Germany, oddly enough, traveling

The Need For Speed.

speed.gifThe German Embassy to the United States publishes a newsletter called TWIG (as in „This Week in Germany“), mainly aimed at the American public, that more often than not features little known gems, news that’s news only in the eyes of true connaisseurs – like you my gentle reades.

Last Friday, TWIG published a story about Germany becoming an important destination for nascent Chinese mass tourism – as Germany is the first Chinese-government-tourism-approved European country. A fact in itself somewhat contradicting the Financial Times‘ Berlin correspondent who, according to another government sponsored article, can see Germany becoming

„‚the new France,‘ a country where joie de vivre has not yet been unraveled by atrocious prices and the danger of airline strikes.

Claims like this always make me cite Elle Woods, the only person who can counter such statements on the appropriate level – „Whoever said that Orange is the new Pink was seriously disturbed“.

Now, Chinese masses tucking into Sauerkraut may not in itself be a sufficiently interesting subject for a mainly American audience. So no wonder, the article’s hook is something as famous in the US as it apparently is in China: the Geman Autobahn. I once had a vivid discussion with an American friend about the mythology of German motorways, while driving on an American one that is just as famous over here: Highway 66.

In the end, I wasn’t able to convince my friend that German highways are – for the most part – speed regulated. That most German cars aren’t Porsches, and that, while Michael Schuhmacher may be distorting the average, most Germans haven’t driven a car at 200+ km/h.

But then again, so much has been demystified about Germany that it might not be a bad thing to keep some legends alive… (whole story in the extended section).

Germany, oddly enough

Not Even Sarcasm.

Usually, I’m less critical of the current state of the German academic reality than most people. This is probably owed to the fact that my experiences within the German university system were rather positive, for I attended one of its shining models, Mannheim University. But I probably have to face the fact that many, if not most students, certainly in the northern German states, are less lucky – as the following quote from the website „“ indicates.

Auf dieser Seite wird den Professoren und Lehrbeauftragten der Hochschule Bremen die Möglichkeit gegeben, ihre Skripten zu veröffentlichen. Dadurch haben die Studenten den Zugriff auf stets vollständige und aktuelle Unterlagen. Dies ist in der Bibliothek nicht immer möglich, da hier vielfach Unterlagen abhanden kommen.

It basically says that the website exists so professors at Bremen University can offer their complete (sic!) lecture scrips to students. The faculty’s or university’s library – for whatever reason – is apparently not able to provide this service.

Should you click on the link to the site, please note the recommendation of Stephen R. Covey’s „Seven Habits of Highly Effective People„. Sarcasm – not usually a German quality, I’d say. So maybe even such a sad state of affairs is good for something… ahh, just reloaded the page and realised their recommendations are rotated by script. So – maybe not even sarcasm.

compulsory reading, Germany, USA

Sophie and Hans Scholl, Our Best.

I’m still not writing much these days because of my broken elbow, but today I just had to say something. Today, Papascott links to Bill Dawson, a US expat, living in and blogging from Vienna, who has written a wonderful post about Sophie Scholl and others who lost their lives in the almost hopeless struggle for human decency during the Nazi regime. For all of you who might not know how and why Sophie Scholl died, I’ll quote from Bill’s post –

„A man lifted her small body and placed it flat on a platform, and a blade from high above came crashing down and severed her twenty-one year-old head from her twenty-one year-old body. Yes, she died on the Guillotine, as did her brother and a close friend on that same day. Her murderers are well-known to us: Die Geheime Staatspolizei, the Secret State Police, the Gestapo. Sophie Scholl was a young lady both of words and of action. She was arrested with her brother Hans on February 18, 1943, one day after that final letter of hers cited above. Their friend Christoph Probst was arrested soon thereafter, and all three were murdered on the same day, February 22, 1943. The Gestapo, though they didn’t know precisely who their prey was, had been hunting them for some time, because leaflets from a group calling itself Die Weisse Rose, the White Rose, had been distributed on multiple occasions in Munich and other cities since the second-half of 1942. On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl were observed by a custodian of the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich as they quickly distributed leaflets inside an otherwise empty hall of the university. This „loyal“ janitor, Jakob Schmied, raised the alarm, and the resistance movement called the White Rose came to an end.“

