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Heinrich Böll on the Psychological Impact of the Economic Miracle (1960)

In this brief account of a midnight taxi-ride to the train station, the leftist Catholic writer Heinrich Böll critiques Germany’s suppression of Nazi guilt and expresses his loathing for the popular greed and ethical disorientation exhibited by most Germans during the Economic Miracle.

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In This Country

As we were driving to the main train station at midnight, a heavy silence hung between us. Our conversation had failed. The visitor had expected precise information from me about the Federal Republic, but I wasn’t able to offer precise information about such an imprecise country. Finding a formula for this multifaceted entity called the Federal Republic would have been impossible even for Einstein. To one of the visitor’s questions – “What actually makes people here today different from those in 1933?” – I replied, “Nothing, of course,” then added a tiny correction, “People now are doing better financially than back then.” The question: “Are there still Nazis in the country?” My response: “Of course. Did you expect that a simple date, May 8, 1945, transformed people?”

On the way to the train station I added, without being asked again the question that had been posed hours earlier, “In this country, you will never hear anyone say that Germany was defeated. You will always hear that it collapsed. With the words ‘after the collapse’ people refer to the time from May 1945 up to the currency reform, or in retrospect they call it: before the currency reform. The period from June 20, 1948, to today is called: after the currency reform; casually, it is put more simply: before and after the currency, whereby ‘before the currency’ also refers instinctively to wartime, when money was flowing. We are living in year 12 of the currency. Before the collapse we had the Nazi period, which breaks down, in turn, to six years of peace and six of war.” [ . . . ]

The visitor didn’t answer. The taxi driver was also silent. He was in a bad mood; after waiting three hours for a customer, the ride was only DM 4.80. The prospect of having to wait another three hours – that can certainly can sour a person’s mood. Taking a cab is unpopular in this country, like telephones and checkbooks. These useful innovations still carry an air of wastefulness. [ . . . ] Someone in this country who “pulls out” a checkbook can reckon with being regarded as affluent, although a checkbook costs only seventy-five pfennig. And the fifty checks it contains are very useful in the sport that must be played as a warm-up, so to speak, should one wish to be credit-worthy. The sport is called: “Keep your account moving.” If you move two thousand marks fifty times, it makes one hundred thousand, and that is a handsome turnover. Turnover is everything; it brings credit, it increases to maybe six thousand, and then this amount, moved a hundred times, makes a turnover of six hundred thousand. You just have to know how to move your account: Back and forth and back again. The soap bubble cannot be allowed to burst. No wonder that, in a country where the common prejudice against calculations and mathematics is still in style, those who practice this sport diligently have good prospects of success. Adam Riese was for naught.* Being good at figures is almost regarded as a stigma. If how good Goethe was at arithmetic got around! The streets were empty this September night, only a few municipal service vehicles were out driving around. The roller brushes of the street sweepers were turning quietly, the motors of the street-washing trucks hummed softly. The taxi driver took the cigarette that my visitor offered, thanking him. He would have never offered one to the passenger – and perhaps this insight is part of a formula. Not because he was stingy, but because in this moment the passenger represents to the driver something that is simultaneously worshipped and scorned in this country: a customer. Put in economic terms: a consumer. We are a nation of consumers. Neckties and conformism, shirts and non-conformism, everything has its consumers. The only important thing is that – whether shirt or conformism – it must be presented as a brand-name item. Neither the instinct nor the experience of the consumer is enough to determine quality. So people demand proven quality. But proven quality is expensive. [ . . . ]

* Popularly known as Adam Riese (1492–1559), Adam Ries was a German mathematician who published one of the first widely available arithmetic texts – trans.

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