Germany’s pensions for Nazi collaborators abroad strain relations with EU neighbors
Don’t mention the war; German economists criticizing Berlin’s sacrosanct debt brake; Opel’s long-awaited return to profitability. Here’s our Daily Briefing for February 26, 2019.
By Jean-Michel Hauteville
Once again, Germany has a lot of explaining to do because of the sloppy way it’s handled its Nazi baggage. Emotions are running high in neighboring France and Belgium after it emerged that Germany is still paying pensions to a few dozen people in both countries because of their involvement in Nazi-occupied Europe seven decades ago. Some of the beneficiaries are believed to be former collaborators who supported Nazi occupiers while other pensioners had been coerced into joining Nazi forces. Regardless, they’re getting up to €1,300 a month. Whether or not any of the frail nonagenarians were indeed staunch Hitler supporters who volunteered with the Waffen SS is moot because the outrage is real in Belgium and France. “I am shocked,” said Serge Klarsfeld, an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor who with his German wife Beate has been tracking down Nazi perpetrators for decades. The well-known French lawyer accused Berlin of rewarding people who “supported evil.”
Maybe those claims are wildly exaggerated. But it won’t be easy to find out whether they really are, because rather than shed light on the controversy, Germany is stonewalling behind its strict privacy laws. The federal labor ministry revealed last week that more than 2,000 people around the world are still receiving WWII pensions from Germany. That includes people in the US, Canada, Australia or Thailand, and more than 1,500 recipients around Europe. A quirk in Germany’s bureaucracy means the German states pays those pensions rather than the federal government, and Berlin is eager to pass the buck to the states. If Germany has any intention to find out whether it is still rewarding former collaborators 74 years after the war (even by mistake), it’s not exactly showing it. European neighbors haven’t forgotten how Germany, over decades, fought tooth and nail to thwart their attempts to bring war criminals to court. And now they have enough reason to be unimpressed by another instance of Germany’s hemming and hawing about its Nazi past.
German economists are starting to question their country’s sacrosanct “debt brake” rule. They warn that the 10-year-old instrument is hampering urgently needed investment in the country’s crumbling infrastructure. The debt constraint amendment, added to Germany’s constitution in the midst of the global financial crisis, sets a tight limit on structural deficits. It’s long been controversial, especially abroad. For many Anglo-Saxon economists, it epitomizes Germany’s fetishization of austerity. But this time, German economists have joined the chorus of criticism. Michael Hüther, the head of the industry-friendly IW German Economic Institute, told Handelsblatt that the debt brake has been great in forcing the government to show some budget discipline, but, on the other hand, it’s turned into an obstacle to tax cuts and investments. “We’ve walled ourselves in,” he said. Those wall metaphors always sound better in the original German.
It wouldn’t be a proper Daily Briefing without some car news, so there you go. Opel turned an operating profit of €859 million euros last year, its parent company, France’s PSA, said today. And that’s Opel’s first profit this century. The troubled carmaker, which General Motors sold to the maker of Peugeot and Citroen cars in 2017, has made losses every year since 1999. So it seems that the drastic restructuring imposed by PSA, which was met with resistance in Germany, is paying off after all. Brimming with newfound confidence, Opel is already contemplating a return to the Russian market, which it left in 2015 to cut costs.
* Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author: email@example.com.