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Helen Szamuely on how the engine of the EU is German war guilt and how that guilt is coming to an end

The usual explanation for the troubles now afflicting the EU that is doing the rounds now is that the Greeks and Spaniards have recently been behaving even more like Greeks and Spaniards than they usually do. But Helen Szamuely offers an alternative explanation for the EU’s current woes. Germans, she observes, are finally reverting to being regular Germans.

Having quoted a Der Spiegel article about how German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now mysteriously unwillingly to bow to France in the manner of her predecessors since WW2, Helen says this:

This fits with the point I have made over and over again: the EU is predicated on a guilty and subservient Germany. With time going on and new generations, who cannot even recall the war, appear on the scene (and in Merkel’s case there is the added point of growing up under the Communist system) guilt and subservience can no longer be relied on and the Franco-German motor, which presupposed French supremacy is now sputtering. In many ways, that is more important than the Greek or Spanish fiscal crises.

And that fits a point that I have made over and over again, which is that when it comes to predicting the future, there is one kind of thing that one can say with certainty, when all else is guesswork. Statements of this kind are always going to be true: in twenty years time, you and I and everyone else will either be twenty years older, and influencing the world in the way that people twenty years older that all of us are likely to influence the world (in my case hardly at all), or dead.

All manner of interesting suggestions about the relationship between events and later events can be derived from this kind of observation, including even events which have yet to happen, as Helen Szamuely’s own earlier versions of the above presumably suggest. Such speculations are not all going to be right. But they can be very interesting and suggestive.

Historically, one of my favourite such twinning of two events is: Battle of Crecy 1346, Peasants Revolt 1381. A great many of those “peasants”, including their leaders, were the veterans of earlier continental wars.

Now? Well, can it be coincidence that our current financial turmoil is happening just when, for the first time since it happened, hardly anyone is still alive and counting for anything who remembers the previous bout of such financial turbulence, that started erupting around 1929?

27 comments to Helen Szamuely on how the engine of the EU is German war guilt and how that guilt is coming to an end

  • “History is a list of consequences.”

    I said that. You may quote me liberally.

  • Ian F4

    Another generation and the “progressive left” are indifferent to fascists yet again, for the third time, so, yes, you’re quite right on that theory.

  • Another “twinning of two events” is possibly thus. In the 1950s and 60s most adults had memories of the 1930s. They were thus grateful for a job. They got on with it and weren’t too aggressive when it came to wage demands. Come the 70s and 80s, most employees no longer had the above memories. Hence the stagflation of the 70s and 80s?

  • John Galt

    I have the infinite pleasure of working in Germany quite a lot (currently in the pleasant Ruhr town of Essen, formerly a coal mining town).

    The change in Germans since the last bout of stagflation in the 1970’s is that most of the working Germans nowadays were brought up in the 50’s and 60’s and have no recollection or remorse about what happened during the first half of the last century.

    They acknowledge that terrible things happened, but they are so far away from those events that they are essentially mostly history lessons taught in school or old videos from 1989 when the wall came down. Their attitude is why should they pay for the Greeks (and more importantly the French) to bugger about while they sweat their bollocks off.

    Guilt for WWII has been gradually diluted through 2-generations. It leaves no more trace on the 3rd generation since WWII than the English Civil War does on the citizens of Coventry.

    I wouldn’t say that this 3rd generation of Germans are behaving ‘more like real Germans’, rather they are behaving exactly as we do in similar circumstances.

    Just swap Civil Servants for Greeks and Private Company employees for Germans and the comparison is identical.

    Germans in their prime (20 – 40 years) have no more connection with the horrors of WWII than an equivelant Englishman.

    That is the real problem of France, the old magic (C’est la guerre) no longer works. Make no mistake that the French (and particularly the French farmers reliant upon the Common Agriculture Policy) are frightened.

    If they do push the Germans over the edge (which is possible, but unlikely), then the Germans might very well use the opportunity to walk away from the Euro and the EU as a whole.

    Without the driving force of German industrial might the Euro and the EU would collapse almost instantly and would be unlikely to ever reform as anything more than an alliance of the weak (and the lazy).

    Altogther now! “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”!

  • Laird

    So, if without Germany EU and the Euro would collapse, why aren’t the Germans demanding better terms? In fact, why should they be be subservient to anyone, let alone the French (and that moron Sarkozy) who haven’t been relevant on the world stage for a century? It seems to me that Merkel is much like Obama: totally in over her head.

  • I thought this had been common knowledge and blindingly obvious since about, er, 1945, or since 1953 at the latest.

    I’ve never heard a German say it loud (except maybe Spiegel occasionally, but they are intellectual/left wing so they can get away with it), but having lived there long enough, it always struck me as the most likely explanation for their ‘EU subservience’ (‘Erbschuld’), and what goes up must come down.

  • John Galt

    So, if without Germany EU and the Euro would collapse, why aren’t the Germans demanding better terms

    You seem to forget that just like in our beloved UK, their is a massive, super humongous, huge disconnect between German votes and politicians. This was demonstrated recently when only 33% of German voters supported the bailout of Greece which was however passed by the German Lower and Upper parliaments.

