Museums, cities and the European debt crisis

monument to the Warsaw uprising

So I’ve been walking around Warsaw a bit lately, checking out some of the museums and what not. Some of the museums are really good, like the Warsaw Uprising museum, and others are not so good, like the Chopin museum. (Of course I was talking to one of my French buddies the other day and he loved the Chopin museum so…)

Anyway, my sister was here recently and she said that it didn’t seem like there were that many museums in the city. Now it could be because I’m kind of agoraphobic and definitely lazy but it seems like she’s right – it seems like Warsaw suffers from a dearth of these things, especially for a city with the history that Warsaw has.

So I offered a few theories as to why this might be the case: (1) Poland is relatively poor (2) the communists who were in power (as opposed to communists per se?) weren’t really interested in remembering things (3) Poles might feel a bit guilty about what happened to their Jewish population (and this is a giant, unsubstantiated hypothesis as I’m not terribly up on the levels of Nazi collaboration that went on here) (4) Poland is not a tourist destination country so there really isn’t that much incentive for them to build things that tourists like (5) since 1990 and privatization, Poles understandably have had other things to think about – such as why their infrastructure is so terrible and why they need massive commercial real estate space.

Then I thought back on something I read recently regarding Germany generally and Berlin specifically. Walking around Berlin is like taking a full-immersion class in collective German guilt. Now I realize that the respective histories of Germany and Poland are quite diferent (though back in the day Poland was a fairly aggressive colonizing power – e.g., in the Baltic countries and down through Eastern Europe to the Black sea), but it got me thinking about some of the advantages and disadvantages to cities, like Berlin, with such a pervasive museum atmosphere.

Of course I don’t mean to say that keeping history present is a bad thing. And it is probably the case that people should know more history. But what happens when a population is submerged in history, especially of the collective guilt kind found in Berlin? Because there is probably a point at which the opposite of the desired effect occurs.

People are no longer empowered with the knowledge of the past in order to act more freely and intelligently in the present. They are instead handcuffed to a sort of stasis wherein all action becomes in a weird way an overly-conscious reaction to what happened in the past.

I think the recent European debt crisis is a manifestation of this handcuffing phenomenon. Germany is so careful not to let itself be viewed as the domineering power it once was that it is basically being forced to eat the ineptitude of its Mediterranean eurozone partners. It likely is the case that Greece et al know that Germany cannot stomach being perceived as an aggressive power so, like a spoiled kid towards a new step-parent, Greece keeps pushing and pushing the boundaries of German restraint, just daring the fatherland to react sternly.

Obviously, one of the most remarkable accomplishments of the second half of the 20th century was the collective recognition, confrontation and supersession vis-à-vis their history that the German people went through. At a certain point though, one needs to throw off the ties that bind and act not with a view to the past, but with an outlook on the future.

And I’m not talking about Germany forcing more austerity down the throats of its sun-bathing neighbors. This is probably not a good or effective response. I’m talking about Germany actually demanding structural changes to the Greek economy. Basically, I’m talking about Germany demanding the ECB be allowed to extend itself fiscally.

There are problems with this idea, I admit. Should Greece do whatever Germans tell them to do? I mean, if Greeks don’t want to pay their taxes, maybe that’s their business. And Greece, qua democracy, is entitled to reflect the will of its people. Furthermore, a bunch of techno-euro-crats in Brussels getting together to plan the Greek economy does stink of the rise of the global ruling class. But still, it’s hard to argue that the Greek economy is sustainable and can be let simply to run its course. Democracy deficit be damned, something drastic has to happen.

Also, to finish with the history argument, perhaps had Germany not been so eager to prove itself a friendly country, it wouldn’t have let Greece in the eurozone to begin with.

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