German Europe is an impassioned essay which sets off from horror at the premise that Germany should decide the fate of Greece, to a prescription for a new Europe which is sufficiently transnational for Germany not to trouble it again. On the way Ulrich Beck bulldozes many comfortable beliefs about how Europe came to be, how it should operate, and what would happen if it ceased. Unfortunately, like every other tour de force, it never applies the same degree of critical brutality to its own premises.
One of the reviewers on the back cover describes this as a 'brilliant tract'. I'm not sure that it is quite 'brilliant', but it is certainly a tract. Beck's prose is without nuance. He calmly and collectedly states his position, dealing with anything which stands in his way, letting the underlying force of his argument carry the passion from page to page. However, he never takes the time to consider opposing views, except in order to dismiss them.
There is a degree of soul-searching and hand-wringing in this book which you probably have to be German to really respond to. Hitler and the Third Reich lie across it like a heavy shadow, and there is rather more Teutonic guilt spread across the pages than I'm usually comfortable with. The underlying claim is that Germany is achieving a dominance by economic and political means which it was never able to sustain by military means.
From the perspective from which this book is written, it is hard to argue with its conclusions. However, it is not the only perspective, and most British readers will spot this straight away. The premise that there is something fundamentally wrong with a vote in the German parliament determining the fate of Greece should give the game away. Decisions by one country have had dramatic impacts on the fates of other countries ever since there have been countries. The German claim at the time may have been unusually insightful in recognising what its implications really were, but it is also an overblown claim. German votes certainly helped to determine the fate of Greece, but so did French, Italian, Irish and Dutch votes. In a union where so many nations have an effective veto, everyone must decide together, and this, in reality, is what happened. In this particular case, a group of nations chose compassionately out of enlightened self-interest. In other situations, for example OPEC in the 1970s oil crisis, groups of nations have chosen to act in short-term self-interest, with equally significant consequences for their economic partners.
A worthwhile essay to read, and as a challenge to thinking, but this book goes little beyond that.
I found this a disappointing book, or rather, a disappointing essay, since the "book" is just some 86 pages long.
Beck states in the Preface, regarding the present "European crisis":-
"is it not the reality that the preoccupation with a political union has obscured the crucial question, that of a European society, for so long that we have ended up leaving the most important factor out of the reckoning altogether ? That factor is the sovereign people, the citizens of Europe. So let us put society back in. What needs to be done in the midst of this financial crisis is to shed light on the power shifts in Europe and to delineate the new landscape of power. That is the goal of this essay."
Beck then spends sixty-five pages of his eighty-six describing how Germany has unwillingly emerged as the loan-master of most of the rest of Europe, whilst in return for her support Germany has demanded increasing levels of austerity from the debtor nations; this in no small part to placate the anger of the German electorate at finding themselves having to bail out the "lazy, spendthrift, corrupt nations of Southern Europe".
In the remaining twenty-two pages of his essay Beck describes his proposed solution for Europe's ills: a new pan-European sense of identity, under-pinned by a new social contract.
I must confess I found the first part of Beck's essay, which is a description of the new German hegemony of Europe, as no more than a detailed analysis of a situation of which I was already sufficiently aware.
The second part of Beck's essay, ie. a call for a new European-wide sense of perspective and social contract, I found, frankly, unworldly and unrealistic, given the intense societal pressures arising from the "European crisis". In times of crisis people tend to fall back on their tribal groupings rather than rise to grasp the type of expansive vision that Beck proposes. It is difficult to enlist the higher sentiments and visions of those whose tables are empty of bread.
However, I found more particularly disappointing two aspects of Beck's essay:-
Firstly, Beck focusses upon the crisis within Europe, seeing the causes of the crisis as within Europe and, in consequence, its corresponding solution as solvable within Europe. But is this true ?
The UK is suffering from its own internal economic crisis in terms of unsustainable public borrowing and balance of trade shortfalls. Yet the UK does not share the Euro as its currency.
The USA suffers similar problems to the UK, but of course, as the possessor of the dollar as the global world reserve currency the USA can always "print its way out of debt".
It seems to me that the malaise and crisis striking most of Europe (Germany excepted) is in fact a crisis of the West as a whole; with open-market competition from the Far East resulting in large-scale structural unemployment in Western industries and balance of trade deficits. Beck largely ignores these issues, confining himself to considering problems within a European dimension when I suggest they are in fact of global scope and hence not solvable within a European-only framework. Indeed, one could go on to say that it is this, this internal focus on Europe, which tends to disregard the external impacts of a fast changing global world, that is one of the factors that has led to the "European crisis"
The second disappointing aspect of Beck's essay is that he "fails to roll the film forward". He fails to project forward the likely consequences of the present German-driven austerity programme that will be felt in economic and societal terms a decade hence. Yet it is this future world that needs a remedy, if there is one, rather than today's world, where the "economic tectonic plates" are presently in motion regardless of Beck's observations.
For my part, I see the impact of German-led "tunnel vision" austerity programmes, implemented without accompanying efforts to address fundamental economic weaknesses, as resulting in ever-increasing impoverishment of debtor nations, leading ultimately to social unrest and political extremism, especially amongst the young.
