The Economic Catastrophe That Germany Can't Forget : Planet Money To understand why Germany is so freaked out by what Europe's central bank is doing, you need to go back nearly a century.
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The Economic Catastrophe That Germany Can't Forget

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The Economic Catastrophe That Germany Can't Forget

The Economic Catastrophe That Germany Can't Forget

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These days, many European countries are struggling to dig themselves out of debt and many have turned to one place for cash - the European Central Bank. That's because it has the unique ability to print unlimited amounts of euros, and it could in theory lend that money to the governments in need. There's just one problem, Europe's biggest economy hates that idea.

Zoe Chace and Caitlin Kenney with NPR's Planet Money team explain.

CAITLIN KENNEY: To understand why Germany is so freaked out about a central bank lending money to governments in trouble, you need to go back nearly 100 years, when the German central bank did just that.

ZOE CHACE: After the First World War, Germany was in a hole of debt. No other country would lend it money. So Germany's central bank stepped in. It printed a bunch of money and lent it to the government.

KENNEY: But it printed too much money - way too much. Historian Carl Ludwig-Holtfrerich says the money started losing value by the second.

CARL LUDWIG: There's this famous example that somebody sits in a pub and orders a beer. And immediately when the waiter carries the beer to his table, he orders the second one. And the waiter says, well, you haven't finished. Yes, but if I don't order now, prices will be double before I finish my first beer.


CHACE: You may have heard of this - the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic, arguably the most destructive case of inflation in history. People carted money around in wheelbarrows to do their shopping. At one point, it cost one million marks to mail a letter. The bills were so worthless, they were used as wallpaper in German bathrooms.

KENNEY: This catastrophic economic policy, many Germans believe it led to what happened next, something much worse - Adolf Hitler. Here's journalist Klaus Frankenberger.

KLAUS FRANKENBERGER: If you have gone through hyperinflation of the 1920s or after the war, and you saw what social distress, dislocation it brought, and eventually, you know, prepared the way for the Nazi to takeover, these historical experience tell every policy maker: You don't mess around with inflation. Never. You don't do this.

CHACE: So, fast forward 70 years from Germany's inflation nightmare to 1992. European countries are setting up the euro. This brand new currency needs a brand new central bank.

KENNEY: Germany was the biggest economy in Europe, so it had a lot of influence. The central bank's building, it's physically located in Germany in Frankfurt. The central bank's mission, also very German.

CHACE: Keep inflation in check. That's it.

KENNEY: It's so important to them, they even want children to understand it. They have this cartoon on their website which depicts inflation as this scary monster.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Wait a second. I know you. You're inflation.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ooh, well done. Because you're so clever, I'm going to give everyone here a cash price.

WOMAN: No, don't.

MAN: Wow, this is great.

WOMAN: No, it's not. If there's too much money around for the same number of products, it pushes up prices and money loses its value.

CHACE: This, in the German mindset, is all the central bank is supposed to worry about - inflation. It's not supposed to be bailing out governments. It's not supposed create money in order to buy the bonds of deadbeat countries.

KENNEY: But ever since Greece first put up its hand and said, we need help, someone needs to loan us money, that's exactly what the European Central Bank been doing, for more than a year now.

CHACE: The European Central Bank says that buying bonds doesn't mean it's putting more money into circulation. But Germans hate it. Germans like Helmut Schlesinger. He was there when the European Central Bank was created in 1992, and doesn't like to see a central bank with mission creep, a central bank doing the thing that Germans fear most.

HELMUT SCHLESINGER: We must have the monetary process under control. And not saying, well, say let us buy 600 billion of government bonds by the central banks in half a year. And then we hope that everything is fine. As we can see, it's not so much fine.

CHACE: Greece, Portugal, the rest of the troubled countries, they're still in trouble.

KENNEY: And Schlesinger not the only former central banker who's worried about this. There's a new ex-central banker who just resigned from the European Central Bank last week, Jurgen Stark, the top-ranking German. Officially, the central bank says he resigned for personal reasons, but it's no secret he too hated the bond-buying program.

CHACE: After his resignation, markets freaked out. It sent the message that there's still not consensus in Europe over how to fight the debt crisis. Germany is the biggest economy in Europe. The European Central Bank has to have them on the team.

KENNEY: So there's a battle going on in the heart of Europe at the central bank in Frankfurt, over how to balance the memory of a German national trauma with the needs of its struggling neighbors.

Caitlin Kenney.

CHACE: Zoe Chace, NPR News.

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