book cover imageDeutschland schafft sich ab: Wie wir unser Land aufs Spiel setzen
(Germany Is Doing Away with Itself)
by Thilo Sarrazin.
Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2010.

Almost five years have passed since Thilo Sarrazin published his book Germany does away with itself, a comprehensive critique of the country’s treasured welfare system. With over 1.5 million copies sold it is one of the most read nonfiction books in Germany since World War II—and definitively the most controversial. The card-carrying Social Democrat was fired from his senior position on the board of the German central bank within days and almost expelled from his party.

The tumultuous reaction is mainly due to a chapter on the sensitive issue of immigration. His critics are perfectly happy to denounce Sarrazin and keep reminding us on TV talk shows that ideas like his should no longer be thought in Germany. Usually this is a safe way to shut down any opposition: slap your opponent in the face with the darker pages of the country’s history book. But Sarrazin’s success on the bestseller lists makes it hard to ignore him. The public vote at the bookstores is clearly in his favor. Either Germany has learned nothing from its past or its population is on average simply better at reading comprehension than the country’s editorial writers.

Mr. Sarrazin is an economist by training and has spent most of his life as a civil servant in various positions at both the state and federal level (Germany, like the United States, has a federal system). He ignited some controversy in 2008 when he, then Secretary of the Treasury of the city of Berlin, opposed an increase in welfare spending. Critics argued that 4.25 Euros per capita could not purchase enough to eat in a day. So Mr. Sarrazin and his wife went on a “welfare diet” for three days, demonstrated that they suffered no loss in vitamins or nutrients, and dismissed this claim. It was because of this episode that a publisher asked him to write his book on the welfare state.

Germany does away with itself raises some awkward questions about Germany’s quasi-sacred Sozialstaat (welfare state). Mr Sarrazin is certainly not the first one to do so, but he is the most prominent Social Democrat. Critiques of the generous welfare system usually come from the political Right, where people argue that it puts an intolerable burden on the federal budget and hinders economic growth by settingthe wrong incentives. As an economist, Mr Sarrazin also thinks in terms of incentive structures, though he does not seem to worry much about GDP or fiscal balance. Rather, his observations concern the social structure and demographic development of the welfare state. And that puts him, in the eyes of many, straight into a dodgy intellectual corner.

Put simply: the wrong incentive structures, Sarrazin argues, may attract people who will tend to take advantage of these structures, and these might not be the most productive sectors of a given society. The reason why “Germany does away with itself” is essentially this: the better people are educated and the more economically productive they become, the fewer children they tend to have. Free education (in Germany including at the college level), allows for intellectual elites in a society to settle into a pattern in which both spouses are working, with no children. They usually marry within their ranks, leaving an increasingly larger share of childbearing to the “lower classes,” who may themselves need more social services. The generous welfare state provides this latter group a cozy income, allowing them to have as many children as they want. Worse yet, Sarrazin also calls out by name immigrants from Muslim countries who perform disproportionally poorly at school. That’s more than enough to get him fired from any public job.

One might ask if the results of government-run schools where half the children do not speak German properly and which are staffed with frustrated teachers are really a reliable indicator for average intelligence or social prosperity. But Mr. Sarrazin is not questioning free education provided by the state, a sacred cow of the welfare philosophy. He is, to that extent, a Social Democrat still. He remains true to his political inclination and insists that public education is one of the keys to determine the future of society. But the future is about more than education. Germany is not going to be saved by yet another truckload of money for public schools; whom the schools are educating is just as important.

Sarrazin also raises a provocative but unfinished argument about the issue of poverty and why people cannot make it on their own. He provides many interesting facts about unemployment benefits. But he doesn’t really ask himself what happens to the work ethic of a father of three, with no outstanding marketable skills, when social benefits can earn him just as much income as a boring forty-hour-a-week job.

Sarrazin’s book is an interesting read on many levels. He chose a very technocratic approach to a topic that is often overshadowed by philosophical biases. He analyzes masses of statistical data and tries to pinpoint what is going wrong with a society that rose like phoenix from the ashes of the Second World War. Reconstruction led to an unprecedented boom. Reunification with the former GDR followed suit. And finally, a happy state of affairs in a nation that struggled with internal rivalries, religious rifts, and ideological aberrations.

But now, many Germans fear that their fairytale is threatened by a home-grown underclass of habitual welfare recipients who do not even seem to try to move up the social ladder. In addition, there is a phenomenon of second- and even third-generation immigrants who are no better integrated in society than their parents—who actually did move to Germany as adults when the difficulty blending in with their adopted home was quite common and indeed understandable, as it is with any ethnic group. But for people from predominantly Muslim countries, integration has seemingly become even harder. The fear of de facto segregation is in the air along social as well as cultural lines. Germany does away with itself doesn’t provide all the answers; but it poses some of the right questions.

The conservative reader will find stunning facts and amusing anecdotes that more or less apply to any country in the Western World. Liberals might find their views on education, immigration, and the welfare state challenged. It is certainly fascinating to see how far the author himself has let his beliefs be challenged and where his Social Democratic mindset made him stop. He does not seem to think that lower taxes or less regulation of the labor market might do the trick, or that a more flexible pension system might inspire more higher-income-earners to plan some “baby time.” Maybe he will start thinking more about what markets can do as he realizes what government cannot. Maybe his many readers in Germany will, too. 

Elisabeth Hennefeld is a freelance journalist based in Austria and the United States.