The Bearable Lightness of Being How Germans Are Learning to Like Themselves
Part 2: Will Hitler Ever Leave?
Burkhard Kieker was astounded when he entered the Grand Khaan Irish Pub in the center of Ulan Bator a week ago Tuesday. It was just before 4 a.m. local time and yet hundreds of Mongolians had gathered to watch the match. Most had covered their cheeks in makeup in the colors of the German flag. After the closing whistle, they flung their arms around the necks of Kieker and his companions and ordered them a round of beer. "We were the stars of the night," Kieker says. Earlier, he adds, "people here considered German football players to be akin to tank drivers rolling their way to the goal, but today they are celebrated as artists."
Kieker is used to partying. As the head of tourism for the city of Berlin, he has one of the world's more pleasant jobs. He's supposed to promote his city in other countries, but whenever he starts to sing its praises, others lose interest. It's not necessary these days to convince anyone of the Berlin's merits.
Berlin is the capital of Germany's new lightness of being. Without the city, the country would still be considered provincial. It's a bit astounding, though, considering just how provincial natural-born Berliners often are.
Starting in the 1990s, though, a new kind of Germany began to emerge in Berlin, one that is decidedly cooler than many other parts of the country.
After the fall of the Wall, a sort of Wild East atmosphere prevailed in East Berlin -- life seemed to move faster than the law and regulations could. Many young West Germans picked up and moved, at the same time discovering a new sense of freedom together with the East Germans. They didn't bother to apply for licenses for their bars and clubs, they squatted buildings and danced, partied and lived wherever they pleased. It was cheap, there was lots of space, a sense of openness to other people and other ideas. It was an openness that also beckoned people from around the world. They answered the call, too, coming to Berlin in droves.
Many came here because they wanted to party, and Berlin became the party capital of the world. This in turn lured the artists and a growing number of tourists, not all of whom could make it past the doorman at Berghain, which many considered to be the world's top nightclub. But they all want to be in Berlin, to be photographed leaping in front of the Brandenburg Gate. They experience Berlin as a place where they can manifest their own lightness of being.
The same applies to Germans. Berlin has radiance to it, drawing in people from other German cities like Bielefeld or Wurzburg who then go back home and take a bit of the freewheeling capital culture with them. The Wild East of the 1990s has since been regulated and become commercial, but traces of the post-communist East Berlin can still be found at new places that change location often. The changes that have been taking shape in Berlin represent a considerable share of this new sense of what it is to be German.
Of course, there are some drawbacks to this newfound lightness. And they too are on display in Berlin. All you have to do is fly into Schönefeld Airport, where Easyjet and Ryanair arrive and depart. At landing or takeoff, you'll be treated to aerial views of a brand new airport that stands completely empty. Its opening date was scheduled for two years ago, but engineers failed to do their job, the technical manager is suspected of corruption and billions of euros have been wasted. The international airport that is supposed to welcome millions of tourists each year is a disaster. Is this the new Germany too? Unfortunately, it is.
Klaus Richter is sitting at a table in Dresden's legendary SchillerGarten restaurant. A few bored looking people can be seen watching the semifinal between the Netherlands and Argentina on a big screen TV placed next to a gas lantern beneath some chestnut trees. In the 18th century, German poet Friedrich Schiller was a regular guest at the tavern. Describing his view of the world, the Schiller Institute writes, "a man's duty lies above his own personal inclinations, how he must be both a patriot and a world citizen, which can never imply a contradiction, for the true interests of any one nation can never be at odds with the interests of the world as a whole."
Is Klaus Richter himself patriotic? He stares at his beer and ponders the question. Of course he's pleased that Germany made it into the World Cup final, he says, but he also won't be placing any German flags on his car to celebrate. "People in Germany can't get away with being as casual with symbols like the flag as people in the United States or other places are," he says. Richter says German history is too conflicted for that.
Will Hitler Ever Leave?
History is never too far away for Germans. Adolf Hitler is wandering around Germany's sidewalks, ringing doorbells and even sauntering around the World Cup Fan Mile at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, discussing the possibility of a "final victory" with the German people. He wears his familiar uniform and his Hitler mustache, but this is really only an actor playing the Führer in the film version of the best-selling book "Look Who's Back," which portrays the dictator's return to Germany.
But was he ever gone? A good part of West Germans' heaviness and despondency had to do with the country's Nazi past. No other people in the world did such ghastly things as the Germans did, and no other country has done as much to come to terms with the history of its crimes. It was necessary in order to ascertain what was inherently German about that history and if there's a danger of it repeating itself. It was also necessary in order to send a message to the world that people here understand what Germany wrought on the world. But it also created a sense of gloom that was not only difficult for Germans to endure, but sometimes for others as well.
