Posted by Torben
It seems that anytime anyone anywhere writes about Berlin nowadays, mention must be made of the “looming specter” of its recent past; of a city “haunted;” of “ghosts” and “demons” not yet “exorcised.” While this recourse to metaphor can serve as a segue into honest and well-founded analysis, all-too-often it's just thin camouflage for an appeal to prurience straight out of an Anne Rice novel. Ours is the age of “dark tourism:” You can take your picture with a wax Anne Frank in Berlin's Madame Tussaud's and nobody seems to mind. You can check out a wax Hitler, too, but unlike the other featured celebrities (I use the term advisedly), you are not allowed to touch him, absurdly endowing him with a perverse mystique.
I say this knowing full well that I'm sitting in a great big glass house with thin panes: I am a tour guide who makes money showing visitors to Berlin remnants of Nazi-era architecture and the grounds of a former concentration camp. For all the talk that Berlin is “poor but sexy,” its Nazi past is, understandably, of tremendous interest to many who come here, and I, like many others, cater to and profit from that interest. I try to provide accurate information and some sense of the complexity of the history addressed, but I'm not sure that's sufficient justification.
To be clear, when it comes to Berlin's Nazi past, I am not advocating reticence and I'm not taking issue with the breadth and density of the city's memorial landscape – to the contrary. I don't believe Germany suffers from a surfeit of memory, but from a surfeit of glib talk about memory.
And that's a shame. Sure, while some memorials and museums in Germany seem to accommodate a never-ending stream of German students and young people (the age demographic at memorials is striking; older Germans are a rare sight) as well as foreign tourists, some are almost barren of visitors. Others have become what Germans cynically call Kranzabwurfstellen, wreath-disposal-sites, visited mainly by politicians and dignitaries on Holocaust Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the euphemistically named Kristallnacht. Still, the memorials and museums across Berlin and Germany are the result of a decades-long process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a coming to terms with the past. This process was long in coming, it endured periods of retardation and was corrupted by efforts at self-exculpation, but evident flaws notwithstanding, the debates surrounding the establishment and design of the country's memorials and exhibitions tend to be long, arduous, and sophisticated. That doesn't mean the results are always good (and they're certainly not going to please everyone) but more thought has gone into them than some knee-jerk journalistic appraisals, written after a five minute stroll through Berlin's Holocaust Memorial, might suggest.
Perhaps the depth and breadth of the German memorial landscape, how (some of) its citizens have wrestled with the country's crimes, can be of interest to those with a less awful past. The horrors of Germany's 20th century history (specifically the crimes perpetrated by Germans in Germany's name in the Nazi period) are unique, but maybe there is some relevance for contemporary American discussions surrounding, for instance, the flying of the Confederate flag or the naming of buildings on university campuses for the likes of Woodrow Wilson or John C. Calhoun, men with very different legacies but who were both unquestionably racists.
But that is a discussion for another day. Instead, I'd like to talk a little bit about something that has struck me in recent months as I've, by chance, explored parts of the city I hadn't previously spent much time in: the topography of Berlin's – and by extension Germany's – memorial landscape. A casual visitor to Berlin's Holocaust Memorial – it's just a stone's throw from the seat of the federal government after all – will be forgiven for missing something crucial about German memorials: their ubiquity. Totems of the country's national socialist past – in the form of information boards, exhibitions or memorials – abound and can often be found in unlikely places.
Two months ago, my son Viktor was born. From early on he has displayed a casual disregard for what we – his parents – ask him to do and a matter-of-course attitude toward doing his own thing. During the pregnancy, Viktor refused to turn in the womb and generally made it clear that he was going to stay put as long as he damn well felt like it. Quixotically, however, we decided to heed medical opinion and have doctors attempt to turn Viktor so as to ease delivery. We did this in a hospital in western Berlin – Havelhöhe – established on the site of what had been built in the 1930s as Nazi air minister Hermann Göring's Luftkriegsakademie or “Air War Academy.” Here, officers of the general staff of the Luftwaffe, the Nazi German air force, were trained. That the hospital comprised buildings from the Nazi era was clear at first glance, despite the incongruous pink facade of the gynecology department. An information board provided the explanation. Where anthroposophic medicine is practiced today, officers who would form the Legion Condor that bombed Republican strongholds for Franco's Spanish government, including the town of Guernica as immortalized by Picasso, received their training.
Viktor would be born elsewhere, in the Waldkrankenhaus (“forest hospital”) at the western-most edge of Berlin in the district of Spandau. We arrived a few days before delivery – the doctors wanted to try to induce labor – and so I had lots of time to study an exhibition on display in the hospital foyer about the the history of the place. I learned that the hospital had been founded on the site of the Arbeiterstadt “Große Halle,” a settlement projected to house 8,000 workers who were to be employed in realizing the most ambitious building project of Hitler's new capital, Germania, as Berlin was to be renamed. The Große Halle, or “great hall,” would have stood just south of where the main train station is today. The projected dimensions are obscene; at almost 300 meters, the dome would have been almost as tall as Berlin's TV tower. Critics have argued that it would have been structurally unsound, a charge the architect, Albert Speer, dismissed, although he was concerned that during the planned political rallies the condensed sweat of up to 180,000 attendees could have led to rainfall inside the building. In order for Speer's megalomaniacal plans to be realized, thousands of homes had to be abandoned and the residents resettled, often into homes left behind by Jews deported to the east, most of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. Speer's office participated in preparing lists of deportees so as to expedite his plans.
Construction of the “great hall” was expected to last until 1950 and so the workers (Germans) were to be housed in quarters more comfortable than the ad hoc wooden barracks usually found at building sites. Thus in 1939 construction began on the Arbeiterstadt or “workers' town.” Unlike with their representative architecture where neoclassicism prevailed (see said “great hall”), when it came to their residential buildings the Nazis preferred a style evoking a fictitious medieval German past. Sometimes called Heimatschutzstil or “homeland preservation style,” the Arbeiterstadt conformed to type. Three buildings arranged in a “U” shape formed one unit that could house up to 320 workers, each building boasting half-timber elements or arcades resting on wooden posts. The building forming the base of the “U” served as kitchen and mess hall with a stage at one end for weekend performances and film screenings. The other two buildings contained sanitary facilities and the barracks where the workers slept.
Only a fraction of the settlement was built and Speer's plans for Germania never got beyond the very early stages. Instead, the houses of the Arbeiterstadt were rented out to German businesses who in the war years were increasingly reliant on foreign labor. Millions of foreigners worked in Germany during the Second World War (civilians to whom millions more concentration camp prisoners and POWs must be added). How they were treated could vary dramatically, but a very high percentage, 80% to 90%, were forced laborers. Poles and civilian workers from the Soviet Union, so-called Ostarbeiter, were especially poorly treated, and became veritable prisoners of the companies that ostensibly employed them. Death rates could be very high due to poor nutrition, long and brutal hours, and unsafe conditions. Workers were impressed into service, could not dissolve their contracts, and were poorly remunerated if they were paid at all. After the war, German companies did not prove eager to fess up to their responsibility for the criminal treatment of these "employees," but the threat of lawsuits in the US and pressure from the German government convinced them in the year 2000 to participate in the establishment of a fund, financed jointly with the German government, to pay foreign forced laborers modest compensation. Part of the money also went to the establishment of a foundation designed to keep the memory of the victims alive and to educate the public about their plight.
During the last years of the war, two to three thousand workers were living in the Arbeiterstadt at a given time. When the Soviets took Berlin, it was largely empty, the workers having been given meager rations and sent away. Just a few months later, the Verein zur Errichtung evangelischer Krankenhäuser or “Association for the Establishment of Lutheran Hospitals” took over a number of barracks and used them to house about 100 children requiring orthopedic treatment from a region to the southeast of Berlin (Niederlausitz) . Two years later, the hospital where my son would be born was established.
We had to stay in hospital for several days after Viktor's birth, and it was there that I took him on his first walk. We checked out the church on the hospital grounds (the facility is Lutheran, after all), and saw the few remaining buildings from the Nazi period standing amid pine trees. In one of them, a larger exhibit on the history of the Arbeiterstadt can be visited upon request. It had been developed in the 1990s by the Spandau Geschichtswerkstatt or history workshop. Such workshops have been around since the 1980s. They tend to focus on researching and popularizing local history, often emphasizing marginalized groups and the difficult history of the 1930s and 1940s. It is a way for young people (among others) to get involved in the local community and to get a taste of historical research.
A little further on, a sculpture had been set up in 2004 to commemorate the forced laborers and their suffering. The local government had refused to pay for it, but a grassroots initiative managed to get enough financial support from various sources, including the Protestant Lutheran Church, unions, and political parties, to see the memorial unveiled. The German metal workers union, IG Metall, pays for its maintenance. At the base of the sandstone monument depicting workers holding a heavy bronze load is a quote from Germany's former president, Johannes Rau: “Slave and forced labor not only meant the denial of fair pay. It also meant deportation, an uprooting, a disenfranchisement, the brutal violation of human dignity. Often the system's express aim was the destruction of human beings through work.”
A quick postscript: As mentioned, the hospital is located at the very edge of town on a street appropriately named Stadtrandstraße or “city boundary street.” Many of its patients came from beyond West Berlin's borders from Communist East Germany. Then, in 1961, the Berlin Wall was built. Suddenly, the number of patients plummeted. The hospital was in danger of being forced to close. However, the West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer became interested in its plight. Although Adenauer had no love lost for Berlin – he preferred the easygoing small town atmosphere of Catholic Bonn – he did not want to give the East German government the opportunity for anti-Western propaganda a half-abandoned, underfunded, and deteriorating hospital would have provided. He helped mediate a fundraising drive led by a German industrialist in New York, though it met with only modest success. Today, however, the Waldkrankenhaus is a busy hospital boasting the somewhat stodgy chic of 1980s era West German public architecture. And the East Germans are back!
Posted by Carlos
No, Angela Merkel has not been replaced. She has been Germany’s Chancellor since 2005, not the President. The new man (in spite of female candidates, it’s only been men so far) to move into presidential residency at Bellevue Palace in Berlin is Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He was elected on Sunday, 12th of February, and his term begins on Sunday, 19th of March. Although less power rests with the office of the President, whose role often is misconstrued as merely ceremonial, Steinmeier’s election has important ramifications.
After the experience of dictatorship under the ‘Third Reich’, the executive branch of government in the Federal Republic of Germany (the official name of West and, after 1990, unified Germany) has been divided in two: head of government (Chancellor) and head of state (President). While many of us have a rough idea of the power Merkel wields, little is known about the President. The German Basic Law, the constitution, sets out that the President is elected for a term of five years (with only one re-election being possible). To this end, a special assembly (Bundesversammlung) consisting of all members of the Bundestag – the national parliament housed in the historic Reichstag building – and the same number of people that have been elected by the state parliaments convenes no later than 30 days before the incumbent’s term ends. 931 of 1,239 members of the Bundesversammlung cast their ballots for Steinmeier. As President, he may not be member of the government or carry out any other profession. His duties include the conclusion of agreements with foreign governments, but the orders he would give would require validation by the Chancellor.
Steinmeier was the government nominee. With the possible exception of one, all German post-war federal governments have consisted of coalitions. In the twentieth century, the two largest parties – the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in conjunction with its Bavarian counterpart, the Conservative Social Union (CSU), on the one hand and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) on the other – formed a coalition only once, from 1966 to 1969. This was at the time of the student protests of 1968 and the formation of the extra-parliamentary opposition amidst fears of an un-democratic order forming. The perceived necessary evil of a ‘grand coalition’ was repeated from 2005 to 2009 and, once more, after 2013. Steinmeier served as Foreign Minister during both terms. After President Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor and East German civil rights activist, announced last year that he would not stand for re-election, both parties were loath to nominate opposing candidates, lest they begin their campaign for the Bundestag prior to this summer. Although a junior partner in the coalition, the head of the SPD, Sigmar Gabriel, managed to push through the nomination of Steinmeier, whom the leadership of the CDU respected but accepted reluctantly.
This ostensibly minor triumph of the SPD adds more significance to this year’s presidential election in two ways that can be gleaned from an excerpt of Steinmeier’s acceptance speech, when he reflected on the remarks of a young Tunisian woman who said that Germany gave her hope, reprinted and loosely translated below:
Ist es nicht erstaunlich – ist es nicht eigentlich wunderbar – , dass dieses Deutschland, „unser schwieriges Vaterland“, wie Gustav Heinemann es mal nannte, ist es nicht wunderbar, dass dies Land für viele in der Welt ein Anker der Hoffnung geworden ist?
Wir machen anderen Mut – nicht weil alles gut ist in unserem Land. Sondern weil wir gezeigt haben, dass es besser werden kann!
- dass es nach Kriegen Frieden werden kann;
- und nach Teilung Versöhnung;
- und dass nach der Raserei der Ideologien so etwas einkehren kann wie politische Vernunft;
- dass uns vieles geglückt ist in unserem Land.
Is it not remarkable – is it not really wonderful – that this Germany, ‘our difficult fatherland’, as Gustav Heinemann once called it, is it not wonderful that this country has become an anchor of hope for many in the world?
We give courage to others – not because everything is good in our country. But because we have shown that it can become better!
That after war peace can come.
And after division reconciliation.
And that after the mania of ideologies something such as political reason can settle.
That we have been successful with many things in this country.
First, this presidential election gives an early start to the campaign for the election of the Bundestag this September. Whereas the President serves a term of five years, the Chancellor is elected by the Bundestag for a span of usually four. It can therefore happen that two elections take place in the same year, as in the case of 1969, when Heinemann, the last Social Democratic Minister prior to Steinmeier to become President, paved the way for West Berlin’s former Mayor Willy Brandt to become the first Social Democratic Chancellor in the Federal Republic.
History does not repeat itself, but Steinmeier’s election has given the SPD hope. In January, Gabriel announced that he would not be his party’s candidate for the Chancellorship, but step down for his friend Martin Schulz, the former President of European Parliament. The approval ratings for Schulz and the SPD have increased since. Confidently, Schulz has announced nothing less than making the SPD once more the strongest party in Germany and moving into the Chancellor’s Office this year as his goal. This is very ambitious, but does not seem as far-fetched as it would have a year ago.
Second, Steinmeier’s election may strengthen Germany’s political centre in perilous times. After the shock experiences of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election last year, the world seems to be moving to the far right. In 2013, Germany saw the founding of a right wing populist party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Initially placing its emphasis on critiquing European monetary policy, it has become a party of protest against the EU in general and the German government’s policies towards refugees in particular, deliberately attempting to draw racists into its ranks. Just last spring, its co-founder Alexander Gauland stated in an interview that the people considered Jerome Boateng a good football (soccer) player, but did not want a Boateng as their neighbour. Called out on this remark, Gauland retracted, stating that he had not attacked Boateng personally, deeming him a good example of integration. The very fact that Boateng, as the son of a Ghanaian father and a German mother, was no less German than Gauland eluded the AfD politician. Represented in 10 of 16 state legislatures, the AfD has very good chances of being voted into the Bundestag this year.
However, the presidential election has given German voters more options for choosing their Bundestag and, indirectly, Chancellor. Parts of Merkel’s own CDU and the CSU have opposed her policies of allowing over a million refugees into Germany in 2015 and she has had to rely on the SPD as well as those conservatives remaining loyal to her. With the strengthening of the SPD, there is more than the mere prospect of yet another grand coalition as disgruntled citizens give their vote to the AfD for want of an alternative. Although Schulz’s chances of victory remain small, the prospect of emulating the current model of the local Berlin government by forming a coalition with the Green and Left parties has become more of a viable political alternative at the national level. The election is becoming more one where voters can decide between Schulz and Merkel – who both stand for a strengthening of Europe – and less of a de facto referendum on Merkel’s policies.
As the former Foreign Minister, Steinmeier knows only too well that Germany may be the largest power to which the world looks for moderation. It is not just because of the similar trajectories that Steinmeier cites Heinemann. In office, Heinemann came to be known as the ‘President of the Citizens’, the Bürgerpräsident, for the popular support he enjoyed and for his strong identification with the German constitutional order. As much as the AfD and many other Germans – not just the party’s followers – have criticised Merkel for her policies towards refugees and expressed hostility towards Muslims, the German Basic Law fundamentally guarantees freedom of religion (Article 4) and the right to asylum (Article 16a). Heinemann would be an inspiration in honouring the presidential oath to uphold this order. Nothing could be more patriotic now.
Germany has come a long way since 1945. Mainstream politicians have begun to realise that a party of protest and racist clamour can undermine this achievement. Steinmeier’s election is the government’s attempt to shore up the political centre against extremism from the right. This should turn our gaze to Berlin for this year. No less than Europe’s future is at stake.
Posted by Torben
On prime river-view property in the heart of Berlin's government district is an otherwise nondescript office building bearing the name of the organization it houses in white letters across its front: Bundespressekonferenz. The term Bund in German roughly translates to "federal," as in Bundestag, the federal parliament, or Bundeskanzleramt, the federal chancellery. You would be forgiven for mistaking the Bundespressekonferenz, as many Germans surely do, for another federal agency. The fact that it isn't points to a significant difference between the United States and Germany in how government press conferences are organized: When the president's press secretary steps behind the podium in the White House briefing room, the journalists are his guests. When the chancellor's spokesman takes his seat at the Bundespressekonferenz, the journalists are the hosts.
Both the American and the German constitutions guarantee a free press, but they don't stipulate press access to the institutions of government. Nonetheless, in both the US and Germany we take a fairly high degree of government transparency (mediated by a free press) for granted. To this end, it is vital that the accreditation of journalists at, say, the White House and Congress, not be dependent on the whims and wishes of government officials looking to cherry-pick those correspondents they feel will report (or not report) what they want them to. This tradition has recently been called into question: Fox News's Sean Hannity has let it be known that he feels President-elect Donald Trump should revoke the White House press credentials of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other news organizations after he is sworn into office.
Since 1880, it has been left to the journalists themselves to determine who gets credentialed with the US government. The Standing Committee of Correspondents, whose members are elected by their peers, governs access to the Congressional press galleries, and the committee's decisions are generally recognized by the White House and the Supreme Court. The standard the Standing Committee applies to applicants for accreditation is, broadly speaking, whether they are professional (full-time) journalists based in Washington D.C. who work for a serious news outlet and maintain their journalistic independence, that is, they "must not be engaged in any lobbying or paid advocacy."
This system is not without its problems, of course. The Standing Committee as a body of daily newspaper reporters was slow to accept journalists working in other media, sometimes necessitating government intervention. It was Congress that initiated gallery access for radio reporters, for instance, and to this day, Congress maintains the idiosyncracy of dividing its press gallery according to what medium its correspondents are working in. The stipulations of the Standing Committee were put to a more sinister use by keeping black journalists -- who tended to work for weekly publications, not dailies -- out of the press gallery until 1947; women had a hard time getting credentialed as well. More recently, the highly regarded SCOTUSblog, which covers the Supreme Court, has been denied accreditation. This reflects the difficulties the Standing Committee has in responding to a new media environment: SCOTUSblog is sponsored by a law firm and doesn't fit neatly into the traditional classification system of the various news media.
Like with the Congressional press galleries, to be credentialed by the Bundespressekonferenz (or the Bundestag or the chancellery for that matter) candidates have to be full-time, professional correspondents working at the seat of government for a serious news organization. The Bundespressekonferenz also requires that its members be German citizens or work for a German news outlet. But what is the Bundespressekonferenz exactly and what makes it special?
In Germany, of course, we do not have a long-established and uninterrupted tradition of press freedom. Government censorship was common under the Kaiser. Later, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels found that a far more effective method of eliminating critical coverage (one that largely obviated the need for censorship) was to choose very carefully who was allowed to operate as a journalist in the first place. Even after World War II, it took a long while for reporters working out of the West German capital, of whom many had enjoyed brilliant careers in the "Third Reich," to view press freedom and press independence as the basic prerequisites of a democratic, pluralistic society.
Germany was not entirely bereft of a democratic tradition, however, and some customs from the Weimar Republic could be revived. When the Federal Republic was founded in 1949, reporters in Bonn were faced with a new government unsure of how to relate to the press. In light of the country's recent history and aware that they had to tread lightly as representatives of a not-yet-sovereign state under close observation by its American, British, and French occupiers, government officials had made no provisions to hold regular, professional press briefings. Reporters decided to fill this void on their own initiative by establishing, in the tradition of the Reichspressekonferenz of the Weimar Republic, the Bundespressekonferenz.
The latter is an association of correspondents the sole purpose of which is to organize press conferences. Spokesmen of the chancellor and the various ministries provide thrice-weekly briefings, and representatives of the parties represented in parliament appear regularly as well. Ministers, union and church officials, members of state and foreign governments, and other public figures also receive invitations. The chancellor herself is a guest at least once a year (although she makes herself available to the press more regularly, of course).
What makes the Bundespressekonferenz unique is that the journalists are in charge: The journalists decide who will be called upon to ask questions, not the official being interrogated; the journalists decide what topics will be covered, not his press secretary; and the journalists decide when the press conference ends, not the chancellor or her ministers. And while foreign correspondents cannot be members of the Bundespressekonferenz, they do have every right to participate and to ask questions.
In 2000, the German transportation minister Reinhard Klimmt, facing intense questioning regarding questionable sponsorship contracts he had signed as the president of a soccer club, broke the rules and left the Bundespressekonferenz early; a day later he was forced to resign. In 2011, the German defense minister, Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, under fire for plagiarizing his dissertation, sent his spokesman to the Bundespressekonferenz while at the same time reading a statement to select journalists at the ministry. When they learned of Guttenberg's statement, reporters at the Bundespressekonferenz walked out in protest. Guttenberg, too, had to resign.
Of course the Bundespressekonferenz will only remain effective as long as the consensus holds that refusing to appear before it is unacceptable for a public official. As of this writing, 142 days have elapsed since President-elect Donald Trump has held a press conference, distinguishing him from presidential candidates and presidents-elect that came before. This comes as no surprise, as Trump takes pride both in his antagonistic relationship with the press and in flouting convention. But it does bring into stark relief just how reliant journalists are on convention: If the president doesn't make himself available to the press, he is defying tradition, not the law.
On both sides of the Atlantic, an erosion of trust in journalistic institutions is undermining the Fourth Estate. The suggestion that what is derisively called the "mainstream press" does not provide accurate reporting is belied by the journalistic standards the mainstream press holds dear. The problem, however, is less that the results of solid reporting efforts are wrongly decried as false, but rather that the question of whether a news piece is accurate or not is increasingly becoming irrelevant. Years ago, Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" to describe deeply held notions that are treated as fact because you believe in them so much they must be true. Just last week, I heard a reporter on NPR talk about the relative importance of "accurate facts" in news reporting. As opposed to inaccurate facts? Fact-checking as a journalistic enterprise has become a big deal in the US. But the way fact-checkers operate -- measuring the veracity of a statement on a sliding scale and thereby implying that facts are negotiable while at the same time reducing an issue to a summary judgment that elides all complexity -- strikes me as deeply problematic. And clearly there is little if any fallout for politicians who are regularly found to have their "pants on fire."
In Germany, the odious term Lügenpresse or "lying press," which has a long and ignominious history, has been adopted by members of the xenophobic "Pegida" movement centered around Dresden for the simple reason that reality -- as it is presented by the press -- doesn't conform to their world view. Since Trump's election, Lügenpresse has been used as a slogan by the so-called "alt-right," probably because an umlaut makes any word look more adorable (think Fahrvergnügen). Lest I imply that this is only a problem on the right, it is worth pointing out that there are large segments of the German left that show themselves similarly immune to facts. The term gefühlte Wahrheit is bandied about, meaning "the truth you feel." Thus, the supposed risks inherent in vaccinating children are propagated despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary and a world view is espoused that equates the United States with Russia.
That false equivalence, masquerading as objective reporting, regularly creeps into news coverage. Correspondents in Berlin rightly face the same criticisms as their colleagues in Washington. Along with the tendency toward false equivalence you often find a too cozy relationship between journalists and the politicians they are covering (the incestuous White House Correspondents Dinner -- the German version is the Bundespresseball -- is, according to Mark Leibovich and Bob Garfield, a particularly obscene manifestation of this). The deference German reporters accord public officials is in many respects greater than that shown by their counterparts in the States, and freedom of information legislation was passed late in Germany and has thus far proved anemic.
But while criticism is warranted, in both countries the Fourth Estate continues to function as an important check on those in power. How much longer will that be the case? A significant segment of both the American and the German electorate is increasingly indifferent to the findings of journalists who deserve that designation. And as trust in news organizations declines it becomes that much easier for politicians to ignore the conventions that have developed over decades between journalists and the government, making us even less informed and opening the door to corruption. Laws don't have to be changed, a revolution doesn't need to happen. All it takes is for us to stop caring.
Posted by Torben
Prejudices are useful; they save time. If we can attribute behavior to notions we have about a group of people, if behavior conforms to cliché, then we are spared the effort of having to consider the countless variables that inform individual action in a complex world. And it is of course undeniable that cultural distinctions exist. Every traveler experiences the sense of insecurity, often unanticipated, that comes with cultural displacement: Do I shake hands or is a kiss on the cheek in order? Do I tip the waiter and how much? Is the cashier being rude or is his brusqueness just the way things are done here?
And once we begin to get a sense of a foreign society's cultural norms, it is terribly tempting to see them as symptomatic of a broader national character, as providing insights into the psychology of an entire people: The price Germans pay for their efficiency is humorlessness, American friendliness is a manifestation of superficiality.
The problem is that this form of cultural stereotyping inevitably leads to gross generalizations and simplifications: Germans are all mindless rule-followers. Americans are all ignorant. Isn't the sheer ease with which we make such judgments just a little arrogant? Don't these prejudices have at least a little to do with a desire to reaffirm a sense of our own superiority or that of the culture to which we belong?
Cultural stereotypes are self-reenforcing. When we step off a train in Paris that arrives on time, we don't think twice about it. When we step off a train in Frankfurt that arrives on time (which, by the way, is less likely), it's Germany's vaunted punctuality. When a Los Angelite is rude to us, we'll say, "What a jerk;" when a Berliner is rude to us, we'll say, "How German!"
Jaywalking is a case in point. On countless occasions I have heard it remarked, by expats and tour guides, in newspapers and guide books, that "in Berlin you can even be fined for jaywalking!" And inevitably the speaker or writer will proceed to cite this fact as clear evidence of Germany's obsession with rules. A casual Google search reveals a host of articles published in the British and American press on the behavior of Germans at a red light and how it is a manifestation of the nation's psyche: "The German citizen is a soldier, and the policeman is his officer," London's Telegraph newspaper declaims, quoting Victorian writer Jerome K. Jerome (cultural traits, in this case German militancy, are frequently and matter-of-factly presented as immutable and everlasting).1 The Wall Street Journal asks (perish the thought!), "Would Germans Ever Cross the Street on a Red Light?"2 But of course, as anyone who has spent any time in Berlin can attest, they do. They just don't do it nearly as frequently as Londoners or New Yorkers.
This begs the question: Is reluctance to cross at a red light and the threat of police sanction a uniquely German phenomenon? In the UK, as many Brits have taken great pride in telling me (a prejudice of my own, perhaps?), jaywalking is not an offense. In my own experience, I have been threatened with a citation for jaywalking only once and that was in Washington D.C. But that is admittedly anecdotal. What do the numbers say? It is remarkably difficult to find jaywalking statistics for Berlin. A German web search on the subject doesn't reveal much. The first two hits provide information on the fines you can incur (all of €5; €10 if you cause an accident), while the third takes you to an internet forum that addresses whether jaywalking is a punishable offense at all. (It is perhaps surprising that there would be any uncertainty about this: If following the rules is so important, everyone ought to know what they are.)
The only statistical figure I could find comes again from the Wall Street Journal. In fourteen months between August of 2014 and October of 2015, Berlin's pedestrians were fined a grand total of €7,861 for crossing the street at a red light. Considering how low the fines are for this infraction, that amounts to a fair number of rule-shunning delinquents. Assuming that the fine levied was in every case €5 (not the €10 assessed when an accident is caused), that would mean that close to 1,600 jaywalkers were written up in this time period or almost four per day. That's quite a few, but is it really tantamount to a crackdown by authorities representing the interests of a society desperate to see its rules relentlessly enforced? (I don't think the argument that only four people jaywalk in Berlin every day holds much water; even though Berliners tend to respect the red light, there are always at least a couple of offenders at an intersection.)
