Everyone is frightened of the euro. So said the sweet old lady who runs the small hotel where I am staying. She and her husband are Germans who came to Stuttgart from Slovenia 50 years ago. They have worked ‘day and night’ to build up their modest fortune, and now they fear their savings will be destroyed.
The old lady explained how people are trying to guard against losing everything: ‘Those who have money want to put it in property. We’d rather invest money in our own country than send it to Greece. We’re worried we’re going to have to pay for others. But what can the small man do? Other people don’t particularly like the Germans. They want the Germans to pay for everything. This currency splits people ever more. It’s divided Europe. And the Germans didn’t want to have this currency in the first place. One just doesn’t know what’s going to happen.’
Round the corner, at the house where Hegel was born, Frank Ackermann, an expert on that profound but mysterious philosopher, was unable to say what Stuttgart’s greatest son would have thought about the euro. But Ackermann knows what he himself thinks: ‘If we’d been allowed a referendum, we’d never have agreed to this Esperanto money.’
I am well aware that the Germans did not want the euro. When I lived in Berlin in the 1990s, I watched Helmut Kohl push it through in defiance of his own people, who wished to keep the German mark, symbol of postwar recovery and healthy national pride. Go into any bar and you could find angry people who told you it was madness to have the same currency as the Italians.
My guess was that on returning to Germany 12 years later, it would be possible to go into any bar and find even angrier people. The first place I went into, just across the road from Hegel’s house, was called the Tauberquelle, of which the Stuttgarter Zeitung says: ‘You don’t get more Swabian than this.’ Stuttgart is the principal city of Swabia, Baden-Württemberg, a region whose inhabitants used to be mocked as misers and simpletons, but are nowadays acknowledged with grudging respect to be clever, frugal, hard-working and rich. The first man I met was an amiable civil servant called Bruno Blattner, who insisted on buying me a drink, and who said when asked in a studiously neutral tone about the euro: ‘I simply consider there to be no alternative. If we went back to national currencies, we would be going back towards the principalities and duchies. If we returned to the German mark, it would rise in value and that would totally destroy our export industries. So I see no alternative to the euro. I’m also convinced that the international markets have reduced the politicians to puppets.’
Fritz Herbst, a recently retired civil engineer, was not so sanguine: ‘In Germany the euro has of course had the result that everything has become more expensive.’ This was a complaint I was to hear over and over again. But when I asked Mr Herbst about the trouble with over-indebted countries such as Greece and Italy, he just replied that what would happen was ‘incalculable’, and the trouble was that you couldn’t tell whether everything was being done in an open and above-board way in those countries. Meanwhile it had to be admitted that from an economic point of view, ‘things are going wonderfully’ in Germany. Someone else described Germany as ‘an island of the blessed’.
In an attempt to stir up some anger, I asked whether the euro could possibly survive. Walter Bühler, a recently retired lawyer, gave his verdict: ‘The chances of survival are good. If one is serious about a united Europe one must give help. But without stricter rules it won’t work.’ He spoke repeatedly, emphatically and even harshly of the need for ‘stricter rules’ for countries like Greece, and for everyone, including England, ‘to pull in the same direction’.
This unselfconscious assertion of German superiority, with the rest of us required to do what the Germans know is good for us, was not what I had come to Stuttgart to hear. I decided I must have gone to a place where the food was too good and the customers too highly educated.
The next bar I entered was a long way from the city centre, and at the opposite end of the spectrum. The first person I met had once been a cook, but had held no job for 13 years and looked as though he was drinking himself to death. He had bad teeth and bad clothes, but was sound on the main issue: ‘I want the mark back.’ He added that it might be better to launch a new currency called the Swabian dollar. But he went on to describe what German politicians are doing to the German people in terms too obscene to quote here, and when asked which party he voted for, he replied: ‘The browns or the Pirates.’ The Pirates are a party of protest which surprised people by getting 8.9 per cent in last September’s Berlin elections. My companion confirmed who he meant by the browns by raising his arm in a Nazi salute.
I realised once again that I had come to the wrong bar. This is one of the reasons why so many Germans shrink from expressing nationalist opinions: it can put one in bad company, where no respectable person would wish to be seen.
