The Shackles of the Past: The Spectre of History Looms over the Eurozone Crisis and Germany's Role in It, but It Has Less to Do with Nazism Than with the Traumas and Economic Woes of the 1920s

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As the eurozone staggers from one crisis to the next, a growing consensus of opinion blames the Germans for the impasse. Europe's most powerful economy, Germany stubbornly refuses to sanction what seems to many the obvious way out, which would involve the European Central Bank (ECB) printing money to lend to countries such as Italy that have accumulated more sovereign debt than they can cope with. The new cash flow would enable bondholders of government debt to be paid. Quantitative easing would stimulate demand as people and businesses spend the extra currency, kick-starting national economies and helping them to get over the crisis. Yet Angela Merkel's conservative-led coalition in Berlin refuses to sanction this obvious step and the crisis continues.

So, Germany is the key to the problem. It's the German government that's calling the shots with its insistence on austerity, spending cuts and financial self-flagellation as the solution. After failing to implement this programme with sufficient rigour, governments in Greece and Italy have fallen and politicians have given way to technocrats willing to implement the economic programme that Germany demands.

Eurosceptics in Britain are delighted. "What we are witnessing," wrote Simon Heffer in the Daily Mail, "is the economic colonisation of Europe by stealth by the Germans. Once, it would have taken an invading military force to topple the leadership of a European nation. Today, it can be done through sheer economic pressure." This is, he says, the "rise of the Fourth Reich", in which Germany is "using the financial crisis to conquer Europe". Fiscal union, favoured by some as the long-term solution, "would make Europe effectively a German empire" and lead to "a loss of sovereignty not seen ... since many were under the jackboot of the Third Reich".

Heffer's alarmism is echoed by that of the Guardian's resident Eurosceptic Simon Jenkins, who says that it is "a massive irony that old Europe's last gasp should be to seek ... German supremacy", which would bring us "back to the ghoulish first half of the 20th century". It's a good thing, he muses, that modern "Germany has no panzer divisions". We haven't seen this kind of language since the 1990s, when German reunification led to a spate of Germanophobic commentary in politics and the media, inspired by Margaret Thatcher, who, with a group of historians she had convened at Chequers, reportedly discussed the "abiding part[s] of the German character: in alphabetical order, angst, aggressiveness, assertiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complex, sentimentality".

The Economist warned that a united Germany might want its own nuclear deterrent. The political commentator Conor Cruise O'Brien described the reunited nation baldly as the "Fourth Reich". The language of the Second World War entered political discourse, as the arch Eurosceptic and Tory MP Bill Cash published a book entitled Against a Federal Europe: the Battle for Britain, warning: "The German attitude to Europe [is] ... determined by a massive historical heritage." A federal Europe, he declared, would, in effect, be "a greater Germany, balancing uneasily between east and west, inheriting and perhaps magnifying the complexes and instabilities of post-Bismarckian Germany".

By the mid-1990s, Germanophobia and Europhobia on the right had become fused in a bizarre rhetorical rerun of the Second World War. The conservative historian Andrew Roberts published a novel, The Aachen Memorandum, which portrayed a future European Union dominated by the Germans, who call it the Fourth Reich when nobody's listening, and in which patriotic Brits are routinely arrested by a Gestapo-like police force for doubting the legitimacy of the European project.

Around the same time, Roberts's fellow conservative historian John Charmley declared, "Germany is rather like a nanny who is perfectly civilised and charming most of the time but who, suddenly, with no warning, is liable to bash your baby's head against the wall -- and then ask for your sympathy and understanding, because it was not her fault. …