Opinion We Have Become the New Villain

The German parliament is set to approve a new multibillion euro bailout package for Greece on Monday, but instead of thanks, southern Europeans are expressing their dislike of us. Germans will have to get used to their new role: We have become the Americans of Europe.
The front page of the Greek right-wing daily "Democracy" on Feb. 9: "Memorandum Macht Frei"

The front page of the Greek right-wing daily "Democracy" on Feb. 9: "Memorandum Macht Frei"

Foto: Orestis Panagiotou/ dpa

Here's an idea. Police reports used to exclude the ethnic origins of the perpetrators of crimes. Why not apply that practice to reporting the euro crisis? We could stop mentioning which countries are getting aid. Instead of writing about the Greeks or Portuguese, we could just refer to the recipient as a southern European country -- or, better yet, of our fellow European citizens in the south.

Perhaps that would serve to improve the mood in Europe.

You have to be very careful about what you say these days. One careless statement and suddenly you can get crushed by a wave of emotions. I know what I'm talking about. After the cruise ship accident near Giglio in Italy, I made a few irreverent comments about Italians that seemed to outrage half of Italy. The Italian ambassador in Berlin even gave me a dressing down. I'm just happy that Italy is part of the Schengen Zone. After reading what had been written about me in the Italian press, I don't know whether they would have let me back into the country.

In my defense, I can say that I am not the only person who has unwittingly triggered a diplomatic imbroglio in these difficult times. Who would have thought that people in Athens also listen to SWR 2 radio? But German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble had barely finished an interview with the public radio broadcaster from his southern German home region about the reform efforts of Greek politicians before he was accused of disparaging the Greeks . "Who is this Herr Schäuble who insults Greece?" Greek President Karolos Papoulias roared back at Berlin. Schäuble, too, apparently underestimated how easy it is to insult people in the south.

The Chancellor in a Nazi Uniform

Sentiment towards the Germans isn't very good in the region right now. Hardly a day goes by without Chancellor Angela Merkel being depicted in a Nazi uniform somewhere. Swastikas are a common sight as well. It doesn't seem to help at all that we faithfully approve one aid package after the other. If calculations by experts are true, then we are far beyond the point where we are just providing loan guarantees.

A good deal of the €130 billion expected to be approved by the German parliament on Monday will never be seen again. But if you read the editorial pages of newspapers in the crisis regions, for whom this money is intended, you would be led to believe that we are out to achieve what our grandfathers failed to do 70 years ago (and this despite the fact that research into Hitler outside of Greece is fairly unanimous in the belief that National Socialism didn't launch its tyranny of Europe with a bailout package).

The Viciousness of Inferiority

It won't be long before they start burning German flags. But wait, they're already doing that. Previously we had only known that from Arab countries, where the youth would take every opportunity to run through the streets to rage against that great Satan, the USA. But that's how things go when others consider a country to be too successful, too self-confident and too strong. We've now become the Americans of Europe. The role reversal won't be an easy one either -- it is already safe to say that today. We Germans are accustomed to having people admire us for our efficiency and industriousness -- and not to hate us for it.

But before we complain too much about all this ingratitude, we should remind ourselves that we ourselves spent years passing the buck. As long as the global villain was America, the Germans joined in when it came to feeling good at the expense of others. The Americans also had every reason to expect a little more gratitude -- after all, it was their soldiers who had to intervene when a dictator somewhere lived out his bloody fantasies while the international community stood by wringing its hands.

People came to secretly rely on the USA as a global cop in the same way that Germany's neighbors are now expecting the Germans to save the euro. Unfortunately, however, the feeling of inferiority can be just as vicious as that of superiority.

Buying Your Neighbor's Sympathy

Of course, one can try to make oneself seem smaller than one really is. But this self-denial doesn't work. The Americans weren't much more popular under Jimmy Carter than they were under Ronald Reagan despite the fact that the man from Georgia was kind-hearted and plagued by so many moral scruples that his preference probably would have been to just stop governing. Obama's election also didn't do a whole lot to help the US' image in the longer term. A giant can't conceal his size for long.

One can also attempt to buy the sympathies of one's neighbors. In a certain respect, that is exactly the policy that Germany has pursued in Europe for decades. That's why there is no lack of politicians focusing on European policy who recommend the continuation of that policy -- which would essentially mean nothing less than assuming greater amounts of debt from its European partners through a stronger intervention by the European Central Bank or through euro bonds. But it appears the sums are too great to ease tempers through a simple bank transfer. After all, this is no longer about paying for a few wasted subsidies like the EU's infamous milk lakes and butter mountains that German money was being used to plug or clear away. It is about budget shortfalls so massive that the economies of entire countries are being swallowed by them.

We will probably just have to get used to the fact that, for a time, Germany won't be very popular in some countries in Europe. In the worst case scenario, we could spend our next holiday in America for a change. Or we could just claim we are Swiss -- as nobody seems to have any problems with them at the moment.

Jan Fleischhauer is the author of ""Der Schwarze Kanal," or "The Black Channel," SPIEGEL ONLINE's weekly conservative political column. Black is a reference to the political color of Chancellor Angela Merkel's political party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union.
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