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Germans Lose Consensus On Social Policy

Thousands recently marched on Bonn to protest a government proposal for 'American style' cuts in retirement, health, and unemployment benefits

Germany has a way of forcing adjustment on visiting Americans. For the past week I've searched in vain for a Macintosh network connection and have gotten up at 3 a.m. to watch the NBA Finals. And then there's the traffic, which, in Germany, seems to have only two speeds - Mach 1 or zero - depending wholly on whether the Autobahn is clogged with one of its innumerable traffic jams.

Last weekend, cars slowed to a crawl as 350,000 people converged on Bonn to stage the largest protest in the history of the Federal Republic. From all corners of the country, protesters arrived on foot, by ship, in 75 special trains, and in buses that, if parked end to end, would stretch for 108 kilometers.

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What brought them to Bonn? Unlike previous large demonstrations against plans to station nuclear weapons, to join the Gulf war against Iraq, or to tighten laws on political asylum, this protest was directed not at the government's foreign policy but rather at its domestic policy. Recently, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's administration proposed cuts in sickness, unemployment, and retirement benefits. The government insists that only by cutting these costs can German companies remain internationally competitive.

But last Saturday, unions, women's groups, church groups, and assorted leftists fought back, accusing Mr. Kohl of embracing an "American-style" hire-and-fire system and a weakening of the social spending that "makes the market economy tolerable."

Unemployment is the core economic problem in Germany, as it is almost everywhere in Europe. Unemployment increases the ranks of beneficiaries while lowering the number of payers. After two post-World War II decades of full employment, Germany's joblessness rate has risen steadily since the mid-1970s. It now stands at a postwar high of 11 percent, or more than 4 million (another 2 million would like to work but are not accounted for in official statistics).

Germany badly needs to create jobs. Few people have pushed the panic button - only one speaker invoked the specter of another Weimar Republic - but hard times do have a way of turning suspicions into grievances.

In short, the demonstration occurred because Germans are now bringing their fundamental disagreements over what is fair and just to the political forefront. The divides are deep; Germany can no longer be considered a society with a broad consensus on social policy. A host of German institutions - from wage bargaining to vocational training - was built on this consensus that the weak have a substantial claim on the resources of the strong.

The Bonn demonstration was, predictably, a sight to see. The unions picked up the tab for buses, trains, and police while ensuring, most importantly, that no price gouging occurred at the sausage stands. Conventional wit, if not wisdom, has held that Germans could never revolt since they'd then have to walk on the grass. But there was some evidence to the contrary on Saturday: A few youths shot flares at helicopters while about 500 others rioted with police. The vast majority, however, came in peace.

The sight of so many Germans, young and old, marching on behalf of their convictions was stirring - the more so as I had just arrived from the United States, a country where senior citizens engage in politics by direct mail, while the young hardly bother with politics at all.

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Of course, not everyone turned out for the march. I met one abstainer while trying to park my car a good 10 miles from Bonn before riding in on the stunningly efficient public transportation system. I was scolded by the elderly woman - and what would a trip to Germany be without a good scolding from an elderly woman? - for joining the masses of illegal parkers on her street.

Invoking the demonstration got me nowhere: "What does Bonn have to do with anything?" she snorted. I dutifully moved my car, not knowing whether to take her dismissal of Bonn as a statement of the irrelevance of politics at a time when economics seems to drive all key decisions, or simply as a reminder of the modesty of this most ungrandiose of European capitals.

In the end, the message of the protest was somewhat garbled, and indeed it could hardly have been otherwise. A coalition broad enough to mobilize 350,000 Germans will necessarily be too broad for one sound bite. Indeed, one of the refreshing things about German politics is the range of opinion.

Yet in the absence of one consensual bumper sticker, conspiracy theory rushed in to fill the vacuum (There is a permanent bull market for conspiracy theories in Germany: The German announcers covering the NBA Finals matter of factly attributed Seattle's Game 5 win over the Chicago Bulls to the $10 million in advertising revenue that NBC would then pocket from Game 6. Presumably, Bulls coach Phil Jackson vetoed the request for a Game 7.)

THUS, on Saturday, there was much chatter about capitalist bosses, with Kohl in their pocket, inventing a "crisis" to justify cutting benefits. But the official speakers at the rally generally took a different and more sober tack. Most of them acknowledged the serious current and future problems of the social welfare system in Germany but pleaded for a reshuffling of the burden of change from the "weak" to the "strong."

That many Americans would love to have Germany's problems should not obscure that this will be a serious and bitter fight in a country known in recent decades for social harmony. It promises to be a long, hot summer on the Rhine.

* Wade Jacoby teaches European politics at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.

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