Germany and the Euro-Crisis | The Nation


Germany and the Euro-Crisis

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The New Generation and the New Indifference

About the Author

Jürgen Habermas
Jürgen Habermas, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, is the author of such acclaimed...

After the Holocaust, it took decades of concerted efforts—from Adenauer and Heinemann through Brandt and Helmut Schmidt to Weizsäcker and Kohl—to bring the Federal Republic back into the fold of civilized nations. A tactically astute Genscherism and an opportunistic orientation to the West were not enough. What was needed was an infinitely arduous change in mentality throughout the whole population. What ultimately won over our European neighbors were, first and foremost, the changed normative convictions and the liberal-minded attitudes of the younger generations who had grown up in the Federal Republic. And, of course, the fact that the convictions of the politicians active at that time could be relied upon played a decisive role in diplomatic relations.

The historically justified distrust of the Germans could not be weakened by their discernible interest in a peaceful European unification alone. West Germans seemed to have come to terms with the partition of the country, in any case. Mindful of their past nationalistic excesses, they could have no trouble in forgoing the recovery of sovereignty rights, in accepting their role as the largest net contributor to Europe and, if need be, in making concessions that paid off for the Federal Republic in any case. To be convincing, the German commitment had to be normatively anchored. Jean-Claude Juncker described the stress test well when, in view of Merkel's cool interest calculation, he missed a willingness "to take domestic political risks for Europe."

The new German intransigence has deeper roots. In the wake of reunification, Germany's perspective had already changed in an enlarged country preoccupied with its own problems. But there was a more sweeping change in mentalities after Helmut Kohl. With the exception of a too quickly exhausted Joschka Fischer, since Gerhard Schröder took office a normatively unambitious generation has been in power that has become preoccupied with a short-winded approach to the day-to-day problems of an increasingly complex society. Conscious of the diminishing room for political maneuver, these people shy away from farsighted goals and constructive political projects, let alone an undertaking like European unification.

The current German elites are enjoying the return to normality as a nation-state. Having reached the end of a "long path to the West," they are certified democrats and can once again be "just like the others." What has disappeared is the anxiousness of a people, who were also defeated morally and were compelled to engage in self-criticism, to find their bearings more rapidly in the postnational constellation. In a globalized world everyone has to learn to incorporate the perspectives of others into his or her own instead of withdrawing into an egocentric blend of aestheticization and utility-maximization. One political symptom of the dwindling willingness to learn are the Maastricht and Lisbon verdicts of the German Federal Constitutional Court, which cling to outmoded dogmatic legal conceptions of sovereignty. The solipsistic and normatively depleted mindset of this self-absorbed colossus in the middle of Europe can no longer even guarantee that the unstable status quo in the EU will be preserved.

The Blunted Sense of Crisis

In and of itself, a change in mentality is no cause for reproach; but the new indifference has implications for our political perceptions of the challenges ahead. Who is really willing to learn the lessons from the banking crisis so eloquently enshrined in the declarations of intent at the G-20 Summit in London more than a year ago—and to fight for them?

As regards taming a financial capitalism spinning out of control, there can be no doubt about the preferences of the majorities among the national populations. In the fall of 2008, for the first time in the history of capitalism, the backbone of the financial market–driven global economic system could be rescued from the brink of collapse only by the guarantees of the taxpayers. And the fact that capitalism is no longer able to reproduce itself under its own steam has now taken root in the consciousness of citizens who, as taxpayers, must bear liability for the "system failure."

The demands of the experts are on the table. Among the proposals under discussion are increasing the equity capital of the banks, greater transparency for the activities of hedge funds, improved oversight of stock markets and rating agencies, the prohibition of fanciful but economically destructive speculative instruments, a tax on financial transactions, a bank levy, the separation of investment from commercial banking and the preventive breakup of banking conglomerates that are "too big to fail." A certain nervousness was detectable in the face of Josef Ackermann, the shrewd head lobbyist of the banking industry, when television presenter Maybrit Illner invited him to choose between at least a selection of these legislative "instruments of torture."

I don't mean to suggest that regulating financial markets would be straightforward. It certainly also requires the expertise of the cleverest bankers. But the good intentions are thwarted not so much by the "complexity of the markets" as by the timidity and lack of independence of the national governments. They are thwarted by the rash renunciation of any international cooperation aimed at constructing the political capacities for joint action that we lack—worldwide, in the European Union and, for a start, within the eurozone. When it comes to the bailout for Greece, currency dealers and speculators are more inclined to believe Ackermann's shrewd defeatism than Merkel's lukewarm consent to the euro rescue fund; realistically, they don't think that the euro countries are capable of working together resolutely. How could it be otherwise in a club that squanders its energies in cockfights over appointments to its most influential posts—only to fill them with the most colorless figures?

In times of crisis even individuals can write history. Our lame political elites, who prefer to read the headlines in the tabloids, must not use as an excuse that the populations are the obstacle to a deeper European unification. For they know best that popular opinion established by opinion polls is not the same thing as the outcome of a public deliberative process leading to the formation of a democratic will. To date there has not been a single European election or referendum in any country that wasn't ultimately about national issues and tickets. We are still waiting for a single political party to undertake a constructive campaign to inform public opinion, to say nothing of the blinkered nationalistic vision of the left (by which I do not just mean the German party The Left).

With a little political backbone, the crisis of the single currency can bring about what some once hoped for from a common European foreign policy, namely promoting a cross-border awareness of a shared European destiny.

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