Historic Structures and Glasses: Restore vs. Replacement in Simpler Terms

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Co-written with sister column, bhc-logo-newest1

The discussion about the preservation and reuse of historic places has existed since the 1950s, thanks to the preservation laws that have been in place. The German Preservation Laws were passed in 1958, whereas the Historic Preservation Laws that established the National Park Service and National Register of Historic Places in the USA were enacted in 1966. Both serve the lone purpose of identifying and designating places unique to the cultural identity and history of their respective countries. Furthermore, these places are protected from any sort of modernization that would otherwise alter or destroy the structure in its original form. Protected places often receive tax credits, grants and other amenities that are normally and often not granted if it is not protected or even nominated for listing as a historic site.  This applies to not only buildings and bridges but also to roadways and highways, windmills, towers of any sorts, forts and castles, citadels and educational institutions and even memorials commemorating important events.

Dedicating and designating sites often receive mixed reactions, from overwhelming joy because they can better enjoy the sites and educate the younger generations, to disgruntlement because they want to relieve themselves of a potential liability.

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Since working with a preservation group in western Saxony on saving the Bockau Arch Bridge, a seven-span stone arch bridge that spans the Zwickau Mulde between Bockau and Zschorlau, six kilometers southwest of Aue, the theme involving this structure has been ownership. The bridge has been closed to all traffic since August 2017 while a replacement is being built on a new alignment. Once the new bridge opens, the 150-year old structure will come down unless someone is willing to step in and take over ownership and the responsibilities involved. . Taking the structure means paying for its maintenance and assuming all responsibility for anything that could potentially happen. And this is the key here: Ownership.

Who wants to own a piece of history? To examine this, let’s look at a basic example of a commodity where two thirds of the world’s population wear on a regular basis- the author included as well: glasses.

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The author’s sunglasses: the older model from 2005 on top; the newest pair from 2018 at the bottom.

Ever since Marco Polo’s invention, glasses have been improved, innovated and modernized to not only make the person look great in appearance. It also helps them to better see the environment surrounding them, regardless of whether they are near-sighted or far sighted, have astigmatism or require bi-focals to read, or if they want protect their eyes from the sun in the form of shades. Glasses can be plastic or metal (or even both). And like the historic structures, the materials can be recycled if no one wants them. Yet by the same token, many of us love to keep them for the purpose of memories or give them away to those who need them. For over 30 years, I have worn nine pairs of glasses and two pairs of sunglasses; this does not count the eight years that I primarily wore contact lenses, which was during my time in high school and college. Like our historic structures, glasses have a life span. They are worn until the frames develop rust and corrosion, the vision changes or they are broken.

In some cases, many look for a new frames because they want to “look cool” in front of their peers. The “look cool” mentality has overtaken society to a point where it can be applicable to about everything: cars, clothing, houses and especially historic places and structures of interest. Basically, people just ignore the significance of these structures and things that had been built in the past, which hold memories, contribute to the development of a country, region or even community, or are simply fashionable. Still in spite of all this, one has to do something about the glasses, just as much one has to do something about the historic building.

So let’s take these two pairs of sunglasses, for example. Like in the picture above, the top one I was prescribed by an optometrist in 2005; the bottom one most recently in June 2018. The top one is a combination of plastic and steel- the temples, ends and hinges are made of steel; the eye wires are plastic. The lenses are made with Carl Zeiss branded glass with a sealcoat covering to protect it from scratches.  The bottom ones are plastic- frames, temples and nosepiece; the lenses are plastic but with a sealcoat protectant and dimmers to protect the eyes from the sun. The brand name is generic- no name.  The difference is that the changes in the eyes required new sunglasses for the purpose of driving or doing work outside.  As I wear the new sunglasses, which are not as high quality but is “cool,” according to standards, the question is what to do with the old sunglasses?

