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(Angus Greig for The Globe and Mail/Angus Greig for The Globe and Mail)
(Angus Greig for The Globe and Mail/Angus Greig for The Globe and Mail)

Doug Saunders

Germany's season of angst: why a prosperous nation is turning on itself Add to ...

Here in the industrial core of Europe, things have never been so good.

Germany's western flank has become the greatest exporter in the Western world, second only to China and far ahead of the United States. The container ports along the Rhine are working day and night to deliver record orders of German products to southern and western Europe, the U.S. and especially to China. Shops are busy. Home sales are rocking. Unemployment hasn't been so low since the eighties. In terms of growth, profits and productivity, the current German economic boom has surpassed even the “wonder years” of the 1950s. These are, by several measures, the most successful people in the world.

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Yet it is very hard to find anyone here who is happy about this state of affairs. Unlike the great Rhineland industrial booms of the 1950s and 1970s, this one is provoking Germans to turn against their government, against Europe, against technology and growth, against outsiders. It is an inward-looking, self-questioning moment in a country that the rest of Europe very badly needs to be involved in affairs outside its borders.

If previous German booms were marked with a national mood of confidence and optimism, this is a prosperity of angst and fear: According to one survey, 80 per cent of Germans now believe that the future will be worse than the present, that “everything is getting worse.” There is an entire consulting industry devoted to analyzing the “national angst.”

“What we're repeatedly finding is that, despite the very good economic data, there is a huge amount of unease and uncertainty,” says Stephan Grünewald, a Cologne-based psychologist who recently interviewed 7,000 citizens for his book Germany on the Couch. “There is a manifest crisis of trust. … The Germans have at the moment a mood, a feeling that things can go to pieces, a feeling of being in a situation in which one is completely incapable of action.”

In Dusseldorf and its neighbouring cities, I keep meeting people like Jurgen Klut. The 64-year-old lawyer, who advises major Rhineland companies, is the model of the stolid churchgoing burghers who have formed the core of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union for decades. During the 1970s boom, he backed the CDU and supported European unification; he is an ardent supporter of the euro over the old deutschmark, even today. He spends his summers in Turkey, and has no truck with his multi-ethnic city.

But something in the past couple years of crisis and recovery has made him want his country to withdraw from its continental obligations, he says. In this year's state election, he quit the CDU and joined one of the many fringe protest parties devoted to pulling Germany out of the European Union and ending immigration. “Previously, our involvement with Europe was good for us, but now it is doing nothing but expose us to danger,” he says. “We are losing our identity because of immigration, and we are losing our savings because we are expected to bail out our neighbours.”

This is an extremely widespread feeling: that Europe's strongest economy is so delicate and fragile that the outside world could destroy it at any moment.

The signs are everywhere

You can see it in numerous places – notably, this week, in the dark public mood toward the Greek bailout, which will cost German taxpayers hundreds of millions of euros, and in the widespread public resistance to a larger solution to the Greek crisis (which would entail rebuilding Greece, perhaps with a united European fiscal plan, so it would no longer be a country prone to debt and crisis). Angela Merkel, responding to that mood amid collapsing support for her party, has repeatedly delayed, postponed and weakened successive rescue efforts, a hesitancy and timidity that many analysts feel have made things much worse in Greece.

You can see it in Germany's decision not to participate in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization operation to support Libya's rebels – a decision driven, it appeared, entirely by a lack of public or political desire to get involved.

You can see it in the internal politics of Germany, which are defined by a new, outspoken sort of protester, a citizen infuriated by progress and change, known in the media by the neologism “Wutburger” (“angry citizen”). The actions of the Wutburgers have dominated headlines here for a year; their most dramatic action is a mass blockade designed to prevent Stuttgart from building a major railway station that would make it a hub in a high-speed intercontinental line running from France through to Hungary.

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