Why does Europe resent Germany so much?

It's tidy, prosperous and produces many of the world's best-made consumer goods. So why is Germany resented so much by so many Europeans. Karen Pauls explores the roots of Germanophobia.

The austerity fight and the roots of Germanophobia

A defaced poster of Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel is set alight during an anti-bailout protest in Cyprus earlier this month. (Petros Karadjias / Associated Press)

Germany's push for austerity during the euro crisis has prompted a resurgence in anti-German sentiment and even something approaching hatred in parts of the European Union.

In places like Cyprus and Greece, for example, posters bearing the image of German Chancellor Angela Merkel were often defiled with a Hitler moustache and swastikas, as anger and frustration grew over the euro crisis.

In Italy, even former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who faces charges of tax fraud and sex with a minor, made an electoral comeback, partly by attacking Berlin.

CBC in Berlin

Karen Pauls has been in Berlin for the last three months to enhance CBC's European coverage at a time when the Continent is struggling through one of the most unpredictable periods in recent history. Germany's prosperity is being closely watched as the fiscal crisis puts the European Union under great strain.

Pauls has covered national affairs in Canada for CBC Radio, and has been previously posted in London, and Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @karenpaulscbc.

"This form of criticism is not only extreme but completely unjustified," says Brendan Simms, a Cambridge University historian and president of the Project for Democratic Union, a Munich-based think-tank devoted to creating a united eurozone on Anglo-American constitutional principles.

"Chancellor Merkel's measures give these populations access to credit that they would otherwise not have at all," Simms says. "To that extent, 'Germanophobia' is simply a form of scapegoating for one's own mistakes."

That said, Simms does allow that the focus on Germany these past many months also arises from a more objective concern with the influence Germany has in European politics because of its size and economic strength.

But this is hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, in his new book, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present, Simms argues that neighbouring countries have had concerns about Germany's role since the mid-15th century.

Either too weak or too strong

At first, it was the lack of German power that worried central Europeans, because it sometimes meant the region was the weak link through which outside powers would invade.

Tens of thousands of anti-austerity protestors march down one of Lisbon's main thoroughfares in March 2013, angry at the terms of an international bailout. (Francisco Seco / Associated Press)

It was only in the late 19th century, when the many German states united, and then again under Hitler in the 1930s and '40s that German strength became a problem.

"This period was, historically speaking, an aberration, albeit a terrible one," Simms says.

"After 1945, German reticence was an issue, especially in the containment of the Soviet Union, and today it is the failure of Germany to lead, as much as her austerity prescriptions, which irritates."

These days some European leaders fear Germany's economic power because they say it forces them into an "austerity straitjacket" while unemployment is soaring. Meanwhile, others have criticized the failure of Germany to provide decisive leadership in the euro crisis.

"Sometimes they are the same people," Simms says, adding Germany is caught in the classic "damned if they do, damned if they don't" scenario.

It is a dilemma that is not lost on Chancellor Merkel who, as recently as Monday at a panel discussion with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, rejected the notion that Germany was fixated both on austerity and imposing its economic will on its other EU members.

"Germany has a … sometimes complicated role because we are the largest economy — we are not the richest, but we are the largest," Merkel said, adding that "Germany will only act together with the others. Hegemony is totally foreign to me."

She went on to argue that all European nations may have to act more in concert, ceding some of their economic sovereignty to the greater good. And she seemed to downplay the role of austerity a bit as a fix for Europe's current problems.

"Growth doesn't come from saving, and I don't favour an approach of only saving," she said, according to news reports. "But growth is created from structural reforms. That is also Germany's experience."

Can Germany escape its past?

Germans have spent the last six decades apologizing for the sins of its Nazi past, putting up memorials to commemorate the worst in its recent history and paying ongoing reparations to Israel and neighbouring countries.

Twenty-four years after the Berlin Wall fell, Germans still pay a solidarity tax to help improve infrastructure and conditions in eastern Germany.

Today, many Germans also feel that they are bearing the burden of the euro bailout, and the mood in the country is starting to shift because people are tired of being Europe's scapegoat, says Marcel Fratzscher, president of the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin.

"The strong criticism of Germany we see is a natural one — every country that slides into crisis looks for an explanation and it is tempting to find a scapegoat to blame," Fratzscher says.

Marcel Fratzscher, president of the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin. (Courtesy German Institute for Economic Research)

"It is very hard to accept for a country and its people that years and decades of hard work and successes are lost within one or two years of a crisis.

"Germany is the perfect scapegoat for Europe — it is the big brother that is doing well, behaves sometimes clumsily diplomatically and its tainted history makes it tempting to revive old prejudices."

Fratzscher points out that Germany has undergone 15 years of low growth with real wages hardly budging, while much of the rest of Europe experienced substantial increases in wages.

However, that relatively low-wage economy has left Germany with an unemployment rate of only 5.4 per cent in February, while the rest of Europe reached a record high average of 12 per cent, the highest level since the common currency was implemented in 1999.

Coupled with the country's manufacturing might and the low euro, this has meant German products have flooded the rest of Europe and other markets, bringing home huge profits.

Last year, for example, Volkswagen reported an operating profit of $15 billion US, making it the most profitable carmaker on the planet, ahead of larger rivals Toyota and General Motors, according to Bloomberg news services.

Still, there's a perception that Germany could help the European Union more by becoming an economic locomotive that helps pull the rest of the Continent out of recession.

"Germans are unhappy with being blamed by crisis countries. They see themselves as the victims, not the perpetrators," Fratzscher says, adding this has led to a conflict within Europe about the right policy path forward.

"Germany would like to see stronger domestic reforms in the crisis countries while the latter would like to see still more financial support from the EU and Germany."

Both Fratzscher and Simms suggest that Germany must find a sense of pride and self-confidence in its achievements — which might then make it feel more comfortable taking a stronger role in leading Europe out of this financial crisis.

That's assuming, of course, that the rest of Europe will allow Germany to take that lead.