BERLIN — On a recent Friday afternoon at a downtown grocery store, just blocks from where there was once a very famous wall and not far from where Adolf Hitler killed himself, perhaps the most powerful woman on Earth waited in a recycling line with a sack of empty plastic bottles.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel fed six of them into a machine and collected a voucher worth about $2 toward groceries.
Make no mistake: Merkel practices what she preaches, even as politicians, academics and everyday people across the continent scorn her and the economic powerhouse she leads for its penny-pinching European monetary policies.
In Brussels earlier this month, French President Francois Holland warned that Merkel’s insistence on European austerity could lead to the destruction of the Berlin-Paris alliance that has led the continent since World War II. The European Union and the much-criticized euro currency have been the result.
In Greece and Spain, thousands of students and workers have taken to the streets to protest Germany’s heavy hand on their own economies.
Yet as neighboring governments struggle economically, even as their publics pressure them to keep up pre-crisis spending, Germans increasingly fear they will get stuck with the check.
But there are bigger, more deep-seated concerns that go beyond simple grasshopper-and-the-ant angst.
Germany certainly has reaped the harvest of its financial caution and industry. Amid the financial doom and gloom over much of Europe, its own economy is booming. Newspapers reported "a China-sized trade surplus of 200 billion euro.” The federal budget surplus for the first half of the year was in the billions.
But the reports also dourly note that the party ends in 2020 and here’s why:
The German workforce is aging fast, and birthrates have been at what are considered dangerously low levels for two decades. So even as manufacturers flourish, idyllic villages and once prosperous towns face extinction.
Stephan Sievert, a demographer at the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, said Germans understand the eurozone’s dilemma but don’t think their money should be the answer.
“You don’t want Germany to be tied too much to long-term obligations, if the long term is in doubt,” he said.
Germans got their financial house in order for two reasons: low birthrates, which began to fall two decades ago with the Berlin Wall, and immigration.
The former has been declining throughout much of Europe, far below population replacement. Germany, Italy and Greece are all listed in the bottom 10 percent of national birthrates. Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic nations fare even worse, according CIA statistics.
The United States is around the middle of the list, just below the so-called zero-population-growth level.
But the low European birthrate problem is amplified by immigration issues, particularly the unease associated with increases among Muslims, which are high because the birthrates in Muslim countries are high.
The fear and anger over the changes taking place across Europe can run deep and have produced tragic results. In Norway, Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people last year and apologized for not killing more as a protest against Muslim immigration.
Still, parliaments across the continent have taken steps to limit or discourage immigrants. Germans call this combination of resistance to potential newcomers and low birthrates “demographic suicide.”
The nation’s dilemma can be seen up close in Weissenborn in central Germany, nestled in the shadow of Graburg Mountain and surrounded by meadows of yellow orchids.
Next to a centuries-old tower near city hall in this storybook town of timbered homes, steepled roofs and cobbled streets, is a volunteer list. Locals are asked to sign up to perform work the village can no longer afford, from re-mortaring city hall to repairing the local drainage system, which began to dry out and break from underuse.
“Every year, there are less and less people here,” said 72-year-old Heinz Jacob, a lifelong resident. “People don’t have kids here, and if they do, the kids leave. Mine left. This is an empty place.”
Traditionally, the young people moved to places such as Dessau, a former duchy seat that had once been a prosperous, provincial industrial city.
In the first half of the last century, Dessau was home to Junkers, the aircraft manufacturer whose planes and engines helped power the Nazi blitzkrieg. Toward the end of World War II, the Allies flattened the city, and after the war the Soviets carted off the plant machinery.
From his office in a former medieval tower overlooking the town square, Oberburgermeister Klemens Koschig, the equivalent of the mayor, said Dessau had 120,000 residents and 40,000 industrial jobs following the war. People jostled for spots in the too few Soviet-style apartment buildings that had been built over the rubble.
The city now has 70,000 residents, although it’s been merged with a nearby town to bring the official number up to 85,000, and employers struggle to find workers.
“In the streets, you notice, we are all old, there are so few children left,” Koschig said.
So Dessau decided to reinvent itself and drew upon its heritage as home to the Bauhaus movement, a style of design that prizes function and simplicity. It has bulldozed more than 10,000 abandoned and unneeded apartments and closed 11 elementary and 17 secondary schools.
In place of the missing buildings and street grids are swaths of green spaces sometimes 300 yards wide.
“If you look at our city map, entire neighborhoods have vanished,” Koschig says. “It’s a challenge.”
German planners and officials are closely watching the Dessau experiment, because if demographic trends continue, even large cities like Berlin will soon be forced to deal with the same concerns.
Hermann Jaeger, a retired schoolteacher who has lived in Dessau for most of his life, lamented that it had once been a beautiful city.
“Today, we don’t hope for beauty,” he said. “We hope for survival.”