Beware of Easy Historical Parallels - Merkel Is No Bruning

By Evans, Richard J. | New Statesman (1996), February 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Beware of Easy Historical Parallels - Merkel Is No Bruning


Evans, Richard J., New Statesman (1996)


As the crisis in the eurozone continues, commentators look to the past for parallels and warnings. Hysterical claims by British Euro-sceptics that the Germans are trying to conquer Europe by financial means and create a "Fourth Reich" have been met with the ridicule they deserve. The respected economics writer Martin Wolf of the Financial Times recently grasped for another, less obvious historical parallel. He wrote that Chancellor Angela Merkel's "attempt to vindicate the catastrophic austerity of Heinrich Bruning, German chancellor in 1930-32, is horrifying". And we all know who became German chancellor a mere eight months after Bruning.

Who was Bruning and what did he do? Did his policies open the way for the rise and triumph of Nazism? Born in 1885, he was a quiet, unassuming, rather reserved man who probably would not have reached the eminence he did without the help of a major economic crisis. Contrasting his studied, almost academic speaking style with the hysterical if calculated vehemence of Hitler, you can begin to understand why mainstream Weimar politicians seemed so dull to so many millions of voters.

Slash the wage bill

The most significant fact about Bruning is that he was a professional economist whose reputation brought him into the Reichstag as a deputy for the conservative Catholic Centre Party. From the start, he was fiercely critical of fiscal indiscipline. He denounced what he thought of as excessive public-sector salaries, on the one hand, and, on the other, the desperate money-grubbing of the prosperous middle years of the Weimar Republic so bitingly satirised by Brecht in Mahagonny-Songspiel ("Show us the way to the next little dollar") and The Threepenny Opera, with its line, "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann komrnt die Moral" (very loosely translated: "First fill your belly, then you can be moral").

You have only to look at a photo of Bruning, with his bald head, rimless glasses and grimly set, thin-lipped mouth, to feel a chill run down your spine. This was a man who did not know what fun was and did not seem to approve of anybody who wanted to have a bit of it.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In 1930, however, Bruning seemed the right man to set the German economy to rights. The fragile prosperity of the mid-1920s had depended heavily on huge US loans, which were suddenly withdrawn as Wall Street crashed in October 1929. This set off a chain reaction as German banks tried to cover their losses by calling in loans to industry and as businesses, deprived of credit and unable to meet their repayments, went wider. The government of Chancellor Hermann Muller, a Social Democrat leading a "grand coalition" of various centrist parties since 1928, fell apart under the strain. The then president, Paul von Hindenburg, called on Brilning to succeed him and form a government that could get a grip on the financial crisis.

As businesses collapsed and unemployment soared, tax revenues fell and government indebtedness skyrocketed. Bruning slashed the salaries of state employees by a fifth, reduced unemployment benefit and decreed that all wages should be rolled back to what they had been in 1927. …

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