TIME world affairs

Don’t Blame Germany for Greece’s Debt Crisis

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a press conference after meeting with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in Tirana on July 8, 2015.
Gent Shkullaku—AFP/Getty Images German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a press conference after meeting with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in Tirana on July 8, 2015.

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

No country has done more to democratize and raise Europe's living standards

Germany knows a thing or two about being punished for bad deeds, but in recent weeks the country has been the poster child for the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

There is no other way to describe the reputational black eye Germans received as a result of the drawn-out Greek bailout negotiations that culminated last week in the approval of a deal struck with other eurozone countries.

No country has done more than Germany in recent times to raise living standards and democratic norms across Europe, which is one reason the country that once bedeviled the continent emerged as the world’s most admired nation in a 2013 BBC poll conducted in 25 countries. But over this summer, it’s been stunning to see how easily we can be lured back into embracing darker stereotypes of those bullying, inflexible Germans.

The prevailing narrative of the Greek crisis in U.S. media, and on social media, was that the poor Greek people and their idealistic young Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras were being driven to the brink by heartless creditors, led by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. The Germans, and their “troika” of servants – the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund – had saddled too much debt on the Greeks, imposed counterproductive austerity policies on its government and demanded humiliating reforms that violated Greek sovereignty.

It’s hard not to empathize with the people of Greece; The country’s GDP shrank by a staggering 25 percent in just five years. But the prevailing narrative of a morally tidy showdown between stingy, stubborn Germanic creditors and their victimized Greek debtors overlooked a number of inconvenient truths.

For starters, the Greek debt crisis was triggered in no small part by the 2009 revelation that the Greek government had falsified its economic data to make the country appear a member in good standing of the eurozone. A second fact often overlooked: This is actually the third bailout in the last five years, and in 2012, the Greeks did benefit from a $117 billion write-off of debt owed to private banks. Third, much of the roughly $380 billion in remaining debt is owed to sovereign nations, meaning that the true creditors in the story are German, Dutch, French, and other European taxpayers, not greedy banks or faceless international bureaucracies. Fourth, while Greece did adopt painful fiscal austerity in recent years, it has been slow to carry out many of the needed structural reforms (such as privatizing state-owned enterprises) it agreed to under the previous bailouts. This would be akin to a U.S. company gaining protection from creditors in a bankruptcy proceeding, without engaging in a difficult reorganization to make it a more viable enterprise going forward. The bloated and inefficient Greek state accounted for a stunning 59 percent of the nation’s GDP in 2013.

Furthermore, the issue of whether to provide more aid to Greece this summer was never solely a bilateral German-Greek issue. The countries most adamant about being tough on the Greek were not the Germans, but poorer eastern European Union member nations. But the only “real people” in too much of the coverage of the drama were Greeks, at the expense of people elsewhere in Europe who are understandably frustrated at bailing out a nation where many express their European solidarity by not paying their own taxes.

Among pundits eager to portray Berlin as the villain of the saga, a favorite charge (pushed by Thomas Piketty, among others) has been that the Germans are ungrateful hypocrites. Their own national debt, after all, was substantially reduced by international creditors in 1953. The extent to which this analogy has been repeated without any curiosity as to the underlying facts, or context, is a distressing case study in uncritical groupthink. A good portion of the debt at issue in 1953 dated back to the vanquished Nazi regime and its predecessors; after World War II, the Federal Republic had assumed responsibility for it (at old exchange rates favorable to creditors) as an act of good faith, as part of Germans’ larger sense of atonement. Germany literally lay in ruins, and was divided, and there was no doubt about whether the German people were doing their part to dig out of the rubble and make amends. That debt hadn’t been accumulated in just a few years while the country was simultaneously violating the terms of its obligations, as in the case of Greece.

It’s especially galling to hear Americans chide the Germans for their supposed lack of generosity, when you consider how differently Germany and the U.S. have reacted to the distress of less fortunate regional economic partners. German taxpayers invested for decades in the development of peripheral European Union members, spent trillions to develop Eastern Germany, and will now pay a good chunk of a third Greek bailout that will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 billion.

In contrast, the United States has refused to incorporate into the North American Free Trade Agreement the type of regional development funding that Europeans deemed essential to a functioning common market. And when Mexico faced an existential debt crisis in the 1980s that was far more severe than the one Greece is experiencing, Mexicans could only have wished that Washington had reacted to their plight as Berlin has reacted to the plight of Greeks.

