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The German Solution? (September 2005)

This article was first published on openDemocracy

An economic model in crisis, a polity in chaos? No, says Christopher Harvie of Tübingen University – Germany has the resources to survive its troubles and confound its critics.


“The champion laid out cold
Before all the programmes were sold”

Kingsley Amis's David and Goliath is unlikely to be taken to heart by Britain’s journalists, particularly in the Murdoch press. Instead there will be a lot about ostrich-like German voters, deferring an inevitable reckoning with grim reality. In fact, a majority of Germans, in a high (78%) poll having voted left, it may be time to take their point of view seriously.

The concern Germans ought to have is less about their own economy than about Britain’s and the United States’s: spendthrift, debt-burdened, environmentally toxic and grossly inegalitarian. The sort of woe that used to beset local storekeepers observing the squire in the big house squandering his inheritance and hoping against hope that his cheques wouldn't bounce.

Would a “grand coalition” in Berlin really be a recipe for paralysis? In a federal system some arrangement of the sort is always possible. The federal government has only limited power and effectiveness over the German economy as a whole, and good or bad provincial leadership shows up. On the whole the succession Länder in the east suffered from the rule of the second-rate Christian Democrats elected, somewhat surprisingly, in 1990.

Saxony's success was under Kurt Biedenkopf, Helmut Kohl's more leftwing rival for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leadership in the 1980s, who went native, but also brought across a wealth of business connections from his native Ruhrgebiet. But, good or bad, the Länderfürsten must be reckoned with, and Angela Merkel's forcing on them of Paul Kirchhof as a calamity. Against this lot, responsible for tax collection, Kirchhof's flat tax would be impossible to carry through.


What does the German problem boil down to? An ageing population (your man, about to turn 61, for starters), true, but perhaps one better adapted to expanding civil society than the “yoof” of Blair's Britain with its appetite for excess. A public debt – largely caused by pensions – but is it any worse than the British private debt in this area? Rigid labour laws? Not so rigid any more, but Germany has in any case kept in being factories which in Britain would have been summarily closed down and their technical expertise thrown to the winds.

These difficulties are probably less significant than the German suspicion of catchphrases of “modernisation” and “flexibility”, which have come too easily to the lips of the very wealthy. Their social responsibility doesn't usually extend to curbing their salary rises and bonuses, which have ballooned in recent years, and – more than militant unions – is eroding the spirit of Mitbestimmung (“co-determination”).

The American model which dominated post-war industrial reconstruction has given way to an eco-hi-tech one (the windmills, the solar collectors on the roofs, the combined-cycle generators) which if anything demands more skilled manpower than the old assembly-lines. Through the Greens, the left has some response to this; so too has the social-christian element on the right. The most devastating attack on the Soziale Kälte of marketism came from Heiner Geissler, former secretary-general of the CDU, far more radical and deeply-thought-out than anything from Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.

In fact, if the present crisis has any longer-term lessons, it is that the German CDU may be on the line. It could follow its Italian counterpart into the shadows, should its social role become eclipsed by its need to secure gains for its big-business backers. In solidly “black” Bavaria its Christian Social Union (CSU) ally lost 9% of its vote; perhaps because Merkel was female, Ossi, Protestant and divorced – but perhaps also because the Bavarians took the “German Thatcher” label seriously and feared that the future of the CSU would be as dire as that of the Tories.


The balance of the Gerhard Schröder years is reasonably positive. Even the unemployment comparison with the United Kingdom looks marginally better if one counts into the British performance undeclared “sickies” (those off work through incapacity benefit – running at perhaps 7% against 2%) and part-time workers (25% against 15%). The Greens, in particular, have produced some tough performers in foreign minister Joschka Fischer and food minister Renate Künast, who hasn't feared to take on the powerful farmers' lobby.

The east German problem is sui generis, though the creation of die Linke may actually help its integration. The problem has been an economy, before 1989 secretly enmeshed with that of the west, which ought to have been allowed a “privileged partnership” as the strongest part of east Europe, but instead – as a panic response to migration, political rivalry, and the threat of a Russian collapse – was integrated on terms which wiped out most of its own industries (producing reliable and cheap if unsophisticated goods) without having introduced an effective service sector. Such a possibility ought to be a priority for the new regime and, if powerfully developed, ought to soak up much surplus labour.

Germany remains strong in manufacturing, invention and research. If it's possible to rescue an imperilled world by technical means, it is possible it will happen here before ever it does in Blair and Brown's “nation of shoppers”. We must never forget that.

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