The European Union was created to avoid repeating the disasters of the 1930s, but Germany, of all countries, has failed to learn from history. As the euro crisis escalates, Berlin should remember how the banking crisis of 1931 contributed to the breakdown of democracy across Europe. Action is urgently needed to stop history from repeating itself.
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The failure of German public opinion to grasp the dire state of affairs in Europe today is inviting a repeat of precisely the crisis of the mid 20th century that European integration was designed to avoid.
With every increase in the probability of a disorderly Greek exit from the monetary union, the pressure on the Spanish banks increases and with it the danger of a Mediterranean-wide bank run so big that it would overwhelm the European Central Bank. Already there has been a substantial re-nationalization of the European financial system. This centrifugal process could easily continue to the point of complete disintegration.
We find it extraordinary that it should be Germany, of all countries, that is failing to learn from history. Fixated on the non-threat of inflation, today's Germans appear to attach more importance to the year 1923 (the year of hyperinflation) than to the year 1933 (the year democracy died). They would do well to remember how a European banking crisis two years before 1933 contributed directly to the breakdown of democracy not just in their own country but right across the European continent.
Astonishingly few Europeans (including bankers) seem to remember what happened in May 1931 when Creditanstalt, the biggest Austrian bank, had to be bailed out by a government that was itself on the brink of insolvency. The ensuing European bank crisis, which saw the failure of two of Germany's biggest banks, ushered in the second half of the Great Depression. If the first half had been dominated by the American stock market crash, the second was all about European banks going bust.
Niall Ferguson made the same basic argument at The Daily Beast the other day, and he extended it include fallout for President Obama's reelection chances.
That said, while Ferguson and Roubini are a little over the top, recall the the latter predicted the U.S. housing bust, so I don't discount these arguments too quickly.