After walking up to the cliff and contemplating a break-up of their currency union, the leaders of Greece and their European counterparts in Berlin, Paris, and Brussels all blinked, and worked out a deal to keep Greece in the eurozone, at a painful cost to both sides (more money coming out of the pockets of other European citizens, more painful austerity for Greeks). This was a case of political and historical imperatives trumping economics, at least for now.

The European Union is a monument to Germany’s atonement for its past sins. From its very inception in the 1950s, when it was born as a coal- and steel-producing union, what eventually came to be known as the European Union was considered by its French architects as a means to subvert German nationalism, and to make its repentant people pay more than their fair share for a common project largely directed by the French.

When Germany suddenly had the opportunity to end its postwar partition a quarter century ago with the fall of the Soviet Union, French and other European leaders pressed the Germans to abandon their cherished currency and symbol of hard-won stability, the deutsche mark, in favor of a shared European currency. The more intensely Germany was bound to a broader European Union, the theory went, the less likely a reawakening of a troublesome German nationalism. And so, Germany agreed to the euro once Europeans went along with German reunification.

I remember visiting Germany’s Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in 2000, in the immediate aftermath of this transition. I asked Fischer if Germany could ever become a normal country again, fully off probation, fully atoned, fully entitled to wave its own flag, at least alongside that of the EU. Not really, he said, and then he talked passionately about Germany’s need to always act within the Atlantic and European communities.

But the ensuing years have proven bullish ones for German nationalism. Berlin surprisingly refused to go along with the United States in its showdown with Saddam Hussein. World Cup successes (as a host and contender) emboldened Germans to pull out their flags and cheer on their country as if it were no longer on probation.

But maybe the most shocking development has been the degree to which the European Union has come to be perceived as a project inspired by Germany, as opposed to one imposed on it. Henry Kissinger once said that Germany was to be pitied because it was too big for Europe but too small for the world. So it was perhaps inevitable that the EU would come to be seen as a projection of German influence. The euro, which initially Germans were so reluctant to adopt, proved a competitive boon to German exports, by raising costs in the rest of Europe.

This monetary straightjacket of 19 very different economies sharing the same currency has had its economic pluses and minuses, but the initial impetus to take this plunge into the economic unknown in the 1990s was all political – the goal of reinforcing a broader European identity across the continent. And whatever its economic merits, the political endeavor is backfiring: The shared currency has only strengthened nationalist sentiments. Try sharing a credit card, and thus your credit rating, with a very diverse group of friends, and sooner or later you’ll also find that it’s not easy to cheerily embrace the “we’re all in this together” plan.

Europe’s integration over time, and Germany’s role in it, is a nuanced, complicated tale, and Americans have a vested interest in its success. Lazy caricatures of Germany that harken back to World War stereotypes may make a dry economic tale more entertaining, and seduce us into thinking we’re rooting for the supposed underdog. But it is a disservice to the truth and our national interest. The Germany of Angela Markel, not a socialist Greece, is our indispensable ally, the democracy that shares our values and can still teach us a thing or two about improving the lives of people beyond its borders.

Andrés Martinez is the editorial director of Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column, and a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Germany

German Journalists Investigated for Treason After Publishing Reports on Surveillance

Markus Beckedahl, founder of Netzpolitik.org, in his office in Berlin on 10 Oct., 2014.
Britta Pedersen—/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images Markus Beckedahl, founder of Netzpolitik.org, in his office in Berlin on 10 Oct., 2014.

The reports detailed official plans to expand snooping on online communications

A news website in Germany is being investigated by federal prosecutors for treason after it reported on the country’s apparent plans to expand domestic surveillance of online communications.

Prosecutors say they have launched the probe against two journalists of Netzpolitik.org, and an unidentified source, following a criminal complaint by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency over two articles that appeared on the website, reports Reuters.

Netzpolitik.org published an article in February last year saying that the spy agency — the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bfv) — was requesting more funding for increasing surveillance of online communications. In another report in April, it claimed the agency had plans to set up a special unit to monitor social media sites.

Bfv said the articles were based on leaked documents.

According to German media, the probe is the first time in 50 years that journalists have faced treason charges.

“This is an attack on the freedom of the press,” said journalist Andre Meister, who is one of those named in the investigation alongside editor-in-chief Markus Beckedahl.


