Joachim Fritz-Vannahme
14. October 2019

German nightmares, Italian dreams

Everybody’s talking about Brexit. Not today!

“Bella Italia und Bella Germania” was a debate between Italian opinion multipliers and German think tank representatives: What about the #Italian-German_relationship, the Europäische Akademie Berlin, the #Ossigeno per l’informazione and the German Embassy in Rome wanted to know.

The venue was the #Bibliotheca Hertziana, enchantingly located at the end of the Spanish Steps and famous as the Max Planck Institute for Art History. I was honored to give the opening lecture, which is shortened below.

Photos: Joachim Fritz-Vannahme




The last speaker in Rome was Germany’s Minister for European Affairs, #Michael_Roth. “It is important to us that #Italy, the second strongest industrial nation in the European Union, regains its former strength. We don’t need the calculator as much as we need political wisdom”.

This always includes two in bilateral relations. And under the old government, dominated by the tight right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, permafrost prevailed for months not only between Berlin and Rome, but even more so between Rome and Paris, Rome and Brussels.

That should now be over. At least that’s how both sides think and talk, as this round of discussions in Rome showed.


Doubts about Europe’s community of values


Minister Roth also spoke of “Europe as a community of values”. A lot of doubts had been raised as to whether this Europe of ours would really take its word for it. He did not mention Hungary or Poland. Especially not Italy.

Süddeutsche Zeitung published a survey among East and West Germans on 3 October. Among other questions this one: “In which countries of the EU do they think democracy is endangered?

Poland and Hungary ranked first and second in this dull Champions League, which should come as no surprise.

Italy takes third place, however: 21 percent of West Germans and 18 percent of East Germans are worried about democracy in Italy.


Have Germans and Italians become friends strangers to each other?


In 2016, i.e. at the time of Matteo Renzi’s government, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, which is close to the SPD, questioned Germans and Italians in both countries about the image of each other.

The title “Fremde Freunde” (Foreign Friends) doesn’t perfectly describe the two’s emotional situations, but it does do it quite well.

Here are just a few excerpts. Question: Italy is still doing too little to reform the state and the economy.

80 percent of the Italians surveyed agree – and 70 percent of the Germans surveyed. So much unity is surprising.

Further: A large part of Italy’s economic situation is self-inflicted. Yes, 78 percent of Italians say so. Yes, say 75 percent of Germans.


Should Germany be more considerate of others?


Question: In the euro crisis, Germany should show more consideration for other countries. Yes, it should, say 75 percent of Italians. Yes, it should, say only 29 percent of Germans.

Which term best describes the German mentality? By the way, the survey offered 18 terms, from frugal to generous. For 93 percent of Germans and 92 percent of Italians, “diligently” is the best way to describe the character of the German.

And which attribute best describes the Italian mentality?92 percent of Germans ticked the word “enjoyable” for the Italians here. Among the Italians surveyed, however, only 66 percent considered “gourmet” to be correct.


Do you know the country where the lemons bloom?


If a German thinks of Italy, then Goethe’s verses come to his mind quite often:

“Do you know the country where the lemons bloom…”,

For the German, Italy is a land of longing, an Arcadia – and be it only for holidays in Tuscany or at the Lido di Jesolo.

Different for the modern Italian. For him, Germany is not a country of longing, it is a place of work. This began as early as the imperial era with the miners and has led to Wolfsburg being the community with the highest proportion of Italian citizens – and many actually come from Palermo.

A country of longing here, a workplace there: these two superficially little political experiences have shaped bilateral relations to this day.

This becomes particularly apparent when there are political tensions between the two countries.


Three points of contention have shaped Italian-German relations over the past decade.

Firstly, the refugee crisis.

Secondly, the euro crisis.

And thirdly, how to deal with the history of the 20th century.


Refugees are a European and not an Italian problem


“Thousands of refugees are not an Italian problem, but a European one.” This is what Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said in 2011.The answer to Berlin came promptly from the then Federal Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich: “Italy must settle its refugee problem itself”.

In Germany, such thinking almost fell into oblivion in 2019, thank God. Most members of the political class in Berlin today think that refugees are a European problem.

Matteo Salvini’s brutal refugee policy had many reasons, but one of the reasons must not be forgotten – the cold-hearted and completely unhelpful attitude of the German government.

The Chancellor’s name in 2011 and 2019 was always Angela Merkel.

It is well known that Merkel abruptly changed her refugee policy in late summer 2015.

In July, Chancellor Merkel told 14-year-old Palestinian student Reem that Germany could not accept all refugees. Reem burst into tears.

On the evening of 4 September 2015, the then Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann called the Berlin Chancellery.

Merkel and he then decided that thousands of refugees from Hungary were allowed to cross the borders into Austria and Germany – even if they entered from a safe third country according to EU rules and therefore actually had to be sent back there.

In my opinion, Merkel acted correctly in human terms at the time. Politically, there was perhaps no more time for consultation in this emergency situation.  Politically momentous, however, was her lonely decision. The German Chancellor has thus completely realigned the EU’s refugee policy. At that time Italy was asked as little as France or Poland.


The euro crisis has left deep marks between the two


Second point of conflict between Germans and Italians: the euro crisis.

It has left at least as deep a mark on German-Italian relations as the refugee crisis.

There is a growing feeling in Italy that the EU and the euro are primarily serving one country: Germany. According to the 2016 survey, 81% of Italians feel that Germany is abusing its dominant position in the EU at the expense of weaker countries like Italy. I would bet that at least 81 percent of the Italians surveyed today would respond in the same way.


