Germans have long had a reputation as thrifty people, committed to squirreling away money in good times and bad. But where does this reputation come from? An exhibition in Berlin, called “Savings—History of a German Virtue,” sets out to explain the story behind this national obsession.
Not everyone sees the German habit as a virtue, of course. German frugality has long been the butt of jokes, and the German government’s rigid fiscal policies and huge trade surplus has earned it rebukes from Washington, DC, and the International Monetary Fund.
However you perceive Germans’ tendency to save, it’s clear that the habit is no accident. The exhibit reveals that over 200 years, banks and government advertising have relentlessly emphasized the importance of putting away money as an insurance for the future, laying the foundations for a seemingly unquestioning habit that became ingrained in the national psyche. With messages ranging from the upbeat to ominous, people were urged to prepare for that rainy day, to buy bonds to help the war effort, and to buy bonds to help rebuild the country after two World Wars.
The idea—rooted in the Enlightenment—that a responsible, moral person should put money aside to take care of himself and his family as part of the common good of society was seeded in the national consciousness in the early 1800s.
Banks began visiting schools, getting children hooked on saving early in life. The state soon jumped on the bandwagon, leading to an explosion in the number of municipal savings banks in the early 19th century.
“The government quickly noticed that the savings banks served several simultaneous purposes,” said exhibition curator Robert Muschalla. “One on level, the institutions could serve to prevent poverty, on another to help guarantee social control, and thirdly, serve the communes’ need for credit after the Napoleonic wars.”
Saving has also been associated with hard times in Germany. Germans were encouraged to buy war bonds to help the country during World War I. The savings mentality endured through post-war austerity through the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic—even after savings were wiped out in 1923, when the German currency became worthless.
When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, he bombarded Germans with propaganda that frugality and saving was their patriotic duty, and could counteract “Jewish finance capital.” Savings skyrocketed, and were used to finance the war effort, while Jewish people had their savings appropriated by the Nazi regime.
In the aftermath of World War II, bank advertising began to change to reflect changing lifestyles. From the 1970s onward, ads touted saving not as a moral obligation, but as a habit that allowed you to afford coveted possessions or go on holidays.
Even the low interest rates of the recent years haven’t snuffed out the German commitment to saving. The museum says that “unperturbed by hyperinflation, worldwide economic crises, or historically low interest, the Germans have saved at a constantly high rate for a very long time with barely any sharp deviations and with extraordinarily little reaction to economic or political developments.”
And that’s why Germans save no matter what. Curator Muschalla describes saving in Germany as something akin to a fetish. For many people in the country, he says, staying in the black “is regarded as a goal that is worth striving for at all costs.”