TIME Aviation

Read What Parents of Germanwings Crash Victims Told the Airline’s CEO

Germanwings Letter Lufthansa
Sascha Steinbach—Getty Images People arrive at a holding area for friends and relatives of passengers on Germanwings Flight 4U9525 from Barcelona to Dusseldorf at Dusseldorf International Airport on March 24, 2015, in Dusseldorf, Germany.

"One of your pilots has killed our children"

The parents of 16 high school classmates killed in the Germanwings plane crash delivered a scathing open letter to the airline’s chief on Tuesday, amplifying other families’ complaints of the “deeply insulting” compensation offers made in recent weeks.

In the German-language letter, made public by the families’ lawyer, the victims’ parents accuse Carsten Spohr, CEO of parent airline Lufthansa, of neglecting them in the aftermath of the March 24 crash.

You published large ads in many daily newspapers during the memorial service in Cologne. You saw us during the funeral service in Haltern, during the memorial service in Cologne. A few personal words during a conversation with you would have shown us, that you care not only for the public, but for us as well. . .

We, and especially our children, are deeply insulted that you measure the life of each of our children and our pain that we suffered with €45,000. This is the amount that you personally get paid every work week by Lufthansa as a salary. Every week.

A Lufthansa spokesperson has denied the claims made in the letter, stating that Spohr has made every effort to speak with victims’ families, the Associated Press reported. Spohr has also attended many services for victims, including one in Haltern, Germany, where the 16 students had attended school, the spokesperson said.

A total of 156 passengers and crew were killed in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525. Prosecutors have claimed it was a deliberate act by the mentally ill co-pilot.

Read Next: 3 Charts Showing How Airlines Put a Price on Crash Victims’ Lives

TIME Germany

German Parliament Approves Greece Bailout Plan

Specific terms of the bailout will now be thrashed out between Greece and its partners in the 19-nation eurozone

(BERLIN)—German lawmakers voted Friday overwhelmingly in favor of the new bailout plan for Greece after Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that the cash-strapped country would face chaos without a deal.

The German Parliament’s vote capped a week in which the proposed bailout agreed by eurozone leaders Monday has cleared a string of hurdles. That has raised expectations that Greece will secure a financial lifeline to allow the country to reopen its banks and get back toward some sort of economic normality.

Following more than three hours of debate, German lawmakers voted 439-119 in favor of opening detailed discussions on the package. There were 40 abstentions.

Earlier Friday, Austrian lawmakers also cleared the way for the talks.

Specific terms of the three-year bailout will now be thrashed out between Greece and its partners in the 19-nation eurozone. The process is expected to last around four weeks and to lead to Greece getting around 85 billion euros ($93 billion) to help it pay off upcoming debts.

Germany has been the largest single contributor to Greece’s bailouts and has taken a hard line, insisting on stringent spending cuts and tax hikes in return.

“The principle … of responsibility and solidarity that has guided us since the beginning of the European debt crisis marks the entire result from Monday,” Merkel told the special session of Parliament.

The alternative to an agreement, she added, “would not be a time-out from the euro that would be orderly … but predictable chaos.”

Merkel will have to return to Parliament to seek approval for the final deal when the negotiations are concluded.

“I know that many have doubts and concerns about whether this road will be successful, about whether Greece will have the strength to take it in the long term, and no one can brush aside these concerns,” she said. “But I am firmly convinced of one thing: we would be grossly negligent, even irresponsible, if we did not at least try this road.”

TIME Germany

Here Are the 5 Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals

Axel Heimken—REUTERS Oskar Groening, defendant and former Nazi SS officer dubbed the "bookkeeper of Auschwitz", sits in the courtroom during his trial in Lueneburg, Germany, July 15, 2015.

Based on the Simon Wiesenthal Center's list

On Wednesday, a court in Northern Germany sentenced 94-year-old Oskar Groening, a former SS-Unterscharführer, or junior squad leader, to four years in prison. His charge: 300,000 counts of accessory to murder as the “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz.”

