Bill Scott's blog

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Monthly Archives: August 2017

Final thoughts – almost

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A few final thoughts from my trip to Germany:

  • The eastern part of Germany is full of wind farms, fine railway stations (Go to Leipzig!), and a lot of new roofs, but it feels empty
  • Germany’s social divisions have become regional.  The Economist says that there is now there's a north – south split as well as an east – west one, but, comparing Dresden and Bremen, the south of the east looks and feels better in many ways than the west of the north
  • Mrs M's writ is less powerful in the east where locals are happy to run red pedestrian lights: it must be that legacy of being told what to do all the time and how to think.
  • Their health service is clearly better than the NHS though not without issues.
  • German black pilsner (e.g. Köstritzer Schwarzbier) seems much superior to its Czech cousin.
  • It's odd to see huge ads on German streets glamourising smoking, and to realise that circuses still have 'wild' animals.
  • I'm wondering whether I shall ever buy a German car again.
  • I'm already looking forward to my next trip.

This was almost my last thought.  Tomorrow I'll round off this series of posts by returning to VW's cheating and its consequences.

 

Berlin Airport Blues

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The last time I flew out of Berlin’s Tegel airport, I said “never again”, as its squalid facilities would put even the USA to shame.   But here I am, 10 years later, with another delayed flight (I blamed the EU's new rules).  Tegel is now, of course, even more inadequate.  The signage is appalling and it led us to what resembled a hanger – but it turned out to be the wrong hanger.  I expected the USAF to be dropping food parcels any minute (wrong airfield, I know!)

Tegel has no train or metro connections and so you have to go there by bus.  The X in the TXL bus from main Berlin railway station (Hbf) does not, it turns out, mean ‘express’.  It means ‘cross town stopping shopping service’ where buggies and babies jostle for a stop or two amidst cabin baggage and hold luggage.  It’s a nightmare (as is the signage at the Hbf).  I imagine Mrs M is ashamed of the whole thing, although I doubt she ever uses it.

We eventually got back to the well-organised, spacious, efficient, light and airy Heathrow Terminal 2.  What Germans think of this when they arrive is unrecorded.

Tegel is as much a joke airport as is Berlin’s much delayed and ridiculed replacement: the Willy Brandt Airport.  This gives the lie to Germany’s engineering and organisational super-prowess.  After 15 years of planning, construction began in 2006.  Due to be finished in 2013, and recently 'completed', WBA is still not in use and won't be until fundamental safety features are sorted out.

For the quite unbelievable details of this fiasco, Wikipedia is a good place to start – and you really should read this before you buy your next vacuum cleaner.

 

 

Schadenfreude, Bildung and Beer

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Sitting in a (distinctly non-Anglo) Saxon café with a glass of black pilsner in my hand, on a terrace overlooking the Elbe as it made its way through Dresden, I could not help but enjoy the discomfort of endless groups of Germans so eager for culture that they submitted themselves to listening to dull tour guides witter endlessly on.  The victims looked leg, brain and bildung-weary, and I caught many a glance in the direction of my beer.  Well, it's a free country, or so Mrs M says, and local beer is only 60p for 500 ml in the shops (with money back on the bottle), so there's a ready remedy to hand.

All this brought another new German proverb to mind:

In today's Germany, although you're never far from Bildung, you're always closer to beer.

Prost!

Tomorrow's post is about the difficulties of leaving Berlin.  There's also more on the German's soiled reputation for engineering excellence, and a warning about buying a new vacuum cleaner.

 

 

Why Germany needs 5 flags

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I said in a recent post that it seemed but short steps from saying that German car-makers cheat, to saying that German business cheats, and that Germany cheats.  In other words, that Germany risks letting its criminal car companies represent the nation's morals in the world.  You see a VW on the road: you see a symbol of Germans cheating the public.

The risk seems high, and there is now awareness of the umbilical link between the German government and its car-makers.   There was a striking cartoon in Thüringer Allgemeine while we were in Erfurt which showed 5 German flags behind the podium where an official government statement was to be made.  Each black, red and yellow flag showed the logo of a different car company.

The Times reported last week in a piece on the forthcoming German federal election:

"People are unhappy about the collusion between carmakers, their readiness to dodge diesel emission standards, their proximity to government and the pervasive suspicion of establishment cover-ups.  Germans are rightly proud of their cars and they understandably hate cheats.  Now something is going awry.  The economy is doing quite well, which should give fair wind to an incumbent government, but voters worry that their teenage children are being exploited in their apprenticeships and traineeships.  Unpaid overtime, a demand from some employers that the youngest in the workforce turn up two hours earlier than everyone else, also rankles.  The German engine is not purring as it should."

