Germany's grand myths and delusions - part 1

I do point out other countries' myths, fallacies and delusions at times. The "Chaos in Iraq" blog entry had a link to a video discussing some such, for example.

This shall be an attempt to create a list of important myths, fallacies and delusions of Germany. Most of them are rooted in West Germany.

(1) The Economic Miracle of the 1949-1964 period was a huge, uncommon achievement and the Marshall Plan was an important contribution to it.

The Solow-Swan economic growth model is a simple model which predicts that and explains why a market economy with much skilled labour would rise out of the ashes as did Germany, and quickly.
West Germany's economic miracle isn't so terribly uncommon anyway; Italy and Japan had theirs as well, and Taiwan / PRC / South Korea achieved theirs after the groundwork of education was laid.

All these economic miracles eventually came to an end when the growing capital stock was no more the bottleneck, but skilled labour became scarce (and expensive for export-capable production). The Solow-Swan model points at the problem of depreciation and how an ever greater share of capital investment is soaked up by replacement capital investments and defines the zenith by this ("Golden rule of steady state".
The Marshall Plan's marginal contribution was detailed earlier.

In the end, the economic miracle in itself was a product of circumstances and groundwork laid by earlier generations. It wasn't something specific German, and no specific knowledge how to rapidly (re)build an economy was required or present.

(2) A major war in Europe is impossible because of nuclear deterrence

This is a commonly held assumption in Europe, and it's likely nonsense.
Military history tot he rescue: A similar deterrent existed during the Inter War Years; poison gas. The people didn't even know about nerve gas agents. They only knew phosgene as most deadly poison gas.

The 30's saw many civil defence programs with gas masks for everyone and such; the common idea of strategic air warfare wasn't about knocking out fuel production, railroad networks or about firebombing cities to destruction by firestorm: It was about dropping phosgene on cities.

Eventually, this fear did neither prevent war, nor did chemical weapons have a major role in the Second World War.

Interestingly, the Soviets had given up the first use of nuclear weapons in the event of WW3 by the 70's and instructed their military accordingly. Old NATO soldiers from the 80's will still stubbornly swear that the Russians would have dropped hundreds of nukes on day one - but this wasn't their plan, period.

This created a serious problem because, by the early 1970s, Soviet leaders had lost their faith in the utility of nuclear weapons. According to Vitaly Tsygichko, a scientific analyst working in the Ministry of Defense, top Soviet generals “understood and believed that the use of [tactical] nuclear weapons by either side would be catastrophic.”
By 1975, and probably earlier, the Soviet General Staff had already received an “instruction” from the leadership that Soviet forces were never to be the first to use nuclear weapons. There was now even greater pressure on the Soviet military to be able to overwhelm NATO with conventional forces before it could “go nuclear.”

The other reason for why this confidence is foolish is the example of multi-national countries and the European unification ideology/movement. A Europe that's first bagged into a common state instead of first becoming one for real would diverge and break up - probably violently as did Yugoslavia. The European Unionists have it backwards, and could become a huge threat to peace in Europe if they succeed. Europeans first need to grow together, not be tied together for growing together. A common picture of the world through common news, a very high degree of cooperation and a fine handling of regional special needs is what we need first.
Or else I could see a very, very ugly European civil war in my lifetime.

(3) Our economy is fine

It's not. We have multiple imbalances and have fallen back from past achievements in several ways.

Cartels are common. Even the list of recently busted price cartels is impressive, but there are many more. Cartels are actually the norm - not the exception - whenever there's an oligopoly in Germany. And this is because our legislation against cartels has been watered down ever since the 60's - and the original legislation fell already very much short of Erhard's proposal.

Our trade balance is a mess. No, a huge trade balance surplus is not an achievement. It's a failure to balance and distribute well. (A huge deficit is worse, of course.)
The trade balance wouldn't have been so very much out of control if there hadn't been the legislation of the Schröder government and the late Kohl-era currency reform to the Euro:

The push for more capital-based retirement arrangements did provoke more savings, but there was no demand for an extraordinary increase of the capital stock in Germany itself. So capital export was needed, (which led to poor investments in foreign countries) and such net capital export is mirrored by net goods and services exports, of course.
The German industry association had spammed Germany with propaganda about too high cost of labour and concerns about national economic competitiveness since the early 90's. After several years, they were able to collect the fruits of their work: The so-called social democrats exerted much-increased pressure on the poor (unemployed, low income workers) beginning in 2003 and the ever-weakened labour unions were unable to achieve real wage growth in several years and sectors.
This depressed German labour costs much lower than needed for balanced trade.
In the end, we didn't get balanced trade or economic health; we transferred a substantially larger share of the national income to capital owners instead of employees, and the capital owners saved much of this and invested it in foreign countries. Add the savings of workers panicked about their retirement income and you get the poor domestic demand and the present excessive economic dependence on trade.