The Swabians are even more respectable than other Germans. A primary school teacher who has moved there from the former East Germany finds them a gloomy lot: ‘They just work. They all buy big houses, they all have big cars. They save a lot, but they’re also very reliable. Even children of seven or eight learn for each test as if it’s their doctorate. In Berlin, the children didn’t care about the tests.’
Among many other products, the Swabians build wonderful motor cars. In 1886 Gottlieb Daimler produced the world’s first four-wheeled automobile, powered by the first small, high-speed internal combustion engine to run on petrol. These breakthroughs occurred in Daimler’s greenhouse at Cannstatt, on the other side of the River Neckar from the centre of Stuttgart.
The mighty firm of Daimler today has its headquarters just downstream at its vast Untertürkheim works, squeezed between the Neckar and some low hills covered with immaculately tended vines. Like the other great German car companies, Daimler is just now doing spectacularly well. I went to the busy and friendly Drehscheibe (Turntable) bar at Untertürkheim station, where some of the car workers, though not one supposes the most frugal of them, stop for a drink on the way home.
A design engineer called Heinrich said: ‘At the beginning I was sceptical about the euro because the German mark was very strong. But later I saw that the euro was very strong because it was big. What I didn’t know was that some of the other countries hadn’t opened their books. So now we have the disaster. Now we even have to support France. Greece looks like a bottomless pit.’
Yet Heinrich still thinks the euro will survive ‘as long as we all pull together’. This was how the German car industry came through its recent troubles. He was ‘very disappointed’ that David Cameron said no at the last European Union summit: ‘He put a different deal on the table and then he just pissed off. That’s what you do in the kindergarten. In the united Europe you have to be prepared to make compromises. Angela Merkel is not my kind of a woman but she’s doing a good job.’
Rudi Dell, who has fond memories of delivering right-hand-drive lorries built by Mercedes-Benz for the English market, wanted the mark back: ‘Rents are now as high in euros as they used to be in marks.’ In theory, one euro is worth two marks, but no German believes this is true. Many still think in marks and convert any euro sum into the old currency by doubling it.
But Mr Dell added with a sigh that ‘on the
world market the mark is too small and we need the euro’. The euro has never been loved, but sticking with it has somehow come to be regarded as inevitable. A man called Holger who works for Porsche suggested it would be good if the whole world had one currency.
After carrying out many more conversations than there is room to report here, I have to admit that while the Germans are deeply perturbed by the euro’s difficulties, they are not in a state of pre-revolutionary fury. Their mentality is that of the crew of a ship who watch with growing concern as they find themselves steered into perilous waters. It does not occur to them to seize control of the ship and try to turn it round: that would only make matters worse. Instead they feel it is more important than ever for everyone to do his duty and co-operate. They see the waves beating on the rocks, and hope that somehow Captain Merkel will be able to find a way through.
The Germans are disinclined to see their own ship launch its boats and go to the aid of a much smaller ship, flying the Greek flag, which appears to be sinking, unless that ship is from now on put under the closest supervision and run in a seamanlike way. Perhaps this insistence that they know best is what will kill the euro.
But in some ways Germany feels like a country that is unknown even to itself. Just as some residential districts of London have been sterilised by money, so Germany seems muffled by prosperity. Not that the prosperity is universal. I met several people from the former East Germany who have been forced to move to Stuttgart to get work. They said that in Swabia they are made to feel like foreigners. The East is Germany’s domestic version of Greece: an economy wrecked by a currency union carried out by Helmut Kohl (brilliant power politician but economic illiterate) at an irresponsible rate (one for one between the former East and West Germanies) which removed any hope that eastern firms could price themselves into work. Skilled workers have left the East, leaving behind the old and the unemployable.
The tragedy has not yet played itself out. The Germans will indeed become enraged if they find their savings or their jobs wiped out by the euro. But the fear that the new money could fail has led to the paradoxical conclusion that everything must be done to support it. The Germans are a resourceful people, and in the battle to save the euro they are not yet willing to admit defeat.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 21, 2012