Bill’s post comes as a reply to the least creative Kraut Bashing article I have come across in quite some time, written by a certain Ralph Peters for the New York Post, the newspaper which started the sophisticated „Axis of Weasels“ campaign back in February. On the surface, Mr Peters is concerned with the bulls**t talk given on October 3rd by soon to be former CDU MP Martin Hohmann, but the gist of his argument can safely be induced from the following statement –

„The whopping difference between the Allied occupation of Germany and our occupation of Iraq is that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis welcomed their liberation. We had to force freedom and democracy on the Germans at gunpoint.“

Tell that to my mother and my father, who, just like millions of other German kids, took chocolate bars from GIs. Anyway, Mr Peters‘ article is not worthy of any extended refutation, which is the only objection I have with respect to Bill Dawson’s otherwise great post – he tries to rationlize Peters‘ article by explaining that –

„[i]t’s the disgusting mindlessness of anti-Americanism here in Europe that offends Peters, myself and many others and which makes us want to hit back. With this gargantuan post I simply mean to show that one can both express disgust and disapproval towards the mindlessness here in Europe and at the same time recognize that the condition is not entirely universal.“

Here I can’t quite follow. By putting his post in this context, by saying that there are exceptions to the „current mindlessness of anti-Americanism“ in Europe just like Sophie Scholl was an exception to the appaling cowardice that held this country, and much of Europe, in grip during the Third Reich, he – I am almost certain accidentally – gives the impression that these two things were actually comparable – which could not be further from the truth.

Last Friday, ZDF tv broadcast „Unsere Besten“ („our best“), the local version of a BBC programme, that allowed tv viewers to cast votes for 300 „cultural Germans“, including celebrity PR nominations like „German Idol“ juror Dieter Bohlen, who was ranked 30th, but excluding Hitler and those in his gang. Sophie and her brother Hans made it to the top ten shortlist from which „the best“ German will be chosen, once more fulfilling Thomas Mann’s prediction that one day Germany would build monuments to commemorate the courage of these young people – although putting them on the shortlist of a meaningless tv show was probably not what they had in mind.

Just as the other nominees, from Albert Einstein to Johann Sebastian Bach, Sophie and Hans Scholl were primarily exceptional humans, not Germans. But there is something about them that stands out. Something that Bill captures rather well by saying –

„[W]e tend to learn about such people – who by all accounts seem fairly normal to their contemporaries – only via extraordinary circumstances. Were it not for the fact that she lived – and died – when she did, she may never have become so remarkable that we would know anything at all about her today.“

More than for anyone on the list, for Sophie and Hans Scholl, just as for those whom they represent in our collective memory, being exceptional humans meant being exceptional Germans. They were truly „our best“. So go and vote for them. I did.

Germany, USA

A Friend in Need.

Markus of Dormouse Dreaming points to a comment by Richard Cohen, published today in the Washington Post. Mr Cohen is apparently travelling in Germany these days and his observations made him write a manual for future American administrations about „how to loose a friend.“ While his observations are certainly accurate –

„… the indulgence that was granted other presidents is not offered Bush. It is his manner, his rhetoric, his bristling unilateralism that make the United States not so much an exceptional nation but a nation that demands exceptions [very well put, the ed.]. … With the collapse of the Soviet Union, German-American relations were bound to change. The common enemy was gone. But whatever differences were going to emerge have been exacerbated by the Bush administration’s haughty and abrasive style. Might may make right but, as America will discover when it needs them, it does not make friends.“

I would not yet say that Germany has been lost as a friend of the US yet. Although it has taken quite some time for the American administration to understand that when forced to choose between France and the US, it would certainly choose France.

