Opinion The New Angst at the Heart of Germany

The economic meltdown has rattled the confidence of the skilled workers at the heart of the German economic and social model. But they are unlikely to take to the streets -- at least for the time being.

By Heinz Bude


Germany has long been overshadowed by warnings that a crisis was looming. But now it's here. Politicians, business leaders, experts and trade union leaders sit around the table in the Chancellery. The only thing they know is that no one knows what to do.

French workers protest at the headquarters of tyre manufacturer Continental in Hanover: Will the economic crisis cause social unrest in Germany?
DPA

French workers protest at the headquarters of tyre manufacturer Continental in Hanover: Will the economic crisis cause social unrest in Germany?

No one will be left unaffected by these troubled times. Germany's economy is set to shrink by 5, maybe 7, percent and the number of unemployed will increase by at least another 1 million.

For the first time since World War II, Germany's middle class has been shaken to the core. It is not those with low-income jobs, like retail workers in discount stores or carers for old people, who are at greatest risk. Instead, it is those working in the highly productive industries at the heart of the German economic model who face the full force of the downturn.

It is engineering companies in the German state of Baden-Württemberg and medical technology firms in Bavaria which are seeing their orders slump by 50 or 60 percent. At risk are the jobs created following the approach known as "flexible specialization," which aims to enable firms to be in a position to adjust quickly to a changing market environment. German companies have seen a real revolution over the last 15 years as a result of the flexible specialization approach and the "total quality management" philosophy. These are the same skilled workers in the middle of German society who demonstrated, all across the country, how the challenges of globalization can be met.

Now fear is spreading through these value-added industries. Families which were always convinced that success was based on hard work are suddenly getting the feeling that they are caught in a downward spiral from which they cannot escape by themselves.

Maybe these people won't actually lose their own jobs, but their previously secure belief that the social welfare net was something for other people has been shaken to its core. The crisis has undermined the strong sense of self-confidence which used to be exuded by the social classes at the core of the modern German economic model.

Such workers never felt dependent on economic stimulus plans or tax relief. For them, their own efforts were proof that German industry is synonymous with quality. They could confidently ignore whatever was decided by those in power in Bonn or Berlin, safe in their conviction that the effects would be felt elsewhere.

Berthold Huber, the head of the powerful IG Metall union, knows that these people do not tend towards "social unrest." That is something for the proletariat, not the highly specialized German skilled worker. What is currently happening to those people, the people at the heart of the German economic model, needs to be taken seriously in a different way.

Most of them know it is futile to get angry at those responsible for the crisis. What is much more important is strengthening their resolve to stand firm until the worst is over.

These people are ready to weather the storm. They are ready to show those slick men with their striped shirts and Anglo-Saxon business buzzwords what they are capable of, even in a time of crisis. And they are ready to do that, not as cunning freeloaders, but as a self-confident community that never loses its sense of perspective -- even when the government in Berlin is at a complete loss.

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