Report by Natalie Nougayrède on the study tour of the Richard von Weizsäcker Forum 2018
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”: Charles Dickens came to mind when looking at Germany in this autumn (2018). A year before the 30th anniversary of reunification, we found a country struggling with domestic and international upheavals that amount to no less than a form of revolution: certainly not an easy environment for Germans who cherish stability above all else. Postwar Germany’s three pillars of identity have been simultaneously shaken to the core: America’s role in Europe, the European project itself, and the global reputation of the German car industry. Is the nation fully grasping the speed at which it’s changing? Is it able to seize opportunities?
Participants shared mixed feelings at the end of the study tour organized by the Robert Bosch Academy in the framework of the Richard von Weizsäcker Forum. One pointed out that China wasn’t on the radar screen prominently enough, especially when discussing the impact of new technologies. Another felt that “the silences were deafening”, in particular with regard to “neo-Nazism" and “the brewing crisis” after Chemnitz. Are Germans living in “a fool’s paradise?” quipped yet another. “What was missing was the relationship between Germany and the rest of Europe”, commented a participant from Asia.
In meetings with representatives of political parties, we heard about the deep unease now with over 90 members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) now in the Bundestag. One high level official noted: “if you can’t be optimistic, then you leave politics”. When asked about the contrast between the strength of Germany’s macroeconomic results and the doubts or discontent of its population, an interlocutor quoted Barack Obama: “the worst danger for democracy is complacency”. Germans are confused and anxious. The trouble is, “you can’t fight that with statistics”, was one comment that we heard. A “much more structural problem” was mentioned as well: “Germans tend to be too legalistic, wanting to be perfect”. Nor does it help that Germany currently lacks political leadership; its weakened, even "exhausted", chancellor has taken on one term too many. “A good departure is difficult”, said one participant.
Might Germany also be too inward looking? There was certainly little enthusiasm for Emmanuel Macron’s Eurozone reform proposals: “when you ask Macron how he wants to implement them you don’t get an answer”, said one official. Both Trump and Putin “want to destroy” the EU, we were told, but it was also clear there would be no German leap of faith into deeper European integration. Rather, what is expected is an effort to “correct public communication” on the migration issue and a search for “symbolism” by way of measured steps (“completing the banking union”). As for keeping the US engaged in Europe, the solution lies in “repeating again and again: you are still the indispensable nation, but not as “America First”, and we won’t be blackmailed”.
While in Stuttgart, the study tour group plunged into matters of business and ethics, not least the challenge of innovation. A former tobacco factory transformed into a start-up hub for SAP and its 90.000 employees (of which 25000 in Germany) offered glimpses into how “Zukunftsfähigkeit” can be approached. German culture treasures “process” rather than “creating something out of nothing”, as one American member of the study group described it. Risk taking does not come naturally. A representative of a major German corporation regretted that “failure is unacceptable”. What holds Germany back is precisely the reticence to challenge paradigms, in an era when so many once rock-solid paradigms are coming undone.
What’s at stake is hard to exaggerate, whether for one country, for Europe, and for the wider world in which German business has so effectively deployed itself with globalization. Are Germans too legalistic and bound by rules? In Karlsruhe, the “Open Codes” exhibition helped move away from the cliché, its displays exploring the relationship between humans and computers – “Zukunft ist was du daraus machst” was one slogan.
For all the talk of rules, there can be more flexibility than meets the eye. One of the most fascinating insights came when a prominent judge described how deals were struck between mainstream parties. With political fragmentation now the name of the game, new ways of creating consensus will need to be found.
The word “Gelassenheit” came up as a quality that ought to be valued - a way of approaching things with calm and confidence. Still, Germany feels rattled and looking for a sense of direction. The country built its postwar democracy on an "economic miracle" grown from under the protection of euro-Atlantic structures. In a now increasingly unpredictable world, whether Germany can pull out of its navel-gazing remains unclear. To be sure, it is not the only nation in Europe nor the West to be searching for answers. But because of its pivotal role on the continent, how Germany will frame questions, or choose to ignore them altogether, will matter immensely for all. For many reasons, the study tour was a fascinating eye-opener.
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