Restlessly civil in Germany

Restlessly civil in Germany
Photo: DPA
The economy is tanking, people are losing their jobs, but is Germany really on the brink of widespread civil unrest? The Local’s Marc Young explains why you won’t see riots in central Berlin or Munich this summer.

If you scanned the headlines of major European newspapers this week, you’d be forgiven for thinking Germany was on the verge of collapsing into the kind of chaos last seen as the Weimar Republic disintegrated.

A group of respected economic institutes warned Europe’s largest economy would suffer its worst recession since the Great Depression this year – with gross domestic product likely to shrink by a whopping six percent.

This, in turn, caused several leading German public figures to warn the country could face civil unrest in the coming months.

Michael Sommer, the head of DGB trade union association, said the government had to act to head off mass layoffs that would be considered a “declaration of war” by German workers. And Gesine Schwan, the Social Democratic Party’s candidate for Germany’s largely symbolic presidency, said there was an “explosive mood” across the country. Socialist firebrand Oskar Lafontaine, the head of The Left party, even started calling for Germans to abduct their bosses as has happened in France recently.

So does this herald the death knell Germany’s so lauded “consensus model” of industrial relations? Are we likely to see angry Teutons take to the streets to call for their leaders’ heads like their French neighbours so often do? Should Chancellor Angela Merkel be worried?

The short answer is no.

Now, the minute the riled, unwashed masses start marching through central Berlin I’ll naturally be the first to eat crow while heading to the back of the mob to join in shouts of: “No justice, no peace!” However, Germany could currently be more described as being restlessly civil rather than on the verge of experiencing civil unrest.

Sure, plenty of people are annoyed at the bankers and callow capitalists responsible for the global economic crisis, but frankly this is nothing new in Germany.

Josef Ackermann, the CEO of Deutsche Bank, has for years been widely reviled here – rightly or wrongly – as the epitome of corporate evil. And German politicians were railing against “locust” speculators endangering the little guy for their own gain long before the global financial crisis started.

Maybe it’s because this is a country that has been dealing with the economic hangover of its reunification, but Germans have been coping with no or meagre growth and high unemployment for the better part of two decades.

Union boss Sommer, of course, has a good reason to paint a picture of a riled proletariat prepared to paralyse the government and topple the captains of industry.

He’s trying to protect the interests of the trade unionists he represents. Sommer wants to prod the government to spend more – a cool €100 million – on stimulus measures and he also hopes to scare employers from putting thousands of potentially volatile workers out on the street.

Presidential candidate Schwan, who is hoping to boost her fairly hopeless quest to unseat incumbent Horst Köhler, even admitted on Friday she didn’t expect “burning barricades” anytime soon.

Indeed. Nor do I.

Now somebody just needs to tell Lafontaine that kidnapping German executives isn’t the way to get the economy back on track either.

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