It's a debate that continues to simmer in the country today. Nothing occupies Germans more than the idea of Hitler's return, regardless in what form. It could be a swastika tattooed on the chest of a Russian opera singer at the Bayreuth Wagner festival that sparks a massive debate. Or it could be a rower on the German national team who is engaged to a neo-Nazi, which again triggers a national uproar. A true and reprehensible scandal, however, is the fact that the murderous band behind the National Socialist Underground terror group could go on for years killing immigrants without police and prosecutors doing more to scrutinize and connect the killings and find the perpetrators.
People from other countries also sometimes like to hold us prisoner of our own history. Even during the semifinal against Brazil, this celebration of beautiful football and lightness, some felt compelled to evoke the Nazis. "The Germans have stormed into a foreign country and taken charge," tweeted New York Times Washington correspondent Binyamin Appelbaum. Or how about American comedian Rob Delaney, who tweeted, "Germany, relax! They're not Poland."
Hitler is no joke, but sometimes it is OK to make jokes about him, even for Germans -- such as author Timur Vermes, who has already sold more than a million copies of his book "Look Who's Back."
Remembering today no longer means that you can't laugh or be happy. The Germans have already learned to shed part of their collective depression, a development that first became visible at the World Cup in 2006, which provided the world with a fantastic party. Today we can remember the past with anger and with sadness, but without becoming overly uptight about it.
Rising Prosperity Lifts Moods
Philipp Stültgens, 28, works as a chef on the North Sea island of Sylt but he has this Wednesday evening off and has joined friends at the harbor for the World Cup watch party there. The German team's success, Stültgens says, fills him with pride -- "of the team and of the country." He says the team's playing style is typically German: For him, that means showing a willingness to work hard and push forward. "We aren't the world champions in exports for no reason," he says. When asked if he considers himself to be typically German, he responds: "Well, I am diligent."
German virtues. They too contribute to the country's lightness. Prosperity makes life easier and improves moods everywhere. And prosperity, thanks to hard work, discipline and harmony, is currently on the rise.
This summer has seen a miniature economic miracle grip the country. Fully 42 million people have jobs in Germany, more than ever before, and wages have risen substantially. Furthermore, low interest rates have reduced the incentive to save and Germans have responded by going shopping -- and for many people, it's an activity that is a component of happiness. Economic institutes have repeatedly adjusted their forecasts upwards and now believe that the economy could grow by more than 2 percent this year and next. For an established Western economy, that is a respectable achievement.
Germany is benefitting from the fact that it modernized its economy in the early 2000s, preparing itself for the 21st century. The lethargic Rhine Capitalism model, which saw stores close for the weekend at 2 p.m. on Saturday, is history. Both business and society have adjusted and become more flexible. Companies became more efficient and began targeting the needs of the booming developing world.
Clemens Fuest, head of the Centre for European Economic Research, says that the package of far-reaching labor market and welfare reforms passed under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder from 2003 to 2005 has also contributed to the positive development. So too has the fact that German unions refrained for several years from demanding exorbitant wage increases, preferring job security to rising income. For many years, real wages climbed slower in Germany than in any other European country.
In pushing through his reforms in 2003, Schröder shattered Germany's social contract. To that point, the state was extremely generous with its citizens and never took away what it handed out. Schröder was the first to foist significant forfeitures onto the jobless. The result was widespread anger in the country, but it also showed that it was possible to reform Germany. Though reluctant, people followed the lead of the unions and of Schröder. There was no uprising.
A Happily Sated Country
Merkel has been the primary beneficiary, with growth providing the chancellor the opportunity to shower the populace with gifts. And she has been taking full advantage, with unplanned increases in payments to pensioners, the establishment of parental leave benefits, lowering the retirement age to 63 and the introduction of both aid and pensions for stay-at-home mothers. It may be that future generations will have to foot the bill, but no one is complaining now.
Beyond the economy, though, many detractors accuse Merkel of having taken the life out German politics. Democracy, they say, thrives on debate between competing positions. Merkel, though, approaches things differently and tries to keep her governing coalition in the background, loathe to demand too much of her countrymen and women either politically or economically.
The vast majority of Germans like that. They are left to freely live lives unburdened by national politics, with tempers only flaring in response to local issues such as the construction of a new train station or the erection of an electrical tower next door. The country is satisfied -- one has the impression people would like the current status quo to be frozen in place. No new infrastructure, no new chancellor and as little politics as possible. The country is happily sated.
- Part 1: How Germans Are Learning to Like Themselves
- Part 2: Will Hitler Ever Leave?
- Part 3: A Strong Feeling of Confidence in Germany's New Lightness