There are enough options to go around, even if the sunglasses are not considered significant. One can keep the old pair for memory purposes. Good if you have enough space for them. One can give them away to someone who needs them. If they are non-prescription lenses, that is much easier than those with a prescription. With the prescription lenses, one will need to remove them from the frame before giving them away. Then there is the option of handing them into the glasses provider, who takes the pair apart and allows for the materials to be recycled.  More likely one will return the old pair to the provider to be recycled and reused than it would be to give them away because of the factors of age, quality of the materials and glass parts and especially the questions with the lenses themselves. One can keep the pair, but it would be the same as leaving them out of sight and out of mind.

And this mentality can be implemented to any historic structure. People strive for cooler, more modern buildings, infrastructure or the like, but do not pay attention to the significance of the structure they are replacing in terms of learning about the past and figuring its reuse in the future. While some of  these “oldtimers “ are eventually vacated and abandoned, most of them are eventually torn down with the materials being reused for other purposes; parts of sentimental values, such as finials, statues and plaques, are donated to museums and other associations to be put on display.

The Bridge at Pointer’s Ridge. Built in 1910 by the Western Bridge Company of Omaha, NE. The Big Sioux River crossing was one of five bridges removed after years of abandonment in 2012. Photo taken in 1999 when it was still open.

One of examples that comes to mind when looking at this mentality are the bridges of Minnehaha County in South Dakota. The most populous county in the state whose county seat is Sioux Falls (also the largest city in the state), the county used to have dozens of historic truss bridges that served rail and automobile traffic. As of present, 30 known truss bridges exists in the county, down from 43 in 1990, and half as many as in 1980.  At least six of them are abandoned awaiting reuse. This includes a rails-to-road bridge that was replaced in 1997 but has been sitting alongside a gravel road just outside Dell Rapids ever since.  A big highlight came with the fall of five truss bridges between Dell Rapids and Crooks in 2012, which included three through truss spans- two of which had crossed the Big Sioux. All three were eligible for the National Register. The reasons behind the removal were simple: Abandoned for too long and liability was too much to handle

This leads me to my last point on the glasses principle: what if the structures are protected by law, listed as a historic monument?  Let’s look at the glasses principle again to answer that question. Imagine you have a couple sets of glasses you don’t want to part ways with, even as you clean your room or  flat. What do you do with them? In the case of my old sunglasses, the answer is simple- I keep them for one can reuse them for other purposes. Even if I allow my own daughter to use them for decorating dolls or giant teddy bears, or even for artwork, the old pair is mine, if and only if I want to keep them and allow for use by someone else under my care.  The only way I would not keep the old sunglasses is if I really want to get rid of them and no one wants them.

Big Sioux River Crossing at 255th Street: One of five bridges removed in 2012 after decades of abandonment. Photo taken in 1999.

For historic places, this is where we have somewhat of a grey area. If you treat the historic place as if it is protected and provide great care for it, then there is a guarantee that it will remain in its original, pristine condition. The problem is if you want to get rid of it and your place is protected by law. Here you must find the right person who will take as good care of it as you do with your glasses. And that is not easy because the owner must have the financial security and the willpower just to do that. Then the person taking it over does not automatically do what he/she pleases. If protected under preservation laws you must treat it as if it is yours but it is actually not, just like renting a house.  Half the places that have been torn down despite its designation as a historical site was because of the lack of ownership and their willingness to do something to their liking. Even if there are options for restoration available, if no one wants it, it has to go, even if it means taking it off the historic registry list to do that.  Sometimes properties are reclaimed at the very last second, just like the old glasses, because of the need to save it. While one can easily do that with glasses, it is difficult to do that with historic places, for replacement contracts often include removal clauses for the old structure, something that is very difficult to rescind without taking the matter to court.

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In reference to the project on the Bockau Arch Bridge in Germany, we are actually at that point. Despite its protection as a historic structure, its designation was taken off recently, thus allowing for the contract for the new bridge at the expense of the old structure to proceed. Yet, like with the pair of old glasses, last ditch attempts are being made to stop the process for there are possible suitors willing to take over the old structure and repurpose it for bike and pedestrian use. While neither of the communities have expressed interest, despite convincing arguments that the bridge can be maintained at a price that is 100 times less than the calculated amount, the group working to save the bridge is forming an association which will feature a network of patrons in the region, willing to chip in to own the bridge privately. Despite this, the debate on ownership and the bridge’s future lies in the hands of the state parliament because the bridge carries a federal highway, which is maintained on the state and national levels. Will it become like the old pair of glasses that is saved the last second will be decided upon later this fall.

