Mary Dejevsky: Why is Britain so often blind to Germany's success?

Angela Merkel's personal stock has risen in Europe and beyond
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The Independent Online

The script, as so often, was written by the victors, but also – on this first of many 70th anniversaries of the Second World War – by the victims. And Poland's commemoration in recent days demanded more of Russia than of Germany, on the grounds that Germany never tried to evade its responsibility for Poland's suffering. The Poles have in mind mostly, but not only, the Russian massacre of Polish officers at Katyn.

This does not mean, though, that Poland's relations with Germany are anything like friendly or relaxed, either at a state-to-state or at a personal level. There is an edge there, and a body of agonised – if now mostly inherited – memory. Just as there is, though we are less honest about it, in Britain.

British-German relations have long been "normal". We co-operate when necessary; all the proprieties are observed. What lingers, though, here as in Poland, is a kneejerk tendency to accentuate the negative, along with a victor's presumption of superiority. Decades on, a vast amount of comment on Germany, whether on politics, economics or social trends, seems to come with a warning swastika watermark.

Could this be why Germany's election campaign – voting is on 27 September – has been drowned out here almost before it has begun, as we tune up to recall Britain's finest hour? There is a Germany that conforms to our stereotype and a Germany that does not. We naturally prefer the former, as it casts us in a more flattering light. But the result is a wilful distortion of what 21st-century Germany is like.

As time has gone on, it might have been expected that the deep negativity would have faded, along with the myriad misjudgements that proceed from it. Have they just! Let's consider only the past four years in which Angela Merkel has been Chancellor.

The 2005 election was almost a tie. Ms Merkel, as leader of the majority party, was called upon to form a government. The first instinct on this side of the Channel was that she wouldn't manage it. The second was that, if she did, the coalition had no hope of lasting. And the third was that, if she misguidedly entered a "grand coalition" with the Socialists and by some miracle it lasted, it would be "bad for Germany". Oh yes?

Going into the election, it is not Ms Merkel, but her Socialist partners who are in difficulty. Their thunder has been stolen by the Linke, which is, as the name suggests, more to the left, and uncompromised by office. Ms Merkel has shown herself an adroit builder of consensus, and a shrewd judge of German opinion. As to whether the "grand coalition" has been bad for Germany, take a look at the reality.

Germany, along with France, was afflicted far less than Britain by the global banking crisis, not just because its financial sector was proportionately smaller, but because its attitude to credit was healthier. These maligned pillars of "old Europe" are now leading Europe out of recession; far ahead of Britain, which – we were assured – was better equipped to withstand the downturn.

The Euro-zone – pace the doom-mongers – did not collapse. On the contrary, the euro remains strong, much stronger than the ailing pound. It has sheltered the sick economies of East and Central Europe (which were built on the sand of our very own Anglo-Saxon model).

Yet Germany is still being pilloried by the British economic establishment for its export-dependency, for its – wildly successful – car scrappage scheme (which we imitated), for not aiming at faster growth, for not fuelling domestic demand, and (now) for having an excuse not to learn from its mistakes. Er, what mistakes might those have been?

Over four years, Ms Merkel's personal stock has risen, not just in Germany, but in Europe and beyond. She has emerged as an unostentatious, nuts-and-bolts politician, whose lacklustre campaign style – even now – belies her effectiveness in office. Yet how often is Ms Merkel, rather than the glitzier Barack Obama, held up as an example for modern politicians? How often do you hear about the pluses, rather than the minuses, of the German model? It is as though, in Britain, we can't quite bring ourselves to do it.

Ms Merkel could be forgiven for approaching this month of anniversaries with gritted teeth. As a former East German, she grew up in the country that exemplified Germany's punishment, which is a political advantage now. But it still cannot be easy to turn up, time and again, as today's leader of yesterday's defeated enemy; a necessary accoutrement of Europe's still incomplete reconciliation. This is why, even in this election period, she must be ultra-discreet about Germany's success. Our own, very British, reasons for under-rating Germany's success are less noble.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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