Angela Merkel's face usually displays a rather plain, friendly, almost benign expression, matching her simple, benign words. But in rare unguarded moments, some claim, they glimpse a very hard visage, which is matched, equally rarely, by hardly benign words, like her annoyed statement that Cyprus was "exhausting the patience of its euro partners." Yes, Angela can get annoyed and lose patience, above all with those irresponsible lands and leaders to the south so reluctant to manfully bear the required share of their burdens.
Such burdens include cutting wages and government salaries, amputating pension rights, letting prices on staples rise, watching joblessness soar while cutting the means of helping those afflicted, and privatizing key elements of the economy, selling them off to the best bidders — or the most favored ones. Must hospital and child care be reduced, schools starved out? Such prices must be paid if economies are to be rescued "within the framework of the euro." That is Austerity, Merkel's magic codeword for economic revival.
But to ever more of those at the receiving end, such rescues and such a revival are worse than the perils or ailments they aim at. That is why furious people from Lisbon in Europe's far west to Nicosia in easternmost Cyprus, including Rome, Athens, even some in northern Dublin, are painting nasty comments about Germany on posters or even scribbling ugly Hitler mustaches over Angela's so friendly, smiling face.
A Cypriot banking official recalls a meeting in Brussels in 2011 when Merkel, French President Sarkozy, International Monetary Fund boss Christine Lagarde und right-wing European Union leaders Juncker and Barroso made decisions on Greece and even more helpless Cyprus which determined developments up to the present. As the International Herald Tribune put it, "in the three years since Europe's rolling debt crisis first exploded in Greece, governments and citizens in the hardest-hit countries have fumed that decisions taken in Brussels paid little heed to their interests and were dictated instead by the economic concerns and election cycles of Germany (3.17.13, p. 19)." Speaking of such treatment, above all by Germany, one Cypriot expert grumbled: "It was very brutal — like warfare."
Giant demonstrations prevented the original plan of taxing everyone's bank account, even the poorest, to pay off bankers' debts. But the modified plan, though less extreme, is expected to cut Cypriot living standards for years. Fear and anger is on the increase.
True, euros make life easier for people traveling in much of Europe; no currency exchange, no figuring, mentally or electronically, what that meal or pair of shoes cost in one's own money. But by preventing each country from altering exchange rates to fit its own situation, the euro forces them, weak or strong, into one baking mold, its shape a very Germanic Strudel.
The "stable euro" is good for big exporters like Germany, not for the others. And not for every German either. Whether it's VW cars, tanks, or Bayer chemicals, stressing exports which undercut competitors in price requires keeping down wages and benefits at home. While the German jobless average is low at 5.4 percent, three million are still jobless, and a large number of "employed" are in uncertain, temporary jobs, often "lent out" by private agencies whose business it is to cheat them, or working at wages so low they must still apply for state assistance to survive. Aside from those private agencies, another institution is doing a tragically brisk business: the network of food pantries for the poor, usually filled to capacity — with hungry people. Regular, steady jobs at decent pay are getting harder and harder to find.
Not at all hard to find in TV newscasts is the man in the wheelchair, Wolfgang Schäuble (pronounced Shoy-bleh). A tough character, who survived an insane murder attempt in 1990 which left him paralyzed from the waist down, he almost holds the longevity record in German politics and has had a wide variety of key right-wing jobs. As Minister of Finance since 2009 and Merkel's shadow in international negotiations, he has been called "the most dangerous man in Europe." He is a main shaker and maker of merciless agreements deciding the fates of Greece, Cyprus, or any country in trouble. Many blame his policies for the disasters in both countries. When Schäuble stated that the Cyprus agreement he helped push through might be a "business model" for other countries, even placid Foreign Minister Asselborn of stable little Luxembourg took umbrage: "I have the greatest difficulty stomaching that term 'business model'," he said; he wanted no-one to instruct him as to what he should do, and least of all German Finance Minister Schäuble (Focus, 3.26.13).
Within Germany, Schäuble's efforts are directed at balancing the budget, come what may. To achieve this he wants to cut 3.5 billion euros from the health fund, 1 1/2 billion more than originally planned. "Consistent, long-term economizing and growth do not exclude one another," he said, adding: "That is a strong signal for Europe." Rather like Rep. Ryan!