Tomorrow, I'll have a piece on Schadenfreude, Bildung and Beer.

 

A German Ozymandias

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We visited another fine museum on our trip.  Eschewing the sculpture, china, and old masters available in Dresden's partially-restored splendour, we went to the suburbs and visited the Bundeswehr's Museum of Military History.  This was not the eccentric choice it might appear.

There are two parts to the building: an arsenal built in 1877 and an wedge-shaped extension completed in 2011 that slices through it.  We were told that the light and shadow effects produced by the wedge "symbolise the eventful military history of Germany", and that the exhibitions confront "the visitor with his or her own potential for aggression and shows violence as a historical, cultural, and anthropological phenomenon".   Well, maybe – but it works – and we did not have enough time to explore it in full.

The extension focuses on issues such as War and Memory, War and Suffering, Language and the Military, Politics and the use of Force, Protection and Destruction, War and Play, and Fashion and the Military.  The older part is a more conventional chronological journey: the Late Middle Ages to 1914, the Age of World Wars, and 1945 to the Present.

Two artefacts stood out for me.  The first was a wrecked toy that had been found in the rubble of Dresden in 1945.  It was a toy tank that would spit out sparks when run along the ground.  The second was  an almost completely corroded typewriter that was found in the ruins of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin: one of many such machines used to issue orders and seal fates – a quotidian instrument of death and ruination in the 1000-year plan.  It seemed a fitting tribute, and Ozymandias came to mind:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear –
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

The Germans do this reflective, honest, soul-searching of their past rather well.  In addition to the museums we went to, there's also the Documentation Centre in Nuremberg or the Topography of Terror in Berlin, and that's not counting the many Holocaust memorials, concentration camp memorials, or smaller civic museums, such as the one in Cologne that I'm most familiar with.  There is, of course, much soul-searching that still needs doing, but that applies to most of us on way or another.  Monday's post will be about why Germany now needs 5 versions of its national flag.

 

The Fuller Life

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As I sat in a splendid and rather Rococo coffee house in old Weimar – which cannot have seen better days any time lately – I was struck by the range of turmoil that this city has seen over the last 80 years.  Someone born in 1937 and who'd never left the district would have seen National Socialist pomp and brutality, and then been rescued by American 80th Infantry and 6th Armoured Divisions, only to be swiftly handed over the the Soviets as a result of the Yalta agreement.  Our 80-year old would likely have missed the compulsory viewing of the Buchenwald concentration camp insisted on by the Americans, and also any personal Russian reprisals for her assumed association with Nazism.  She'd then have had 40 years in the DDR to ponder her good fortune.  In 1989 she got her freedom from tyranny, only to be quickly swallowed whole by the EU and its political grandstanding and ambitions.

All the regimes and ideologies she has been subjected to over 80 years have been offering variants of what Kipling termed, the Fuller Life.  Maybe the EU, the first to offer a blend of both the Gods of the copybook headings and the Gods of the marketplace (mediated by the self-serving demigods of the Commission) will serve our 80-year old well in her remaining days.

Maybe ... .  Tomorrow there will be reflections of a trip to the German Army's Museum of Military History, with the aid of a bit of Shelley.

 

Not quite a Horst Wessel sort of moment

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Eating quietly in a restaurant in Erfurt's Fischmarkt, our peace was disturbed by the arrival of 29 assorted Swedes who variously shuffled and stumbled their way into the building.  They were accompanied by a be-blazered, didactic-type who, once latecomers had been assembled and counted, proceeded to lecture the gathered throng.  He did this reasonably quietly, so the peace was not much disturbed.  However, when he'd done, they all stood up and began to sing very loudly.  It did not sound like a song about how great Germany is; more likely it was relief that they'd finally done with bildung for the day.

This cannot have been the first time Erfurt's taverns had experienced such a thing.  The 1930s in particular were a time of singing and matching, particularly by the  Sturmabteilung (Brownshirts) who sang the Horst-Wessel-Lied (Die Fahne hoch) to provoke local communists into attacks; of course, they usually obliged.

Whilst a mass of elderly, culturally-incentive Swedish tourists are not a National Socialist rabble, and they didn't set out to provoke a riot, they were only really aware of themselves and took no notice of their surroundings.  It was not a great display of European-togetherness.  We drank up our wonderful black pilsner and moved on to the much quieter streets.

