Cambridge - In the Saturday edition of 16 January 2021, Maurice Frank, editor of the English-language online edition of the Berliner Zeitung, published an essay on the "myth of German order" and the inefficiency of German administrative structures. Many readers concurred with his diagnosis, some disagreed. Today, we're publishing a rebuttal by Yvonne Zivkovic, who grew up in Stuttgart as a child of Croatian guest workers and has lived in English-speaking countries for 12 years. She is a lecturer in German literature at University College in London.
Germany in 2021: my mother sits in her tidy Stuttgart kitchen with her evening Turkish coffee, cigarette in her right hand, and sighs. "Germany is going down the drain," she says, blowing a cloud of smoke into the air. It's a mantra I've been hearing from her since the late 1990s.
Over the years, my mother has accumulated a veritable catalogue of evidence of Germany's decay: rubbish fills the streets where it doesn't belong. Trash isn't properly separated in the household bins. The tram doesn't come, and no one informs people waiting. My mother's job in a hospital is almost impossible for her to handle, despite the support of a colleague, because you would need three different people to do it. And once they miscalculated her salary for six months.
Berlin may be a mess, but not Germany as a whole
My mother is convinced that German order actually existed when she travelled from what was then Yugoslavia to the Federal Republic in the 1970s to visit my grandfather, a guest worker. The principle of order was expressed in clean streets and punctual trains, a variety of brands and German quality products, old German coffee houses where you were served in a friendly manner.
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For my mother, German order is a thing of the past. Maurice Frank takes a similar view. In his screed, which appeared in the culture section of this newspaper, he claims the existence of German order is a myth, focusing primarily on the disorder of the German capital - i.e. Berlin. All that remains, he says, is the German penchant for bureaucracy.
Order is rooted in the strength of the German labour movement
I agree with my mother and Maurice Frank only to a certain extent. This is perhaps because I have spent a lot of time in Berlin over the last 20 years and, as a German-Croat who moved to the UK, I am familiar with both the sunny and dark sides of Germany as well as English-speaking countries. So here are the reasons for my objections.
The historian Paul Münch has shown that the German virtues commonly associated with order (industriousness, self-discipline, frugality, etc.) were already thriving in various German regions centuries before the Industrial Revolution - through a turn towards the domestic and the familial. This orientation towards a sense of community is, for me, in turn directly linked to the will to organise collectively and the historical commitment to civil, consumer, tenant, and worker rights that still exist in Germany. Part of German order thus springs from the emancipatory power of the German labour movement and is still intact today.
In Germany you are allowed to demonstrate wildy
For me, the most important example of positively obligatory (and non-Kafkaesque) order is German environmental awareness. This manifests itself not only in waste separation and a preference for organic supermarkets. Germany's investment in renewable energy, the rise of the Greens and the resonance of Fridays for Future show that ecological responsibility enjoys a broad consensus in society. Again, to take a counter-example from the reality of my life in Britain: the ecological resistance movement Extinction Rebellion was recently classified as a terrorist organisation, alongside Islamist and radical rightwing groups.
German order is not absolute, of course. And that is just as well. The collective need for order is regularly infiltrated by the desire for rebellion and resistance. Passionate criticism of one's own nation and its rules and regulations is more pronounced among Germans than in almost any other country. The fact that demonstrations against the covid-19 measures were allowed to take place in several cities until recently, despite repeated failure to comply with security regulations, is a testament to this ambivalent, dialectical relationship to order.
Profit maximisation has turned out to be the real myth
It is true that in Berlin and other German cities property sharks harass tenants. At the same time, for decades German tenants have fought for their rights more than in almost any other country. The willingness to resist in an orderly manner is demonstrated, for example, by housing associations that have successfully acquired their apartment buildings, and also by Berlin's rent cap (Mietendeckel), even if it could have unintended consequences in its execution.
However, the positive achievements of a German sense of order should not distract from the fact that it has actually suffered in its implementation in recent decades. This is because order as a principle costs time, money and effort. The German sense of order, however, has been broken by austerity. This is not a German phenomenon, but can be observed in all major European cities. The privatisation of what were once public services and properties, the outsourcing of production and services was supposed to make everything better, more efficient, more orderly. It has had the opposite effect. The dogged conviction that constant profit maximisation for the few means profit for all has proven to be the true myth of our time.
Why the Germans do it better!
I have been living in English-speaking countries for 12 years, and I not infrequently long for German conditions. In the UK, the turbo-capitalist country where I currently work, the covid-19-related death rate is higher than anywhere else in the world. During the first wave, a third of all patients who ended up in a British intensive care ward died. Shortages of doctors and nurses are also a problem in Germany, but these figures startled me.
In the UK, tenants who lost their jobs during the lockdown and could no longer pay their rent were summarily thrown out on the street - against all legal regulations. In his book Why the Germans do it better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country, published in August 2020, the British journalist John Kampfner writes that the Germans have shown exemplary leadership in dealing with the past, immigration and climate change, foreign policy, the cultural sector and the handling of the covid-19 crisis. I think he is right.
German order is not going anywhere
In her televised speech on 18 March 2020, broadcast two days after the first British lockdown, Angela Merkel demonstrated the level-headed leadership and integrity that was sorely missed in Boris Johnson. Like many other expatriates, I was seized by an unexpected wistfulness for the tidy country I had long derided as too stodgy, too boring and too lethargic.
In view of the delay in covid-19 economic aid and the breakdowns in vaccine procurement, Germany's order advantage seems slightly tarnished. But what remains, despite functional damage, is the aspiration to order, which has been a catalyst for change in the past. It will continue to be so.