Groening is one of a shrinking, aging pool of former Nazi leaders still alive to be prosecuted for crimes committed during World War II—but he’s not the last. Using the Simon Wiesenthal Center‘s list of Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals from April 2015, TIME put together a list of the five most wanted former Nazis who are still alive today:

1) Gerhard Sommer

Sommer, 93, lives in a nursing home just north of Hamburg, 2 hours drive from the German border with Denmark. But in 1944, when Sommer was a 22-year-old soldier in the 16th SS Panzer Division, he allegedly helped massacre 560 civilians—including 119 children—in the Tuscan town of Sant-Anna di Stazzema, shooting, beating and burning them to death. Sommer was among 10 former SS officers found guilty in absentia by an Italian court in 2005, but Germany never extradited any of them.

German prosecutors dropped Sommer’s case in 2012 for lack of evidence, and then reopened it in August 2014 only to have specialists conclude that Sommer was unfit for trial because of severe dementia. Had Sommer’s trial gone through, prosecutors predicted that he would have been “charged with 342 cases of murder, committed cruelly and on base motives.”

2) Alfred Stark

Stark, 92, a former corporal of the Gebirsgjäger also sentenced in absentia in Italy, was accused of ordering the execution of 117 Italian prisoners of war on the Italian-occupied island of Kefalonia, Greece in 1943—part of the slaughter of nearly 9,500 officers of the Acqui Division that September after the breaking of the Germany-Italy alliance. Despite Stark’s indictment by the military court of Rome in 2012 and his subsequent sentencing to life in prison, Germany has refused to extradite him from the country, where he still resides.

3) Johann Robert Riss

Riss, 92, was one of three former Nazis sentenced in 2011 by the military court in Rome to life in prison for the 1944 massacre of 184 civilians in another Tuscan town: Padule di Fucecchio. The massacre was reportedly carried out after two German soldiers were shot by resistance fighters, and documented extensively in statements gathered a year later by Charles Edmonson, a British sergeant looking to ensure that the responsible parties would be brought to justice.

The military court that sentenced Riss also requested that the German government pay 14 million euros in compensation to the just over 30 remaining relatives of the massacre’s victims, a gesture Germany refused. Germany declined to extradite Riss, who remains there.

4) Algimantas Dailide

Dailide, 94, is a former Lithuanian soldier, who, as a member of Lithuania’s Nazi-controlled Security Police, allegedly arrested 12 Jews attempting to escape Vilna, a Jewish ghetto in the city of Vilnius, in the early 1940s. It is presumed that these Jews were later executed.

Dailide lied about his occupation and immigrated to the U.S. after the war, but was stripped of his citizenship in the 1990s and, in 2004, was deported to Germany. In 2008, Israeli news source Haaretz reported that Dailide was living in the small town of Kirchberg in western Germany with his wife, living on his wife’s German pension.

Dailide was convicted of war crimes by a Vilnius court, but a Lithuanian high court ruled in 2008 that he was in too poor health to be sentenced to time in prison.

5) Helmut Oberlander

Oberlander, 91, a native Ukrainian, served in the eastern occupied territories during WWII as part of Einsatzgruppe D, the infamous Nazi death squad estimated by the Wiesenthal Center to have murdered 23,000 Jewish civilians. He currently resides in Ottawa, Canada, where he immigrated in 1954 and worked for many years as a developer, but for the last 20 years, he has been in a legal battle with the federal cabinet over his citizenship. In 2012, Oberlander entered a third round of court rulings as the Canadian government continues its attempts to strip him of his citizenship and order his deportation.

TIME Germany

94-Year-Old Former Auschwitz Guard Is Convicted of Accessory to Murder

Germany Auschwitz Trial
Christian Charisius—AP Former SS officer Oskar Groening waits in a courtroom in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Wednesday July 8, 2015

The state court in the northern German city of Lueneburg gave Oskar Groening a four-year sentence

(LUENEBURG, Germany) —A 94-year-old former SS sergeant who served at the Auschwitz death camp was convicted Wednesday on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder and given a four-year sentence.

Oskar Groening testified during his trial at the state court in Lueneburg, in northern Germany, that he guarded prisoners’ baggage after they arrived at Auschwitz and collected money stolen from them. Prosecutors said that amounted to helping the death camp function.

The charges against Groening related to a period between May and July 1944 when hundreds of thousands of Jews from Hungary were brought to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in Nazi-occupied Poland. Most were immediately gassed to death.

Unusually for trials of former Nazi camp guards, Groening has been open about his past throughout the proceedings.

Groening said when his trial opened in April that he bears a share of the moral guilt for atrocities at the camp but that it was up to judges to determine whether he is guilty under criminal law.

