In Europe, crisis revives old memories





"I haven't forgotten history," says Gert Heinz, a tax adviser in Munich. "If you depend on paper money you can lose everything. We've learned that the hard way after two world wars."

So when Chancellor Angela Merkel went on television recently to tell Germans that their bank accounts were safe, Heinz, who at 68 still remembers the rows of canned food that his mother hoarded in the attic, decided he would rather be safe than sorry.

He converted another chunk of his savings into gold and stocked up on a six-month supply of rice, sugar, flour and a special brand of milk powder that lasts for half a century.

Heinz may be an extreme example, but he is not alone among Europeans who are looking for ways to protect themselves in the face of a financial storm that - at least so far - has affected them much less directly than it has many Americans. Indeed, his reaction reflects the history of a Continent that has weathered wars, revolutions and financial crises over the centuries, burnishing national convictions that are very different from those in the United States.

In America, wealth and retirement savings are much more tied up in the stock market, with a majority of people owning at least a modest stake. By contrast, only 13 percent of German households and 24 percent of French ones own shares, according to 2006 figures compiled by the European Savings Institute. Pensions are still largely state-driven, not 401(k)-style investment accounts. Even for the British, who look more like Americans in terms of their credit card debt and mortgage exposure, the share of those who have invested in the market is only about 20 percent.

But Europeans know that the situation can get a lot worse.


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