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Germany’s Confidence Deficit

Germany’s outgoing president argues that his countrymen need to regain their can-do spirit.

May 21, 2004

Germany's outgoing president argues that his countrymen need to regain their can-do spirit.

The days of Germany’s “economic miracle” seem long gone. Today, the country’s economic performance consistently lags behind that of its European peers — and a sense of malaise has descended on many Germans. Reason enough for Germany’s outgoing President Johannes Rau to argue in favor of a new confidence in his farewell address.

It is high time to do everything we can to overcome the confidence crisis our society is facing. We must win back the foundation of trust.

Smooth talking will not help, we will have to make a genuine effort. We must rediscover one thing: We can take constructive political action — and we can set the course.

We can declare where our journey should take us. For this we require a political will, the will to take political action.

In football, they say great games are won through mental effort. There is much truth to this. What must change is the attitude that leads many people to succumb to resignation or lose faith in politics and the state.

In the end, this attitude will lead to our society falling apart and everyone attempting to survive on their own. If we pursue such a course, things will not go well.

We must again come to the realization that we — meaning every one of us — make up the state, the country and the society. That is our common purpose and we ourselves can shape this common purpose.

Often we hear that people must be “led," for example led on the way to reforms. This is certainly true. Orientation and leadership are required.

It is just as necessary, however, to listen to people. That is why we must come up with new ideas on how everyone can better — and more intensively — participate in the decision-making process.

We are in need of new ideas and ways of shaping and participating in our society. We must better organize the process of forming political will, while taking into account present-day conditions.

Our democratic state is more than a service provider and its role extends beyond that of an agency charged with making Germany a better location for business and investment.

The state protects and strengthens the independence of its citizens, also from social and economic forces that in the meantime pose a much greater threat to the freedom of the individual than any actual authority.

For this purpose, it also establishes rules and obligations for the benefit of the community. In so doing, the state creates areas that are protected against pure economization and the all-dominating dogma of achieving efficiency and maximizing returns.

There is a dangerous reciprocal effect of disenchantment with politics and the state on the one hand and the much too general demands for privatization, deregulation and limiting responsibilities of the state on the other.

Contempt is increasingly being expressed for our society’s system of protection, based on the principle of solidarity, against the great risks in life — a system of protection that is responsible for creating and maintaining social balance and stability.

Social justice, so they say, threatens the freedom of the individual. The truth of the matter is, however, that most people’s freedom — including their opportunity to live their lives as they see fit — still essentially depends on our society’s system of organized solidarity.

Certainly, it is necessary and indispensable that everyone assumes responsibility for themselves and makes an effort. Assuming more responsibility for oneself should, however, not mean that those who are strong merely tend to their own affairs — while leaving everyone else to get by on their own.

Solidarity of the weak with the weak — that is not sufficient. Those who work must show solidarity with the unemployed, young persons with those who are old, the healthy with the weak, the non-handicapped with the handicapped. This remains a mainstay of every society.

Any politician who wants to earn people’s trust must not be seen to bow to every demand that special interests or the media make of him or her.

A case of alleged abuse of the social insurance system by an individual residing abroad receives extensive coverage in the media — and although upon closer examination it is revealed not to be a scandal at all, this promptly leads to laws being changed.

Similar instances can also be cited in connection with health care reform and tax reform. When an allegedly disadvantaged group protests loudly enough — or when blatant populism is echoed by the media — yesterday’s projects are no longer worth a thing today.

This is not a sign of competence. Such action may be met with short-lived applause, but it does not generate long-term trust. Trust in political action is achieved through competence and reliability.

Short-sighted, ill-prepared actions on the other hand tend to create mistrust, because people merely wait to see which issue will be played up the next day. Trust can only be created where people recognize a clear course of action.

Trust implies that responsibilities are well-defined and transparent. Every interested person should be able to find out who is responsible for every decision that is made. Today, this is hardly possible.

We must overcome the confidence crisis. Above all, we must regain faith in ourselves. Again and again, we must remind ourselves of — and talk more about — the fact that there are good reasons for us Germans to look to the future with confidence and trust.

Self-assurance and self-confidence cannot grow if we are not aware of who we are and where we come from. There are enough reasons to have faith in Germany. There are even more reasons to assume responsibility and get involved.

There are enough reasons for us Germans to be confident that we can and will build our future. There are even more reasons to demonstrate personal commitment to our country, which we are glad to live in.

On a daily basis, each and every one of us must work to help this country — our country — become a better and more caring place.

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from the author’s farewell address to the German parliament.