The ECB thinks it is learning the lessons of 1923, but it's not

It might be learning from 1973 — but those lessons don't apply anymore.

When editors of Bild, Germany’s best-selling tabloid newspaper, arrived at the European Central Bank in March 2012 to grill its president about the eurozone crisis, they brought with them an unusual gift. It was a Prussian military helmet to remind Mario Draghi that back in 2010 the tabloid had deemed him the most "Germanic" of candidates for the ECB’s top slot.

Of course, such editorial approval quickly disappeared after Draghi committed the ECB to buying unlimited quantities of eurozone government bonds amid efforts to do “whatever it takes” to solve the single currency’s crisis. But nevertheless the brief encounter revealed the extent of Germany’s cultural influence over Europe’s monetary guardian. Germans, it is often said, make for better central bankers: prudent and cautious, they like to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going.

Today we often read in news media of the German psychological "aversion" to inflationary policies. This antipathy has often been attributed by politicians, bankers and journalists to the traumatic events of 1923 when Germany succumbed to the full horrors of hyperinflation. Wheelbarrows full of paper money. Children building small fortresses on the pavement with thick wads of bank notes. We have all seen the photos.

But this was an event that occurred almost ninety years ago; few, if any, Germans today have living memory of it. Moreover, other European countries, such as Hungary and Austria, underwent similar inflationary excess during the 20th century and fail to hold price stability in the same regard.

A national economic mythology surrounds inflation in Germany, and it is one that is having a disruptive impact on the eurozone crisis. With every decision the ECB makes, Draghi has to factor in the expected response of the hawkish Germans. But why has one historical event etched itself upon German popular consciousness, whereas an episode just as devastating, such as mass unemployment, has not? After all, the Weimar Republic in 1920s Germany had to contend with joblessness and ever-lengthening dole queues.

Mass unemployment, like the hyperinflation, was a major reason why the German electorate voted in droves for extreme left- and right-wing parties. Yet the memory of rampant redundancy faded in the post-war era as high rates of economic growth allowed West Germans to enjoy unprecedented job opportunities.

Why then the special attention devoted to hyperinflation? The answer lies in the virtue of monetary mythology. For all the national trauma caused by the events in 1923, the memory of hyperinflation has proved over the decades a very convenient tool for managing price expectations and building a strong belief in the post-war West German central bank.

The story of 1923 has been lapped up by the news media in recent years. “For the Bundesbank, it had always been taboo to finance the state by purchasing its sovereign bonds,” argued Der Spiegel in late 2011. “Behind this belief was the terrifying example of its predecessor, the Reichsbank, which had printed money with abandon in the 1920s in order to support the budget of the Weimar Republic. The result was a hyperinflation that has become deeply entrenched in the collective memory of Germans.”

Similarly, The Economist declared in 2010 that, “Germany’s interwar experience with hyperinflation famously created a political climate amenable to the rise of Adolph Hitler and generated sufficient national trauma that the German central bank (and its descendent, the ECB) has ever since focused first, second and last on keeping inflation well in check.”

Indeed, when asked by The Guardian in late 2011 why the Berlin government was so reluctant to allow the ECB to become last lender of resort for eurozone member states, Hans-Werner Sinn, president of the influential Munich-based Ifo Institute for Economic Research replied, “Because it leads to inflation. We know this from our own history. It’s what Germany did until 1923.”

Quotes like those above litter media coverage of German monetary and foreign policy. But to a large extent they merely echo history lessons that were skilfully articulated by German policymakers in the post-war era.

The importance of being Ernst

A central bank’s power is derived from its credibility with the markets which, in turn, are influenced as much by psychological factors as underlying economic fundamentals. Prior to the introduction of the euro currency, the Bundesbank was able to carefully construct an image of prudence to keep the deutschmark stable - primarily by means of strong policy initiatives and a clear communications strategy.

Officials in Frankfurt used the example of hyperinflation in order to reassure markets that never again would a German state descend into the realm of monetary madness. It was a simple and effective narrative: 1923 was an event that evaporated people’s savings, destroyed the political support of moderate parties, and helped pave the way toward fascist dictatorship. An irresponsible monetary policy, the Bundesbank argued, was unimaginable in a post-war German state.

Just look at the 1970s, for instance - a decade when the old truths of monetary policy no longer seemed to apply. The Phillips curve, an erstwhile economic ‘law’ that hitherto demonstrated the inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment rates, dissipated amid economic turmoil. Suddenly governments had to contend with both problems at the same time, a new phenomenon dubbed ‘stagflation’.

