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Germany's Identity Cemented In The Euro


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

Two personal takes now on the financial crisis in Europe. In a moment, we'll go to the epicenter of the crisis, Greece. But first to Germany. Many there believe the European Union and a single currency would foster a new identity. And they hope this new distinctly European identity would blunt the sharp edges of nationalism and the lingering bitterness of 20th century horrors. NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story from Berlin.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Nearly a decade ago, when the euro was about to be rolled out, the E.U. launched an ad campaign to promote the new currency.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: In the German ad, soaring music mixed with images ranging from a Greek temple to a glittering dance party on the roof of a skyscraper and a voice-over stressed cohesion amid difference.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Different cultures, different dreams, different expectations, the ad said, with 300 million people unified by one shared currency, the euro, our money.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: The mawkish ad played to a very real European yearning for solidarity and, for the Germans at least, a strong desire not to be disliked and scorned.

UWE BOEK: By embedding a beast like Germany, a feared beast like Germany, the rest of Europe was better off. And sure we are better off if they like us if they don't fear us.

WESTERVELT: For German Uwe Boek, a 48-year-old graphic designer, this longing wasn't abstract or academic. The lifelong Berliner recalls traveling to Holland as a child on a family vacation and getting spat at by a stranger. Or the time he traveled around Europe in his young adulthood and a French attendant coldly refused to gas up a German car. Or there was the French grocer in the early 1980s who claimed to be out of food and cigarettes - at least for a German.

BOEK: He didn't even really look into my eyes. He spit out his cigarette in front of me and went away. Didn't' sell me anything. Sometimes I hid my identity as a German and tried to speak English, and to not to be seen as a German because it was easier that way.

WESTERVELT: But a couple of short decades later, he says, all that has changed thanks in part to a borderless continent, a single currency shared by 17 nations and, above all, for Uwe Boek, the E.U. He says a recent trip to Holland underscored the sense, for him, that there is now a nascent European identity that transcends the stubborn ghosts of nationalism, history and difference.

BOEK: It was not the Germans and the Dutch, and it was us.


BOEK: They speak Dutch. I speak German. So what? It was us. This was for me - who is very sensitive to the aftermath of the Second World War - it was quite a surprise and a pleasant one. It's us being Europeans in the European Union, because the euro is money, but the European Union is about identity.

WESTERVELT: An identity cemented, in part, by the single currency. Polls in Germany consistently show nostalgia for the Deutschmark. But amid the Greek debt crisis, Boek dismisses that longing largely as cheap tabloid populism. In their hearts, he believes, most of his fellow Germans like the euro and embrace its symbolism.

But he also feels strongly that somewhere along the way, the European project and the euro were hijacked by elites. While spouting the rhetoric of unity, they airbrushed over glaring economic differences between European powerhouses and nations on the periphery like Greece - whose economy depends on beaches, ancient ruins and olive oil.

BOEK: You could have known that a country exporting olives and rubber shoes can't be on the same stage like France, Italy and Germany.

WESTERVELT: Yet they are on the same euro stage, and for Uwe Boek, that's why the euro's own stitching is now starting to unravel. And with that, potentially, unraveled the fragile gains of the E.U. and the euro six-plus decades after the fall of Nazism. Boek's eyes well up when he says at stake for Germany and the E.U. and the debt crisis is far more than money and jobs.

For him, it's also about a kind of redemption for a reign of terror he had nothing to do with but which still haunts him. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
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