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

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I eagerly anticipated the moment when our taxi would turn onto the street that one inevitably has to take on the way to the main train station. The buildings give off an aura of dignity and grandeur, the best stone is utilized in the best Nazi-Party-Congress style, according to the slogan: “It can’t get any sturdier than this.” Governing and building are one and the same, and this street makes clear who builds in this country. As you drive through in a taxi, the taxi driver, just to be sure, shoots a glance at the shoes, clothing, and face of the passenger, to see if the popular comment regarding this building is fitting. “All of this was built with our money.”

[ . . . ]

When we got out at the station, the taxi driver was shocked at the size of the tip my visitor gave him: two marks on five! And that from a customer he had deemed worthy of his comment. Had he been wrong in his appraisal of us, would he have better refrained from making the comment? Were we Communists or did we think he was one? Careful! Unfortunately his shock turned into cajolery. How carefully he lifted the visitor’s bag out of the trunk! In this country people appreciate generosity as little as they do thriftiness. Money is burdened with a large dose of sentimentality. No wonder in a country where poverty is no longer either a mystical home or a place to fight the class struggle. In the heads of even the so-called intellectuals the terms impoverished, good, and worker are still one and the same. Consequently, since the workers are no longer impoverished, there is no more poverty, and the workers cease to be good. Those who are called social are the exceptions. And that anti-social behavior might have an equivalent among the satraps, well, no one has thought of that yet. Anyone who lights a cigarette with a hundred-mark note can reckon more with admiration than with contempt or hatred. [ . . . ]

The only threat that scares a German today is that of declining turnover. As soon as this threat is in the offing, panic ensues and all signals are set on high alert. There are so very many very smart, very clever, eloquent young people who are informed in a way that is unsettling, who are educated and see connections, who know as much about the Third Punic War as they do about Faulkner. But I ask myself where their resistance begins or would begin. They are afraid of neither Adenauer nor Ollenhauer.* If you draw their attention to tiny concessions, they cite you an instance that is much more dangerous than another is or yet another could ever become: Lieschen Müller,** this mythical being who seems to me to be a figment of their guilty conscience. Lieschen Müller and turnover are closely related. Anyone who threatens turnover has a chance to provoke the Germans. The death of their neighbors and friends did not teach them to value life. Pain has not become wisdom, and grief not strength. They are needy in an absurd way, since in the face of the constant threat they are not even capable of really enjoying their relative prosperity. The hunger of the years “before the currency” did not even make them wise enough to truly enjoy the blessings of the moment; the misery did not even give them a certain zest. The person whose memory goes back only ten years is considered sick or deserves to be put into a deep sleep, so he can gain new vigor to reawaken for the present. [In the Third Reich] a handful of potatoes, a kiss in the hallway, a political comment among non¬party members – that was the price of a human life. Maybe the secret of this extinguishing of memory lies in the nature of the unknown formula that allows our life to split into the time before and after the currency reform.

These are the kinds of things I had wanted to say to the visitor, but I never found the words in our conversation. A quick handshake, a “goodbye,” and the train left. [ . . . ]

* Erich Ollenhauer (1901–1963) headed the German SPD from 1952 to 1963. He unsuccessfully ran for Chancellor in 1953 and 1957, both times losing to Konrad Adenauer (CDU) – trans.
** “Lieschen Müller” is a name used to refer to a typical female German citizen; she and “Otto Normalverbraucher” are similar to the American “Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public” – trans.

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