Even if he weren’t one of Germany’s best-selling authors, Thilo Sarrazin would be a hard man to miss. His silver mustache and perpetually squinting left eye lend him a distinctive, slightly sinister air. Yet on this chilly spring morning, Sarrazin manages to go unnoticed at the Wiener Conditorei Caffeehaus, a bustling Viennese-style cafe in an affluent neighborhood of western Berlin. For Sarrazin, venturing out isn’t as easy as it used to be. His public appearances require security protection, and there are whole areas of Berlin where he’s so unpopular that he can no longer book a dinner reservation.
Sipping tea, he starts talking about the Holocaust. “Our guilt from the war is abused in political arguments,” he says. “It’s used to suggest how we should we treat migrants, and that our asylum policies should be as liberal as possible, and that we should bail out other countries using the euro.” He pauses to take a drink. “But none of that has anything to do with the objective facts of our past.”
In the last three years, Sarrazin, 68, has published two dense but hugely popular books, both of which have taken aim at the political consensus that has guided German politics for decades. The first warned that the country’s identity was being destroyed by Muslim immigrants, who Sarrazin said are less intelligent than native Germans. It sold 1.5 million copies. The second, released last year, argued that Germany should abandon the euro; the only thing standing in the way of such a move, according to him, was Germany’s guilt about the Holocaust and sentimental attachment to European unity.
Sarrazin’s views cost him his job on the board of the Bundesbank and nearly got him kicked out of the Social Democratic Party. In April, a United Nations committee on racial discrimination reprimanded Germany for an interview Sarrazin gave in 2009, in which, among other things, he said “a large number of Arabs and Turks in [Berlin] … have no productive function other than in the fruit and vegetable trade.” The opprobrium only bolsters Sarrazin’s self-styled reputation: He’s the man who says what Germans aren’t supposed to say.
In other parts of Europe, Sarrazin’s themes—the dangers of Islam and the euro—might not attract much controversy. But in postwar Germany, where the traumas of the Nazi regime still define the boundaries of acceptable public discourse, the major parties have always agreed to keep quiet about some subjects. A recent poll showed that fully one-third of Germans say there is no “freedom of opinion” in the country.
This is the audience that Sarrazin has targeted, albeit more in the language of a career bureaucrat than a populist rabble-rouser: “When [taboos] cease serving the cause of social politeness, and begin to interfere in the realms of knowledge, questioning, and discovery,” he says, “they are useless.” However stilted his rhetoric, Sarrazin has tapped a broad unease. With a national election approaching this fall, Sarrazin’s culture war could soon spread to parliamentary debates in the Bundestag and pose a challenge to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach to the euro crisis. Until now, German policymakers have been willing to give bailout guarantees to ailing European countries on the condition that they agree to impose austerity. But most Germans are reaching the limits of their generosity. Many wouldn’t mind watching their neighbors suffer the consequences of insolvency. What they haven’t always had is a public figure willing to say so.
That’s where Sarrazin comes in. “When George W. Bush was elected to a second term, he told the press, ‘I have earned political capital, and I intend to use it,’ ” Sarrazin says with a grin. “I always liked that saying.”
Sarrazin was born in February 1945, three months before the surrender of the Nazi regime, in the small western German city of Recklinghausen. The son of a doctor, he graduated from the local elite high school before going on to study economics at the University of Bonn. He earned his Ph.D. in 1973 and joined the German civil service.
He arrived in Berlin in 2002 as the Social Democratic Party’s choice to become the city’s finance minister. His previous stops included high-level posts as an adviser in the federal finance ministry and as an economist at the International Monetary Fund in Washington. He also served a stint as a member of the board of Deutsche Bahn, the federal railway system.
Still, when the capital city’s journalists were introduced to him, “no one had any clue who he was,” says Ulrich Zawatka-Gerlach, an editor at Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel. “We were told to come to the city council, and there was this small, gray figure standing there.” They also noticed his unpredictable stutter and squint, both lingering complications from ear surgery a decade before. But charisma was irrelevant to Sarrazin’s mission in Berlin in 2002, which was to save the city from bankruptcy.
After the Berlin Wall came down, the subsidies that kept both sides of the city solvent dried up. By 2002 the city was staggering under €46 billion ($59.1 billion at today’s rates) in public debt. Sarrazin dropped thousands of state employees from the rolls and began means-testing state benefits. He also initiated the sale of Berlin’s only city-owned bank, in a deal valued at €5.35 billion. Despite plenty of resistance, Sarrazin’s austerity policies stabilized Berlin’s budget.