To summarize briefly on the glasses principle, glasses and buildings each have a short lifespan because of their functionality and appearance. We tend to favor the latter more than the former and therefore, replace them with newer, more modern and stylish things to keep up with the pace. However, the older structures, just like the discarded pair of glasses, are downgraded on the scale, despite its protection under laws and ownership. When listed as a historical site, the proprietor works for and together with the government to ensure its upkeep, just like lending old glasses to someone for use, as long as the person knows he/she is “borrowing” it. When it is not listed , they are either abandoned or torn down, just like storing the glasses in the drawers or even having them recycled. However the decision is final if and only if no one wants it, and this could be a last-second thing.

The Bridge at Iverson Crossing south of Sioux Falls. Built in 1897, added to the National Register in 1996. Now privately owned. Photo taken in 1998.

We cannot plan ahead for things that need to be built, expanded or even replaced, for there may be someone with a strong backbone and staunch support who will step in the last minute to stake their claim. This applies to replacing older, historic structures with modern ones that have less taste and value. In the face of environmental issues we’re seeing globally on a daily basis, we have to use and reuse buildings and other structures to prevent the waste of materials that are becoming rarer to use, the destruction of natural habitats that may never recover but most importantly, remind the younger generations of our history and how we got this far. While some of us have little memories of our old glasses in schools with the exception of school class and party photos, almost all of us have memories of our experiences at, in, or on a historic structure that deserves to be recognized and kept for others to see. It’s just a matter of handling them, like the glasses we are wearing.

 

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Leipzig Book Convention 2018: No Record but Lots of Suspense

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LEIPZIG-  If there is one theme that would sum up the 2018 Leipzig Book Convention this past weekend, it would be suspense. While members of the committee had expected another record year with a possible 300,000 visitors, that mark was missed by a long shot and for the first time in six years, the number of visitors at this year’s convention had decreased. 271,000 visitors went to the convention that took place from 15th to 18th March, a decrease of 14,000 from last year’s number of 285,000.  But despite the decrease, there was a lot of suspense in this year’s convention, which goes beyond the theme of Romania as the guest country. Here are some examples based on the author’s annual visit together with family members:

Snow and Cold- The decrease in numbers had a lot to do with Old Man Winter’s last grasp. Snow and blowing snow, combined with extreme cold temperatures brought vast parts of central and northern Germany to a near standstill, with parts of Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony and Thuringia taking the brunt of the storm.  Frozen overhead lines and crossing points were additional factors that led to the shut down of the main railway stations in Leipzig and Halle (Saale) and the cancellation of train services spanning seven German states and points to the east. This led to overfilled streetcars and buses to the Messe Convention. Adding traffic jams on the major highways also because of blowing and drifting snow and many who wanted to go to the book convention decided to stay home- at least until the sunniest day of the convention, which was the last day (Sunday). But even then, the one critique point that seems to be the problem in Germany is snow removal, where much of the parking lots were still unplowed when guests arrived on Sunday, undoubtedly the peak of the four-day long convention.

Fighting the Right- Another factor affecting the numbers is the increase in the number and influence of the far-right media. Several publishing companies producing such propaganda in newspapers and books were present, mostly in Hall 3. This included Compact and Neue Stimmen, a pair of most prominent magazines that have ties with the far right groups including the Pegida, National Party (NPD) and Alternative for Germany (AfD), the third of which is currently in the German Federal Parliament as an opposition to the newly created Grand Coalition with the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.  Especially on Friday and Saturdays clashes broke out between the far right and far left, resulting in police involvement and arrests. As they wanted to avoid massive conflicts like it happened at the 2017 Book Convention in Frankfurt/Main, it was met with partial success for despite measures to prevent violent outbreaks, the far right, with its anti-democratic and anti-European policies kept many away because of their strive to commit strife. On the flip side, several prominent authors who have written about right-wing terrorism and its threat to democracy were on hand. One of them, Norwegian author Åsne Seierstad, won the European book prize for her work on Anders Breivik, a far-right terrorist who killed 77 people in two separate attacks in 2011. People like Seierstad believe that right-wing extremism has been on the rise since then, including her home country.

