Commentary : Brandenburg's absurd romance with Elon Musk
The Tesla CEO is a man with many faces. Tech geek, stoner clown, ruthless capitalist, troll – he can do them all.
Berlin - One moment he’s smoking blunts with Joe Rogan, the next he’s strong-arming California to let him open his factory during a pandemic. He’ll tweet a selfie with his son captioned “Das baby kann noch keinen löffel benutzen” (“the baby can’t use a spoon yet”), next thing it’s “We Will Coup Whoever We Want” to obtain lithium, in reference to last-year's US-backed efforts to overthrow Bolivian president Evo Morales.
These days in Berlin, we’re experiencing Musk madness up close. His gargantuan factory is sprouting out of the ground in record time in Grünheide just east of town, even “faster than the Chinese factory” his company – Tesla – opened in Shanghai last year – as if that was something noble to strive for.
Tesla is adept at gaming the media, who are easily dazzled by the constant flow of superlatives coming out of the company. Since Musk’s announcement of the German gigafactory in November 2019, the news just keeps getting better: the number of cars the plant will produce was first expected to be 150,000 per year. Then it was 500,000. Now, in a recent leak to Focus magazine, the goal is 2 million, double the number built at Germany’s original gigafactory, the VW plant in Wolfsburg.
And the number of jobs promised keeps shooting up. First, it was “up to 7,000 jobs”, now “up to 10,500” is being bandied about. Germany, a nation in rapture of its own car industry, just laps it up. More cars! More jobs!
German politicians – even the Greens – are so enamoured by the Musk show they’ve suddenly become very relaxed about environmental regulations.
Tesla clear-cut a huge swathe of forest and begun pounding concrete piles into the ground – without a permit. Granted, they reduced the number of piles after objections from environmentalists. Yet critics say that even the less intrusive building technique threatens to rupture fragile Ice Age aquifers that lie close to the surface.
That hasn’t stopped Tesla from barging ahead “at their risk” - the term officials are politely describing the lack of official permission for the project. This in a country where you need a permit to build a garden shed.
Thanks to the coronavirus, public hearings about the factory planned for the spring were moved to September. Hundreds of concerns and complaints of residents and environmental groups will be heard. And following this performance of democracy, most of the concerns will be brushed aside.
After all, Elon has created “facts on the ground”. There’s not a chance in hell that the Brandenburg environment ministry will deny the permit and force Tesla to bulldoze the half-finished building and replant hectares of forest.
Brandenburg, still smarting from the BER airport fiasco and everything it revealed about this part of the country: rampant corruption, incompetent project management, bureaucrats working at a snail's pace. The state is desperate to shift the narrative to one of dynamism, efficiency and innovation. Politicians are happy to steamroll rules and regulations to do so.
Of course, corruption in Brandenburg predates the airport morass. Interestingly, Grünheide, and specifically the Freienbrink industrial park, where Tesla is setting up shop, has a history of systemic corruption as far back as the GDR. Until 1989, the area belonged to the Stasi. A huge complex of warehouses, barracks and bunkers provided, as one writer puts it, the “logistics of repression” for the East German secret police.
Here, in department M, intercepted parcels from friends and family in West Germany or even those that were accidentally sent to the East, were systematically opened. Stasi workers would remove items of value which were then sold to raise money for the state or just handed out to party comrades.
The objects ranged from packs of coffee, a luxury good in the GDR, to power tools and computers. To this day, Grünheide is a hotbed of former Stasi people.
There’s no evidence yet that anyone’s been lining their pockets as the result of the Tesla deal. But these are early days in the strange collaboration between Elon Musk and eastern Germany. It’s a heady mix and it’s going to entertaining.