Photograph by Alessandro Penso for Bloomberg Businessweek
His experience in Berlin taught him lessons about German politics. Everyone knew the city’s finances were in ruins, yet city council politicians, in thrall to the prevailing welfare state ideology, howled at every budget cut. Sarrazin decided he needed to portray a Berlin on the brink of disaster. “Once I have created an acute perception of a problem, then I can start a discussion about the appropriate measures to combat that problem,” he now says of his method. “You have to find the right rhetorical formula—and if you exaggerate somewhat, then it works very well.”
He applied a similar sense of urgency to education, welfare, and immigration. In February 2008, to demonstrate that welfare payments were too generous, he had his staff draw up a menu that was affordable on about €4 per day, then publicly restricted himself to that diet for a week. In the face of rising energy costs later that year, Sarrazin advised low-income families to put on extra sweaters in the winter rather than waste money on heat. In 2009 he castigated Muslim immigrants for their lack of economic productivity, declaring in a magazine interview that “I don’t have to respect anybody who lives off of the state, who rejects the state, who doesn’t provide for the education of their kids, and who constantly produces new headscarf-girls.” He later told the newspaper Die Zeit, “I believe that sentence was one of my masterpieces. It started a discussion. That was its function.”
By the end of 2009, Sarrazin had left Berlin to join the board of the German central bank in Frankfurt. He also started working on a book summarizing his views on immigration, Islam, and the welfare state. Published a year later, Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab (Germany Is Abolishing Itself) warned that the country was on the precipice of extinction. Sarrazin cited demographic trends—including the influx of Muslim immigrants and the refusal of “intelligent” native Germans to reproduce—that he said were leading to the irrevocable collapse of the country’s cultural identity. Plenty of populists in Europe had attacked Muslims for disrupting traditional European culture. Sarrazin’s contribution was to argue that the available IQ data proved that Muslims are actually incapable of integrating into Western society.
The publisher ordered only 25,000 copies for the book’s first run in August 2010. That was before Germany’s politicians decided to attack it. The leaders of the major parties variously described him as a “moral failure” and a “tribal warrior.” The head of one of the country’s public broadcasters declared on television that Sarrazin had abandoned “the democratic consensus.”
The assaults backfired. Even if Germans didn’t agree with Sarrazin’s book, they seemed eager to be provoked by it. Having sold 1.5 million copies, Sarrazin’s book has become one of the best-selling nonfiction books since the country’s reunification in 1990. (By comparison, Michael Lewis’s bestseller, Moneyball, has sold just under 1 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen BookScan (NLSN).) After the Bundesbank forced Sarrazin to resign, he began a sold-out lecture tour across the country. The chairman of the Social Democrats supported an attempt to expel Sarrazin from the party but backtracked when it became clear that a large proportion of party members sympathized with his arguments. Just a few weeks after announcing that Sarrazin’s denigration of Muslims was “completely unhelpful,” Merkel declared that multiculturalism had “utterly failed.”
Sarrazin’s follow-up, Europa Braucht den Euro Nicht (Europe Doesn’t Need the Euro), published last May, declared it was a mistake for Germany to have created the currency; that corruption, mismanagement, and indolence were endemic to southern European culture; and that Berlin would be better off leaving the euro, or at least inflicting harsher terms on its indebted neighbors. Germans, Sarrazin wrote, should cease feeling that they need to “atone for the Holocaust and World War II” by putting “all our interests and money into European hands.” Reviewing the book for a national newspaper, Peer Steinbrück—the Social Democratic politician who will be running against Merkel in the general election—said Sarrazin was again “playing the role of instructor, warning the German people of a coming disaster—this time caused by the euro.”
Sarrazin’s transition from anonymous civil servant to national bête noir has made him wealthy and vilified. A national newspaper recently labeled him a “whore” who had prostituted himself to the German media. (Sarrazin sued for libel and lost.) That hasn’t changed his righteousness. “People only get angry when something gets questioned that they think of as part of their identity but then cannot justify,” he says. When asked if he would change anything about his books, he is curt: “I only wish I’d expressed myself even more sharply.”
In mid-March, Sarrazin traveled to the Alpine city of Linz to deliver a speech on the euro crisis at the invitation of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party. He was aggressively uncharismatic throughout the evening, managing to put a portion of what had been a very excited audience to sleep. As Sarrazin explained the finer points of European current-account deficits and the significance of international gaps in competitiveness, a burly man sitting next to me—clad in a traditional Austrian hunter’s jacket—carefully put down his glass of beer and nodded off.
