Daniel Gross is a very smart man. He has a master’s degree from Harvard and has written several books on Wall Street and American economics. He’s very, very intelligent. I know this first-hand; we went to high school together.
So when his regular column for The Daily Beast focused on the banking crisis in Cyprus last month, I clicked to it eagerly in the hope of learning more about the situation.
Overall, his economic argument is sound. It is as he says: the initial proposal for an EU bailout of Cypriot banks, current at the time of his writing on March 19, was extremely harsh; that it was swiftly rejected by almost all involved reflects that fact.
(As an aside, I feel the need to point out a glaring error in his essay. He states that $225,000 is “90 percent less” than $250,000. It’s either lousy grammar, or atrocious math. $225K is 90 percent of $250K, so it’s 10 percent less.)
Gross begins well, pointing out the “many culprits to blame for Cyprus’s fiscal disorder: Cypriot bankers and government officials, Russian depositors, European banking regulators, and Greece.”
Yet he then immediately turns away from those very valid causes to instead point the finger at that classic scapegoat: those mean, nasty Germans.
“For much of the past century, if something was on fire and totally messed up in Europe, blaming Germany was a pretty solid bet: World War I, the 1930s, World War II, the 1968 Olympics.”
Okay, taking the last point first, I don’t know what he’s talking about with the 1968 Olympics. I’m pretty sure Germans didn’t talk Tommie Smith and John Carlos into doing the Black Power salute in Mexico City, and Grenoble doesn’t seem to have been ruined by allowing East and West Germany to compete separately for the first time.
Surely Gross meant the 1972 Games, and the massacre of the Israeli athletes in Munich. Which is a specious argument. That atrocity was committed by Palestinian rebels. Not Germany, not Germans. (It should be mentioned those Palestinians demanded the release of the Baader-Meinhof leaders. Germans, yes: German criminals.)
But putting that aside, Gross has done something far more egregious: he has taken a very real and ugly period of German history—the Kaiser’s Imperialism and the rise and fall of National Socialism—and implied (if not outright stated) that today’s Germany is exactly the same.
In doing so, he has undermined his argument to the point where it’s no more accurate or compelling than the signs angry Cypriots were waving in the streets, depicting Angela Merkel with black armbands and a little brush mustache.
Cyprus has brought its trouble upon itself. Its banking system is awfully loosey-goosey by European standards, which has led to it becoming a tax haven—one of the country’s largest industries.
There are also political expedients involved in the German-backed bailout proposal. Germany is in an election cycle. If their current leaders had simply thrown cash at Cyprus without some stipulations involved, they would swiftly be voted out of office.
So Germany plays financial hardball. Maybe in part because it can, having the strongest economy in the Eurozone. And maybe should, to avoid being dragged down by the questionable practices of their fellow Eurozoners.
But according to Gross, for not wanting to enable a bunch of Russian businessmen to retain their possibly ill-gotten gains, the Germans are “bullies.” He stops short of calling them Nazis, but his earlier invocation of 1914–1945 makes it awfully easy to infer that’s what he’s thinking.
I wonder if Dan Gross has ever met an actual German. Intelligent, thinking Germans today are horrified and embarrassed by their country’s past, and openly contrite about it. My wife and I met a very nice German couple from Cologne last year. They were a generation or so older than us, young enough not to have lived through the wars but old enough to remember the aftermath. They’d had no personal role in what had happened—yet felt the need, mere minutes after meeting us, to apologize on behalf of their country. “We’re so sorry for Hitler and the rest,” the husband said. “I have no idea what our people must have been thinking.”
We were sitting in Dresden at the time. A city that was utterly destroyed in two days of 1945 by Allied bombs for no other strategic purpose than what today we would call “shock and awe.” The irony was not lost on me.
Most Americans—if they’re even aware of the Dresden firestorm at all—would be surprised and indignant if someone were to hold us personally responsible today for that atrocity. That wasn’t me, we’d say. I wasn’t even alive then. (Some would, of course, want to justify the bombing as necessary to end the war, as if finely crafted porcelain was an integral part of the Nazi war machine.)
So why then do we still find it acceptable to view all Germans as Colonel Klink at best, if not as a gang of jackbooted, brownshirted, goosestepping thugs? That is, when we’re not seeing them as all clipboard-toting, lab-coat-wearing tightasses, and lauding their well-engineered automotive products.
Are we still holding a grudge?