A Mysterious Calm Germans Remain Unflappable During Euro Crisis

The euro is teetering, neighboring countries are complaining about pressure from Berlin, and the German chancellor is rushing from one crisis summit to another. Typically more anxious, the Germans appear to be strangely unperturbed amid the furor. What is the root of this new serenity?
Visitors to the Reichstag in Berlin.

Visitors to the Reichstag in Berlin.

Foto: Rainer Jensen/ picture-alliance/ dpa

Berlin -- The moment of truth is drawing near. Next week the chancellor is travelling to Brussels for yet another crisis summit. Together with the other European heads of government, Angela Merkel wants to finally rescue the euro. She must rescue it.

Everything is at stake. The final game for the euro and for Europe is in full swing. Every day that the debt crisis continues to come to a head, fear is growing that all efforts will be for naught, and that the breakup of the euro is unpreventable. The fear is growing in the financial markets, in the halls of power in Paris, Rome and Madrid, and in Berlin's chancellery.

But among Germans, the fear appears not to be growing.

There is, of course, the German angst, of which the Anglo-Saxons and the Americans like to talk about. It is so legendary that it is almost proverbial. Haven't the Germans always reacted despondently or even hysterically as soon as there is a threat of potential disaster? In this part of the world, the worries over climate change are especially pronounced; we get stirred up by health concerns like E.coli outbreaks and the swine flu; and we abandon nuclear energy immediately after in far away Japan a tsunami leads to a nuclear catastrophe. Should all Germans be in a panic because the euro could soon be history?

They aren't, at least noticeably. Those walking through the Christmas markets and shopping malls this season will notice little worry or fear. Families and friends ask sKeptically what will happen to their money, but in the next sentence talk about what their Christmas wishes are. And according to a poll conducted by the network ARD, a majority (55 percent) say they are not personally affected by the crisis. A vague uneasiness seems to stand opposite an unshakable tranquillity.

Has the German angst slowly evolved into a German lässigkeit, or nonchalance, as Roger Cohen, the long-time correspondent of the New York Times, attests regarding the financial crisis?

Riddle #1: The Crisis Escalates, but Confidence in the Chancellor Grows

No, Germans are not blind to the extent of the debt crisis. On the contrary, a disillusionment has grown in light of the failure to implement sweeping rescue efforts. The vast majority (84 percent) even thinks that the worst is yet to come, a record level in the new ARD poll. A basic trust, that can really calm the situation for international policies, was lost among the population long ago.

As bad as the big picture is, and as large as the distrust is in the competence and self-assertion of the states against the financial markets, people still seem to feel like they are in good hands with the chancellor. Angela Merkel's approval ratings have gone up during the crisis, polls show. In a domestic Infratest poll, Merkel crossed the 50-percent-mark. One in two respondents found that Merkel has handled the crisis "correctly and decisively." In a recent poll conducted by the ZDF network, almost two-thirds of those surveyed rated Merkel's crisis management positively.

"There is again a positive feeling about Merkel," says Manfred Güllner, head of the polling institute Forsa. "People have the feeling that she is plugging away at the euro crisis." They reportedly like it that the chancellor does not let herself get pushed around.

Klaus-Peter Schöppner, director of the Emnid polling institute, recognizes a "certain pride" taken in the chancellor's leading role in Europe. He talks about the "Joschka Fischer effect" (named after the former German Foreign Minister). As in the case with Merkel, many did not trust the former sneaker-wearing foreign minister to be able to fill such a role. But many have become satisfied with Merkel's political style. "Matter-of-fact and calm policies are always better received at times of crisis," says Schöppner.

Riddle #2: While Europeans Fear for Their Money, Germans Go Shopping

Several euro-zone countries and many systemic banks on the Continent are in trouble while many fear that the euro could collapse. Fear of a recession is widespread. Germans, though, have continued to hit the shops. The mood among Germany's consumers even rose recently, according to the consumer research group GfK. Despite the crisis, retailers can expect good business.

Irrational? Not necessarily say pollsters. The fear of inflation has historical roots in Germany -- and is magnified in times of crisis, says Emnid head Schöppner. Germans were long famous for saving their money. Now, however, Schöppner says he sees a "flight to material assets," safe from the perils of inflation. The trend is perhaps most noticeable on the housing market, which is experiencing a boom, but can also trickle down to consumer goods.

Still, Germans are not ignoring the crisis. According to the GfK, Germans are concerned that the economy will soon slow and that their own salaries may fall. Schöppner says that people are indeed concerned about being negatively affected by the crisis, despite the decent economic situation at the moment and ongoing drop in unemployment. "We rescue banks, we rescue countries and then Europe, but what about me?" Such is the question that many are asking themselves, says Schöppner. "The feeling of unfairness is ever stronger," he says.

The complexity of the crisis is another factor; many in Germany simply don't understand it. "That Germans haven't responded to the crisis by panicking," says Manfred Güllner, head of the Forsa Institute for Social Research and Statistical Analysis, "is due in part to their own feelings of helplessness."

Riddle #3: The Euro Is In Trouble, but Germans Aren't Yearning for the Deutsche Mark

Euro-skeptic economic professors, like Dirk Meyer or Wilhelm Hankel, have spent years campaigning for a return of the deutsche mark. With several euro-zone countries teetering on the brink and the common currency in trouble, they are beginning to sound like prophets to some. But one would be mistaken to think that most Germans see a return to the D-mark as their salvation.

Most people have understood that, particularly for a nation like Germany which relies on its export economy, the euro is the "better solution," says Schöppner. Current polls suggest that a majority of Germans do not support a return to the deutsche mark. In a recent ARD poll, only 46 percent agreed that "Germany should have held onto the deutsche mark."

A similar poll conducted by Emnid in September likewise found close to a 50-50 split on the question. Forsa pollster Güllner warns not to forget that Germans have never been particularly fond of the euro. "But neither are they passionately opposed to it, not even in the crisis."

Pollsters also point out that support for the euro rises along with the level of education of respondents -- an indication that yearning for the deutsche mark is primarily based on an emotional reflex which sees the mark synonymous with stability and the euro symbolic of chaos. Those, however, who are able to understand the crisis to some degree understand that, even if a return to the mark might result in stability on the short term, it would be catastrophic for German exports.

Riddle #4: Europe Complains About the Germans, but that Doesn't Bother Them

There have certainly been times when Germany's reputation in the EU has been better. Many from Germany's European partners have accused the chancellor of shamelessly dominating the ongoing EU reform process -- only occasionally is French President Nicolas Sarkozy mentioned as well. And they aren't completely wrong. The recent statement by Volker Kauder, parliamentary floor leader for Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, was not entirely wrong. "Now, Europe is speaking German," he said.

Clearly, one does not endear oneself to the rest of Europe with such statements. But the majority of the German people appear to be behind the chancellor's positions, an indicator that they approve of the course she has charted in the crisis. When it comes to individual policies which have led to criticism of Merkel around Europe, she has the support of Germans as well. A current poll, for example, shows that 79 percent of Germans are opposed to euro bonds.

At the end of October, an Infratest poll found that 58 percent of those surveyed want Merkel to take a strong leadership role in Europe. And she has taken one. She is pushing for a European debt brake, modeled on a similar German law, to limit sovereign debt in the euro zone and she wants clear stability criteria. She continues to oppose euro bonds. "The Germans like it when their country gains in significance," says opinion researcher Güllner.

His colleague Schöppner sees it this way: "Their role as paymaster makes Germans sick." To be sure, Europe's responsibility for unified fiscal policies is recognized in principle. But Germany should exert its financial strength and play a leading role, and the euro zone should follow its example.

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