Admittedly I am making a rather grand extrapolation from very limited data. Let's take a different tack and see if citations for jaywalking happen elsewhere. What about easygoing Los Angeles, for example, Berlin's sister city. First, fines for jaywalking are a lot higher in LA, $197 in 2015 according to the New York Times.3 And those fines aren't just for show, either. According to the Los Angeles Times, in a four year period through the spring of 2015, 17,000 pedestrian citations had been issued in downtown Los Angeles alone,4 an area boasting fewer than 60,000 residents, although hundreds of thousands more work there. That averages to 4,250 citations per year or close to 12 each day, three times the number I came up with for Berlin. And Los Angelites express frustration at the pedantry of LA cops, who even issue tickets when people cross the street when the "Don't Walk" light has only just begun blinking red or if pedestrians step off the curb before the light turns green, even if they make no attempt to cross.
Oh, and in jaywalking paradise New York? According to the Village Voice, "The NYPD Enforces Jaywalking When It Damn Well Feels Like It,"5 issuing close to 2,000 jaywalking citations in 2014 and more than 1,000 in 2015.
Still, Los Angeles and New York do not have the reputation Germany does as a place where rules are rigidly and strictly enforced. Instead, the LAPD's jaywalking crusade is framed in entirely different terms (although the interpretations are not necessarily sympathetic): Is it a money-making scheme? Another symptom of an overbearing police culture? An attempt to get the high rate of pedestrian-related accidents in LA under control? My own interpretation hews to another cliché: Is it perhaps just the deserved punishment for someone in Los Angeles having had the audacity to walk somewhere in the first place?
But even if jaywalking isn't officially sanctioned in Germany at the rate we might expect, that doesn't mean there isn't a different, a social deterrent. Rules are to be followed and in breaking them you incur the ire of your peers. I certainly have experienced my share of disapproving looks at Berlin crosswalks. But is it because I'm breaking the rules?
I doubt it. Germans who shake their heads at jaywalkers are doing so because the latter are setting a bad example for children. Studies find that fewer people ignore the red man when kids are present. Although it's almost unheard of in the US, in Germany children will often -- at a young age and unaccompanied -- walk or take public transport to school. There is a widespread belief that if they see people jaywalking, they may be tempted to do so, too, and thereby risk injury or worse.
Whether this perception makes sense is a different question. You are more likely to be killed in a traffic accident in Germany than in the UK, due in large part to the fact that you don't have a speed limit on large stretches of the Autobahn. And fines for speeding are much lower in Germany than elsewhere in Europe, specifically because Germans want the leeway to drive over the speed limit occasionally without it breaking them financially. Though speed limits save lives, most German drivers aren't willing to make that trade, children be damned.
But where did we ever get the idea that people are consistent in what they choose to care about?
Another rule in Berlin -- one that is almost never enforced -- is that you are not allowed to consume alcohol on the subway, although no one, despite ample opportunity, has ever looked at me askance for doing so. Would we even think to open a bottle of beer on the train in the States? (And what kind of calamitous event do we think would befall us if we did?) We are much more reluctant to consider running a red light in a car, even if it's late at night and there's no traffic. We wouldn't be endangering anyone, so is it just a function of mindless rule-following?
Do Germans tend to adhere to the rules? Sure. Do they do so more adamantly than Americans or Brits? I don't know, but I don't think their behavior at a red light is any indication. And if they do, I'm not sure we should glibly present this as an obvious symptom of a deep-seated psychological desire to respect authority.
Perhaps, instead, we can choose to be a little more modest. Perhaps we can ask ourselves, does this observation have as much to do with us as it does with them? And what are the ramifications of distinguishing so sharply between us and them in the first place? We neither can nor should ignore cultural differences, but maybe we can be a little more careful in drawing conclusions from them. I think we'll learn more that way.