Specter of financial wipeout haunts Germans
Germans are haunted as few other nations can be by memories of most of their money practically vanishing during the 20th century.
The people of Europe's biggest economy are "risk averse" as a result, according to Manfred Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Heidelberg who has written extensively on German anxiety.
In 1923, the Great Inflation wiped out Germans' money for the first time. In 1948, most savings vanished at the stroke of a pen when the old currency was demonetized. In 1990, it was the turn of East Germans to lose half the value of larger savings.
In the past month, Berlin has moved to guarantee personal savings at banks, guarantee interbank lending, and prop up the shakiest banks but the world crisis has caused few bankruptcies or joblessness among ordinary Germans yet.
A key reason for that has been the absence of any real-estate bubble like those in Spain, Britain and the United States.
"Just the opposite," told the Bundesrat, Germany’s upper chamber of parliament. Real-estate prices in the past decade had been low compared to earlier times.
"The second point, which plays a big role, is that we have a savings rate in Germany of 10 to 11 percent," he said, unlike the United States with a negative savings rate of minus 0.5 percent, requiring it to suck in other nations' surplus cash.
"We have also not had a credit crunch in recent weeks and months," Steinbrueck added, though business did face higher interest charges.
German stocks have tanked but according to a recent poll, only one in five Germans feels personally concerned by the current financial crisis and the vast majority continues to trust their banks.
In a survey of more than 1,000 people, the GfK research company found that even among those who had invested in financial markets, the rate increased only to 30 percent, and thus remained "moderate."
In an interview, political science professor Schmidt said it was characteristic of Germans, when compared to English-speaking nations, that they have "a particularly high expectation that the government will do something" to solve the problem.
Tracing Germans' need for security to the Great Inflation of 1923 and the Currency Re-issue of 1948, he said Germans do not want to lose hard-earned savings ever again. "It was a traumatic experience for the entire nation," he said.
Herbert Partuschke, 90, a retired Hamburg engineer, recalled this week how nine-tenths of the value of personal savings were simply lopped off bank accounts in 1948 when the new currency, the Deutschmark, was introduced to cure a massive monetary overhang.
"Everybody knew that something had to be done," he said. "It threw us back but everybody was more or less equally affected."
Schmidt said the deletion of savings was the moment when Germans were taxed with the cost of waging the Second World War.
The new currency, which has since been replaced by the euro (without any loss of savings), proved a success for Germany.
In the decades since, Germans have saved hard and most still prefer solid, safe investments with modest rates of return.
"Real estate keeps its value," said Partuschke.
Detlev Liepmann, a psychology professor at the Free University of Berlin, said it was a wider characteristic of continental Europeans like the Germans and the French that they were not used to living on credit, as many British and American citizens had done.
Liepmann, who specializes in economic and social issues in psychology, also observed that Germans tended to be easier to calm.
"The Germans expect the state to intervene and the state soothes them," he said in an interview.
Recent polls suggest that Germans have largely welcomed action by their government, including 480 billion euros (605 billion dollars) in funding to rescue banks. The legislation was passed with little criticism by opposition parties.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats saw their support rise from 35 to 37 percent as the crisis unfolded, Forsa pollsters said last week.