As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Johannes Grow looks at Pierluigi Mennitti’s “Germany in Decline,” from Telos 127 (Spring 2004).
In “Germany in Decline,” from Telos 127 (Spring 2004), Pierluigi Mennitti addresses Berlin’s inability to enact “true” reforms, which has subsequently led to a decline in its economic, geopolitical, and cultural influence. Through an examination of a contemporaneous Der Spiegel article, Mennitti demonstrates the reluctance of the Federal Republic to accept such thoroughgoing Reformen, which would allow it to crawl out of its then apparent decline and to depend far less on the economic strategies propounded during the so-called “economic miracle” of the post-1949 era. Although it would seem to have been premature to write off Germany as the “economic engine” in Europe, his article nevertheless offers several accurate points. For example, Mennitti asserts that Germany
has come out of the long process of reunification. But, far from performing the extraordinary task of cementing a country as a way of cementing the entire continent (the dream of Helmut Kohl, not accidently the country’s unacknowledged father), [the country] has chosen to jump back into the pre-1989 era. (176)
Several of the critical points the author makes continue to remain relevant to the issues that inhibit key structural reforms from being enacted within Germany. He notes three areas in which Germany’s influence had dwindled: the economy, geopolitical clout, and cultural decline. I will examine these areas under the present conditions, suggesting that the 2008 global economic collapse was the type of catalyst needed to launch the austerity Reformen that are now being pursued for the “good” of the EU.
To further this argument, a 2013 Der Spiegel article by Sven Böll is quite useful. Böll suggests that the current economic crisis faced by the entire EU bloc has indeed brought about certain Reformen. Yet, these reforms have only delayed the inevitable realization that such reforms are not the systemic answer to the economic woes faced by Germany and the rest of the EU. Berlin, according to Böll, has been able to advertise and promote, both to the outside world and to German voters, the idea that Germany has become the “economic locomotive” powering the “economic rebirth” of Germany and EU through austerity measures. It has become, in the orthodox view of certain global institutions, the Vorbild, or “model,” of effective austerity measures at work, viewed as the best response to Europe’s still growing economic crisis. Although these Reformen have trumpeted the efficacy of their saving strategies, the increasing popular resistance to these measures has highlighted their inherent futility as true long-term reforms. As a 2013 Economist article, entitled “After Austerity, What?” so aptly puts it, austerity is not going anywhere. What would take the place of drastic “saving” measures? Böll does question these continuing fiscal programs and the apparent inability of Berlin to heed the warnings raised by an increasing number of EU politicians and economists. Although Germany portends to be the leader of fiscal austerity measures, Berlin is neither doing its “homework” nor reforming its own laws to better its own future. He cites the warning given by the EU commissioner who states that Germany is at its peak of economic potential yet appears unable to change its general policy direction. Mennitti’s words are reflective of the situation:
By itself a weekly magazine, even as authoritative as Der Spiegel, is not enough to shake the stagnant waters of the German intellectual world. This may also be due to the fact that the critique of Der Spiegel never goes beyond the limits of a cautious reform. (179)
Although Germany may have climbed out of the economic decline it was facing in 2004, the inability of Berlin to enact broader Reformen has caused stagnation. Germany’s continuing struggle to come to grips with its past still very much haunts Europe. Although his notion of Germany as part of Fukuyama’s “end of history” is perhaps an exaggeration, the question of what Germany will do now that it is indeed “entrusted with the future of Europe” is an important query, one that will determine the fate of the EU (180).
The cultural and geopolitical decline cited by Mennitti is perhaps no longer as much of a concern as it was in 2004. Nonetheless, there is an increasing resistance to the euro with the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. Its main platform calls for the rejection of the euro, which, subsequently, has provided a serious challenge to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s euro-saving austerity measures. Yet, the arguments against leaving the euro should not be ignored, as this would cause the subsequently revived Deutschmark to appreciate dramatically while causing more unemployment and economic decline in the long run. Although Germany continues to come to grips with its past, especially with problems raised by reunification, the increasingly violent “Volkesdeutschlands” movement deems the institutions of German government illegitimate and proceeds to commit violence against foreigners living in Germany. This violence is reflective of the continued xenophobia present all across Europe and the West in general. The reluctance to crack down on these movements is a symptom of the denialists avoiding Germany’s own past. Mennitti’s work, although describing a different moment in time, is essential for mapping some of the issues facing Germany, and it helps us to further examine the continuities between 2004 and the present. As Mennitti put it, “nostalgia for lost time is the disease of a senile Germany,” and is the cause of a soured reliance on an image of itself as the post-World War II leader in EU economic growth, which now prevents true foundational reform from being brought to Germany’s own issues (180).
1. Sven Böll, “Vorbild Deutschland? Von wegen!” Der Spiegel, May 29, 2013.
2. “After austerity, what?” The Economist, May 4, 2013.
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