In their verdict, judges went beyond the 3 ½-year sentence prosecutors had sought. Groening’s defense team had called for him to be acquitted, arguing that as far as the law is concerned he did not facilitate mass murder.

TIME Bizarre

$200,000 in Cash Fell Out of a Tree in Germany

Sometimes money really does grow on trees

This weekend, it was raining money — specifically, €50 notes — at a campsite in a small German town, UPI reports. The equivalent of $200,000 in cash started falling from a tree’s branches on July 11 after the plastic bag in which it appeared to have been hidden came undone.

The bag had been hanging on a pipe between two branches, but after a heat wave struck the Mirow area in Germany, the pipe bent, UPI says. An elastic tying the bag shut then snapped, causing the money to slip out of the bag and fall to the ground. A group of passersby discovered the cash floating down from the tree.

According to UPI, police are currently searching for the original owner of the cash. They suspect the mysterious bag may have to do with a cottage fire that took place on the site earlier in the week. Sources say the owners of the campsite claim the money is theirs, but police are still investigating.

If police don’t confirm the owners after six months, the people who found the money will be entitled to the entire sum, UPI reports. They have already received a $6,000 reward for reporting their findings.


TIME Greece

What Twitter Thought of Bailout Proposals for Greece: #ThisIsACoup

Users of the microblogging service make their feelings abundantly clear

Greece and the rest of the euro zone finally reached an agreement on terms for a bailout package early July 13, following tense talks that stretched through the night. Those talks centered on a package presented to Greece on July 12 that had many Twitter users up in arms and embracing the hashtag #ThisIsACoup.

The hashtag is also currently the subject most searched by Greek users of Google.

The terms of the agreement have not yet been made public but the original proposals included controversial elements introduced by Germany — such as a possible euro “timeout” for Greece and €50 billion (about $55 billion) in public assets set aside for loan payment and collateral — and drew ire from netizens not just in Greece but across the globe.

The hashtag appears to have started with a tweet by physics teacher Sandro Maccarrone in Barcelona, who wrote, “The Eurogroup proposal is a covert coup d’etat against the Greek people. #ThisIsACoup #Grexit” late on July 12.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman drew attention to the phrase in a column published not long after that, saying, “This Eurogroup list of demands is madness. The trending hashtag ThisIsACoup is exactly right. This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, complete destruction of national sovereignty, and no hope of relief.”

Within hours, the hashtag had exploded, trending across Europe and even gaining popularity as far away as Egypt and Australia.

Many of the tweets make emotionally charged references to 20th century history, including references to the Nazi occupation of Greece and the 1953 London Conference, during which 50% of Germany’s postwar debt was forgiven.

Under the terms set on the evening of July 12, Greece had roughly 24 hours to endorse the new package.

TIME Germany

At Least Two Dead After Shooting in Southern Germany

Local media reported a man with a gun targeting passers-by from a silver Mercedes

German media are reporting a mass shooting near the city of Ansbach in southern Germany.

Local media reported a man with a gun targeting passers-by from a silver Mercedes. Some reports say he is just 18 years old.

The gunman first shot and killed an 82-year-old woman in the Tiefenthal district at about 11.30am, and then shortly after shot dead a cyclist in nearby town Rammersdorf. He shot at at least two others, but hit neither.

Police say the gunman was arrested at a gas station in Bad Windsheim, about 20 miles away from the shootings. Gas station employees managed to surround the gunman and tie him up with cable ties.

The station has been cordoned off while authorities check there are no explosives in the vehicle, according to the local Nurnberger Zeitung newspaper.


TIME relationships

This Guy Sedated His Girlfriend So He Could Keep Playing Video Games

Judge describes his act as a "deliberate assault"

A man has been fined €500 (about $555) by a court in the western German city of Castrop-Rauxel for drugging his former girlfriend in 2014 so that he could continue to play video games with a friend.

The man put a sedative in his then girlfriend’s tea when she arrived home from work and objected to the idea of an evening spent at the console, Germany’s Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper reports. He insisted it was not a dangerous dosage — “I only put four or five drops into her tea,” he told the court — but the judge said it was a “deliberate assault.”

The woman slept until noon and kept nodding off throughout the next day, she said. Her boyfriend confessed what he had done, and the couple broke up not long after over an unrelated issue. Court-ordered testing of the woman’s hair confirmed that she had been exposed to the drug only once.

[Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung]

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