Germans feel burden of Europe's debt

Protesters march under the motto, "We won't pay for your crisis," during a demonstration against the government's cutback plans in Berlin.

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Kai Ryssdal: The euro had a real nice day on the foreign exchange markets. European banks seem to be at least a bit stronger than anybody had thought. The German economy's showing some surprising strength, too. So German policymakers are cautiously optimistic that the worst of the financial crisis is behind them. But with an austerity budget yet to take effect, the average person isn't feeling quite as good.

Kyle James reports now from Berlin.


Kyle James: In Berlin's main park on a recent Sunday afternoon, the sun was shining and the big game was about to begin -- Germany playing England for a spot in the World Cup quarterfinals.

Enjoying a pre-game beer, tourist Andy Marquardt shares the general good mood.

Andy Marquardt: It's a beautiful feeling here, and the weather is good and the people are friendly.

But the high spirits take a dive when he's asked about two recent developments on the economic front -- a huge bailout to Greece and a new budget-cutting plan Berlin recently unveiled. Marquardt says the average German is being squeezed, again, asked to cough up cash for mistakes others have made.

Marquardt: We pay for them, every time and forever, 'cause if they go into the pockets of the Germans and they grab all the money.

He objects to Germany paying the biggest part of a rescue package arranged for Greece earlier this year. The European Union and International Monetary Fund deal gave Athens a $134 billion loan. And in early June, the package of budget cuts announced by the government was the biggest since World War II. The measures aimed to bring down the deficit, but they'll mostly hit working people and the poor.

It all worries Michael Burkhardt from Cologne.

Michael Burkhardt: Other countries play a little more fast and loose with their money, and it's a shame that we have to jump in for them. So Greece is the first. But what's going to happen to Portugal, Spain and the others? We Germans can't be expected to come to the rescue of all of them.

He and many others here feel Germany is being punished for keeping its economic house in order. Germans save more than 10 percent of their income, compared to about 1 percent for Americans. And Berlin has traditionally kept its spending and its deficits under control, something Athens and Madrid did not.

Irwin Collier of Berlin's Free University says all that being responsible has its price.

Irwin Collier: Is Germany doomed to be the good euro Samaritan? And for the foreseeable future, this is a role for Germany to play. Germany is carrying a lot of the burden.

That burden became too much for some in mid-June. Thousands from left-wing groups in Berlin and Stuttgart protested the new austerity plan.

Wolfgang Erdmann came to Berlin from Hamburg to show his displeasure.

Wolfgang Erdmann: The anger is really big, but the fear is also very, very big. So there could be a development of perhaps many demonstrations.

But then, silence. No more demonstrations, no widespread uprising, only some grumbling. If this were France, a new guillotine might be going up about now.

Germany's different, says Klaus Abel of the major German union IG Metall.

Klaus Abel: Lenin once said that revolution would never happen in Germany, because if the Germans wanted to storm a railway station, they'd buy a train ticket first. Germans tend to have a lot of faith in their institutions. But I think it would be good if people would get out there and get involved more.

But right now, the only thing that really seems to be stirring German passion is soccer. The German team's victory over big rival England sparked a surge of national pride.

Talk about bread and circuses. Now, if Germany loses this weekend against Argentina, things might change. Oh, but then there are those six weeks of summer vacation Germans will need to take. So possible protesting? That can wait until the fall.

In Berlin, I'm Kyle James for Marketplace.

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