An unexpressed German vision, of transforming Greek and Spanish cultures into German look-alike nations through externally imposed austerity is, in my view, unlikely to succeed: starving an elephant is more likely to result in an angry, hungry, out-of-control elephant, rather than causing it to miraculously transform itself into a race-horse.
The irony here, of course, is that on two occasions in the twentieth century, Germany led Europe into wide-spread physical devastation through military means. It would now seem likely that Germany is to lead much of Europe into societal devastation through its economic leadership.
I would suggest that what is needed here is not some form of European social contract, but an equivalent of the "Marshall Plan" for Europe, as implemented by the USA after WW2. However, today's Europe must look to Germany rather than the USA for such a programme.
The key question is: Does Germany possess the necessary breadth of vision and high moral leadership to formulate and execute such a plan, thereby to rejuvenate its European neighbours (albeit in its own enlightened self-interest), rather than to insist on beggaring them to appease the anger of the German electorate ?
Is Germany able to be as magnanimous to its neighbours following its present economic victory, as were the Allies to Germany in 1945 ?
Beck's essay is useful as a thought-starter, but does not contribute much to defining, let alone addressing, the underlying actual issues of the present economic crisis.
on 25 April 2013
First sight can deceive, especially if promoters have a hand in the product. From the front cover the centre of the universe is Berlin, and the further away from the capital lie hoards of barbarians: to the south the lazy, sunny, fun-loving Spaniards, Italians, and Greeks; to the north the sceptical, irritant British, the Danes, and the romantic Irish, and to the east the new screaming nursery arrivals. As if by fate, at the moment of doom, the "uncrowned Queen of Europe", Angela Merkel, has courageously seen it as her regal duty to pick up the gauntlet, to send battalions of Eurocrats to slay wicked domestic and colonial dragons; but no one understands, says her friendly voice, Professor Ulrich Beck, that she is doing all for their own future good. They have behaved like irresponsible village idiots out on a permanent binge in the city, overspent, overindulged, made fools of themselves, and now cannot accept that they must foot the hefty bill in the austerity (sorry wrong word - currently re-named "balancing the budget") package bailout. As a practical Haus Frau, her workable answer is as we are all in this project together there needs the setting up of more institutionalised brakes, the washing away of worthless archaic national sovereignties with no popular discussion, with all the naughty boys and girls (untermensch?) being dressed up as little smiling kinder in a perfect heaven - a German Europe.
Did someone dare mutter a Fourth Reich? Oh no that would be beastly; so unEuropean, but typical of ignorant nationalists - read sceptics (Cameron gets a fleeting name dropping comment, other beyond the pale, such as UKIP's obviously Nigel Farage doesn't!) trying to keep Germany, sorry Europe, in the front line, marching shoulder to shoulder towards world domination and glory.
If at the outset the author introduced an idea first advanced in 1953 by the novelist Thomas Mann to strive for a European Germany, and not a German Europe (hinting of the evil of the Third Reich and the Holocaust), now a variant appears to have crystallized over the horizon, a European Germany in a German Europe, with Deutschland assuming the mantle of schoolmaster, an affectionate term, taking on the official powerful ideological leadership or Führung of Greater Europe. Beck claims the present state during the recession has been incorrectly analysed by "politically socially blind" economists, and brings his own sociological "risk- catastrophe" thesis as the solution to prevent the collapse of the monetary union (or of the old Deutsch Mark in all but its name), meaning stability; the break up of the EU into individual hostile entities, and war; and then dragging the global economy into the abyss. For him, as for any true European, like our Queen Angela, no member should dream of leaving the Euro even temporarily to resolve its internal weaknesses, so the idea is not even cited. The fear and anger of unemployed Greeks, Spaniards, or Portuguese should be totally ignored, as they know not the whole picture, and their anger ought to be directed to their national politicians holding them and Europe back. Our angel Gabriel in the shape of Queen Angela operates a Merkiavelli scheme - a hybrid derivative of a Merkel and a calculating Machiavelli, appeasing Germans and then seeming to bully the rest of Europe with carrot and stick, but leaves the real bullying to be carried out by others. The pain and the blame will be heaped on non Germans. To the Queen's credit this economic muscle is much more cost effective than its past military powering the 20th century. However, the mention of a German Europe seems to become forgotten in this analysis as part of the establishment, only reappearing briefly in page 52, and then in the conclusion in page 86. Wasn't the book called German Europe, or it is a revision of the state of the European economy as seen by one German sociologist? It is in fact bit of both.
In his final chapter Beck seems to go one step further and strangely walks into deep water. He recalls that people make up society, that Europe is still not a one-nation society, nor admits it can still become one even in one entitled a "German Europe". Is he hopeful, he doesn't say? He re-echoes something which regularly is repeated in official EU publications of attempting to establish a young mobile generation crossing the continent with multiple Erasmus exchange experiences to harness a "twofold sovereignty": subjects of the member state under the umbrella Europe, and of older working people moving on from Rome to Amsterdam to Krakow and then La Valetta, each learning from the moves and acquiring a cosmopolitan "transnational" culture, with Europe which the author transforms at whim from a geographical -ideological free area to one encloses the EU with its institutions, top political positions, anthem. He believes this strategy helps break down useless national loyalties which prolong hostilities and endangers progress and new nation/ federation building. Really? Who says?