The Merkel cabinets are worthless in this regard, of course. Merkel only preserves her personal power, and her conservatives are basically administrators in the tradition of Kohl, not reformers. No such cabinet did or will solve these issues. A social democrat-led cabinet wouldn't either, for the social democrats are unable to distance themselves from Schröder's legislation projects. *imagine expletives here* Their entire left wing deserted to the socialists long ago, leaving only the pro-Schröder wing in the party.
The socialists are unable to correct the problems simply because they're still pariahs on the federal level, as they incorporated the former East German dictatorship socialists.

(4) Inflation is evil

The hyperinflation trauma of 1922-1923 never really faded. The German ideal of a central bank is still one which keeps inflation at about 1% p.a. - preferably for consumer goods and services. This is where the maximum 2% p.a. limit of the ECB comes from. We wanted this rule, and some inflation-ridden Southern countries wanted it as well.

The problem is that such a low rate of inflation may artificially increase unemployment (simplified story here), whereas a reliable inflation at about 4% would have hardly any ill effects.
Right now this aversion against moderate inflation causes economic troubles in Southern Europe, since they won't leave the common currency and need to reduce their relative wage level for competitiveness. This would be simple if the Southern economies were allowed to have high inflation for a real decrease of the wage level. Wages are sticky and extremely difficult to cut, after all.
Instead, they have almost no inflation and need to either go the hard route of cutting wages (and pensions) producing much domestic stress and they are still slow in the readjustment of their wage level. The mess could have been over long ago with a little more inflation.
There's no open discussion about inflation in Germany: It's a public consensus that inflation is evil, and any proponent of importance would commit career suicide if he/she went public with his/her opinion.

Deflation is evil. Inflation is a poison, and effects of poison always depend on dosage.

(5) The United States are an ally of Germany

On paper, and they disregard even this at will.

(6) NATO is Germany's only defence alliance

No, it isn't.

(7) Germany needs to accept more responsibilities now due to its strength.

I cannot see any nature's law, international law or ethics supportive of this claim. This sounds like a nebulous bollocks argument used by those who simply want something specific done that's not an attractive proposition in itself.

(8) There's no alternative

We should write into the constitution that a politician claiming "there's no alternative" only proves his or her lacking fitness for office and is immediately fired. Sadly, this phrase ("alternativlos") is an unduly fashionable rhetoric in use to strangle discussions about policies. It hurts our political culture and degrades the quality of German policies.

(9) We cannot do this alone

Usually, we could - if we wanted to. The limiter is rarely capability; it's our will (motivation) - and this is especially true as long as our ruling federal coalition is focused on administration, not on active redefinition. This myth of being unable to do something as a nation state on its own is a very powerful inhibitor and is paralysing the country.

(10) Our political mass media are free

Let's face it; the public networks are controlled by parties, churches, labour unions et cetera. The major newspapers are dominated by publishing houses with more or less obvious political bias. You're not going to find an effective for-minimum wage text in the FAZ or an article critical of Israel in the Blöd. The TAZ is refreshing, as it's highly critical of the party it's supposedly aligned with (greens) - but that's only so because they're greener than the greens.
The current crisis in classic advertisement has created huge economic pressure on political media (except the public networks), and the consequence is a further restriction of their freedom of action.
Our political mass media aren't restricted by state censorship, but they're restricted in their role by economic constraints. Alternative political media have not developed well enough to pick up their role, not the least for want of adequate business models.

It's difficult to see one's own country's delusions, so I suppose more parts will follow later.



  1. Oh, this is indeed a great party game – finding myths that structure public debate in Germany...

    Some more proposals:

    „Pacifism prevents war.“

    „Germany is morally superior to other nations because of its pacifism.“

    „We are less sovereign than other European states.“

    „Other nations are exploiting us, because we are so naive to let ourselves be exploited.“

    „Russia does not exploit us, for Russia is good (=version 1) / is too clumsy to succeed (=version 2)“

    „Politics is about ethics: Only virtuous people can make good policy – anybody who does not exactly resemble a white knight is just a despicable politician and does not deserve respect.“

    (In Germany white knights found ridiculous little parties that never get more than 10% of the vote. In earlier times white knights wore crowns or brown uniforms.)

