Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Ressentiment: Greeks and Germans

My commentators have been almost unanimous in assigning the most scurrilous faults of character to the Greek people- a remarkable tribute to the power of the EU/German propaganda machine. For these faults the EU and most of my commentators prescribe 100 years of privation and debt peonage.

It might not surprise you that Paul Krugman gets a lot of hate mail, and lately a lot from Germany. Some of these latter have compared his criticisms to the German persecution of Jews and others. Because, I guess, criticizing a country's policies in the NYT is just like systematically exterminating a whole people.

Nietzsche, who had a keen instinct for his countrymen's weaknesses, loved the word Ressentiment. Here is Wikipedia on the word:

Ressentiment (French pronunciation: ​[rəsɑ̃timɑ̃]), in philosophy and psychology, is one of the forms of resentment or hostility. It is the French word for "resentment" (fr. Latin intensive prefix 're', and 'sentir' "to feel"). Ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one's frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one's frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the "cause" generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one's frustration. This value system is then used as a means of justifying one's own weaknesses by identifying the source of envy as objectively inferior, serving as a defense mechanism that prevents the resentful individual from addressing and overcoming their insecurities and flaws. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.

Maybe that explains the German anger that Jacob Soll, writing in The NYT, finds so destructive:

A DEAL has finally been reached that could keep Greece in the eurozone. Few are happy with the outcome. We’ve heard a lot about how the Greeks feel humiliated. But we’ve heard less about German anger, and we know they are angry. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble was reported to have started yelling during Saturday night’s negotiations. France and Italy have both made huge loans to Greece, but neither country has expressed hostility to Greece. Why is Germany so angry?

As an economic historian, I got a taste of this resentment during a conference on Greek sovereign debt held in Munich last week. It took place at the Center for Economic Studies and the Ifo Institute, which are headed by Hans-Werner Sinn, the German economist and longtime proponent of a Grexit. The conference included economists, accountants, journalists, investors and government officials from both Greece and Germany. Diverging views were aired by Mitu Gulati, the Duke law professor who helped devise an earlier Greek bailout; by Ashoka Mody, an economist, formerly of the International Monetary Fund, who preaches debt forgiveness; by accounting experts, who agreed that Greece’s total debts seem to have been inflated; and by Mr. Sinn.

But when the German economists spoke at the final session, a completely different tone took over the room. Within the economic theories and numbers came a moral message: The Germans were honest dupes and the Greeks corrupt, unreliable and incompetent. Both parties were reduced to caricatures of themselves. We’ve heard this story throughout the negotiations, but in that room, it was clear how much resentment shapes the views of German economists.

Naturally the Germans denied any culpability and showed no compassion for those whose lives they had destroyed.

That information brought back some lingering hostility and prejudice for me. In 1980 I happened to be in Germany for an atmospheric experiment and stopped in a store to pick up some items. A woman in perhaps her mid fifties, whom I suppose had heard me speaking English, approached and asked me if I was English or American. I admitted to being an American and she spit on me. I suppose she had her reasons. In any event, I walked away instead of grabbing a can of sauerkraut and beating her while screaming "that's for murdering my uncle, you Nazi bitch," but the thought did occur to me.

In any case, I had a good time in Germany, even though the experiment was a bust, and met a great many friendly and nice Germans. Still, it was hard to shake the feeling that everybody over fifty something was some kind of collaborator or enabler in one of the worst episodes of mass murder ever.

Nearly all those people are dead now, and Germany, more than any other recent perpetrator, has made a real effort to come to terms with its past misdeeds.

The thing I find most revolting about the Nazi killing machine was its utterly cold-blooded and mechanistic implementation. One of the most technologically and culturally advanced nations in the world turned its technology to utterly cold-blooded murder and hardly a German protested. There is a narrow moralism in German instinct and behavior that worships the rules and ignores compassion and real human morality. Put that together with their smoldering Ressentiment and bad things can happen.

Cultural traits have a durability that resists superficial education. As commentator hist, in one of his earlier apparitions, reminded us, the very German word for "debt" is the same as the word for "guilt."

Of course the Nazis have not come back to power in Germany, and Germany's actions are not like those of the Nazi era, but they are killing people and destroying lives. The callousness of the economists Soll describes, their certainty that it's all somebody else's fault, their willful disregard of the role played by their own actions, and their smoldering resentment look way too much like deja vu to me. And hist again reminds us that they are just following the rules, like good Germans should.