In German, 'Schuld' means both debt and guilt


Picture of Robert Cox
Robert Cox

Senior Advisor to the European Community Humanitarian Office (1993-1998) and former European Commission Representative to Turkey

Amidst the noise over Greece’s debt and austerity have emerged reminders that Schuld in German means both debt and guilt in English. No other western European language embraces such philological nicety. Although in Moscow somebody might have reminded François Hollande, Angela Merkel and their host Vladimir Putin that in Russian dolg means both debt and – duty. What do we deduce from such traps which are the misery of interpreters?

Germans are thought to be more reluctant to use their credit cards than, say, the spendthrift British. They have a conceptual hang-up about credit which in derisive slang they call Pump (tick in English). Memories of their 1923 hyperinflation still lurk in Germans’ psyche. Post-WW2 debt forgiveness for Germany prevented a repeat of the 1923 disaster and arguably laid the foundations of the Wirtschaftswunder

Greece’s new government has a number of available opportunities, and seems to recognise them

Few Germans recall that the 15th century Fuggers of Nürnberg never had such complexes about credit, and that their lending trade underpinned much of Germany’s future prosperity. There is no reliable evidence that remitting some of Greece’s debt (the ‘perpetual’ and tradable bond solution comes to mind) will cost German taxpayers a Pfennig.

Greece’s new government has a number of available opportunities, and seems to recognise them. It seems determined to do something about tax collection and avoidance. In the name of austerity, it had cut the number of tax inspectors by 14% leaving it with one inspector for 1127 citizens, compared to Germany’s one for 730. Contrary to rumours, the Syriza government does not seem to be unselectively giving sacked public servants their jobs back.

Greece’s new finance minister Yanis Varoufakis clearly understands that curbing debt – both past and future – is a top priority, and he wants to fight corruption. EU leaders must understand that there is no quick fix available to Greece.

Germany … would be better advised to look soberly at its own economy

As the OECD’s Secretary General Angel Gurría, has been reminding everyone, the stark options on debt are a managed rescheduling or an anarchic default.

Germany, meanwhile, would be better advised to look soberly at its own economy. Berlin should aim to first, scrap the misplaced constitutional obligation to balance government spending and revenues. Germans need to consume more, while reducing their balance of payments surplus. 

Germany should also do something about the dreadful state of the country’s infrastructure, which carries in it the seeds of its future serious economic misery and declining competitiveness. That should be the prime dolg of Chancellor Merkel towards her own economy as well as an exemplary display of European duty.

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