    As a result Merkel’s party lost the North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) election and with it the German coalitions control of Germany.

    Merkel is beginning to look like a lame duck chancellor, her only saving grace being that there is no obvious challenger for her role as all of the parties are variations on the same collectivist theme.

  • Michael Staab

    It would seem that the axiom holds true: Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it- Santayana
    So long as we have our bread and circuses……….and accept being led, little changes.

  • michael

    Whats all this stuff about German guilt? They only feel regret – because they lost.

  • Alsadius

    They only feel regret – because they lost.

    I think somewhat better of the average modern German than to call them regretful that Hitler lost the war.

  • Paul Marks

    At first the Chancellor of Germany made a lot of good noises (for example in 2008 warning about the effects of trying to deal with the economic crises with yet more wild spending), however in the end the lady caved in.

    Germany not only has a “stimulus” nonsense (although nothing like on the absurd scale of Britian and the United States), but has tried to bail out Greece.

    Now the German Chancellor is supporting world taxation – “only on banks” (as if it would stop there). And, unlike French Presidents, when a German political leader says they want to do someting – it means they have a real plan for how they intend to do it.

    That is the German way (for good and ill) – if you say you want to do something, then prepare to do it and DO IT.

    That is why Germans are good at running manufacturing companies – but not always a good thing in politics.

    It is not in German interests to bail out Greece and so on – and world “governence” (the term “world government” is not used) is not in German interests either – Germany would have little say in a world state (not enough people).

    The German people know all this – but their political leaders do not.

    Not for the first time – the political class has got obsessed with turning grand plans (the sort of thing that French politicians think up at breakfast – and forget about after lunch) into concrete reality.

  • can it be coincidence that our current financial turmoil is happening just when, (…) hardly anyone is still alive and counting for anything who remembers the previous bout of such financial turbulence, that started erupting around 1929?

    It intrigues me that in all the discussions I have read about the turmoil not once have I seen mention of the Kondratieff Cycle(Link), which some people have explained with exactly your hypothesis.

  • Miv Tucker

    From Tom Lehrer’s “MLF Lullabye” (ca 1965):

    Once all the Germans were warlike and mean,
    But that couldn’t happen again:
    We taught them a lesson in 1918,
    And they’ve hardly bothered us since then.

  • MarkyMark

    I was watching the History Channel (or ‘Hitler Porn’ as it is sometimes called) a few weeks back and they had a documentary which focused on the recollections of Germans of their experiences in WWII.

    The interesting thing for me was that these Germans very much saw themselves as victims of Hitler and the Nazis – i.e. WWII wasn’t the fault of the ordinary German people and the blame for the whole mess was squarely placed with Hitler and a minority of Germans at the top. (For what it’s worth my view is that this is not correct and a large segment of the German WWII population was culpable).

    If this Germans as victims too view is increasingly taking hold then combined with the fact that you can’t hold grand kids responsible for the actions of their grand parents anyways it’s not surprising that guilt tripping Germany no longer works.

  • Nuke Gray

    Why not let the modern germans run Europe? The French won’t like it, but their Napoleonic attempt at empire failed, so French will not be the European language of the future. If English were not the first foreign language of choice, it would be German (because of the number of Germans). Luckily, the Russians have a different alphabet, or we might find it cheaper to read Russian!
    Maybe Esperanto, instead of being THE world language, could be the European language, since it is based on European roots, and might be an acceptable default language for everyone else.

  • Emil

    Subservient Germans ?

    Since when ??

    Germany is the greatest profiteer of the EU common market … most of the “structural” etc. aid sent to the new entrants gets spent on German goods, and when they miss a contract (which does not happen often) they make such a fuss you might imagine those that did not give them the contract straight away are baby-eating organized crime warlords …

    The subsidies paid to companies are also skewed so the old members are allowed to pay more than the new entrants, so Germany is squeezing the second wave of entrants (Czechs, Poles, Hungarians), who in their turn squeeze the third wave …

    Subservient Germans ? For f***s sake, their law allows them to bribe officials in neighboring countries …

  • manuel II paleologos

    One interesting thing I observed recently is that even my own views of WW2 have evolved over time too. Brought up in a heavily French-influenced family, these used to be pretty gung-ho.

    But recently I found myself watching The World At War’s episode on the Battle of France and finding myself cheering Rommel and chuckling at the rather satisfying pasting that the French took (even though my own dear grandmother was one of those fleeing). It suddenly struck me as not only brilliantly executed but also richly well deserved given the spiteful behaviour of the French post-WW1 and their hilariously useless military preparations.

    I don’t know if this is connected, but I also find myself increasingly cheering them on in the World Cup too.

    I’m not so sure about your Peasant’s Revolt example though; soldiers at Crecy would have been over 50 by the Peasant’s Revolt, which is very old by the standards of the time.

  • hovis

    A little off topic, but @Paul Marks – I can see what you are saying but in reality is is in the German (I am talking politico-corporatist classes here) interest to bail out the Greeks. They dont want their banks to suffer. It may be that the French benefit more but that is by the by. Also who’s going to buy all their manufacturing output if the proffligates in the EU dont? Also a lower Euro helps exports utside the EU zone. Ok my rant over.

