In his book Disinherited us at last! Yannick Haan (36) complains about the way Germans deal with a “final taboo”: the heir. For the author and SPD politician, the topic has what it takes to “tear apart” his generation.
FOCUS online: Mr. Haan, hardly anywhere else is wealth inequality as cemented as it is here, you write in your book. However, looking at the topic in an economic context is not enough. What are you alluding to?
Yannick Haan: My book is also a journey into my private life, because that’s how I started to deal with the subject. Four years ago, when my mother died, I inherited it myself. No millions, no corporate empire, but a noticeable sum of money. I had never done much with tax or financial policy before, but now I realized: I should do this. Because the new situation has changed something in my environment.
Haan: It didn’t happen right away, the inheritance itself didn’t make any difference at first. In any case, after the death of a close relative, you initially have other issues, especially among friends. The change came when I thought about how to use the money sensibly and bought a condominium here in Berlin Kreuzberg.
Up until now my life had been similar to that of my friends in many ways. We all have similar biographies, many work in the media or politics. We have a similar education and don’t have a particularly large range in income.
The move to my apartment – I had lived in a shared flat up to that point – was a glaring break. It was funny to hear friends then talk about their apartment hunt. About mass tours and about the fact that it hadn’t worked out again. The value of my condo has gone up steadily since I bought it. My friends’ rents are too. Things are moving apart, whether you like it or not. I suddenly had a security that others will probably never have.
Do you have them?
Haan: I don’t know, although I wouldn’t have thought that was a bad thing. What I noticed at first was above all a great speechlessness. I think I speak for a lot of people here: We can easily talk over coffee about the next visit to a psychologist or about the STD someone has contracted. But we keep quiet about the inheritance. We act like it’s not an issue. It is very dominant in the course of life.
It makes a difference whether I rent a room in a shared apartment or own an apartment. I recently reduced my working hours to pursue my own projects and to have more time for politics, for volunteer work. Not everyone can afford this luxury.
You don’t just sound happy telling all of this. Have you felt shame because of the inheritance?
Haan: I think irritation is more appropriate. At first you think: I am legally entitled to it, so everything is fine. But then there are moral considerations. In my case, the inner conflict finally led to me starting to deal more intensively with the topic of inheritance and wealth accumulation. I read a lot, researched and tried to find answers.
In fact, however, more and more questions have arisen. What was my right to receive this money? I will never forget putting my wages and inheritance slip side by side and looking at the taxes on each. If a not inconsiderable part of the wages is taxed, in my view the inheritance is an unearned income.
So you didn’t have to pay any inheritance tax?
Haan: In my case it was quite complicated, the whole thing went through three countries. But, yes, in the end I paid no or almost no taxes. It made me think a lot: What is actually going on there? What sums are being pushed back and forth? And what does that mean, socially? All of this had not been clear to me in the drama up until then. Which drama do you mean specifically?
Haan: It is estimated that around 400 billion euros are inherited or given away in Germany every year. For comparison: The federal budget in 2021 was almost 500 billion euros. This money pays for universities, cutting-edge research, roads, unemployment benefits, the military, and so much more. And what about the inheritance?
Yes exactly: what?
Haan: The inheritances continue to rise and are distributed more and more unequally – which means that the gap between rich and poor is widening. Germany currently ranks third in the world as a location for the super-rich. In many cases, these include members of family businesses whose assets are passed on from generation to generation. Among the wealthy in Germany, there are an above-average number with large inheritances.
It’s similar in other countries, isn’t it?
Haan: You mean it, I know. For a long time, I, too, saw Germany as a country in which – to put it simply – there are very similar conditions for everyone. Or at least: better conditions than in other countries. Exactly the opposite is the case!
In the US and UK, around two-thirds of the super-rich have become wealthy through their own actions. In Germany, on the other hand, 67 percent inherited at least part of their wealth.
In hardly any other country is the inheritance factor as decisive for the economic situation as it is here, and in hardly any other country is one’s own family history so central to one’s own development. If we look at the current crises and how much certain population groups have to fight, it is of course extra blatant. And yet we just don’t talk about it.
In your book you quote a survey by the British opinion research institute YouGov: 70% of Germans find the taxation of inheritances unfair.
Han: Right. The only way I can really explain this is that very little is known about the subject overall. Grandma’s little house, which the greedy state wants to grab after her death, is often used as a horror image. But this picture has little to do with reality.
On the contrary: the inheritance tax should actually prevent the accumulation of wealth, that is its original goal. However, the tax no longer fulfills this objective. What we should really be talking about is very high business wealth and how the super-rich manage to cheat their way around paying taxes. Totally legal.
Haan: If I inherit three apartments, it’s private property and I have to pay inheritance tax. If I inherit 300 apartments, the tax office almost automatically considers it business property. This is largely exempt from inheritance tax. There are many similar exceptions. I am almost certain that if this were better known, opinion polls would be different.
The majority of people would say: The way things are going now, that’s unfair. And that is exactly what I want: we have to start conducting the debate from the perspective of non-heirs. However, we should be careful with the term tax increase. Because that’s how you lost people very quickly. What should it be about instead?
Haan: The question is what could happen to the money raised through higher taxation of inheritances. Discussions about envy don’t help in my opinion. On the other hand, if we look at what would be possible, something can move constructively. Suggestions?
Haan: Gladly, I advocate the introduction of a basic inheritance, which would be possible through increased inheritance tax. The idea is simple: at the age of 18, everyone inherits 20,000 euros from the state. The money can be spent on studies, training, investments or similar. It is available to everyone, regardless of the financial situation of the parents.
And, very important: It is available in a phase of life in which young people develop strongly.
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Why is that so important?
Haan: Anyone who inherits these days usually does so at the end of their own professional lives. Important decisions have long since been made. Should I start studying? Do an internship abroad? Do I dare to start a business? The financial background of the parents plays a major role in all of these questions. With a basic inheritance, the state would invest in the future. A fundamental rethinking. First of all, there needs to be an open debate on the subject.
Hand on heart: how did it go for you personally? Has the irritation subsided?
Haan: Over time, many conversations in the circle of friends have definitely become less cryptic. In any case, looking at each other silently and suspiciously at certain moments cannot be the solution.
However, differences remain…
Haan: That’s right, I still hear frustrated stories about looking for a flat quite often. Does that make you feel bad?
Haan: Maybe here and there, just a moment. But that doesn’t change anything. And what do you feel or do instead?
Haan: Sometimes it helps to say what you think. I’m in a privileged situation, something like that. This can be the beginning of a fruitful exchange.
In the sense of: Actually, I would like to give you something? Is the title of your book to be taken literally?
Haan: Donations may be okay here and there, but that’s not a solution for society as a whole. This will only increase the power of the wealthy, because they decide who should get something and who shouldn’t. Yet we have taxes as an instrument for such decisions. For me, the state is clearly responsible here, it has to get the situation under control structurally, it has to decide who should keep how much and from what amounts it should be given up.
But once again: before corresponding decisions are made, there needs to be a broad discourse. No more rambling about inheritance. Bring on rooms in which open and dynamic discussions take place.