Some Musings on the Abnormally Normal Germans

I’ve just returned from my annual vacation on my beloved island of Foehr; and as in earlier years Brother Reinsch has invited my random thoughts on what’s up with Krautland. Some bad stuff happened while I was there but frankly, it’s been a relief to spend a few weeks in a functioning, tolerably well-governed country. On the eve of the federal elections on September 24, the Germans are calm, confident, and contented. And basically, I think, they’re right.

G20 (Bier Holen!)

In early July the G20 met in Hamburg. A horde of masked, marauding Autonome (as the derelicts call themselves) trashed my hometown. Mercifully, no one died. Still, several hundred police officers ended up in the hospital. Property damage across the city was extensive; and for several hours that Friday night, the Schanzenviertel—the part of town where the Autonome live and where they organized their “Welcome to Hell” “protest”—was a law-and police-free zone. The streets there are narrow and the protesters had manned the rooftops, armed with cobblestones and other deadly objects. The police, though 20,000 strong, aren’t trained for that sort of urban combat. The area was finally secured by military commandos, present at the G20 to thwart terrorist attacks.

Obviously, this wasn’t good for Hamburg and its image around the world; and the city’s Social-Democratic Lord Mayor, Olaf Scholz, may be finished. He had accepted Chancellor Angela Merkel’s request to host the G20 in exchange for Berlin’s promise to support Hamburg’s application to host the Olympic Games (a plan Hamburg’s voters then wisely nixed in a referendum). He promised worried constituents that the G20 would be like the Hafengeburtstag, an annual festivity that draws a million tourists: some traffic snarls but lots of visitors and visibility. Post-event, Mr. Scholz duly apologized but also joined a chorus that said, look: if you can’t hold a G20 event in Hamburg, you can’t hold it anywhere. Heck, no.

In the first place we could do with G20 summits what we already do with Olympic Games and the Soccer World Cup: hold them in (semi-)authoritarian countries that specialize in corruption and oppression. In the second place Hamburg really was a bad place. It’s a monument to globalism, free trade, and capitalism; so it’s a natural target for occupiers and other nutcases. But it also tolerates, and in fact supports, the “autonomous” and other nominally leftist constituencies that produced the mayhem. No other major German city other than Berlin has anything like that.

Why Hamburg? Well, one of the first things you’ll see on a tourist excursion is that City Hall is of one piece with the Chamber of Commerce (whose denizens will happily explain that they were there first). The architecture reflects a stable political arrangement: the political Left—the SPD, alone or in a coalition with Greens and the hard Left—gets to run City Hall, provided they govern competently and don’t rattle the merchant class that actually runs the place. In practice, that has meant a lot of “tolerance” for leftist protest, including extra-legal activities. In the 1980s, squatters occupied buildings in the Hafenstrasse, overlooking the port. That then became the model for the “Rote Flora” in the Schanzenviertel, a former theater that served as a command center, first-aid clinic, and legal aid center in the G20 protest.

Intermittent attempts to assert law and order have consistently yielded to the recognition that money, supplied by a fantastically prosperous city, can buy just about anything and anyone. The Hafenstrasse was cleared by building snazzy condos on the site, administered by a co-op organized by the city and available only to the squatters and some other “disenfranchised” individuals. The Rote Flora, too, was purchased and then subsidized by the city. That hasn’t worked so well, and now there is talk about shutting the place down. I wouldn’t bet on it. Much more likely, they’ll find a way to buy social peace. They always do.

A week after the G20, an exasperated cabbie valiantly tried to transport me and my wife from the suburbs to a party in the city. One route along the harbor: blocked by a Triathlon competition. Alternative route over the famed Reeperbahn: blocked by a music festival of some 400,000 partiers (tipsy and a bit raucous but neither violent nor even disorderly—just fun). Third route: a slow crawl through the aforementioned Schanzenviertel, where local residents had helped with the clean-up and where nothing remained of the destruction except a few boarded-up windows and lots of the G20 posters shown above. Pronounced in German, the text translates into “go get twenty beers.” That about captures the spirit: it’s party time in Hamburg. Always.

What Of It?

At some level the cavalier attitude towards organized violence is troublesome. There’s something disturbing about letting the Autonome operate in what the Germans call a rechtsfreier Raum—a space where law doesn’t apply.  Surely, too, the authorities would act differently if the Rote Flora were the Braune Flora and the violence came from neo-Nazis. It grates to see leftist politicians excuse the lawless conduct (for example, by blaming it on police “provocation,” or on the “provocation” of conducting the event in Hamburg of all places). That said, one can also make too much of this.

Germany, and Hamburg, have seen real anarchist violence—foremost, the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Army Faction (RAF). Those characters had a political program, of sorts. They were willing to kill people, and they did. In short, the RAF was serious and competent in its own way. Today’s Autonome, in contrast, have no program beyond “raising hell”; they are nihilists, and proud of it. They demonstrate their “autonomy” by living in publicly supported abodes, including the Hafenstrasse condos that would fetch millions on the market. These people are pathetic. They are also clueless: in the G20 “protest,” they mostly torched their own neighborhood. And they are impotent. The German authorities estimate that there are some 8,500 nominal leftists nationwide prone to violence, whose inchoate complaints have zero resonance in a country of some 80 million thoroughly contented people. Occasional handwringing notwithstanding, what we have here is a manageable public order problem, not a portent of a second Weimar Republic.


That, in fact, is the general impression I’ve come away with: the Bonn-Berlin Republic not just as non-Weimar but anti-Weimar, both globally and domestically. Germany is mostly, and to my mind rightly, perceived as a haven of normalcy and global understanding. The country likes it that way—but it doesn’t like to boast about it, let alone hold out its model of global governance. Monsieur Macron’s election has helped in that regard: now, France again stands ready to propound grand internationalist principles, while Germany pays.

Domestically, the social-democratic model still seems to be working for Germany. Despite some griping about rising inequality, the labor markets are absurdly tight and wages are rising. The unemployment insurance system is horridly over-funded; the federal government is awash in money; and the citizenry tolerates a “climate change” policy that produces nothing except energy bills that in this country would prompt armed rebellion.

The party system has splintered a bit. The overwhelming tendency, however, is not polarization but a centrist pull that effectively stifles all debate. The upcoming election is over nothing at all, really. No one can lay a glove on Chancellor Merkel. The Free Democratic Party (FDP), Germany’s closest equivalent to what we call “conservative,” may re-enter the Bundestag—but only promises not freedom but Zukunft (future), whatever that might mean. The Social Democrats are fading fast because what do they really have against Mrs. Merkel—she was too nice to refugees (an issue that has faded in importance)? She has betrayed the late Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s European legacy, by being too harsh on Greece et al? Please. Mrs. Merkel disposed of the latter attack with a statesman-esque Schwamm drueber (never mind). She also artfully defused a potentially divisive campaign debate over gay marriage. Her Christian-Democratic Party’s platform was against that. But, she said in an offhand remark on Germany’s equivalent of the Oprah Show, that’s really a Gewissensentscheidung—meaning a matter of conscience on which parliamentarians are freed from party discipline. Sure enough: while Mrs. Merkel voted against Ehe fuer alle (“Marriage for all”), the statute passed the Bundestag with the “free” CDU votes.  That’s how it goes with Mrs. Merkel: you never know where you land, but you’ll always land safely.

Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, my favorite German poet (Heinrich Heine) famously wrote in 1844, Dann bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht: “When I think of Germany in the night, I’m robbed of my sleep.” I used to share his fears. On the evidence I’ve seen this month, I think the guy should chill and go get a beer. Or maybe 20.