating  a complaint against the euro bailout policy, Hans-Olaf Henkel is at Berlin's Tegel Airport, boarding an Airbus jet bound for Vienna. He likes to spend time abroad, where he is treated as a guest and isn't contradicted as often. He was just in London, where he blasted the euro at an event, after former Chancellor Schröder had just lauded the European idea. Henkel likes to use the term "unity euro." It's reminiscent of the name of the state party in the former East Germany, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), and it sounds somehow calamitous. The British were on his side, Henkel says with a chuckle.

In the 1990s, Henkel was a hard-nosed president of the Federation of German Industries (BDI). He is a holdover from the cretaceous age of industrial society, and he would be forgotten today if he hadn't clung to the TV studios. The talk show is Henkel's greenhouse. Outside, he would be overgrown with weeds by now. But as soon as artificial light is added, he straightens up, stretches his neck and blossoms. The anti-euro party AfD has made Henkel into its best-known advocate. The euro is preventing him from withering away.

In the flight to Vienna, Henkel talks about a man who called him an "asshole." It was an anonymous email with a very short message: "Asshole." The only thing identifying the sender was the email address, but when Henkel turned the matter over to his attorney, he said that he couldn't help him. It was too time-consuming, he said, and it wouldn't be possible to find out who the sender was.

Undeterred, Henkel sat down at his computer and searched the Internet for the email address. After a considerable effort, he finally found the same email address on a welcome message in the electronic guestbook of a hotel in Bavaria. It had to be the person he was looking for. Henkel called the hotel and said that he wanted to send the guest photos from a vacation they had taken together. The hotel gave him the person's phone number. Henkel's attorney called the number and demanded €1,000 (Ed's note: In Germany, so-called "crimes against one's honor," such as insulting words or gestures, can lead to hefty fines and sometimes even jail sentences). Henkel wanted the man who had called him an "asshole" to donate the money to the good people of Amnesty International.

A Dangerous and Divisive Issue

The story offers insight into how tenaciously Henkel wages his campaign against the euro. If we wonder why the prophets of doom are capable of filling entire auditoriums with people, the answer is always the same: fear. They take advantage of the fears of those with less education, their fear of losing what they have achieved and their fear of being robbed. For these people, it's easy to envision our faraway neighbors in Southern Europe as thieves. In this way, the populists' arguments combine with the emotions of their audiences. It's a dangerous mixture.

The AfD is a political force worth taking seriously. It has the potential to draw voters away from the major parties, especially Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Professors are among the supporters of the AfD, which lends it more credibility, especially among voters who lack higher education. Unlike the Pirate Party, the anti-euro party has a clear central theme that everyone understands. It is a disciplined organization, not some chaotic group. And the key question surrounding the euro is not being asked in the governing bodies of the major parties. Indeed, the demise of the euro is a topic with a fuse.

The character with whom opponents of the euro identify most is the businessman, and the character they despise most is the historian. The businessman sees the euro as nothing but a means of payment, something replaceable, a few paltry coins and bills. The historian sees through the euro and recognizes a political rationale. The businessman shrinks the euro's importance while the historian enlarges it. The businessman holds up a €10 bill and says: This could soon be 20 deutsche marks again. The historian recognizes the contours of the continent in the €10 bill.

When the flight has landed in Vienna, Henkel gets up and asks: "What should I call my book? 'Euro Deceivers?' Or perhaps 'Euro Liars'?" He isn't quite sure. Maybe the word "liar" is too strong. The new book comes out in a few weeks, he says, and perhaps he'll have Oskar Lafontaine write the introduction. Henkel feels good when he surrounds himself with people who thrive on subversive theories. No one wanted to give a laudatory speech for Thilo Sarrazin, the politician who published an anti-immigrant and -Muslim screed in 2010 that sparked major public outrage. But Henkel agreed to do it.

Henkel gives one of his presentations at a tourist hotel in the afternoon. He usually begins by saying that he initially made the mistake of believing in the euro. "My mistake" -- it's an expression he likes to use. People who acknowledge their mistakes seem confident. Then he attacks the euro. The interesting thing is that Henkel has the shrewdness to approach the European drama from an economic standpoint. The sad thing is that his shrewdness doesn't generate any political ideas, or at least nothing that a government could do anything with. When asked what the alternatives are, he praises the quality of training in German companies. He suddenly sounds like someone from the chamber of commerce.

On the way back to the airport, Henkel says that he has made up his mind. The book will be called "Euro Liars."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan