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7 January 2002updated 04 Dec 2012 9:19am

A reluctant people see the bigger picture

When the D-mark began in 1948, central Europe's most stable currency was the cigarette. No wonder Germans regret its passing. Tim Luckhurst reports.

By Tim Luckhurst

Gazing over Heidelberg from the vantage point of the castle gardens perched high above the swollen River Neckar – on the penultimate day of 2001 – Dieter described Germany’s one-Deutschmark coin to me in adoring detail. He pointed out the tiny capital F captured between the words Bundesrepublik Deutschland, which encircle the gently rounded eagle. “See, this one was made in Stuttgart. D means Munich.” He could not remember which mints other letters referred to. The Frankfurter Allgemeine could. The 31 December edition reminded Germans that G meant Karlsruhe and J referred to Hamburg.

Dieter was cross because the drinks machine at Heidelberg Castle would not accept his money. He assumed that it was being converted to accept euro coins, and he was not happy. The D-mark had delivered more than a cold can of cola when you wanted one. It had become synonymous with decades of prosperity and had divorced money from political ambition. And now? As I drove back towards Frankfurt, Dieter’s sort of scepticism was prevalent on radio phone-in shows. Chancellor Gerhard Schroder acknowledged it when he quoted from the Beatles and the music of his youth to tell Germans: “I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.”

Germans are saying a polite “hello” to the euro. But they do not seem to share the enthusiasm of their leader, who declared that they are “living at the dawn of a time European peoples have dreamt of for 100 years”. At the headquarters of the Bundesbank, the lights burned late into the night as staff made final preparations for the introduction of the new notes and coins. Outside, one retired teacher shrugged his shoulders and said he hoped that “the euro can one day be what the Deutschmark was”. Then he swept his arms around to indicate the towers of glass and steel that dominate the Frankfurt skyline and asked: “Is change always good?”

Germany’s oldest generation is not convinced. Those who experienced Nazism, communism, the cold war and reunification understandably tend to associate new ideas with danger. They regard the old D-mark as the creator of das Wirtschaftswunder (the economic boom) and question whether it is any accident that monetary union has coincided with Germany experiencing economic decline of a type that has left it struggling to comply with EU rules on debt as a proportion of national income.

In Frankfurt, Theo, a student of economics, talked to me beneath the giant sculpture of a hammering man, symbol of the city’s trade fairs: “Look, Europe is a good thing. Europe prevents wars. I am happy to be a European. You British don’t have to get it. You have a different history. This is not an economic change, it’s a political change. That is why we will make it work. We can see the bigger picture.”

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Writing in a Frankfurt newspaper, the former chancellor Helmut Kohl expressed his own satisfaction that the birth of the new currency does justice to the vision of those who founded the original European Economic Community “just years after the bitterness of the Second World War”. That sort of enthusiasm is absent from the streets of Frankfurt. The locals can be amusing about parking meters that have not been converted to euros and alarmist about fears that the supplies of euro notes will be insufficient to meet demand. But the scepticism is practical. Many citizens doubt the immediate efficiency of the euro, but there is widespread acceptance of the currency’s real objective.

Germans know that the Deutschmark was the best currency they ever had. It was dependably anonymous. After the inflationary calamity of Weimar, the old Reichsmark and the horrors that followed, stability mattered to the Germans. When the new currency was introduced by American diktat in June 1948, one commentator reflected: “This weekend, one of Europe’s most stable currencies was destroyed: the cigarette.”

For restraining inflation or buying cola at tourist resorts, the D-mark was beyond compare. Modest in appearance and universal in appeal, it spoke of unpretentious prosperity. It was exactly what Germany needed in 1948.

Frankfurt understands that the game has changed. This city of bankers knows that the new notes and coins are much more than tokens of monetary exchange. They are the physical expression of a political ambition. That is what makes talking to Frankfurters a constant challenge to anyone who has ever tried to make sense of Gordon Brown’s five economic tests.

Here, they understand that it was never about the economy. If an unpretentious currency was the only requirement for a stability-starved people, then the D-mark made the grade (whether minted in Munich, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe or Hamburg). The Deutschmark is, in the words of the analyst Thomas Schmid, a currency both “easy and difficult” to bid farewell to, precisely because economic certainty is being traded in for an ideological dream.

 

That message is ambrosia to British Eurosceptics. “Look,” they screech, “we were right! It’s all about deeper integration, federal government and European income tax. The euro is the basic substance of a transnational identity.”

And it is. I could not find anyone in Frankfurt or Heidelberg who disputed the notion. So 1 January 2002 marked the most significant phase yet in an economic journey to a political end. Here, Jacques Delors can speak of the need “to address the larger issue of political union” without sparking fits of apoplectic nationalism.

Dieter eventually got his drink from the castle cafe. Then he pointed down to the waters of the Neckar and said: “People will get frustrated about it. The D-mark never did us any harm. But the euro is like that river: it will just go on expanding. It is the future.”

It is this attitude that explains the contrast between British scepticism about the euro and the type on display in Germany. A nation where a few can still remember the days when the old Reichsmark traded at 4,200 billion to one US dollar is not entirely uncomfortable with the notion that stability of the political kind may create economic stability. And permanent political stability is what the euro means here. The real disappointment will come about only if the monetary advance is not matched by accelerated democratisation of the EU.

Not only does Britain exist on geographical premises separate from the European mainland: our leaders are arguing from separate premises, too.

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