Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Euro, Germany’s Thilo Sarrazin Is Not Sorry

Cameron Abadi, Business Week, May 23, 2013

Even if he weren’t one of Germany’s best-selling authors, Thilo Sarrazin would be a hard man to miss. His silver mustache and perpetually squinting left eye lend him a distinctive, slightly sinister air. Yet on this chilly spring morning, Sarrazin manages to go unnoticed at the Wiener Conditorei Caffeehaus, a bustling Viennese-style cafe in an affluent neighborhood of western Berlin. For Sarrazin, venturing out isn’t as easy as it used to be. His public appearances require security protection, and there are whole areas of Berlin where he’s so unpopular that he can no longer book a dinner reservation.

Sipping tea, he starts talking about the Holocaust. “Our guilt from the war is abused in political arguments,” he says. “It’s used to suggest how we should we treat migrants, and that our asylum policies should be as liberal as possible, and that we should bail out other countries using the euro.” He pauses to take a drink. “But none of that has anything to do with the objective facts of our past.”

In the last three years, Sarrazin, 68, has published two dense but hugely popular books, both of which have taken aim at the political consensus that has guided German politics for decades. The first warned that the country’s identity was being destroyed by Muslim immigrants, who Sarrazin said are less intelligent than native Germans. It sold 1.5 million copies. The second, released last year, argued that Germany should abandon the euro; the only thing standing in the way of such a move, according to him, was Germany’s guilt about the Holocaust and sentimental attachment to European unity.

Sarrazin’s views cost him his job on the board of the Bundesbank and nearly got him kicked out of the Social Democratic Party. {snip}

In other parts of Europe, Sarrazin’s themes—the dangers of Islam and the euro—might not attract much controversy. But in postwar Germany, where the traumas of the Nazi regime still define the boundaries of acceptable public discourse, the major parties have always agreed to keep quiet about some subjects. A recent poll showed that fully one-third of Germans say there is no “freedom of opinion” in the country.

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Sarrazin was born in February 1945, three months before the surrender of the Nazi regime, in the small western German city of Recklinghausen. The son of a doctor, he graduated from the local elite high school before going on to study economics at the University of Bonn. He earned his Ph.D. in 1973 and joined the German civil service.

He arrived in Berlin in 2002 as the Social Democratic Party’s choice to become the city’s finance minister. His previous stops included high-level posts as an adviser in the federal finance ministry and as an economist at the International Monetary Fund in Washington. He also served a stint as a member of the board of Deutsche Bahn, the federal railway system.

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{snip} In February 2008, to demonstrate that welfare payments were too generous, he had his staff draw up a menu that was affordable on about €4 per day, then publicly restricted himself to that diet for a week. In the face of rising energy costs later that year, Sarrazin advised low-income families to put on extra sweaters in the winter rather than waste money on heat. In 2009 he castigated Muslim immigrants for their lack of economic productivity, declaring in a magazine interview that “I don’t have to respect anybody who lives off of the state, who rejects the state, who doesn’t provide for the education of their kids, and who constantly produces new headscarf-girls.” He later told the newspaper Die Zeit, “I believe that sentence was one of my masterpieces. It started a discussion. That was its function.”

By the end of 2009, Sarrazin had left Berlin to join the board of the German central bank in Frankfurt. He also started working on a book summarizing his views on immigration, Islam, and the welfare state. Published a year later, Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab (Germany Is Abolishing Itself) warned that the country was on the precipice of extinction. Sarrazin cited demographic trends—including the influx of Muslim immigrants and the refusal of “intelligent” native Germans to reproduce—that he said were leading to the irrevocable collapse of the country’s cultural identity. Plenty of populists in Europe had attacked Muslims for disrupting traditional European culture. Sarrazin’s contribution was to argue that the available IQ data proved that Muslims are actually incapable of integrating into Western society.

The publisher ordered only 25,000 copies for the book’s first run in August 2010. That was before Germany’s politicians decided to attack it. The leaders of the major parties variously described him as a “moral failure” and a “tribal warrior.” The head of one of the country’s public broadcasters declared on television that Sarrazin had abandoned “the democratic consensus.”

The assaults backfired. Even if Germans didn’t agree with Sarrazin’s book, they seemed eager to be provoked by it. Having sold 1.5 million copies, Sarrazin’s book has become one of the best-selling nonfiction books since the country’s reunification in 1990. (By comparison, Michael Lewis’s bestseller, Moneyball, has sold just under 1 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen BookScan (NLSN).) After the Bundesbank forced Sarrazin to resign, he began a sold-out lecture tour across the country. The chairman of the Social Democrats supported an attempt to expel Sarrazin from the party but backtracked when it became clear that a large proportion of party members sympathized with his arguments. Just a few weeks after announcing that Sarrazin’s denigration of Muslims was “completely unhelpful,” Merkel declared that multiculturalism had “utterly failed.”

Sarrazin’s follow-up, Europa Braucht den Euro Nicht (Europe Doesn’t Need the Euro), published last May, declared it was a mistake for Germany to have created the currency; that corruption, mismanagement, and indolence were endemic to southern European culture; and that Berlin would be better off leaving the euro, or at least inflicting harsher terms on its indebted neighbors. Germans, Sarrazin wrote, should cease feeling that they need to “atone for the Holocaust and World War II” by putting “all our interests and money into European hands.” {snip}

Sarrazin’s transition from anonymous civil servant to national bête noir has made him wealthy and vilified. A national newspaper recently labeled him a “whore” who had prostituted himself to the German media. (Sarrazin sued for libel and lost.) That hasn’t changed his righteousness. “People only get angry when something gets questioned that they think of as part of their identity but then cannot justify,” he says. When asked if he would change anything about his books, he is curt: “I only wish I’d expressed myself even more sharply.”

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Sarrazin is at work on his next book, though he won’t reveal its subject. He says his goal is to limn the virtues of German pessimism. “If you’re happy that the sun is shining, then you don’t need to solve any problems,” he says. “Pessimism is a precondition of any real cultural or intellectual progress.”

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