Sarrazin has never tried to change his identity as the aloof bureaucrat. In Germany, it’s part of why he’s so popular. To be a Beamter—a disciplined civil servant, a precise, rule-giving bureaucrat—is to be accorded high status. “Germans trust their administrators,” Sarrazin says. “As they should. We have a long tradition of orderly and efficient bureaucracy.”
Sarrazin’s books, however, don’t live up to the Beamter standard. Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab, for instance, doesn’t bother to discuss whether inherited intelligence can actually be measured in any useful way; it just declares it to be the case. (“No serious expert has ever disputed this,” Sarrazin says.) Europa Braucht den Euro Nicht also suffers from sloppy analysis, fuzzy math, and an adherence to a crude form of mercantilism. Throughout the book, there’s an implication that international economics is a zero-sum game: Sarrazin seems to be only interested in how economies are performing relative to one another, rather than whether those economies have improved in absolute terms. As evidence for his claim that Germany hasn’t profited from the euro, Sarrazin cites statistics showing that the percentage of German exports to European countries dropped over a period of 10 years. He doesn’t mention that Germany’s exports to Asia, and above all China, increased dramatically in that period.
Similarly, when Sarrazin discusses another of his central claims—that the euro has caused massive economic harm across southern Europe—among his main evidence is that France’s median per-capita income in 1999 was 15 percent higher than the European Union average and only 8 percent higher in 2010. He fails to mention that the country’s per-capita gross domestic product in that same period nonetheless improved by an annual average of 1.5 percent (better, it’s worth noting, than Germany’s 1.22 percent). Then there are the questions about the euro crisis that Sarrazin avoids completely—for instance, whether budget surpluses in the German economy helped inflate the real estate bubbles that eventually popped in Ireland and Spain.
In his books, Sarrazin expertly navigates the social snobbery that pervades the German elite. Each chapter of Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab is graced with an epigraph citing a relevant work of classic German literature. In the course of an initial two-hour conversation, Sarrazin cites Galileo, the classical German poets Friedrich Schiller and Friedrich Hölderlin, the Nobel Prize- winning economist Robert Fogel, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Popper, and William Shakespeare (“You could argue that he is as much a German poet as a British one”).
Sarrazin’s devotion to German high culture colors his political views and how they’re received. When he expresses support for German nationalism, it’s not in the crude rhetoric of Germany’s neo-Nazi parties: Sarrazin is not a Holocaust denier. He doesn’t talk about abandoning the legacy of World War II. He argues that Germans need a wider understanding of their history. “The history of world culture has always largely been recorded in Germany,” he says, referencing German translations of foreign literature. “But we’re not aware, or we don’t want to appreciate the richness of our culture.”
Sarrazin also talks about Jews a lot, both in his books and in person. His interest in Jewish culture isn’t colored by a boorish anti-Semitism but rather with an equally simplistic philo-Semitism. (“Eastern European Jews have unprecedented success wherever they go. In the United States, for example, they have disproportionate representation in the Senate, in the media, in lawyers’ offices.”)
Perhaps Sarrazin’s greatest success has been to appeal equally to high-culture vanity and lower-class anxiety. His speech in Linz drew a wide cross section of Austrian society, from lederhosen-clad farmers to entrepreneurs in pinstripes. The one unifying trait was the absence of minorities in attendance, the exception being one dark-skinned man who had failed to register for the event and was forcibly removed from the premises.
Sarrazin is at work on his next book, though he won’t reveal its subject. He says his goal is to limn the virtues of German pessimism. “If you’re happy that the sun is shining, then you don’t need to solve any problems,” he says. “Pessimism is a precondition of any real cultural or intellectual progress.”
Despite Germany’s power, a cloud hangs over the nation because of the euro crisis and a slowing economy. That’s certain to shape the general election this September. Sarrazin’s arguments are already influencing the campaign, with Merkel’s Christian Democratic party vowing to crack down on Sinti and Roma migrants from Eastern Europe and to favor Christian refugees over Muslims escaping the war in Syria. The mainstream opposition parties are still wary of criticizing Merkel’s handling of the crisis, but a new party named Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) is hoping to win parliamentary seats by demanding a return to the deutsche mark.
Sarrazin lacks the temperament and patience to run for office, much less stump for votes. Still, he hasn’t forgotten that as recently as 2011 a significant number of Germans—18 percent in one poll—said they would vote for a party under his leadership. “There are two steps in the creation of any new political movement,” he says. “First, you need the intellectuals who do the preparatory work, who declare that things are not right. In the 18th century you had Rousseau. In the 19th you had Marx. In the 20th you had the fascists.”
Sarrazin doesn’t mention who he thinks might play that role today. “I describe many facts and how they’re connected causally,” he says. “I leave it to the reader to decide what to do about it.”