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Peaceful Co-existence- While the snowstorm and the far-right made waves in the media, one aspect that was seldom touched was religion. In Hall 3 there was a section where Christianity and Islam were in peaceful co-existence of each other. At least four booths with publications and newspapers on Islam and another seven on Christianity were found clumped together with people gathering to both sides of the aisle. Interesting was how the two religions attracted the people. On the side of Islam, people came in droves because of their interest in the religion and the literature that pertained to it. This is disregarding how it was written- which was either German or Arabic with a couple English examples.  This included the Islam Newspaper in German, which judging by my observations, has a lot of culture and history, but go along the mentality of the Native Americans as described by historian Dee Brown: “We are still here.” Why? Because of attempts to suppress their culture by the domination of Christianity and the western way of life, one can see that Islam still exists and the impression is that they are open to anyone wishing to learn at least a bit of the religion. There had been fears that the religion would dominate the European landscape. That is not true. The people of Islam wish to have a sort of peaceful co-existence that has not existed for a long time, for many since the time before the Arab Spring of 2011 which led to millions fleeing the war-torn areas. On the other side, Christianity was presented in a marketing fashion. While on the way to the main entrance of the convention, we were greeted by hippie-style Christians who gave us a free coupon to one of the booths that was giving away books dealing with stories involving Christ, philosophy and the existence of God. Another booth was continuing the Martin Luther celebrations of 500 years ago by illustrating the printing press used to produce the 500 Theses written by Luther. And then there was Christianity in the form of music and schools that offer both. Target language was both German and English and they attracted a fair number of people. Yet despite the moderate increase of younger people joining Christ, the numbers have decreased on a global scale thanks to corruption, sex abuse scandals and attempts to associate Christianity with far-right figures, such as US President Trump. One can see the desperate attempts to convince people to join by giving away books upon leaving the Buch Messe- and seeing tons being discarded in garbage cans in the parking lot. It does appear that if Christianity was to regain its original form, it may need to separate itself from politics and reinvent itself by adapting to the needs of today’s generations, a step that has been taken in some aspects, like homosexuality, but in others- like tolerance- it’s having problems doing.

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Blocks at the Manga–  While the Manga exhibition, located in Hall 5, attracted its typical individuals, which included superheroes, waitresses in short skirts, aliens, and people dressed up in outfits dating back 125 years ago, one has to look more carefully at the trends that a person can find. While the theme from last year  was lighting in Japan, this year’s theme seemed to be boxes and its several shapes, designs and sizes. No matter whether they were lunch boxes, jewelry boxes or even mini-storage boxes or even designer boxes  found at booths like the Sega games, it was a real treat just to see these boxes while looking at the products typical of Japan, which include stuffed animals, sweets, games, books and even dishware, just to name a few.

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Thinking Scandanavia- To round off our tour of the Buchmesse, we have some literature recommendations worth noting. One of the unique aspects of the convention was found at the international book section in Hall 4 and in Scandanavia. Consisting of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finnland, the themes most commonly written by authors in the region  consists of mysteries, tourism, mental well-being and lastly photography. Two books that represent fine examples of such works is a Danish work by Meik Wilking entitled The Little Book of Lykke: The Path to being the Happiest People in the World, which focuses on the Danish secret to being the happiest society in the world. This includes the way of life, physical and mental well-being, mentality towards materialist items and money as well as the power of the bicycle.  Another is a collection of night-time and sometimes underwater photography by Finnish author Petri Juntunen entitled “At the Heart of It All,” where he brings the new meaning of photography to light, as he focuses on relicts and other non-life forms that are shone down by a ray of light, showing the interest from above.

