Germany Moves Left
Angela Merkel’s Pyrrhic victory
Oct 7, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 05 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
‘Keep Cool and Vote for the Chancellor’
Yet the papers were suddenly full of stories about how Steinbrück had “found his voice” and “turned a corner” and Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung arranged a magazine photo shoot to appear on the last weekend before the elections. Steinbrück was asked how he would respond to getting called “Peer-lusconi,” after the scandal-plagued former Italian prime minister. At this he made an obscene hand motion—der Stinkefinger, as it is called in German, although it is a gesture that knows no national borders and will be familiar to any American who has ever driven in traffic. It became the Steinbrück campaign’s symbol, practically its campaign poster.
Much of the credit goes to Merkel’s predecessor, Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, who passed welfare reforms in 2003 and 2004 that stripped an overgenerous state to the bone and made German labor costs competitive. But it is Merkel who has steered Germany through the world economic crisis since 2008, and through the crisis of the European currency, the euro, which started in 2010. She has staved off demands from other governments that German taxpayers fork over the money to keep their mismanaged welfare states solvent. These demands have often been cleverly disguised—unsurprisingly, since many of them originate in France. Sometimes France and its allies ask Germany for the pooling of liability through a so-called eurobond. Sometimes what they want is a common deposit insurance that would be called “banking union.” In all cases, the goal is to convince Germany to put its own assets at other countries’ disposal. When appeals to neighborly solidarity have not sufficed, moral blackmail has been used. Placards carried through the streets of Athens, showing Merkel with a Hitler mustache, are a way of saying that Germany’s standing as a civilized country is one that its European partners have the prerogative to revoke. Merkel, a mild-mannered provincial physicist, has the accidental virtue of not fitting into this narrative as a plausible villain. Mister Stinkefinger might have been different.
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