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The World Press on...Germany


Home Page > Articles in English > The Press On Germany


Attack on the Leisure Society

A Pyrrhic Labor Victory

United in Discord


Die Zeit (liberal weekly), Hamburg
Berliner Zeitung (liberal), Berlin
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Rheinischer Merkur (conservative weekly), Hamburg
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Handelsblatt (financial), Düsseldorf
Rheinische Post (CDU-affiliated conservative), Düsseldorf
Aachener Zeitung, Aachen


A truncated version of this story appeared in the July 2003 issue of World Press Review

Attack on the Leisure Society

By Tekla Szymanski

On April 30, 2003, Die Zeit published a caricature on its front page of an eagle, Germany’s emblem, vigorously tightening its belt. Germans are confronted by the unpleasant reality that the times of abundance are over. “We are disgruntled and sick of politicians,” wrote Michael Naumann in the same paper (May 8). “Germans are puzzled by the need for social reforms…. Everything is too complicated. Germany resembles a watch factory where nobody knows how to fix a complex clock mechanism. A hammer won’t be of any help. Half the nation is searching in vain for the light at the end of the tunnel. It sees its future as a deep, black hole.”

The reason behind this fear is Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s audacious plan for sweeping labor reforms, announced on March 12. He proposes a noncompromising rollback of the country’s cozy welfare-pension systems.

It’s about time, proclaimed Bernd Ziesemer in Handelsblatt (April 25), equating Germany’s social system with “the one that was in place during Bismarck’s good old times. This only proves that our democracy has failed.”

The plan, Schröder’s “Agenda 2010,” will raise the pension age, restrict health benefits, cut public services, scale back unemployment payments from 32 to 12 months, and loosen Germany’s rigid job protection—in the hope of reviving the paralyzed economy. Germany’s comfortable leisure culture is at stake—undermined by flagging growth and a stagnating unemployment rate, which will reach the 5-million mark by the end of the year.

As expected, the taboo-breaking “Agenda” was met with massive criticism from factions in Schröder’s party, the Social Democrats (SPD). Germany’s vociferous and powerful trade unions—the bedrock of the SPD, which made the chancellor’s narrow re-election last year possible—rebelled; millions of workers took to the streets on May 1. “For the first time in our history, the workers’ day was thrown in the face of the SPD,” observed Rheinische Post in an editorial (May 1). “But May 1 may be a chance for Schröder: He can emancipate his party from the suffocating grip of the unions and give his government a bold, new, and proper direction.”

“The country has lived beyond its means,” read an editorial in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (May 1), But the paper called the proposed reforms “modest at best.” The Aachener Zeitung flatly dismissed Schröder’s plan (May 8): “The bombastic sounding ‘Agenda 2010’ is only the beginning of a tiny reform. It is a tepid breeze rather than a strong wind that would inject this country with oxygen and push out the fog of the naysayers. Something is foul in a country where the chancellor has to threaten his party members with resignation to push through necessary reforms.”

On June 1, the agenda will face a vote at a special SPD Party conference in Berlin, and the chancellor regards its success as a litmus test for his own political survival and for the SPD’s capability to govern in the coming decade. But the plan is likely to be endorsed by the party members and might just have a chance to succeed: The most radical social changes in other European countries—in Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, and Denmark—were all undertaken in a time of economic crisis. But will the agenda be sweeping enough to last? “The government will have to persuade a socially spoiled population to tighten its belt,” remarked Die Welt in an editorial (May 12). “Germans have to lend a hand, as was expected of them in the 1950s and ’60s.… That won’t be easy and can be achieved only with courage and a clear concept in mind. Both are missing.”

Last year Germany had the slowest growth, 0.2 percent, of the 12 countries in the euro-zone and one of the highest unemployment rates in the developed world. It is trapped in the longest recession period in its history. “Our country is in bad shape,” commented Josef Joffe in Die Zeit (April 24). “We are lacking the culture of change.… In the first part of the 20th century, we experienced change as traumatic. No wonder that our favorite word is consistency.… But looking in from the outside, we seem like a contented lot.… We are incredibly rich. Those less fortunate receive unemployment benefits for 32 months. Social aid reaches the heights of which a dual-income family in the United Sates and Britain can only dream of…. But the politician who demands sacrifice has to offer a political vision. Otherwise, the people will only complain: ‘tighten the belt?
Not us!’ ”

Critics argue that Schröder’s sledgehammer approach is either too little too late or will do more harm than good for a society that clings to its undisputed comfort and ease. “The German economy resembles a heart patient,” economist Peter Bofinger explained in Die Zeit (April 30). “A responsible doctor would first revive him, strengthen his system, and then urge him to lead a healthier life. Doctor Schröder, on the other hand, orders him to climb on the treadmill. No wonder the patient doesn’t get better.” And Heribert Prantl, writing for Süddeutsche Zeitung, summarized in a front-page article (April 19): “The social system has always been the guarantor for peace in this country….It has been the foundation of our prosperity. The attempt to abandon the social state will kill internal peace. But leaving things the way they are will destroy our peace of mind…. Patchwork won’t do…. A lot has to change for the social state to stay what it is meant to be: our home.”