But is this sudden bursting into song catching?  I only ask because we experienced two other outpourings in Dresden.  One was a (the collective noun escapes me) of Chinese children, all decked out in blue and white, who suddenly burst into song at the behest of their elderly leader; the other was a group of orthodox Jewish boys who did the same in front of what I thought was a fairly secular wall.  The latter are, of course, about as far from Horst Wessel as you can get.  Where will all this end?

All this is probably a bit unfair, of course.  The British have been marauding and carousing round the continent for 800 years or so, often with the help of strong drink; no doubt we shall continue this tradition even after Brexit.  Tomorrow it will be musings on the Fuller Life in one of Weimar's fine cafés.

 

 

Just so that VW could lie to the public

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When I wrote this ...

Just so that VW could lie to the public

... on the wall sticker in the Gedenk und Bildungsstätte Centre in Erfurt, my wife said "That makes you sound like a communist".  Maybe so, but I have been outraged by what VW did in cheating both the EU's emissions tests, and the public.  Outraged, but not surprised, as Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

And what became of VW's shame and guilt?  Not very much it seems.  The Americans, who discovered the problem, did at least wallop them round the shareholder wallet, but the British, Germans and EU seem to worry about damaging the economy if too much punishment is dolled out.  And VW are not alone, the EU recently fined German and other European companies — responsible for making for 90% of all trucks across on the continent — €3 billion for price collusion and other misdemeanours over a 14-year period.    And now we know that EU competition authorities are investigating VW, BMW and Daimler over collusion by secret technology working groups dating from the 1990s.  Der Speigel alleges that the three groups colluded over the use of insufficient amounts of an additive that neutralises diesel emissions.  All this begins to look like a shared institutional willingness to cheat in their (and the German) interest.  The sector accounts for 20% of German industrial income, employs 800,000 people and is a visible German presence on most foreign streets.

It is a short step from saying: German car-makers cheat, to saying German business cheats, and then that Germany cheats, and I know there is considerable concern in Germany about this possibility.  It's something I'll return to.  Tomorrow, however, it's time for a curious story of Swedish cultural excess in Erfurt.

 

VW Goddamn

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This is the first of a number of posts about my Summer visit to south-eastern Germany.

The highlight of my trip to Germany was not the wonderful black pilsner I found, or the glories of a grandchild developing language skills, but a visit to the Gedenk und Bildungsstätte (Memorial and Education) Centre in Erfurt, a rather fine old town in south-east Germany where Luther was a monk.

The Gedenk und Bildungsstätte Centre commemorates oppression, bravery and triumph during the German socialist dictatorship between 1949 and 1989.  The building in which the Centre is situated was the remand prison run by the DDR's Ministry of State Security (the Stasi).  Over 5000 people were held there by the Stasi for not being willing to make a contribution to building the new Jerusalem on the regime's terms.

On the face of it, it's a nice-looking building, all warm red brick and fine detail, and the modern glass and steel, ground-floor entrance does not give the grim game away.  It's only when you get to the start of the museum on the second floor and walked round a corner that you realise that you're in a prison: the remand cells and interrogation rooms stretch out down a forbidding corridor.  Up to that point, owing to a lack of detailed info in English, I'd assumed it was a rather conventional museum; not so.

The second floor was about conditions in the remand prison, and why people were incarcerated there; the first floor was about the workings of the dictatorship that held its malign sway for 40 years; and the ground floor was about how the house of cards came tumbling down when it became clear that Red Army tanks wouldn't be turning up to keep the regime's old men in power.  People's human stories were at the centre of it all, and it was hard not to be moved by such courage in the face of seeming overwhelming odds.

But the odds eventually shifted with, at first, hundreds on the streets, and then thousands, and finally many hundreds of thousands all across the country, but especially in the south-east, in and around Leipzig, Erfurt and Dresden.  It was good to see a country facing up to its past in this way.  Over a beer afterwards, I wondered about the UK and slavery, and whether we have yet really faced up to that awful legacy.  We certainly like to remember the likes of William Wilberforce and Hannah Moore, and tell good stories about abolition; but it seems we're less ready to remember all the profits we made from its misery.  All that's for another blog sometime.

The final wall of the Gedenk und Bildungsstätte Centre was a chance to write a message.  I wrote this:

All this effort – and for what?  So that VW could lie to the public.

This is a theme I shall return to tomorrow.