His main aim, according to an interview in the New York Times in November 2011, is a political union in Europe, and with this intent "[h]e sees the turmoil [in the market] as not an obstacle but a necessity": "We can only achieve a political union if we have a crisis."
Two things in Schäuble's past are worth recalling. In 1999-2000 he was caught up in a giant scandal about large sums donated secretly (and illegally) to his party, the Christian Democratic Union, by a powerful, very crooked arms dealer. No sewage dump could equal the cubic meters of dreck which were unearthed; as a result Helmut Kohl, totally compromised, had to give up the party chairmanship. Schäuble took over but soon also had to quit and make way for a still untarnished young lady from the East, Angela Merkel. Schäuble was never tried or punished for all the bribery, perjury, and libel involved. Today, since Merkel need fear no rivalry from him (he is already 71), they are, at least outwardly, a team.
Schäuble's star also shone ten years earlier — or was it less a star than an all-devouring "black hole"? In 1990 it was he who negotiated the incorporation of the German Democratic Republic, the GDR, into the West German state and, with the aid of corrupt eastern accomplices, made certain that every trace of nationalized industry, every remnant of the once so generous social system, also the entire media, academia, administration, judicial system, yes, anything and everything with the least whiff of socialism was sucked up and eliminated. There were nearly ten million GDR jobs in 1989; four years later only a little over 6 million remained. Schäuble's formula for the GDR has been modified for European Union neighbors. True, none of them can be suspected of being socialist in any way. But they had better not even dream of moving in that direction! That, in my view, is this organization's basic function, with sharp-eyed teams like Merkel-Schäuble in the watch towers. Portugal, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Italy — and any others: There's to be no dancing out of line!
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Germany still has a new scandal now and then, with multi-decibel echoes from the past. It was in November 2011 that we learned of the cold-blooded murder of 8 Turkish retailers, one of Greek background, and a policewoman, also an explosion which injured over 20 people, mostly of Turkish background, and 15 armed bank raids. The story has been in and out of the media ever since, with investigatory committees on various levels chewing away at tons of evidence but seemingly getting nowhere. A few things became clear: the killings were the work of a Nazi gang but xenophobic attempts were made from the start to ascribe them to immigrant "mafia" group shooting each other down. And there were attempts from the start to cover up the facts on governmental involvement, blaming bungling and bureaucracy for the deathly "mishaps," even for the highly suspicious shredding of important evidence.
At last a trial is planned in Munich, starting on April 17, for the one survivor of the murder trio, Beate Zschäpe, and four alleged accomplices. But as the news outlet Der Spiegel Online points out:
The trio of neo-Nazis that made up the National Socialist Underground (NSU) was surrounded by informants linked with the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. . . . Nevertheless, the authorities had no idea what plans were being hatched in the neo-Nazi underground. . . . One of the big questions now being asked is whether the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and its methods are suited to protecting the German constitution — or whether it actually strengthened militant right-wing groups. . . . "The majority of the sources" were "staunch right-wing extremists" who believed "that they could act with impunity and pursue their ideology, under the protection of the intelligence service, and didn't have to take law enforcement seriously."
In fact, not a few police raids against the most virulent neo-Nazis somehow arrived too late; someone had warned of the raids in advance. What will the trial reveal, what will it cover up? It could possibly get very hot and very embarrassing.
In fact, it is already hugely embarrassing. The Munich court which is to try the case chose a courtroom with only 230 seats, half of which will be for lawyers and relatives of the victims. Fifty seats were reserved for the press. But these were somehow snapped up so quickly that not a single Turkish correspondent was able to get a seat. As a journalist for the leading Turkish-language newspaper complained:
My newspaper, Hürriyet, called the court repeatedly before the accreditation period, asking to be informed of dates so that we wouldn't miss them. We registered on the first day of accreditation, and now we are told by the press office of the Munich Higher Regional Court that others were faster? How can that be?
Every attempt to use another courtroom, alternate seats, televise proceedings, or even exchange seats to permit Turkish media representation has been rejected for formal reasons. The court's only solution is for Turkish media people to try to be first in line for the few remaining public seats. The fact that there has not even been a seat reserved for the Turkish ambassador, forcing him, too, to wait on line, possibly together with neo-Nazis, makes the affair even more suspicious. About two weeks remain to fix up this "danger to the German image." And then, perhaps, to witness interesting political shake-ups — or a whitewash! We shall see!
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).