What Europe Doesn't Need the Euro , by the firebrand writer Thilo Sarrazin, means for Germany.
Thilo Sarrazin poses with his new book. (Reuters)
It's hard to think of a good American equivalent to Germany's Thilo Sarrazin, the politician turned best-selling author. The closest one could be Pat Buchanan: in some circles, he and his writings are considered entirely legitimate. In others, they're considered shocking and revolting to the point of scandal. The last time that Sarrazin, the former German central bank director, wrote a book, he suggested that African and Middle Eastern immigrants were destroying the country, in part because of "hereditary factors" that made their children stupid and violent. He suggested educated Germans out-breed them. Controversy raged for months.
Now, Sarrazin is addressing the euro crisis. Tuesday, his new book Europe Doesn't Need the Euro, hit the shelves. If you're just paging through idly, it doesn't seem to be as provocative, and, on balance, it really isn't: you'd expect as seasoned a provocateur as Sarrazin, especially with his leanings towards ideas of ethnic and educational superiority, at least to say some obnoxious and offensive things about Greek people or their ability with a balance sheet. He doesn't do that. The book, nevertheless, has immediately drawn fire -- and with good reason.
If it's hard to think of an American equivalent for Sarrazin the man, it's not too hard to think of an analogy for Sarrazin's book: it's like the schoolboy's tame little poem that turns out to be an acrostic spelling out a vulgar suggestion regarding the schoolteacher's mother. Many of the paragraphs are entirely reasonable, picking apart the questionable logic of Germany's euro-savior syndrome with remarkable dexterity. But Sarrazin's underlying message is this: Germans are being taken for a ride by countries that aren't holding up their end of the bargain -- and Germans are willing to go along with it because they feel guilty about the Holocaust.
The theme is a subtle one. Though Der Spiegel ran a story on publication day pointing it out, to see it you have to be thinking about European history, current European dynamics, and Sarrazin's own reputation. The far-right National Democratic Party in Germany was quick to praise the new publication, but Sarrazin throws in a few (some might say token) lines clearly intended to distance him from some of the nastier figures he appeared in bed with in his last book. One such line comes as he pushes back against German Chancellor Angela Merkel's pronouncement that "if the euro fails, Europe fails":
Angela Merkel has been wildly successful with the formula "if the euro fails, Europe fails," as no one in Germany, aside from a couple of German nationalists and right-wing populists, wants to be responsible for the failure of Europe.
In other words: "ew, those nasty German nationalists and right-wing populists. That's not me. And it's not most people. That's why Merkel's phrase works." Sarrazin distances himself from the far-right while setting up his argument.
Nevertheless, this is a little bit, like an American treading awfully close to a racial stereotype while prefacing his statement with "now, I don't want to be called a racist." Why? Because what Sarrazin is really saying is that Germans are hostage to their sense of not wanting to be responsible for Europe's failure. Germans are hostage to their sense of historical guilt. To use Der Spiegel's translation for one of the pre-publication excerpts, pro-euro Germans "are driven by that very German reflex, that we can only finally atone for the Holocaust and World War II when we have put all our interests and money into European hands."
Heady stuff. Is it representative of the whole of the book? Not exactly -- the whole of the book says much less about the Holocaust than that excerpt would suggest. But does the excerpt fit in with the book's broader architecture? Definitely.
"Europe Doesn't Need the Euro" is a book obsessed with both history and with an odd and alternating sense of German victimhood and saviorhood. And in some ways it's this broader approach which is more problematic. The euro, in Sarrazin's view, is just the old German deutschmark extended to a lot of countries with less robust currencies. And that is exactly how countries like Greece treated it, he argues.
The introduction of the euro was seen economically as nothing less than the commitment of the deutschmark to all members of the eurozone. Oftentimes many partner states thought, just as the markets did, that the deutschmark currency zone was bound up with a promise of solidarity to the newly introduced members.
Germany, in other words, is being used as a guarantor of other countries' debts. According to this view, the euro is the old deutschmark, renamed and redistributed as an act of semi-conscious misguided German charity.
This is a tricky view to advance, not least because Sarrazin has some sidestepping of his own to do: he admits in the book that he himself became a euro convert in the '90s. He writes the euro off, however, as a sort of failed bet. ("With the advance payment of the common currency," he says, "the German political class bet that the political union would follow shortly thereafter almost as a matter of natural law, because without that the common currency wouldn't be stable. That bet has failed.")
It's also problematic, though, because some economists and commentators hold that Germany actually profited quite a bit from the introduction of the euro, and is in fact even profiting from the current eurozone instability. The theory isn't without its detractors, but it's got enough support to be taken seriously. German exports, this argument goes, became extra competitive with the introduction of the euro and the lack of trade barriers allowed Germany to sell huge quantities of stuff to its European neighbors. Now, with the euro sinking, Germany can't sell as much to completely bankrupt and unemployed Greeks, but it's still cranking out products which, thanks to a fallen euro, are now cheaper for the rest of the world to buy than if Germany had stuck to the deutschmark.
Sarrazin counters with numbers showing German trade to non-euro states rose farther than trade with euro-states. But, as Der Spiegel also points out, "he doesn't factor in that the increase in trade outside the euro area was largely due to soaring economic growth in Eastern Europe and Asia over the last decade." Furthermore, "the figures give no insight into how trade inside the euro zone would have developed without a single currency."
What we're left with is a book that has some superficial similarities to Günter Grass's controversial poem about Israel and Iran back in April, though Sarrazin's economic credentials are significantly better than the poet's foreign policy credentials. It's not that the arguments themselves don't have merit. It's that the author doesn't seem all that concerned with complexity. Toss in a casual suggestion that Germans are suppressing their natural reactions due to Holocaust guilt, and the whole thing starts to look offensive -- not least because the Holocaust argument reinforces the idea that the debate isn't really a complex one: implicitly, were the Holocaust shadow banished, everyone would come to the same conclusion as the author, because it's the only rational and natural conclusion available.
The really provocative and revealing part of Sarrazin's book isn't the oft-repeated quote about Holocaust guilt, it's sentences like, "It's certainly very complicated, but on the other hand not as complicated as many want to make it!" or "Everyone who has an opinion on the euro also has either consciously or unconsciously an opinion on Europe." It's sentences comparing Angela Merkel to "the friendly woman on the navigation system in my car."
These sentences reveal that, despite his dismantling of Merkel's "if the euro fails, Europe fails," Thilo Sarrazin himself thinks in similarly tidy phrases. Outside of Sarrazin's head, it is possible to have an opinion on the euro and have no idea whether Greeks are fundamentally culturally and ethnically similar to Frenchmen. It's possible for Germany both to have profited and to be suffering for its part in instituting the current euro zone apparatus. And it's possible for uneducated immigrants to produce the next generation's engineers and poets -- and, even if they don't, to be no more or less morally deserving than ethnic Germans with a university degree. Thilo Sarrazin's two books, when you get down to mechanics, aren't all that different.
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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.