Greece is broke and broken. Its budget deficit bulges near 10 percent of gross domestic product, while the Germans choke theirs down to just 1.5 percent.
Ask a typical German why and he’ll say: “They drink and dance during the day. We wait for sunset.” That’s the image. The hard-working, disciplined, punch-the-clock-on-time German stays solvent and sober. In contrast, the Mediterranean neighbor lolls around in fertile fields of lemons and olives.
And yet most Germans go along, if grudgingly, with bailouts. Recent elections show the Social Democrats and Greens picking up votes, even though they are even more euro-friendly than Angela Merkel’s government. Why are Germans willing to reach deep into their pockets for many billions of euros to bail out Zorba the Greek and his lackadaisical neighbors?
The standard answer: to safeguard the German economy. But this is flabby reasoning. Despite the Great Recession, the German economy has been bouncing along at a decent pace with a 7 percent unemployment rate, and it even racks up a trade surplus with China. Sure, adopting the euro in 1999 sliced border-crossing costs for German companies, but European monetary union was never chiefly about money. If money was the biggest concern, Germany would never have surrendered the gilded Deutsche mark, controlled by the austere, trusted Bundesbank, for a euro that might someday be twisted by a rabble of politicians baying for votes from Slovenians.
No, Germany’s real motivation to help Greece is not cash; it’s culture. Germans struggle with a national envy. For over 200 years, they have been searching for a missing part of their soul: passion. They find it in the south and covet the loosey-goosey, sun-filled days of their free-wheeling Mediterranean neighbors.
In the early 1800s, Goethe reported that his travels to Italy charged him up with new creative energy. Later, Heinrich Heine made the pilgrimage, writing to his uncle: “Here, nature is beautiful and man lovable. In the high mountain air that you breathe in here, you forget instantly your troubles and the soul expands.”
Nietzsche claimed that the staid German psyche was stunted and needed more than a beer stein of passion. He was fascinated by ancient Greece and famously juxtaposed sober Apollo with that reckless, wine-drinking southerner, Dionysus. A dose of Dionysus might not be so bad, he figured.
Today, Germany still looks too Apollonian. Companies like BMW and Siemens conquer industrial markets by manufacturing flawless, perfectly timed motors. But when do Germans experience the fun of Dionysus? Only when vacationing in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Even then, they struggle to find the right balance. In Thomas Mann’s novella “Death in Venice,” the humorless, authoritarian protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach loses his regal bearing and becomes infatuated while in Italy, letting go of his strait-laced ways. Aschenbach lurches from overly repressed to overly sensualized, dyeing his hair, rouging his cheeks and stuffing his mouth with overripe strawberries.
And then there’s Sigmund Freud, an Austrian whose Germanic surname translates as “joy.” If only. Freud, too, thought that Italy and the south offered a tantalizing “softness and beauty” that could save the Teutonic psyche. Instead of Nietzsche’s Apollo and Dionysus, Freud poses superego and id. The id hosts a wild imagination and ecstasy. The superego is that German librarian-frau with her hair tied up in the bun telling you to “shush!”
On the map of Germany you can find quite a few towns with my family name of Buchholz. My wife once scolded me for acting too uptight, saying “You take all the fun out of everything.” Wow, I felt both powerful and bad. I could take all of the fun out of everything. Forget Apollo — even Zeus didn’t have that much power! But a starchier-than-thou power sickens the soul.
So today Germany has the power and the discipline and yet still feels bad for its neighbors. Germans are simply unwilling to sever the emotional bond they feel with their unhurried but passionate brothers and sisters to the south.
During Oktoberfest, Germans in biergartens will lift a glass and sway arm in arm to a popular, schmaltzy German tune called “Griechischer Wein” (“Greek Wine”). Haunting and rousing, the lyrics compare Greek wine to the “earth’s blood.” The German narrator spies a group of Greek men drinking together and longs to be with them. He doesn’t even have to ask, for the dark-eyed men stand up and invite him to join them.
Despite a history of proclaiming their superiority, deep down Germans are not sure they’ve got it right, after all.
By Todd G. Buchholz, the author of Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race.