From the March 2003 issue of World Press Review

A Pyrrhic Labor Victory

By Tekla Szymanski

To avert a strike by 2.8 million public employees, the German government agreed on Jan. 9 2003 to give them a 4.4 percent wage increase phased in over the next 27 months. But for a country grappling with an unemployment rate of 10.1 percent, this costly settlement could not have come at a worse time. “No matter how you look at it,” wrote Bernd Oswald in Süddeutsche Zeitung (Jan. 10), “this deal is too expensive for a country that is broke.” According to Stephan Lorz, writing in Börsen-Zeitung (Jan. 11), “The settlement will add 2.5 billion euros (US$2.6 billion) to federal spending this year, and the states will likely raise taxes or resort to substantial job and program cuts to make ends meet.” In response to the settlement, some states want to leave the trade employers’ union, which led the negotiations with the workers’ union, Verdi.

Berlin has taken this step and is not part of the costly settlement; other states want to follow Berlin’s example in future labor disputes, to enable them to work out individual settlements according to their fiscal condition. “Will [the states] do it?” asked Eva Roth in Frankfurter Rundschau (Jan. 17). “Going it alone could trigger many local labor disputes—and many strikes.” Muriel Büsser, writing in Rheinischer Merkur (Jan. 16), was not too concerned: “Consensus, compromise, peace of mind: For the next two years, the states will not bother us by following through with their threat.”

Sam Hapgood (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Jan. 10) put the blame for the costly deal on Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and observed wryly: “[He] keeps smiling and trying to convince us that everything is going to be all right.” Peter Hort went further and added in the same paper (Jan. 10): “If something doesn’t happen soon, Europe’s ‘sick man’ will miss the [E.U.] stability goal this year again.” Die Tageszeitung (Jan. 7) opined that the government’s lack of funds to shoulder wage hikes results from errors in recent tax reforms, leaving loopholes and allowing big businesses to avoid paying taxes. “The private sector has landed us in this mess, but civil servants, workers, and all those hit by budget cuts will be expected to dig us out. That is not fair.” Andreas Thewalt asserted (Hamburger Abendblatt, Jan. 11): “[This] is nothing more than a hollow compromise that will hurt the public.”

But some commentators voiced their contentment over the deal. As part of the settlement, workers had to relinquish one vacation day a year. “Employees will have to work longer for a pay raise,” wrote Christoph B. Schiltz (Berliner Morgenpost, Jan. 11). “This will set a precedent for future labor talks, when employees will have to match a pay hike with more work.”




From the December 2002 issue of World Press Review

United in Discord

By Tekla Szymanski

Germans are discontented. In past years, the country hesitantly, yet joyfully, marked unification each Oct. 3 and hoped for a brighter future regardless of the economic, political, and social hardships that came with the fall of the Wall. This year [2002], however, even cautious optimism was misplaced. Yes, the economic gap between East and West is narrowing, and even politically the two Germanys seem to have inched together (with the former Communist Party crushed in the general election in eastern Germany). But 12 years after unification, the “wall in the head” won’t budge.

Whereas in the past, eastern Germany was lagging behind economically and east Germans were the ones who complained about the sluggish economy while the west was still oblivious to the looming economic crisis, now western Germany is feeling the economic strain as well. “We either push reforms together—or not at all,” summarized Uwe-Jean Heuser in Die Zeit (Oct. 3). The tightening of the belt soon will affect the more affluent westerners. “Discontent and frustration will not be solely the business of east Germans anymore,” added Renate Rauch in Berliner Zeitung (Oct. 2). “Then, we truly will be united.”

“It is as if Germany has lost the ground under its feet,” mused Herbert Riehl-Heyse in Süddeutsche Zeitung (Oct. 2) under the headline “Joyless Unity.”

There are even some who suggest rebuilding the wall—but this time twice as Germany high. West Germans consider their eastern region the “Far East.” According to Berliner Zeitung (Oct. 1), 34 percent of westerners show no interest in eastern Germany, as opposed to 97 percent of easterners who have visited the west. But it is more than mere lack of interest or geographic distance that keeps Germans from celebrating. It is inhibition, too. “Germans are jealous of how easily a neighbor like France can rejoice in its holiday,” commented Eckhard Fuhr in Die Welt (Oct. 2). “Germans suffer from conflicting feelings. They suffer from the burden of history, from the guilt of their ancestors. They know how to suffer with ardor and passion....But unification has proved that Germans can also be lucky. There is no reason to suffer. We won’t get more united than we are now.”

“The ice age has got to come to an end,” demanded an editorial in Der Tagesspiegel (Oct. 4). “Compared with the economic hardships of East European countries, Germany’s fiscal troubles seem secondary....We’ve got to look ahead.”

But the current discontent is also the result of shifting political values. Matthias Arning, writing in Frankfurter Rundschau (Oct. 2), accused Germans of lack of vision and ideology—both had kept past politicians busy. Now, the sole ambition of politicians is to fulfill a campaign platform by the end of their legislative period. Unemployment, economic growth, health care, education—checked. “Such politics lack passion,” wrote Arning. But this could soon change: “Political vision awakens at a time of crisis,” he asserted.

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