That explanation is as one-dimensional and arrogant as the one suggesting that today's unemployed can not possibly be in the know, or as Beck remarks the Occupy Wall St activists camped across New York, London, Rome, Frankfurt and Brussels were only those thought worthy by the high priests of Europe that capitalism was not necessarily the best of systems. It resembles the view of the political commissars in the Soviet Army claiming to know how to fight a people's war more than the officers, and the people themselves. Why favour the activists? Because it's cool, trendy, or because they can be hoodwinked and the rest into be used as shock troops at the grass roots for their own project when the faceless ones of the banks are no longer the ones with the answers? Sounds fishy! Any idea to remove national sovereignty ought to demand a mandate from the people, a referendum; but the Danes, the Irish, the Dutch, and the French know more than others that referenda is only acceptable if the pre-determined result actually occurs and if not it is re-run until the people have learnt what Brussels, the Eurocrats, and now Queen Angela really wanted of them. In this modern democracy, every one is equal, but some are more equal than others.
Many students take a year away from their normal courses in a different continental campus. In theory, it opens their eyes to differences, and the most open-minded start to see a difference is not necessarily a mistake. It should therefore make them realise in later life that if member states face hardships they should be treated differently for the sake of the Union. However, if the policy of the Union moves to greater uniformity, such differences will be wiped away, and will make those who have seen that differences work feel there lies a great gap between theory and reality, between the high priests in Brussels with the ideas and the people who have to live with and carry out the policies; for some a seed sprouting scepticism against the Union itself. The question that such instances may never arise is because once students return to their studies their months away will be treated little more than time off, and of no significant use in later life unless their work involves constant movement in their employment. They will have to make the best in life wherever they live, and see that if workers elsewhere take to the streets the hot heads are not to blame History, and European history, together with modern day technology may come to their rescue if they remember Solidarnosc in Poland in the 1980s, for people everywhere to combine to form groups / unions in this case against the hegemony of the Union.
Beck, however, never wanted that which has come to pass, as it appears too much like the past, something which one of Margaret Thatcher's ministers, Nicholas Ridley, once warned, and was removed for speaking his mind. With the passing of Maggie, Ridley's ghost seems to walk the corridors of Westminster and of Brussels with a smirk in his eye, as if to say, "told you so", and despite what one thinks of this book: good, bad or indifferent, it will be much used by the most active sceptics.
If the author criticizes economists for getting their economics wrong he is a sociologist who has ignored his history. For a German it is strange he has quickly forgotten a country in 1989, called the German Democratic Republic, where Frau Merkel lived, which its people were willing to leave and be integrated with another to form a third, though today several east Germans still recall the first with more than a touch nostalgia for its social welfare, and the neighbourly kindred community spirit. Time can make people view events differently; but culture takes longer to change people if, that is, they wish it. Beck and the EU believe that people can be led to water, but that does not mean they will accept, drink, much less the taste of it. They might still prefer Becherovka, rather than Retsina to stout, goulasch to callamaris, but always dressed immaculately by Armani, and smelling divinely of Chanel. Soviet shops had many excellent classical music records left unsold because people longed for something different. Ultimately, there is as much as people will tolerate, and if they say no it means NO.
The idea of a German Europe sounds like that of European hell, though it could be a state of European heaven. European heaven was said to have the French as the skilful cooks, the meticulous Germans as the mechanics, the English as the friendly local policemen or Bobby, the charming Italians as the lovers, and the Swiss run it all like clockwork. In contrast, European hell sounds hellish as Dante once described, because the impolite French will become the mechanics, the English in the pre Jamie Oliver-Gordon Ramsay days would have taken over the kitchen as the cooks, the Swiss assisted by the Austrians tried their pillow talk talents as Latin lovers, the Germans became the police and reverted to Gestapo practices, and the Italians creatively transformed the impossible into most disorganized chaos. These are stereotypes one may add, but there is elements of truth which all recognise, especially the ingenious Italians who despite admiring Germany, would love to deviate from the norm and mess anything up that was too well organized, appeared too Germanic and left little to the imagination.
If Brussels really left people to run their lives and not sent in the thought police, then certain past national animosities would be forgotten and fade away. The Greeks don't wish to leave the Union; they certainly don't like to waste their time going on the streets and burning cars; they would prefer to live more as Greeks than as what certain Germans wish. Mr Farage is happy to live with a German wife, because he has chosen to. Both examples could work in a German Europe, united in spirit by its varied uniquely cultural divisions. Can Brussels or Angela accept compromises, that is question? If they can't a German Europe will be divided in disunity, and the very essence which all Europhiles truly fear. What do they want a European heaven or a European hell that is what the people really ask?
The book has tried to do too much, and fails. For 86 pages the price is not right. Pretentious, over confident of the European dream, disappointing, but most of all too expensive.