Not only the Germans complain about Italy’s high debts


Conversely, the published opinion in Germany repeatedly complains about Italy’s high debt level.

In fact, at around 132 percent of GDP, Italy’s debt is only surpassed by Greece, where it is 181 percent. By contrast, Germany will fall below the 60 percent mark this year for the first time since 2002.

German politicians are certainly not alone in their criticism of Italy’s high debt level: The EU Commission in Brussels already threatened to impose penalties in 2018 and 2019. And the International Monetary Fund has also long regarded Italy’s debt as a risk.

In all these judgments and accusations, the differences in economic development between the two countries in recent years certainly play a major role.

Italy is in the longest economic crisis since the state was founded in 1861. Per capita income today is 12% lower than ten years ago, and industrial production has fallen by 25%.


Every second Italian sees only the disadvantages of the euro


This is why more than half of the Italians see more disadvantages than advantages in the euro. Germany, on the other hand, has been experiencing a steady decline in unemployment and stable economic growth for years.

But is that why the Germans have taken the euro more to heart than the Italians?

No. For us, it is not the euro itself that has long been ridiculed as a euro, as a more expensive euro, which, by the way, is completely unjustified, but it is the European Central Bank’s ongoing low-interest policy that is now drawing the wrath of many citizens.

Germany is impoverished because of this low-interest policy – that is a common lament north of the Alps. The Italian Draghi, caricatured with pointed teeth as Count Draghila in the Bild-Zeitung and in the magazine Cicero, robs the poor German saver of his sour savings.

Wrong: At over 6 trillion euros, German citizens own around 300 billion more than in 2018.

Since Mario Draghi took office in 2011, Germans have become richer by around one trillion euros.

Because those who find work and whose wages rise save more – at least if they have grown up in thrifty Germany.

And those who hardly have to pay interest can buy an apartment or build a house more easily. Germans like to forget all this when they complain about low interest rates.


Only one in two Germans lives in their own four walls


In the EU, an average of 69 percent of all people live within their own four walls. In Germany, however, it is only 51 percent, the lowest level in the EU. In Italy, more than 72 percent live in their own country.

So many Germans only own a small savings account.

The weekly Die Zeit also calculated now: “The lower 40 percent of households have practically no financial assets after deducting their debts. They can’t put much aside. That’s why they wouldn’t get much out of it if interest rates rose.

The German politicians’ iron faith in the “black zero”, the zero new debt, was shaken for the first time this year by the highest authorities. A few days ago, the Council of Economists’ Experts, which advises the government, called for a departure from the orthodoxy of thrift.


Germany also suffers from deficiencies in its infrastructure


Germany suffers from deficiencies in its infrastructure, needs more funds for digitisation and, above all, more investment in the fight against climate change.

Germans are saving too much – and Germany is investing too little. Do the European Commission, the OECD, the World Bank, etc., also say that the German government is not investing enough?

Now to the third point of conflict in German-Italian relations: how to deal with the history of the 20th century.

Dealing with the past is a very German word. Especially in the old West German Republic, it had an identity-forming effect.

But less so in the former GDR, which saw itself as an antifascist workers’ and peasants’ republic with a flawless antifascist prehistory and an “antifascist protective wall”, i.e. the highly armed German-German border.


Italy has ended the reckoning with fascism too early


Already in 1946 Italy ended the reckoning with fascism with an amnesty law. Which was perhaps a mistake…

West Germany was not open to this path. On the one hand it was occupied by Americans, British and French with their own occupation zones. There the Allies also held court over Nazis and their helpers.

The Nuremberg Trials before the International Military Tribunal, which lasted until April 1949, attracted international attention. This was followed later by the series of Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials in the sixties and seventies. The exhibitions on the crimes of the Wehrmacht between 1995 and 2004 also belong to the series on coming to terms with the past. Italy has not experienced anything comparable.

Nazi Germany waged a war of occupation in Western Europe, and a war of annihilation in Eastern Europe and Russia. The war of annihilation against Jews, Slavs and Roma has always been the focus of public opinion in Germany.

German war crimes in Italy are little known to many Germans
The war crimes in Italy, Greece and the Balkans were shaded and sometimes forgotten.

With regard to Italy, all German governments refer to the so-called Property Treaty of 1962, which regulated all questions of reparation.

Italy’s governments take a different view. And Italian judges too. I am not a lawyer and do not want to decide here what will soon be decided before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The German public is not very aware of the German war crimes committed in Italy between September 1943 and May 1945 for the reasons I have given.

Names such as Marzabotto or the Ardeatine Caves are only pale on our mental maps. The frequent commemorative visits of our Federal Presidents to these places do little to change this.

Conversely, there is a picture of Italy in Germany which is shaped by violent, fascist football fans.


How naturally rights show the “Saluto Romano


At least the well-informed media users in Germany also wonder how carelessly, negligently, even of course right-wing radical circles in public show the fascist Roman greeting, the “Saluto Romano”, and not only in Mussolini’s birthplace.

The recently deceased writer Andrea Camilleri wrote about his compatriots: “If history really should be the teacher of life, it is in a school that the Italians never attended”.

Question of a Camilleri reading German: So which school did we Germans actually go to?

How useful and instructive were over seventy years of lessons in coming to terms with the past actually, when Nazi slogans and symbols can be heard again on German streets today – and people had to die in Halle because a right-wing extremist anti-Semite wanted to storm a synagogue?




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