    „They are always manipulating us - those despicable politicians, the mass media, the state, the police, Google, the banks, the Americans, the EU, the Israelis, FIFA, the döner restaurant in the street ("Gammelfleisch!"). Nobody deserves to be trusted!“


    Maybe a lot of this boils down to the ultimate myth:

    „We are not free. We cannot help doing what we do. Because we are permanently manipulated by evil forces at home and abroad.

    We are slaves of myths other people have invented in order to exploit us.“

    Of course, this is just a myth.

    1. We appear to live in different subcultures of Germany.

    2. "We appear to live in different subcultures of Germany."

      This might well be. Which may once again indicate how difficult it is to develop policies that represent what old Rousseau called "The General Will" of the people.

      By the way: Many though not all of the myths you named are typical for my subculture as well. (South German, liberal-conservative, rather non-urban, rather non-academic)

    3. North/West German, suburban, academic

  2. That is a great piece to read.
    The comment about the European unification movement I like best. The German job market does play a role in European unification and we should develop a European economic policy that preserves Germany's role as a motor with migration from countries with structural problems. This will longeterm help a lot to unify the continent. It should include improved access for some non-European countries of interest such as South Korea and Singapore.
    An agreement on inflation, increased state expenditure with created money and rising wages in Germany would be a way out of the crisis and into a better future. Plus, inflation very much helps to reduce debts, while there's much infrastructure to improve in Germany: highspeed communications, energy saving technology and fossil-fuel independence.
    What do other nations think about the German energy policy and retreat from nuclear?
    How do they see our angst concerning genetically modified crops? The public is quite uninformed about the modifications, but current modifications are also not very well-thought out ideas that are likely to have negative repercussions. There are options of genetical engineering that would increase yields with less chances of negative impact, like increasing genetic diversity and multiplying specific existing gene sequences without raising the overall amount of cellular DNA.
    I'm pro-nuclear, but I don't like the current technology employed for the known problems it poses. The wastage of limited nuclear material and the production of longetrm highly radioactive waste could be avoided. I prefer breeding reactors with much improved security measures and an overall policy to keep nuclear in a much improved security shape. This demands a building approach that can be constantly modified for updated security. It does however lower the profitability of reactors and poses new engineering tasks to keep them economically competitive.

    Communicating with other nationals makes one realize, what a giant of a nation Germany appears to be. The inside perspective is rather different. As a great nation there are some responsibilities, because we are a cornerstone for the success of policies much more than for example Estonia (sorry). Germany is responsible for much of the European economy and must see themselves as European in a framework with the others, bound together for common mutual success. In defence, Germany is as well a major pillar of Europe's security. We need to integrate much better with the other nations in order to act together and have a feeling of not only shared economic succcess, but shared provision of mutual security. This means exchanging and learning languages or having English as lingua franca for all European armed forces, starting from the lowest ranks. Germany's position and responsibility can be misused as an argument for some very stupid interventions. Let's take councel from Mongolia on this issue. they are very active in this field with their tiny armed force and do this for the specific reason of creating a balanced global interaction network for themselves. They do this investment of their limited resources with a clear objective. Germany is globally connected and has more weight than Mongolia, but our security should be more than tagging along with the US, whenever they go stupid. Unlike Sven, I think some interventions can be worth the cost, but we need to be much better informed, at least at decision maker level, to enact something that is worth the opportunity costs of not improving things at home.

  3. "Germany is the leader of Europe"

    1. I don't think this myth exists.
      There's often the notion that an agreement between France and Germany can set the course in the EU.

    2. My previous post was a bit hasty: I'm not sure the myth currently exists as a general statement, but within the realm of economic policy that seems to be the meaning behind the use of the phrase "economic engine of Europe".

      Just yesterday I read about a German official deflecting French demands for action by saying that:

      "the 'very general declarations' from Paris did not supply any reason to change economic policy.

      'Germany is already an important engine, even the most important, for growth in the eurozone,' said the spokesperson."

      But maybe I'm misinterpreting the German actions (above and in Greece et al), and the mistake is thinking the Germans care at all for other Europeans when it comes to money.