Dan Simpson: As Germany sees it

Germans today are economically prosperous and eminently sensible

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When I came to Germany a week ago I had two questions in mind, apart from the predictable, “Could the beer be as good as it is claimed to be?” (It is.)

The first is, how is it that the German economy is flourishing, relatively speaking, when the economy of the rest of Europe remains in the doldrums? The second is, what do Germans think about the “crisis” in the Crimea, by comparison to the mini-storm raging in the United States on the subject?

The German economy is predicted to grow about 2 percent in 2014, about double what is expected of France, my next stop. Employment in Germany is some 5 percent higher than it was in 2007 — before the 2008 world recession that the United States set off with its banks’ regulations-free approach to mortgage lending. Germany’s economy also continues to perform better than those of its partners in the 28-nation European Union and the 17-nation eurozone area.

Why? Germans work hard.

We have spent most of our time in the former East Berlin, the former capital of the German Democratic Republic, the former home of Soviet cradle-to-grave socialism. Nevertheless, people here work hard. They are also big, possibly a heritage from the pre-World War I German king who sought soldiers as large as possible — big, not wide-bodied American fat.

Then there is the country’s location. It sits at an unavoidable east-west, north-south crossroads of Central Europe, with good waterways and important ports. It still has a real industrial base, some 28 percent of the economy, unlike America where no one seems to take it amiss that everything is made in China and imported, paid for by borrowing.

Germany’s financial structure is sound, and the Germans are bludgeoning the more corrupt Europeans into cleaning up their banks. The EU is working on an agreement to prevent potential outlaw financial institutions such as Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase from unleashing chaos on other banks in the European system through their own rapacious actions.

Another German advantage lies in its state system. The 16 German states have much more autonomy from Berlin than U.S. states have from Washington, in spite of the American states-right caterwauling, Confederate flags and claims of independence in places like Alaska, South Carolina and Texas. Many German cities are very much centers of political and economic power in their own right.

Finally, there is the question of leadership. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is easily the most highly respected head of government of a large, important country at the moment. In Europe she is the “go-to” person for economic and political leadership. She is apparently unflappable — even when some idiot country’s intelligence service bugs her cellphone for years — and lacks any of the sometimes absurd characteristics of France’s Francois Hollande, the United Kingdom’s David Cameron or Russia’s bareback rider Vladimir V. Putin, not to mention Washington’s sorry cast of characters, who are busy posturing over the Crimea matter.

Second question: What does this bunch think about Crimea-Russia-Ukraine?

First of all, the Europe I have seen so far on this trip is not Europe 1914, with leaders itching to go to war. The idea of going to war over the Crimea — what German media call the “Krim-Krise” — is considered, well, insane. Germany did catastrophic war twice in the 20th century and has no intention of doing so again.

Germany’s military expenditure is just over 1 percent of gross domestic product and the country continues to reduce the size of its army despite providing 1,450 troops for international peacekeeping and nearly 5,000 in Afghanistan. During the Cold War, Germany of course benefited from having the United States and the rest of NATO see to its defense, another element in its post-war economic resurgence, but that presence, which still stands at about 50,000 U.S. troops, is now no longer necessary.

That doesn’t mean Germans love the Russians. Asked where a particularly important exhibit of gold artifacts were now, a museum attendant replied, “Probably in Russia,” in reference to everything, including industrial installations, the Soviets hauled out of East Germany during its occupation. Many Ukrainians welcomed the Germans during World War II to counterbalance the Soviets.

Nonetheless, Ms. Merkel put it well when asked about the childish face-off between the Americans and the Russians over Crimea. She said, “Thank God I was able to leave the Cold War behind.”

In that context, I have found considerable angst here about U.S. National Security Agency spying on Germans as well as Americans and everyone else. People who lived with the Nazi Gestapo and East German Stasi are not going to be good-tempered about anyone spying on them. Edward J. Snowden is probably a hero here. President Barack Obama isn’t anymore.

Next stop, Paris.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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