Cyprus bailout: Feeling unloved in Germany

A protester in Madrid holds a placard likening German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Hitler, 6 September 2012
Image caption Hitler and Merkel together: A placard at a protest in Madrid

In Germany, the citizens feel aggrieved. They perceive their country as a generous donor of hard-earned cash to peoples who have let their finances go to ruin.

German taxpayers donate, the argument runs, to help those less industrious than themselves. And what, they wonder, do they get in return? Nothing but ingratitude and insult. So it seems to some Germans.

Outside the country, on the other hand, it does not seem like that at all. Perceptions are inverted. Instead of gratitude for the gifts donated, Germans feel the coldness of ingratitude for the strings attached.

Or the heat of angry insult. The Spanish daily El Pais published (and then apologised for) a piece which said that conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel "like Hitler, has declared war on the rest of the continent".

Anti-austerity protests south of the Alps routinely feature placards depicting swastikas and pictures of German politicians with added moustaches.

In Britain, the Daily Mail newspaper talked of the way the events in Cyprus were handled as "one of the nastiest and most immoral political acts in modern times". It likened Germany to a common criminal because of the way the deposits of savers were initially targeted: "People who rob old ladies in the street, or hold up security vans, are branded as thieves."

The UK's Daily Telegraph alluded to a new German empire - or "Imperium" as it put it. The way Germany dealt with the crisis in Cyprus was "the authentic tone of an imperial power. Today that power is Germany. We have heard enough lies, the Germans are saying haughtily to the Cypriots, now shut up and do what we want."

So how are the Germans taking it? With shock sometimes. They invariably object strongly to the use of Nazi symbols - after all, their display, whether the swastika or the raised arm, is illegal in Germany.

'It hurts'

When the BBC talked to people at the Brandenburg Gate, where tourists from all over Germany gather, many said they were very upset when they saw pictures of such symbols on the streets of Nicosia or Madrid or Athens.

One young woman from Bavaria said: "When you see Greek people make that Hitler greeting, it's not good. It isn't allowed in Germany and it shouldn't be allowed in other countries. We are shocked. They are getting a lot of money from Germany so why don't they like us?"

A middle-aged man said: "It's not okay when people say Adolf Hitler and Angela Merkel are the same. We live in 2013 and not in 1945."

An older man said he did not understand why Germany was blamed for trying to help: "It hurts, because we think we are giving money and we try to help. This is something we don't understand."

That sense of hurt is universal. Jan Schaefer, the economics editor of Bild, the most popular newspaper in Germany, told the BBC that pictures comparing Germany to the Nazi state were obnoxious.

"If you go back 70 years to solve a problem today, you can't do that. So for me and for my family, it's just stupid. I look at the pictures and I just have to laugh. They are so dumb. Really, really dumb and stupid."

Image caption Greek nationalists say Germany is dictating policy to their country and Cyprus

But he added a sting in the tail of his outrage, by saying that opinion in Germany might harden against further bailouts because of the ingratitude over previous ones.

"The more that protesters compare Mrs Merkel with Adolf Hitler, the more people are going to get angry and they might say 'We might have taxes rising here in Germany because of the bailout of other countries, so why are you mad at us and compare our chancellor to Adolf Hitler?'" he said.

"There's no comparison. And we help you, so why are you yelling and shouting and protesting against us?"

At the moment, this sense of injustice in Germany is unformed - an inchoate feeling from the gut that emerges when you talk to ordinary Germans.

'Political price'

Some politicians are indicating an unease at the reaction - Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, for example, said after the deal over Cyprus was done that it might have been handled differently. He lamented the "shrill slogans in the public arena and the media that were often unjust and hurtful".

Part of Germany's difficulty is that this is an election year, which means that no politician wants to appear soft when it comes to giving away the money of taxpayers who are also voters.

So when Germany's Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, went on television for a domestic audience, it might have sounded better at home than abroad when he likened those complaining about Germany to children who do not do very well in exams: "It's like in school when you get better grades and those having a harder time get a little jealous."

Similarly, when Chancellor Merkel told a meeting of MPs from her Christian Democrat (CDU) party that Cyprus's business model was broken, that would have played well in the private meeting - but badly beyond Germany's borders (including in neighbouring Luxembourg, where the foreign minister accused Germany of "striving for hegemony").

Some in Germany are aware of the dangers of the country being disliked as its economic power grows. "Careful, careful," said the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. "If the country continues to be so cold-hearted it will pay an immeasurable political price."

But toughness pays dividends inside Germany, even as it has its price outside the country. The indications are that Germans remain wedded to the euro by two to one, according to most polls. There is a nostalgia for the Deutschmark, but not a majority in favour of a return to it.

Even the leaders of a new Eurosceptic party concede that. Professor Bernd Lucke, a professor of economics in Hamburg who founded Alternative fuer Deutschland, reckons that about 25% of German voters would vote for an anti-euro party.

"My party fights for the dissolution of the euro area," he told the BBC. He cites the usual suspects (Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal) but also France as being incompatible with a single currency that includes Germany.

"We witness ever-increasing transfer payments to southern European countries, and we see that the problems in these countries are not being solved, but aggravated more and more," he said.

That is a common, though not unanimous, sentiment in Germany - but that does not mean Germans will vote in droves for the new party in the federal elections in September.

Merkel's challenge

Nobody expects them to be a large party in the Bundestag (lower house), and perhaps not even to pass the threshold to get any representation.

What the new party may do, though, is to skim votes from Mrs Merkel's CDU and its allies in government, so making it easier for the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens to form a government.

Mrs Merkel remains head and shoulders above any other German politician in terms of popularity. She bestrides the German political stage.

But she also has an increasingly thin line to tread - between those who are growing sick and tired of what they see as ingratitude outside Germany and, on the other hand, those who remain fully committed to the euro and to German efforts to preserve it.

And behind all this is a bigger question: can an economic giant remain a political light-weight? And if it cannot, how does it cope with any resentment? Maybe Germany has got to get used to not being loved.

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