With respect to Mr Cohen’s column, Markus is predominantly concerned About his interpretation of a bizarre, inconclusive poll saying that 20% of Germans believe that the official version of the events of 911 *could* not be the real one, and who do *not rule out* the possibility of American governmental involvement. By contrast, I am not concerned about this at all. And I don’t think this number would have been significantly lower without the American administration preemptively following Mr Cohen’s cliff notes about how to diss old Europe.

I have already written about the possible beneficial effects of intelligent conspiracy theories as well as the dead weight loss of stupid ones when I met a Japanese actress last year who explained to me that the Nazis were actually alien-run puppets – and she wasn’t kidding.

„Now you might reply that conspiracy theories can be valuable – some sort of intellectual modelling, an intelligent fictional exercise trying to identify fundamental causes behind the events that shape the world in our framed perception – even though evidently wrong, most of the times. But the important part of the last argument is intelligent – unintelligent conspiracy theories simply are pulp fiction. Moreover, unintelligent conspiracy theories are plainly dangerous, because they appear to be no longer checks and balances to a possibly framed official version of history but ot have become a „Matrix“ themselves.“

Sure. But even unintelligent ones serve a purpose: when seemingly isolated events seem to shape history, many people will turn to conspiracy theories because they offer the comfort of some kind of deductive logic within their framework when the alternative would be to accept the rough, dark truth that chaos rules, that some mad individuals can change the world, and threaten our way of life, simply by using carpet knives, hijack some planes, and crash them into the World Trade Center.

As for the 20% who „want to believe“ – of course I can’t prove this for no one will have a time series about the number of people (or Germans) who contemplate about the possibility of an American administration using force against its own people because of some secret agenda – I suggest that it is predominantly the discourse, and the tone, that have changed. Suddenly some people get offered microphones who did not before – this, of course, is a direct consequence of the current transatlantic communicative problems.

An American friend once told me that it is a mark of good manners „to say nothing, if you can’t say something nice“. Maybe less people would look for explanations that vilify President Bush and his team had they practiced abstinence as much as they preach it…

German Politics, Germany

Way To Go: Germany On The Move

Sure, one has to be extremely careful when citing a sitting chancellor’s opinion that things are going well. But when Gerhard Schroeder opened today’s Bundestag debate by saying that „Germany is willing to change [economically], Germany is on the move“ he is right.

It wasn’t his reform „Agenda 2010“ in the sense that people think it contains the only possible measures to economically get this country back on track. They don’t know. And let’s face it, the government itself isn’t too sure about the specificities either.

What changed is the climate, the feeling that „this time, it’s for real“.

Suddenly, as I said about a month a ago, Germans seem to be willing to accept that the future is essentially unpredictable and that the governmentally created illusion that it were predictable was wrong all the time. Suddenly, the Jürgen Peters of this country are finding themselves on the wrong side of public opinion.

I don’t really know what caused the change in public opinion just now. But I am grateful that it finally did change.

compulsory reading, Economics, German Politics, Germany

Zeitenwende. End Of An Era.

It took some time and more of their money to make Germans understand.

It took more than ten years of subsidizing consumption and unemployment in a previously bankrupt former communist economy and virtual non-growth to make us see that it is not only necessary to think about the problematic long-term consequences of the current incentive structure in the German version of the continental model of the Welfare State but to actually change them.

It was no joke when, earlier this year, two people working in a zoo, who were fired for grilling the animals they should feed, successfully sued their former employer for a golden handshake. An extreme case, of course, but one indicating rather lucidly what’s keeping Germany from growing (possibly apart from too high interest rates, but that’s another story – albeit a connected one).

For ages, Germany’s consensus democracy was unable to get reforms going because, well, there was no consensus to speak of – whichever party was in opposition made a bet that it would pay off to block government reforms as far as possible because the electorate would not believe change was necessary. Sure, such a perception is partly a consequence of failed leadership. But only to a small part. Because they were right – the electorate did not want to see.