    Back on topic – intersting article

  • Jim

    This is nonsense. German foreign policy since Bismarck has been to dominate Europe and it will remain their foreign policy until the German taxpayer refuses to pay the bill.
    The Greeks, Spanish, etc, were lent money by German/French/British banks. They bought mostly German products with the cash. So German companies made out like bandits, they also pushed down German wages to compete with the PIIGS, and now that the whole thing is blowing up German taxpayers are handed the losses.
    It was pretty much the same story after WW1 and WW2. You only need to look at the size of the large industrialist fortunes to work it out. There’s nobody dumber than the German taxpayer, these are the people who had whole theatres dedicated to Andrew Llyoyd Webber musicals after all.

  • Paul Marks


    I think you can guess what I think of the “political corporatist classes”. And I am not even one of those libertarians who oppose the idea of corporations – I just oppose subsidizing them (but that seems to be enough to make me a beast).

    Manual II:

    The victory over France in 1940 was only partly due to the good performance of German officers.

    It was also to do with massive SOVIET aid to Germany (all basic raw materials under the Pact) and massive Communist (union and other) sabotage (not just strikes, or the spreading of defeatist propaganda – also direct sabotage) within France.

    Feel so happy about the German victory now?

    No, I thought you would not

  • Laird

    Whoa, there, Jim — I like Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals (well, some of them anyway).

  • boqueronman

    This kind of “those who lived through x have all died off, so the newer generations will likely change long held policies and beliefs” is the theory of generational dynamics. In a sense this theory resembles what Isaac Asimov presented in his Foundation series through Harry Seldon and psychohistory, i.e. large populations – or generations – can be analyzed and future events foreseen. The theory was first presented by Strauss and Howe in their book “The Fourth Turning.” The theory is an interesting idea and a familiarization with the general concepts is worthwhile. BTW those who profess to use the theory predicted the financial crisis which began in 2007.

  • Rob

    German friends and English friends in Germany have all remarked how attitudes have changed since the Football World Cup was held there 4 years ago.

    Incidentally Jurgen Klinsman mentioned this last night on the telly box. He said it was the first time for a generation that Germans felt able to be proud of their nationality. Flag waving etc becoming the norm not the exception.

    What I find bizarre is that while they re-find their national identity we continue to destroy ours through the PC domination of our once great comedy. No longer can we take the P1ss out of all and sundry, which used to be a national pastime and kind of defined us as a nation. The germans were always ruthless and efficient but that was OK becasue they had no sense of humour and we made them pay for it. The trouble is now, we have no sense fo humour either – because we’re not allowed.

  • g1lgam3sh

    Posted by Rob at June 17, 2010 12:44 PM

    Good point well made.

    I am happy to report however that the general level of piss taking on your average building site has not declined at all.


  • manuel II paleologos

    Manual II:

    The victory over France in 1940 was only partly due to the good performance of German officers.

    It was also to do with massive SOVIET aid to Germany (all basic raw materials under the Pact) and massive Communist (union and other) sabotage (not just strikes, or the spreading of defeatist propaganda – also direct sabotage) within France.

    Feel so happy about the German victory now?

    No, I thought you would not

    What absolute twaddle.
    So it was evil commies who made the French set up their headquarters in a castle with no direct communications lines other than messenger runners, was it? And Panzers couldn’t be made without Soviet steel? And the brilliant push through the Ardennes was, er, what – Stalin’s idea was it?

    Come off it Paul – that’s nonsense. The French were whupped by a significantly better-organised, equipped and braver army and I think it’s fair to admit that, even as a Frenchie and regardless of subsequent horrors.

  • Nuke Gray

    No, Manuel, the French were taken by surprise by the collapse of the Maginot Line, as was everyone else. both sides thought it might turn into another draw. The Germans came up with something new, and that made the difference. (What would the War have been like if the Maginot Line had held, for instance? Stalemate on Germany’s west, so no war with Russia?)

  • Paul Marks

    Your Imperial Majesty Manual II Paleogos:

    I fully support your resistance against the forces of Islam, and I also agree that the Eastern Church has some sensible things to say on such matters as the obession in the Western Church about clerical celebacy (as if there was no difference between the Religous clergy, the monks and nuns, and a parish priest) and the far too high a value that the Western Church places in the writings of Augustine – leading to such docrtines as predestination (which undermines moral responsbility) and the justification of the use of force in religous matters – a doctrine that you have rightly attacked (for it was in Augustine long before there were such people as Muslims).

    However, I must respectfully say that you have misinterpreted what I said about Soviet aid to Hitler’s Germany (perhaps, because looking via the time window, things have not been made as clear as they could be to your Imperial Majesty).

    I did not mean to claim that ALL the advantages of the Germans were due to Soviet aid or that ALL the disadvantages of the French were due to Communists undermining France from within.

    However, the Soviet/Commmunist effort in 1939 to 1940 was important – and is often overlooked by historians.