Spanish farmers are furious. The German health authorities accused their cucumbers of bringing into Germany a serious coli-bacterium (Escherichia coli O157:H7) that spread as an epidemic throughout the country. After a week of panic (tomatoes and fresh salads were also shunned, probably causing mass constipation problems around Germany) the cucumbers were acquitted. But for many people in Spain this was only the tip of the iceberg of what they perceive as growing German arrogance. The German national brand has suffered serious damaged recently and this is but only one example.
For many years it felt good being a German. There was a soothing moderation about this country, a way of looking at the world and acting with constant self-reflection. The loud domination, the ugly self-assertion we know so well from other large economies, was mostly absent and all pretentions to power were quickly silenced.
Germany was probably the only country to have seriously reworked its violent past, a country with a booming economy, a stable democracy and flourishing culture. Of course there were drawbacks: it was hard to feel proud – actually national pride was rejected as something profoundly evil. (I don’t mind. I think you can only feel proud – or ashamed – for something you have done yourself).
Reunification changed a lot of this. The old trauma of defeat and division started to heal; issues of national cultural identity were once again on the table, but fortunately the occasional nationalistic or even xenophobic voices were quickly silenced by a deep belief in democracy. A series of events were to alter German self-perception profoundly.
Probably the first time since World War II that Germany actively interfered in another country was in Yugoslavia with the role it played in dismantling the former federation. It was symptomatic that there was hardly any criticism of Germany inside the country. The national press was aligned and it was almost solely international reports that pointed out the role that Germany (among others) played in the region.
Then came September 11 and the “war on terror”. It was a moment both of German solidarity with, but also of emancipation from the Big Brother – the USA. Gerhard Schröder was the first Chancellor to openly (but very carefully) criticise US foreign policy and the war in Iraq, refusing to participate in it*. A new German pride was established. The country was perceived as a peaceful large power which balanced out the expansionist politics of others.
The FIFA World Cup of 2006 saw the first well orchestrated attempt at nation branding in Germany, and it was certainly successful – at least internally. Waving the German flag was suddenly not a taboo any longer; Germans were allowed to show the same signs of national pride as many people in other nations did. (Of course, what they did not see was that it was only certain people in other nations that waved flags, while others would rather be caught dead before doing it).
But it was the survival of Germany through the economic crisis that hit the world in 2008 that made the big difference. By the beginning of 2011 it was obvious that the country belonged to the very few winners of the crisis, while the many losers still remain to be seen. And there were very good reasons for that: German economy is based on high-quality production and export, the political system works well despite its shortcomings, the welfare state is still in place albeit weakened. Additionally, it was the Euro that helped accumulate capital from inside Europe, which meant a transfer of funds from the South to the North, often balanced out by financial aid in the opposite direction.
And this is where the new German arrogance comes in: this value transfer from the South to the North is rarely seen or commented upon. On the contrary the common story is “we are the hard working organized country and the southerners are corrupt lazy peasants”. Though some of it may be true (in particular the corruption part), obviously the facts are rather more complex than that. Even without mentioning the active role of the German industry in the corruption (by bribing of governments by the likes of Siemens or Thyssen-Krupp) it is hard to follow the rhetoric of the German government without getting goose-bumps: Employees in the South according to Ms. Merkel work less and retire earlier (which was statistically proven to be a blatant lie); Spanish creative minds are encouraged to come and work in Germany (thus encouraging an already alarming brain-drain); Greeks should sell some of their islands to repay their debts, reminding people how Germany once occupied and destroyed those same islands.
Now in come the Spanish cucumbers that were accused of a crime they never committed. It is obviously very easy to put the blame on the European South for everything – and the German public easily accepts it. Is it a deep-rooted racism that once again comes to the surface or is it the usual contempt for the weak that comes with power? No wonder that both Germany and the German Chancellor are less and less popular today. Some of it may be envy, but most of it has to do with the arrogance with which the German government (and German main-stream media) behave. Germany has seriously damaged its reputation and one of the best nation-brands ever.
*It is worth remembering that Angela Merkel, then in the opposition, went to President George W. Bush and humbly offered her support.