Then Schroeder won the 1998 election, largely because of the implicit promise that he would become the German Blair – that he could transform the German Social Democrats into some sort of NewLabour without the need for a Thatcher or a „Winter of Discontent“. But when he had just won his first power struggle and made the loony left’s star propagandist Oskar Lafontaine quit the finance ministry in March 1999, he realized that the internet bubble induced growth (weak, in Germany, but real economic growth nonetheless) would allow him to put off fundamental reforms and to mend relations with the loony left with even more rigid labour market reforms.

Unfortunately, after the bubble burst, it was too late for reforms that would have paid off for the government in last year’s election. A fiscal expansion was impossible and, moreover, unwise given strained public budgets. So Schroeder had to play the hand he was dealt – rectal rapprochement to the trade-unions, exploiting the flood-disaster in East-Germany, and betting on the public’s opposition to the American stance on Iraq.

Having narrowly won last year’s election, Schroeder knew that he would have to deliver on his 1998 promise, even thought the economic climate was far worse than it was back then. And even if though delivering would probably lead to the most serious conflict the SPD ever had with trade unions which, for no obvious reason given the steady decline in their membership, still claim to be speaking for „ordinary Germans“ when it comes to „social justice“. The readjustment of the social security system, as well as the „intellectual“ separation of the Social Democrats from the unions – developments that will undoubtedly be beneficial to both the SPD and Germany as a whole – will be a lot harder now than they would have been back in 1994, under Kohl, or in 1998.

The difference is that now, for the first time, a growing majority of Germans seems to be willing to give up something for a risky future benefit – or put differently, a lot more people are scared by what they think could happen to them, their children, and this country, if the social security system is not dealt with right now. Let’s hope it remains this way for sometime. The tough reforms are still out there in the think-tanks waiting to be pasted into bills.

Of course, the loony left is barking and whining about its loss of discourse hegemony on „social justice“. But don’t we all know that dogs that bark don’t bite?

If only because they have lost their teeth.

Germany, USA

Another Perspective.

Just stumbled on the US Census website and found this genealogical break-up of the US population. Not that their ancestors‘ cultural origins would matter in current affairs – US immigrants of German descent always assimilated quickly and – given the German history in the 20th century understandably – were never too keen to showcase their heritage like the Irish or Italians.

You can easily count German bars and restaurants in New York using your two hands. Try that for Irish pubs… But the fact that I could find my grand-dads grave inscript on an American genealogy website tells me these roots are still some sort of mood setter when it comes to looking at European nations.

I think the numbers are quite telling (indicating self-declared descent):

US population of self-declared German descent.

US population of self-declared French descent.

While I roughly knew about the above numbers – this I found rather surprising.

US population of self-declared English descent.

Doesn’t comprise the Scottish and Irish immigrants. But even if you add the numbers for those three nationalities available at the US Bureau of Census they only roughly match the German number.

Assuming the German immigrants‘ decision to renounce to speaking German was a market driven one – motivated by the fact that the English was the elite-language spoken by the founding fathers (when French was the elite language at European courts), I find it striking that today’s hispanic immigrants seem to stick to their ancestors‘ language a lot more despite a cultural hegemony of English that cannot be assumed for the days of the westward expansion.

If, back then, Germans believed they could become part of the elite by speaking English and Hispanics do not, if even the US president is broadcasting speeches in Spanish, is that telling us something about the real options of immigrants in the US today? Or about the German immigrants relationship to their country and/or their language? Or is it just too early to tell?

Intruiging questions to which I do not have an answer (yet).

Germany, quicklink


In Germany, phone-numbers starting with 0190 can be charged at imaginary rates by a service provider. No wonder some doubtful service providers call mobile phones and wait for unwitting users to just press callback. But according to heise online it is not even illegal to send spam like „Someone would like to get to know you, dial 0190-xxx to find out who“. Do I agree with this? The question basically comes down to – what kind of cultural and technological knowledge can be safely assumed from mobile phone users. What about my tech-unsavvy dad? Should he be protected or learn the hard way? I think he should be protected. If lying per se is not fraud, it should be, when it comes to a corporation lying about the underlying principle for their call.