As an American in Germany in 2004, my conversation with Germans began with two questions: Wie heisst du? (What is your name?), and Bush oder Kerry? I was often forced to comment on Rumsfeld’s infamous declaration that France, Germany and other countries — as part of “old Europe” — are meaningless. On election night, German cable television provided coverage from CNN, MSNBC, BBC, a French TV network and at least a half-dozen German networks. Why did they care? Why didn’t they watch “Pimp My Bicycle” on MTV-Deutschland and go to bed? No matter — across the country, people stayed up until 5:00 a.m. to hear the incomprehensible news of a Bush victory.
The insults rained down. How could Americans be so stupid? Many Germans accused Americans of being incapable of rudimentary tasks like reading and addition. I was even compared to American casualties in Iraq when I lost in dodgeball. How could such an educated society be so simple-minded in its criticism?
Now, with this question still unanswered, it is Germany’s turn to elect leadership. In a brave but constitutionally questionable move, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called for early elections. His party, the Social Democrats (SPD), had taken a nose dive in the polls and badly lost the state elections of North-Rhein Westphalia, their base of socialism-minded workers. The SPD-Green coalition of liberal socialists calculated that it would lose the scheduled election of 2006 so badly as to spell long-term decline for both parties. With these dire predictions, Schroeder and his party decided to intentionally lose a vote of confidence and expedite the vote.
In the spring of last year, German magazine Der Spiegel printed a Schroeder quote from 1998 in which he said that if he failed to halt unemployment, he did not deserve to be re-elected. And fail he did. Germany has over 10 percent unemployment, leaving six million people out of work. It was recently ranked as the worst place in Europe to do business. And to make matters worse, Schroeder’s recent economic reforms, the Hartz IV, prompted widespread protests. Outsiders questioned how he managed to stay in power as long as he did.
The answer is that Schroeder and the SPD subscribed to blatant anti-Americanism. The timing of the last election, in 2002, could not have been better for Schroeder: The German economy was sharply declining, but anti-Americanism, in the build-up to the Iraq war, was at a fever pitch. SPD leaders compared Bush to Hitler. Schroeder loudly opposed participation in Iraq, allowing the SPD, with its simple equation of USA=BAD, to breeze through the polls.
This year, the SPD unleashed its full arsenal of vote-yielding tactics. Germany’s relationship with the U.S. was in a state of ruin, despite statements by both Bush and Schroeder about “repairing relations.” A German friend of mine put it bluntly: “The idiots Fischer [Green Party leader and foreign minister] and Schroeder have nearly destroyed the good collaboration between Germany and USA.” In June, SPD Chairman Franz Müntefering compared American investors to locusts that consume German capital before moving to new feeding grounds. And just this week, the SPD made a loud statement with election posters showing caskets draped with American flags.
Voters were left with a choice for yesterday’s elections: Should they vote for the SPD-Greens, who left the German economy in shambles, but stood up to Bush, or the CDU-CSU (Christian Democrats), Germany’s conservative and traditionally pro-American party? The voters chose narrowly (35 percent to 34 percent) to end the era of anti-American SPD leadership. Although the makeup of Germany’s coalition form of government — there are five major parties, of which the two largest, the SPD and CDU, received about 70 percent of the vote — has not yet been finalized, it is clear voters want to move on to a new government.
And thus begins a thaw of anti-Americanism in Europe. Germany has realized that insulting the U.S. does not put people to work, and that, in fact, some emulation of the U.S. is in order. The CDU’s platform of a more market-based economy, although meek by Anglo-American standards, won. Germany, home of 35-hour workweeks and a minimum of six weeks paid vacation, must fundamentally change itself, and yesterday’s vote demonstrated that enough Germans understand that.
While not every country in Europe is as bad off economically as Germany is, many are well on their way. Across “old Europe,” there are too many taxes funding too many inefficient social services. It is quite common for a housewife to call herself unemployed and collect a check every few weeks. While it costs about $12,000 per semester to educate a German college student, students rarely have to pay more than $2,000 for their world-class education. Despite a 16 perent sales tax in Germany and various forms of income taxes, there is not enough going into the government to cover the social services coming out. Is it any surprise that Eastern Europe, where anti-Americanism has less influence on voting, has concentrated itself on building efficient economies?
It pains me to say this, but Rumsfeld was right in saying that “old” Europe doesn’t matter. But it can matter when countries, like Germany, choose to take a step in the right direction by forgetting their anti-American biases and trying to solve real, urgent problems. As the other governments and voters of “old” Europe find themselves in similar straits, they too will come to this conclusion: to make meaningless, distracting stands against the U.S. is simply bad politics.
Eric Purington is a freshman in Morse College. He spent last year in Germany as an exchange student.