August 30, 2001

Euro Deposes the Mark, Grieving Many Germans


DONAUSTAUF, Germany, Aug. 29 — Karl Eickmeyer stood inside Valhalla, a giant marble temple here dedicated to heroes of German history, and reflected sourly about the next thing to become history: the German mark.

Mr. Eickmeyer, a retired salesman, grew up with the mark and measured his life with what became one of the most respected currencies in the world — and the most visible symbol of the success of a democratic Germany that grew out of the rubble of Hitler's war.

But in three months Mr. Eickmeyer will have to replace his marks with euros, a currency he does not trust.

"No one ever asked us or took a vote," he said. "They knew perfectly well that if they ever held a referendum on the euro, Germans would have voted it down."

In fact, the mark disappeared as a separate entity on Jan. 1, 1999, when it was fixed in value to the other European currencies making up the euro. But it will not be until the mark is physically replaced by the euro that the impact will come home to Germans.

On Thursday, with many in Europe still skeptical, the European Central Bank begins final preparations for putting the euro in people's pockets. For the first time, it will allow people to see the new notes and coins in all their detail. It will start a $70 million advertising campaign and begin shipping currency to banks across Europe.

But here in Germany, Europe's biggest economy, there is much unhappiness. Political and business leaders overwhelmingly support the euro, but a clear majority of the 80 million or so ordinary Germans want little or nothing to do with it.

In one recent (and typical) poll, by the Forsa Institute, 71 percent of people asked said they would rather keep the mark. In another, by the Allensbacher Institute, 73 percent said they had either "no trust" or "little trust" in the euro.

Enthusiasm for the euro varies from great in countries like Italy and Spain to relaxed in places like the Netherlands and Austria, which were already tied to the German mark, to decidedly skeptical or opposed in Scandinavia. Denmark rejected the euro in a referendum, and even in France the only other referendum on the euro barely passed.

Germans are unhappy about losing a beloved icon of stability and strength that has shielded them from inflation, gave them a guiltless symbol of national identity and distinguished them from their neighbors.

"The D-mark has always been more than just a currency," said Karl Otto Pöhl, a former president of the Bundesbank, the German central bank, who helped draft the law creating what is now the European Central Bank. "It was an emotional thing, a symbol of renewal after the destruction of World War II. To the man in the street, it was a symbol of German power."

Now, as that power has grown with unification, the symbol is being lost, causing deep unease but no unrest. No rebellions are under way. All the major political parties strongly support the euro, and no meaningful grass-roots opposition has shaken the consensus. But the gap in sentiment between leaders and ordinary people is extraordinary.

Here in Donaustauf, a small Bavarian town overlooking the Danube, Germans are openly envious of the Danes, who were allowed to hold a referendum and voted against the euro last year.

Elderly people, with dim recollections of Germany's hyperinflation after World War I, worry about mixing their marks in the same pot as the Italian lira and Greek drachma. In the formerly Communist east, people are even unhappier because they fought so hard for the right to convert their old East marks into West German marks as the most important payoff for unification.

Economic trends have not helped the euro's popularity. The euro, which has existed in electronic form since January 1999, has lost one- quarter of its value against the dollar. Prices are climbing, partly because the euro's weakness has pushed up the cost of imports.

The dissatisfaction has political and cultural roots. Leaders like former Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the current chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, pushed the euro through without allowing any serious public debate.

"The political establishment has tied the euro to fealty to Europe," said Josef Joffe, the editor in chief of the weekly Die Zeit. "Critics get shunted off into the corner as Europhobes, and we don't want to be Europhobes. So criticism of the euro was delegitimized from the start."

Karl Kaiser, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin and a frequent government adviser, said the euro was in part a political deal between Mr. Kohl and President François Mitterrand of France, whose support was vital to win European acceptance of German reunification in 1990.

"Mitterrand understood, `Let's drown a bigger Germany in a bigger Europe,"' Mr. Kaiser said. "Kohl concluded early on, `I really have to make a sacrifice"' — albeit one that was controversial from the start.

A common European currency also seemed a major step toward European political union — a consistent goal of postwar German leaders. Not least, many politicians in France and Germany hoped, a united Europe would be big enough to stand equal with the United States, or at least to counterbalance it. But those were the goals of European leaders rather than of ordinary people.

For Germans in the formerly Communist East, the mark was the big rock candy mountain of unification, a ticket to prosperity and full membership in the West. In random interviews, easterners were consistent in viewing the mark as part of their liberation from a collapsing Communist regime.

"We saw the D-mark differently in the east and always admired it and longed for it," said Werner Timm, a retired horse-racer who grew up in East Berlin. "That is why more easterners are worried about losing it."

Opinion surveys suggest that east Germans, unlike many in the west, are unenthusiastic about what they see as the erosion of their German identity through the euro.

Easterners in Dresden described the mark as an "object of desire" and the sign of being a "real German," according to Thomas Stratling of Rheingold, a marketing research company. It is one of the most important things that bind the two Germanys together, he said.

The unease is evident throughout the country, from tourists at the Bundesbank's new "money museum" in Frankfurt to people in Donaustauf and bigger cities across Bavaria.

"I am sure that industry will benefit, but I see no advantage for private people at all," said Reinhard Kasbauer, a back-hoe operator who had come with his wife and children to see the Valhalla temple. With four children, the family cannot afford vacations outside of Germany and is not impressed by the convenience of using a common currency.

What they do notice are prices, which seem to be rising.

"You go to the grocery store, and everything is going up in price," said Christiane Kasbauer. "I am sure they are raising the prices as they start listing prices in euros."

Prices have been rising, although much of that stems from costs related to higher oil prices and the epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease earlier this year.

But countless Germans — and Europeans living in the 11 other countries that will start using the euro on Jan. 1 — are convinced that stores are covertly raising their prices as they start listing prices in euros as well as marks. The evidence is hard to establish, but one German television network said it had documented nearly a dozen such cases.

Supporters of the euro, including Mr. Pöhl, say popular German anxieties about giving up the mark are understandable but misplaced.

The laws underlying the European Central Bank were modeled very closely on those of Germany's formidable Bundesbank. The German bank's unofficial but unflinching goal of fighting inflation has been codified in the new central bank's legal charter. It was also established as a politically independent institution, like the Bundesbank and the United States Federal Reserve.

At the time, none of that could be taken for granted," recalled Mr. Pöhl. "The French in particular had a very different idea. They wanted participation in the decision-making of monetary policy. The French always complained about being too dependent on the Bundesbank."

Visitors at the Bundesbank's new museum in Frankfurt are treated to a film in which an anxious elderly woman is assured that "German standards" govern the euro as well.

But plenty of the elderly people who watched that film this week were not impressed. "I used to be a cautious supporter, but my support has become even weaker as I watch what has happened with exchange rates," said August Reiss, a retired businessman from Kassel.

"If there had ever been a referendum, we would never have committed ourselves to the euro."

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