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To sum up the visit and the highlights, the 2018 Leipzig Book Convention may have not set any records this year, yet judging from the news and my own observations, one could not get enough of the suspense that was presented, both positively as well as negatively. Still, as themes, such as religion, extremism, social and cultural issues and current affairs (such as environment and climate change) become the everyday norm, such book conventions like in Leipzig and also in Frankfurt/Main will need to adapt in a way that these issues are addressed and people understand them and take action. This action should also include putting an end to hate and violence, a commodity that has always been a burden to society but one that seems to become a universal problem on all fronts, especially since the end of 2015. It is only hoped that the next book convention will bring about constructive themes and discussion instead of propagizing hatred and inequality based on things we don’t like.

The next Leipzig Buchmesse will take place  from 21st to 24th March 2019. To see more photos of the Buchmesse, please click here as it will take you to the Files’ facebook page and its photo album. Please feel free to add your photos and impressions of the Buchmesse. We love to see them. 🙂

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Holiday Genre: Time to Forgive

 

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Another typical German Christmas tradition we usually see during the holiday season are the commercials. Using special themes that connect Christmas with family and love, store chains produce scenes that bring family and friends together, following the events that happened during the year as well as basing some of them on personal experiences of people working there.

Two commercials come to mind that were televised during the holiday season, both of whom focused on the theme of forgiveness. Forgiveness of the sins committed against family, friends and even mankind. Forgiveness which means starting over again and mending the ties that were ripped apart because of war and conflict that didn’t need to happen but it did.  Forgiveness which means loving again.

In the first holiday commercial, forgiveness meant reestablishing a bond between a parent and a child. In this one, produced by the German grocery chain Penny, the mother seeks out to her daughter, years after they had a fall-out during the daughter’s pregnancy. The mother’s journey was like a walk in the woods- meeting obstacles that were as painful as it was recalling the memories of the two together. The end result is not what is expected except that they both came home:

 

In the second commercial, the scene took place in the future, where artificial intelligence invaded mankind and chased the humans away into forests and other dugouts. While the three-legged machines looked for other natural life forms- most likely to kill off, one of the robots discovered the holiday the humans had been celebrating after coming across first a poster of a show entitled “Wonderful Christmas” and then a Christmas tree and pieced together how the celebration took shape. While reenacting the scene with manequins didn’t function, the robot sought human life to better understand their life, taking with it, the Christmas star to give to the family that it found. In the end, the grocery chain Edeka offered the viewers a glimpse of how two groups can come together:

While the theme forgiveness was clearly in connection with events that have unfolded since US President Donald Trump took office in January 2017- name any conflict, because he had his hand in the apple pie- it showed how conflicts can permanently damage a relationship in ways the parties cannot comprehend until years later, when it is all too late. When Siegmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minster mentioned in an interview that Germany was breaking off ties with the US on foreign policy, it had to do with conflicts between both countries on virtually everything, combined with accusations (mostly were considered fake) and the unwillingness to compromise. The damage has, according to Gabriel, become irreversible that it may be impossible to mend ties, even after Trump leaves office. Other countries have also expressed concern that America will be so isolated that it will become something like in the commercials above. But perhaps this wake-up call is needed in order to come to terms and realize that we need to work together and forget about our egos or even our nostalgia.

Maybe by looking at the commercials we can come to terms and try and forgive, regardless of how long it takes. ❤

 

fLfI WINTER

End of the Line: Angela Merkel

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Twelve years ago, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, faced with growing pressure from the opposition and within his own perty, especially his party the Social Democrats lost one state after another in the state elections, initiated a vote of confidence to determine whether he has the support to continuing governing the country with the Greens or if he should hold new elections. After three years of power during his second five-year term, he was considered an obstructionist, and many voters were dissatisfied with his governing of Germany. He failed and was forced to hold elections which he eventually lost to the current governing leader, Angela Merkel and her party, the CDU.

Fast forwarding to the present, it appears that Lady Chancellor’s days are about to end, and very quickly. After her party lost over 150,000 votes (or 8.6 percent) in the September elections- many going to the Free Liberals (FDP) and the right-winged Alternative for Germany (AfD), she faced the second strike on November 19th, when talks to form the Jamaica coalition- featuring the FDP and the Greens- failed  after Christian Lindner, head of the FDP, walked out of the talks in Berlin and reinterated this comment:

“It’s better to not govern than to govern wrongly.”

