BERLIN (Reuters) - Die-hard Marxists and others raised in formerly Communist east Germany feel Europe’s sovereign debt crisis has vindicated their once-ridiculed warnings about the perils of unbridled capitalism.
Calls to shackle the banks in this bastion of Western consumerism are finding an increasingly receptive audience among Germans, some of whom now wonder whether their cash is safer under the mattress than in a bank.
Even mainstream conservatives are asking if the Left might not have been right all along, potentially boosting the prospects of more radical parties with less than two years to go to German elections.
European leaders struck a deal with private banks on Thursday to try to contain the debt crisis but doubts about the global financial system linger in Berlin, a city split by the Cold War that has witnessed an improbable revival of interest in Karl Marx since the financial crisis began in 2008.
“These banks have a ludicrous business model and it’s extremely dangerous for us all,” said Sahra Wagenknecht, a member of parliament and a fiery leader of the Left party that traces its roots to Erich Honecker’s SED party.
“They’re pulling the wool over the eyes of taxpayers,” she said to thunderous applause in a recent German TV talk show, adding that for example only about four percent of Deutsche Bank’s business is traditional commercial lending.
“Everything else is bets, gambling and speculation. They take risks because they know the state will bail them out. It’s time everyone realized it can’t go on otherwise we’ll need one rescue package after another and even Germany will be broke.”
Skepticism about U.S.-style capitalism was already deeply entrenched in Communist East Germany, a country with no unemployment and no competing banks.
And while some of the criticism may be traced to “Ostalgie” -- a romanticized view of the old East Germany that skips over the secret police and repression -- Wagenkneckt’s critics acknowledge that her anti-capital arguments are gaining new backers across Germany.
“Marx goes mainstream,” the conservative newspaper Die Welt noted of the way Wagenknecht’s views now command respect or at least a respectful audience compared to scorn a decade ago.
“Hardly anyone contradicts her radical attacks on capitalism anymore,” it wrote.
“I TOLD YOU SO”
Worries about the future of capitalism can be heard across Berlin and especially in leftist bastions in the east, where some streets still bear the names of Communist legends such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and even Vladimir Lenin.
A sense of “I told you so” prevails in eastern Berlin, a section of the capital that still has the unmistakable feel of an Eastern bloc city with its vast parade grounds and Soviet-style pre-fabricated high rise apartment buildings.
“It’s just a nasty situation pure and simple,” said Constanze Voelmy, 50, a waitress who like many easterners grew up learning about the evils of capitalism while at the same time aware of the West’s prosperity.
“We were all warned about the dangers of capitalism and now reality is catching up with us. I didn’t think it was possible that states could go broke. I‘m now thinking maybe I should take my money out of the bank and put it under the mattress.”
Astrid Gerber, 45, was a tailor in East Germany and now works cleaning offices. She said hardly anyone in the east paid much attention to money and hardly anyone ever borrowed money.
“I earned enough to pay the rent and live comfortably,” she said. “You just didn’t think or worry about money. That’s all changed now. That’s all anyone ever talks about.”
German intellectuals are also listening more closely to views on banks by people like Wagenknecht and the Left party.
“I‘m beginning to believe that the Left might have it right,” was the headline over a recent article by Frank Schirrmacher, co-publisher of the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.
“The doubts are growing about whether I’ve been holding the correct views all my life. It now looks like the assumptions of my greatest opponents were right all along...A decade of unchecked financial markets has revitalized leftist views. They’re back now and they’re needed.”
He is not the only conservative worried about financial markets. Former German President Horst Koehler raised eyebrows in 2008 when he referred to financial markets as “a monster” that had to be tamed.
Michael Schlecht, the finance policy expert for the Left party in parliament, said the mood has shifted. He wants all banks nationalized in Germany. He said four or five years ago he faced ridicule whenever he broached the subject.
“But people are eager to hear that message now -- that the shackles need to be put on banks,” Schlecht said. “They applaud when they hear the bank’s casino-style operations must be stopped, that derivatives and speculation need to be banned.”
Reporting By Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Jon Boyle