Postcards to the Chancellor Gerd and Angie, You've Got Mail
An American artist spends a month traveling through Germany, asking Germans to write down their thoughts about the country and mail them to the chancellor. In an essay, she shares what these postcards tell us about the German psyche.
The last stop on Sheryl Oring's political performance art odyssey across Germany brought her to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
As I walked across Leipzig's Augustusplatz, the friend I was traveling with stopped me. "Look at that beautiful red crane," she said, pointing straight ahead to a construction site in the center of town.
I stopped to take a picture of what for so many years has been a powerful symbol of hope, decorating the skylines of cities across eastern Germany. But this was a lone crane, not part of a flock. Much of the inner city has been rebuilt and the large-scale construction projects -- and the jobs they offered -- are long gone.
"People come to Leipzig for the Messe (trade fair) and think the city is doing fine," said one resident. "All the buildings in the middle of the city have been renovated and it looks good. But there are parts of Leipzig where things are really bad. Much worse than Dresden or Erfurt."
I visited Leipzig as part of a five-city tour of my performance art project "If I were Chancellor..." At produce markets, pedestrian shopping areas, and city squares from north to south and from east to west, I set up a 1950s style "office" with a manual typewriter and all sorts of stamps and other postal gear necessary for the art of postcard writing. As people walked by, I asked them what they would do if they were the chancellor, then I typed their messages onto postcards that they could send to Germany's current chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, or his conservative challenger, Angela Merkel. The stories people told were ones of confusion and fear of the future.
In Leipzig, where people took to the streets to protest East German policies and helped spur the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the hope has turned to complacency, resentment and in some cases, despair.
"The people marching on the streets in 1989 had no idea what the changes they were seeking would mean economically," said another resident, a 30-something professional who counts himself lucky to have a job. "The Wall had to come down, but it will take generations for the economy to recover."
"I talked to a man today, a skilled printer who is about 50 years old," he added. "He'll never get another job and he knows it."
"The politicians do nothing"
The result is an overwhelming feeling of skepticism and cynicism. When I asked passersby "would you like to write a postcard to the Chancellor?" the most frequent reply was "no" followed by "It won't make a difference anyway."
One woman captured the general feeling by starting her postcard like this: "The politicians know everything but they do nothing. It's a power game. Everyone wants to preserve his power. ... Something has to change. How will there be jobs if businesses are leaving the country?"
In all of the cities that I visited -- Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Munich and Leipzig -- unemployment was the top concern.
Barbara Müller of Hamburg wrote: "I have worked for 25 years and have been unemployed for the past year. My unemployment benefits have been drastically reduced and my life has hit rock bottom. That's the thanks I get for working my whole life and raising three kids on the side. It makes me sick."
"Work is the most import issue for me at the moment," wrote Angelika Feldmann of Leichlingen during a stop in Cologne. "It's important for people in general, so they have a feeling of self-worth."
"There are 100,000 people without jobs in Berlin," wrote Martin Graske. "This situation is the first thing politicians should address."
Even in Munich, where unemployment is 5.9 percent compared with 19.9 percent in Leipzig and 9.2 percent nationally, jobs were an issue. Hilke Ganzert wrote to Merkel asking: "If you become chancellor in September, will there be fewer people without jobs in Germany? Could you explain to me once again what you will do about this? I don't understand the differences between your ideas and Mr. Schröder's."
"I really have no idea whom I should vote for. I like to vote, but no party is offering any real solutions for growing problems."
My artistic roadtrip across Germany took place in August, just before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and other parts of the American South. The pictures of poverty and mayhem that have shocked many parts of the world had not yet been seen. Even so, a number of Germans warned about the dangers of embracing American-style government.
"The divide between rich and poor is growing wider," said Ute Flecken of Berlin. "We don't want to have the sort of ratio that exists in China or America. We want a world that's more just, in which no one is allowed to starve or to go without medical care."
"America is our demise"
On an even more ominous note, a woman from Hamburg said: "I am convinced that America is our demise. I'm from East Prussia and saw everything when I was a child."
And a Cologne resident asked: "Isn't the social state one of Europe's good inventions?"
Improved tolerance of foreigners, cuts in federal bureaucracy, better schools and childcare, continued critique of the Iraq war and help for flood victims in Bavaria were among the other top concerns voiced by people as they entered my portable office.
On my last day in Germany, I set up shop at the Brandenburg Gate. One of the most recognized landmarks in Berlin, the gate was closed when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. "The German question will remain open as long as the Brandenburg Gate is closed," West Berlin Mayor Richard von Weizsäcker said in the early 1980s.
Before long, the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe toppled, one after the other, and joyful images of east meeting west were published around the world. Now, in Berlin as in Leipzig, construction cranes are slowly disappearing from the city skyline. And the real work of reconstruction -- the social structure and not just the buildings -- must begin.
What I learned from the many Germans who participated in "If I Were Chancellor," is that whoever wins this election must be prepared to roll up their sleeves, get their fingernails dirty and work as hard as the laborers who spent the past decade readying Berlin for the federal government's move from Bonn.
A selection of the postcards from Oring's "If I were Chancellor" project will be included in a book being published in October by Ullstein: "Was jetzt zu tun ist. Wie sich Deutschland ändern muß."