With this, the Federal Republic of Germany is in the worst crisis since 1982, when the vote of no confidence was initiated against Helmut Schmidt, which formed the coalition of CDU and FDP and vaulted Helmut Kohl into the governing seat as chancellor, and thus ruled for an unprecedented 16 years, thus breaking Konrad Adenauer’s record for the longest regime in modern German history.

Given the current situation with Merkel, the family of the late chancellor Kohl can now rest easily. His record will remain untouched.

Merkel is running parallel to British Prime Minister Teresa May. The lady with the iron fist is getting rusty. Merkel is 63 years old and despite her successes during her years as chancellor, she is facing increasing opposition from not only within members of the Bundesparliament and Bundestag, but also among the voters. Like May, Merkel ran the platform in the federal elections as if she was unphased by the attacks made by the candidates, most notably from Martin Schulz from the SPD and Frauke Petry of the AfD. However the results of the elections revealed that Merkel has lost touch on many of the issues affecting Germany, and to a larger extent, Europe and the rest of the world. This includes issues involving refugees, the environment, lack of funding for infrastructure, education and other domestic issues, and most recently lack of unity among Germany’s neighbors, even though her relationship with the US is on the rocks because of actions by the President (Trump), not Merkel herself.

With the Jamaica coalition finally dead, and despite pleas by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to concentrate more on building a government and take responsibility for the voters, the writing is now on the walls of Brandenburg Gate: We must redo the elections again.  This may be a dangerous  choice, as the AfD will surely gain more votes and even have a chance to win the elections. This is why Alexander Gauland and Alice Weigel have celebrated the failure of the Jamaica and even have called for Merkel to step down. However, with the polls showing almost two thirds of the population favoring new elections, this may be inevitable.  Adding insult to injury is the SPD’s constant refusal to create a Grand Coalition with the CDU, claiming they feel like a back-up plan to Merkel should she and her party be caught in a “Schlammasse.”

Both Martin Schulz and Andrea Nahles have stated that new elections are acceptable especially for voters.   The same echo applies from the Left, and even the Greens find the new elections as the best alternative.

While Merkel has the option of ruling with a minority- together with the Greens- the chances of her winning that, let alone ruling with a minority successfully are very slim, bordering on the nil scale, especially as she would have a larger opposition as she would have had had the Jamaica been formed. And with growing dissatisfaction as to how to handle the delicate issues, it makes a person wonder if age is already catching up to her and her rule of power combined with her lack of flexibility on these issues makes her an obstructionist and a hindrance to the success of the CDU and its relationship with the sister party, the CSU. It is a well-known fact that the average age of the politicians in the two parties is between 56 and 58 years, with some even in their late 60s. Yet, as one can see with Saxony’s prime minister Stanislav Tillich’s planned resignation in December and the hand-over to Michael Kretschmer, a 42-year old, there are enough younger politicians ready to take over the reigns of the party and make better, more efficient decisions than the older generations.

So let’s look at the scenario very carefully:

Merkel wins the chancellorship through direct elections presented by President Steinmeier but would rule with a minority government.  Her only chance to get a majority is with a coalition with the SPD (and possibly Greens), which Schulz and Nahles both refuse.

She calls for new elections, which takes place in Spring 2018, but not after having a very intensive and sometimes violent campaign, especially the latter from members of the AfD. The votes come in and how would this fare out?

The AfD has a real chance to win the elections but if and only if with an absolute majority (at least 45% of the votes) for it would fail to govern without a partner otherwise. None of the other parties will join.

The CDU wins but with an absolute majority as well, as it cannot partner with other parties except maybe the Greens.

The SPD may have a real shot of winning and forming a Red-Red-Green coalition with the Left and Greens. This could be Martin Schulz’s lucky day especially with a younger group of politicians from each party.

The results could be the same on the second go-round and then the parties would need to rethink their mandates and policies, conceding many to form a universal coalition (everybody but the AfD).

