Berlin’s Past Holds Warnings For Brexit And U.S. Elections

At the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin
At the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin
Dominique Moïsi


BERLIN â€" "No other place recalls so vividly the fragility of democracy in Europe in the 20th century."

On the streets of Berlin, passersby may notice this line etched on a building plaque in German, French and English. It can be found in the finance ministry complex that used to house Nazi Germany's Ministry of Aviation. The building, which was partly destroyed during the war, saw the founding of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

After reunification in 1990, the building held the “Treuhandanstalt”, a government agency that oversaw the privatization of former East Germany enterprises. The Red Army Faction, a far-left guerrilla group, killed the organization’s first director Detlev Karsten Rohwedder in 1991.

Stopping in front of that building brings back a memory with a particular intensity. "Berlin is a city that has known too many tragedies in too short a time. First Nazism, then the war, then the Cold War." I heard that line on a cold autumn day in 1979. Everything was gray: the sky, the Wall, and the horizon stretching in front of us from the provisional construction which, not far from Checkpoint Charlie, allowed us to look into East Berlin, beyond the Wall.

French philosopher Raymond Aron was thinking out loud. I suspect he was talking to himself. We were invited to West Berlin by the Aspen Institute for a conference on European security. Aron said he had failed to fully grasp the rise of Nazism in Germany when he was a young student in Berlin. He "made up" for it by being among the first to denounce the former USSR's territorial ambitions.

The line on the finance ministry's wall and Aron's words mean the same thing to me. And that thought is now taking on a new dimension. Berlin is no longer the "crime scene" it was after World War II nor the absurd symbol of Europe's Cold War division. But it's no longer just a model of hope either. For a democratic world going through an identity crisis, Germany's political capital has become a life-size warning that is inscribed in the wounds still visible in its urban landscape.

In the late spring of 2016, Berlin can seem like a summary of hopes and fears.

Is it possible to talk of "three Berlins"? It is, at least the way I see it. My first meetings with the Reich's capital were difficult, painful even. I was obsessed by the city's "topography of terror," to reuse the name of a permanent exhibition that opened 10 years ago at the site where the Gestapo and SS had their headquarters.

No new Hitler, so far

After the Wall came down, Berlin turned into a dynamic and chaotic construction site â€" a symbol of the triumph of freedom over oppression. The image of the Reichstag parliament building’s glass dome is superimposed on the iconic images of the city in ruins. Democratic transparency had triumphed over the demons of the past.

But as three crucial votes loom in front of our worried eyes, we can see Berlin differently. The referendum this year on Britain’s exit from the European Union on June 23, the American presidential election on November 8, and next year’s French presidential election are three democratic events that raise the issue of populism. Berlin, now, looks like a warning.

Brexit supporters in London on Wednesday â€" Photo: Garry Knight

Don’t get me wrong. The problem isn't Germany in 2016. It's the democratic world that needs to remember the lessons from the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Fritz Stern, the great German-born American historian who passed away recently, was always obsessed with how quickly a sophisticated society that produced giants such as Kant or Beethoven could sink easily into utter savagery.

If it happened in Germany, it could happen anywhere if we're not careful â€" through a tragic succession of events interacting with one another, without any apparent logic or causality.

No, there is no new Hitler on the horizon. But we've nonetheless entered an era of absolute uncertainty where anything seems possible including the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

We shouldn't scare ourselves in vain. There's still a greater chance that Britain will vote to remain in the EU, that Hillary Clinton will win the White House and that Marine Le Pen, France’s far-right contender for the presidency, will not. But we can't exclude a turn of events that trigger a domino effect-like tragic chain of events.

Today, life is good in Berlin. There's a carefree spirit that used to be associated with Paris. But buried in the city’s complexity and archeological layers of tragedy, there lies a final warning for a democratic world in disarray.

On a small square not far from the famous Kurfürstendamm avenue, a stone in a tiny monument sums it all. It’s the only thing left from what must have been an important construction. The words engraved on it read, "1933-1945: the work of National Socialism."

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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