Moreover, the Bretton Woods system collapsed in 1971. European states no longer had the benefit of fixing their currency exchange rates to the American greenback to hold inflation expectations steady. The international rules had changed, and all major economies soon opted for a system of floating exchange rates.

Central bankers in Europe had to fight to keep the trust of international markets in the midst of energy price spikes and economic volatility. In Germany, then, potential inflationary dangers took on new prominence during the 1970s, appearing in Bundesbank presidential speeches, policy documents and national debates. Central bank press statements and conferences allowed officials to complement and reinforce the institution’s hard-line policy actions with historical justification.

The strategy worked. In 1974 most industrialised economies had double digit inflation rates. By contrast West Germany had an inflation rate of 7 per cent, which steadily declined thereafter until 1979. Fifty years after wheelbarrows full of paper money, the deutschmark had become the centre of gravity in the European currency market.

The useful lessons of 1923 tapped into the Germans’ imagination. Cultural memory, it seems, has its own form of economics. When asked about his institution’s influence and power, Karl Otto Pöhl, the central bank’s president during the 1980s, quoted Stalin’s ironic remark, “How many divisions has the Pope?” Other European central bankers could only look with envy at the Bundesbank’s international prestige.

Don’t mention the euro

But what proved a useful instrument for the West German central bank in the decades following the Second World War, now acts as a hindrance to an effective solution to the eurozone crisis. The example of hyperinflation continues to be wielded by German policymakers as a means of influencing the parameters of European monetary debate.

News media still happily recount the narrative, almost without thinking. The Financial Times warned last October, “[t]he eurozone sovereign debt crisis has already generated a lot of angst in Germany – fears about hyperinflation wiping out savings, the ballooning cost of bailouts and the nagging doubt that life was more certain with the deutschmark in one’s pocket.”

Statements like these only serve to reinforce the German case for European austerity; for the impression is given that Germans can’t help but be psychologically opposed to inflationary policies.

And the ECB, for its part, is in a difficult position. The institution owes an enormous intellectual debt to the hawkish Bundesbank: its statutes are modelled on the Bundesbank’s, and it is no accident that the ECB’s headquarters can be found in Frankfurt – a symbolic act that stresses its link with Germany.

But this debt is now becoming an actual burden. The arena of central banking has changed dramatically since the financial crisis. Almost by necessity, monetary policy has become increasingly blurred with that of fiscal in order to counter the fallout stemming from market turmoil.

Indeed, many business commentators have accused the ECB of being too focused on fighting inflation and not enough on stimulating the floundering European economy. It is an accusation that Draghi is all too aware of. The Italian, however, is constrained by the tall shadow of the Bundesbank.

During the Bild interview, for instance, his interrogators put forward the following question: “For the Germans, the head of a central bank must be strictly against inflation, independent of politics and for a strong euro. In this sense, how German are you?” There was a pause. Draghi had to choose his words carefully.

“These are indeed German virtues,” the Italian responded. “Germany is a role model [for the ECB] … In the 20th century the Germans had terrible experiences with inflation. It destroys value and makes economic planning impossible. More still, it can literally destroy the society of a country.”

But the Bundesbank’s opposition to government bond purchases has substantially delayed the ECB’s eventual course of action. It was only last September, despite much German protest, that the ECB president adopted an open-ended commitment to buy up periphery short-term sovereign bonds – arguably seen as a core tenet of any effective solution to the eurozone’s woes.

An event that occurred nine decades ago continues to shape the contours of monetary debate in Europe today. But Germany’s national priorities do not necessarily make for good supranational ones.

When the editors of Bild reminded the ECB president that the tabloid cheekily portrayed him wearing a Pickelhaube on its front-page in 2010, Draghi shared his thoughts on the image: “I quite liked it actually. The Prussian is a good symbol for the most important job of the ECB: to maintain price stability and protect European savers.” It is unlikely, however, that the Prussian helmet will point Draghi in the right direction.

The ECB’s credibility now rests on an effective response to the eurozone crisis. The central bank’s president is quite right when he argues that inflation “destroys value and makes economic planning impossible.” But Draghi now has an opportunity to break from the past.

Were the ECB’s monetary chief to spearhead a successful solution to the euro’s troubles – one that is likely to depart significantly from Bundesbank orthodoxy – he may well go on to form a powerful, new narrative that will in turn shape the parameters of monetary debate in Europe.

Mario Draghi. Photograph: Getty Images

Simon Mee is a freelance journalist currently undertaking doctoral research in German economic history at Oxford University.

Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland