Magazine article The Spectator

Anti-Americanism, Anti-Semitism, Anti-Capitalism

Magazine article The Spectator

Anti-Americanism, Anti-Semitism, Anti-Capitalism

Article excerpt

Looking back at the 1960s and 1970s, when I grew up in Germany, one of the most striking things was that everyone talked about work and money. The country was infuriatingly materialistic. The old West Germany felt more like an economy than a country. It used to have a proper currency, the Deutschmark, but it lacked a proper political capital. At a time when the British believed in incomes policies, capital controls and state ownership, Germany was as laissez-faire an economy as you could find anywhere in Europe. The Germans were the Americans of Europe, as a friend remarked at the time. Everyone was brimming with confidence and the superiority that comes with the belief that you are running the world's most superior economy. The 1970s were the heyday of Germany's social market economy, the economic equivalent of having your cake and eating it.

Unification was supposed to make Germany even stronger. The opposite happened. The country's political leadership mismanaged unification through forcing monetary union too early, at the wrong exchange rate, and on the basis of West Germany's high social costs and bureaucratic rules. When I returned to Germany in the 1990s, what surprised me most was not the poor performance of the economy - this I expected. I was most shocked by the extraordinary loss of self-confidence among the political and business elites, combined with a poisonous cocktail of the three big As: anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and anti-capitalism.

Until then, post-war German politicians had been adept at keeping such sentiments hidden from public debate. This changed in 2002, when Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, won a general election through a blatantly anti-American campaign. It was not the fact that he opposed the war against Iraq that won him the election. He won because he managed to mobilise his party base with outright attacks on US President George W. Bush.

The same is happening again, only worse. Franz Müntefering, the chairman of Mr Schröder's Social Democratic Party (SPD), has managed to combine the three big As in a single campaign for the forthcoming state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's largest state. He compared foreign financial investors to 'locusts' - the kind of language that the Nazis used to describe Jews. This was no slip of the tongue. He repeated it. Even worse, he drew up a list, the 'locust list', of financiers of mostly Jewish-American origin, whom he accused of making exorbitant profits by asset-stripping German companies. Publishing lists of Jewish names was a hallmark of Nazism.

Mr Müntefering is no Nazi, simply a ruthless political operator with no scruples, a bad education and no sense of German history. He is a highly effective political fixer with an unfailing instinct for what his party thinks and wants. Until not long ago I would have assumed that such a blunt political campaign with anti-Semitic undertones would eventually backfire. Even people who share some of his anti-free-market sentiments would surely recoil at this kind of language. But the opposite is happening. After his first 'locusts' remark, an opinion poll suggested that two thirds of Germans agree with him in principle. The latest polls put his support at 80 per cent. The SPD has even managed to close the gap in the opinion polls, after trailing the opposition by some 10 per cent. This strategy appears to work.

It even finds imitators in other parts of society. A cartoon in the latest issue of the house journal of I.G. Metall, the German engineering union, depicts what appear to be American-Jewish investors as insects with long noses sucking the lifeblood out of the German economy. It is quite shocking to see how the present generation of centre-left leaders uses symbols of racism with such carelessness, considering that their predecessors - political leaders like Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl - have spent decades dispelling the ghosts of the past and helping to create the image of a mature and normal democracy. …

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