There are different ways to lose your head, some more successful than others. One method is the Hitler way. You sit brooding in Madame Tussauds, wondering whether you should first poison Blondie and then Eva, or vice versa, and then suddenly a man slides over the table and grabs you in a headlock like those fake wrestling shows on television. Then, of course, your head – pure beeswax – comes off.
The other way, I was reminded by a old Kirsten Dunst film on DVD this week, is the Marie Antoinette method. You have a glittering lifestyle in Versailles, interrupted only by typically surly French peasants demanding more bread. And since you are a compassionate person you tell them to eat cake instead.
They don't like it and, shortly afterwards, you lose your head.
Berlin's modern day equivalent of Marie A. is, of course, Finance Senator Thilo Sarrazin. He told the peasants – sorry, Hartz IV recipients – that they can feed themselves on €3.98 a day, significantly under the €4.25 daily dole standard in Germany. Sarrazin did not lose his head for this suggestion, but one cannot help feeling it is only a matter of time.
It was wet and cold the other day, and I was short of cash, so I decided to try out one of the Sarrazin menus. And to my surprise, I found he was right: müsli, banana, coffee, yogurt, honey for breakfast; vegetable soup for lunch; bread, cheese, ham for supper for a grand total of €3.80. Yet many hovering above the poverty line in Germany prefer to go to McDonald's where the value meal Sparmenü costs €4.99.
Los Angeles is apparently trying to ban more fast food restaurants from its poorer city centre, but there is no sensible (or democratic) way that we can persuade people not to eat Happy Meals.
The Sarrazin arithmetic, however, and the way it is being rejected by those who most need to save money, has come as a revelation to me. There is indeed a new austere mood in Germany – one could call it the Neue Sparsamkeit – yet it is the well-off who are starting to count the pennies rather than the poor who often live surprisingly wastefully.
My friend and neighbour has three fat cars but buys damaged biscuits directly from the Bahlsen factory in Tempelhof. He eats them at motorway cafes, preferring them to the dubious microwaved lasagna found at autobahn petrol stations. This strikes an emotional chord for me, as I clearly remember the sweet smell of the Bahlsen factory in Hannover-Linden in the early 1960s, when my parents took me to buy cheap Leibniz Kekse there. Of course, that was 40 years ago in an era when people still saved string.
The German middle class, however, is behaving as if this era is returning: as if prosperity, Wohlstand that is, has to be guarded by emergency measures. Even the well-off have to sign up for the Neue Sparsamkeit if they have young children or financially dependent elderly relatives. A family from Berlin now has to return from their annual skiing holiday in the Alps via Herzogenaurach in Bavaria in order to visit the Adidas factory outlet and stock up on cheap shoes for the kids.
Not poverty is driving this new thriftiness, of course, but an attempt to maintain an increasingly expensive family tradition (the ski holiday) and meet the social expectations of the children (designer clothes so they won't be mocked at school). There is no shame anymore around German middle class dinner tables about buying at discount grocer Aldi. Only with the wine do you still have to pretend that it comes from the little French shop on the corner.
One neighbour now routes his business trips around Memmingen so that he can buy his suits directly from the Hugo Boss outlet. And a lawyer friend regularly goes to auctions held by Berlin's BVG public transportation system largely because he has an obsession with umbrellas. Does such a thing as parasolphilia exist?
Quite simply, saving money is a return to the solid middle class value of good housekeeping. The new rich expose their vulgarity by throwing away money, so it follows that saving money expresses a quiet dignity. It is not being miserly but rather a respect for work, for craftsmanship, for valued possessions and the priorities of life.
As for hobby gardens, Germany's Schrebergärten are no longer the last preserve of the Spießer, as stuffy squares are known here. Now such small plots of earth are being used by academics, architects and even journalists, to grow vegetables and fruit. The surplus gooseberries, the ones not made into jam, are then given in part-payment to the babysitter or as a peace offering to the teacher upset by the boisterous behaviour of your difficult child.
The Neue Sparsamkeit is not a Fad. Nor is it a rebuke to the genuinely poor. The German middle class is simply developing defences at a time when the world seems to be crashing down on their heads. It is not crude Geiz – that is stinginess – to buy cheap biscuits at the Bahlsen factory. It is rather a rejection of consumer fetishism, a long overdue return to bourgeois values.