Victor Davis Hanson

RUDESHEIM, Germany -- This week I am leading a military history tour on the Rhine River from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam. You can learn a lot about Europe's current economic crises by just ignoring the sophisticated barrage of news analysis and instead watching, listening, and talking to people as you go down river.

Switzerland, by modern standards, should be poor. Like Bolivia, it is landlocked. Like Italy, it has no real gas or oil wealth. Like Afghanistan, its northern climate and mountainous terrain limit agricultural productivity to upland plains. And like Turkey, it is not a part of the European Union.

Unlike Americans, the Swiss are among the most homogeneous people in the world, without much diversity, and make it nearly impossible to immigrate there.

So Switzerland supposedly has everything going against it, and yet it is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Why and how?

To answer that is also to learn why roughly 82 million Germans produce almost as much national wealth as do 130 million Greeks, Portuguese, Italians, and Spaniards. Yet the climate of Germany is somewhat harsh; it too has no oil or gas. By 1945, German cities lay in ruins, while Detroit and Cleveland were booming. The Roman historian Tacitus remarked that pre-civilized Germany was a bleak land of cold weather, with little natural wealth and inhabited by tribal savages.

Race does not explain present-day national wealth. From 500 B.C. to A.D. 1300, Switzerland and Germany were considered brutal and backward in comparison to classical Greece and Rome, and later Renaissance Venice and Florence.

Instead, culture explains far more -- a seemingly taboo topic when economists nonchalantly suggest that contemporary export-minded Germans simply need to spend and relax like laid-back Southern Mediterraneans, and that the latter borrowers save and produce like workaholic Germans to even out the playing field of the European Union.

But government-driven efforts to change national behavior often ignore stubborn cultural differences that reflect centuries of complex history as well as ancient habits and adaptations to geography and climate. Greeks can no more easily give up siestas than the Swiss can mandate two-hour afternoon naps. If tax cheating is a national pastime in Palermo, in comparison it is difficult along the Rhine.

Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.