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Business

Analysis: Germans Remain Haunted by Financial Turmoil

When Germans debate how to avoid a devastating financial crash, they are haunted as few other nations can be by memories of most of their money practically vanishing during the 20th century.

A trader looks nervous at the German stock exchange

Germans' reasons to fear financial meltdown reach back decades

The people of Europe's biggest economy are "risk averse" as a result of history, according to Manfred Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Heidelberg who has written extensively on German anxiety.

In 1923, the Great Inflation wiped out Germans' money for the first time. In 1948, most savings vanished at the stroke of a pen when the old currency was demonetized. In 1990, it was the turn of East Germans to lose half the value of larger savings.

In the last few weeks, Berlin has moved to guarantee personal savings at banks, guarantee interbank lending, and prop up the shakiest banks. Even so, the world crisis has not yet caused spikes in bankruptcies or joblessness among ordinary Germans.

Low real estate prices

A for sale sign outside a house

Avoiding a real estate bubble helped Germany avoid some of the crisis

A key reason for that has been absence of any real estate bubble like those in Spain, Britain and the United States.

Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck told the upper chamber of parliament, the Bundesrat, this month that the situation in Germany has been just the opposite. Real estate prices in the past decade had been low compared to earlier times.

"The second point, which plays a big role, is that we have a savings rate in Germany of 10 to 11 percent," he said, unlike the United States with a negative savings rate of minus 0.5 percent, requiring it to suck in other nations' surplus cash.

"We have also not had a credit crunch in recent weeks and months," Steinbrueck added, though business did face higher interest charges.

German stocks have tanked, but according to a recent poll, only one in five Germans feels personally concerned by the current financial crisis and the vast majority continues to trust their banks.

In a survey of more than 1,000 people, the GfK research institute found that even among those who had invested in financial markets, the rate increased only to 30 percent, and thus remained in the "moderate" range.

Faith in the state

German financial leaders with Steinbrueck and Merkel

The government came to Germans aid in the recent crisis

Political science professor Schmidt said it was characteristic of Germans, when compared to English-speaking nations, that they have "a particularly high expectation that the government will do something" to solve the problem.

Tracing Germans' need for security to the Great Inflation of 1923 and the currency re-issue of 1948, he said Germans do not want to lose hard-earned savings ever again.

"It was a traumatic experience for the entire nation," he said.

Herbert Partuschke, 90, a retired Hamburg engineer, recalled this week how nine-tenths of the value of personal savings were simply lopped off bank accounts in 1948 when the new currency, the Deutschmark, was introduced to cure a massive monetary overhang.

"Everybody knew that something had to be done," he said. "It threw us back, but everybody was more or less equally affected."

Schmidt said the deletion of savings was the moment when Germans were taxed with the cost of waging World War Two.

Euro success

Montage of people walking on euro notes to a massive 1 euro coin

Entering the euro zone has helped Germany's export sector cut costs

The new currency, which has since been replaced by the euro (without any loss of savings), proved a success for Germany, and in the decades since, Germans have saved hard and most still prefer solid, safe investments with modest rates of return.

Detlev Liepmann, a psychology professor at the Free University of Berlin, said it was a wider characteristic of continental Europeans like the Germans and French that they were not used to living on credit, as many British and US citizens had done.

Liepmann, who specializes in economic and social issues in psychology, also observed that Germans tended to be easier to calm.

"The Germans expect the state to intervene, and the state soothes them," he said in an interview.

Recent polls suggest that Germans have largely welcomed action by their government, including 480 billion euros ($605 billion) in funding to rescue banks. The legislation was passed with little criticism by opposition parties.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats saw their support rise from 35 percent to 37 percent as the crisis unfolded, Forsa pollsters said last week.

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