 

But in order to have any chance of a stable government to rule Germany for the next five years, one thing is certain: It must be done by the younger generations as they are more universalists and aware of the issues than the older ones. These are the ones who were taught to listen- and they have listened to the needs of the people.  There is no need to shake up the establishment in Berlin (and the EU in Brussels). There just needs to be a new leader to take Germany to the next level.

Angela Merkel has done her part. It is now time for her to step aside and let others take over; people who are younger and brighter and have better ways of repelling the xenophobes and greeds of the world.  Only then will not only the CDU and CSU but also the other parties have a chance to become successful in the long term.

So for now Ms. Merkel, it has been a pleasure. Happy Retirement and Thank You for your service for Germany, Europe and the rest of the world. 🙂

Facts about  the minority and reelection process can be found here.  Information on the failure of the Jamaica coalition and the consequences can be found via ARD here

 

Fl Fi USA

Merkel Hangs On But Trouble On Horizon

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Christian Democratic Party still holds the cards despite record losses. Free Democrats (FDP) back in the Bundestag, the Right-winged Alternative for Germany (AfD) enters national politics as the third strongest party. 

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BERLIN- The German Federal Elections of 2017 will go down as one of the most controversial elections in modern history. While we have seen government coalitions being taken down because of the vote of no-confidence- the last one being in 2005- there has not been a time where the election campaign has been hotly contested, sometimes even corrupt as this one.  Before looking at the reasons behind this argument, it is best to look at the results.

Summary:

Angela Merkel’s party, the CDU remains the most powerful of the political parties in Germany, having garnered 32.9% of the votes, according to the polls. Unfortunately, that is a loss of 8.6% from the results in the 2013 Elections. Its coalition partner, the Social Democrats, barely finished second with 20%; with the loss of 5.1% of the votes, they set a new low for the number of votes. The director of the party, Martin Schulz, declared at the close of the polls that his party would no longer work together with Merkel’s party, thus forcing the chancellor to look for new partners to rule the country. A very difficult task given the fact that third place finisher, the AfD, finished with 13% of the votes. The party’s candidate, Alexander Gauland, vows to chase Merkel’s government and her policies, especially with regards to refugees and the environment. Gauland is one of many in the party who wishes to bring back policies once carried out by Adolf Hitler during his time in power, minus the holocaust. While Merkel will definitely discard the AfD and has vowed to win back the voters who have left her party for the far right during her next four years in office, she has the possibility of forming a coalition with the Greens (who won 8.9%), FDP (who returned to German parliament after a four-year absence with 10.6% of the vote) and the left-wing party Die Linke (which got 9%).  Most likely will Merkel form a Jamaika Coalition with the Greens and the FDP but according to information from German public channel ARD, all three parties would have to work together to create a joint mandate on several points. Given their hard stance on several issues, this will be rather difficult to achieve. But in order for the coalition to be realized, some compromises and sacrifices may be needed in order for the coalition to work for the next four years. Merkel will most likely face not only one but two sets of opposition. Apart from the AfD preparing to attack her policies at every possible convenience, she will have the far left in the Linke and SPD to contend with, especially with Martin Schulz, who tried to play down her policies during his campaign, but to no avail.

Critique Points:

So what exactly went wrong with the 2017 Campaign? Everything possible, but it would be difficult to point everything out without having to type until seven in the morning, so I will focus on one aspect and that is how the campaign was run.

Firstly, the campaign was very Americanized. Instead of including the parties in the debates, especially on television, it was merely a divorce battle between two coalition partners, the SPD and the CDU. Nothing from the Greens, FDP, Left, AfD and others that were running. Surely with the other parties taking part in the debates, we would have a better idea on the stances of each one plus their plan on how to tackle the problems facing Germany.

Secondly, there was only one TV debate with, as mentioned in the last point, just the two coalition parties. Normally in a multi-party elections, there would be more than one TV debate- better three: two with the main four parties and one with the remaining parties, pending on their performance in the Bundestag. Even in the past, there were at least two TV debates. And with that TV debate between Merkel and Schulz, it turned out to be the German version of the Hillary vs. Trump debate: 100% mudslinging and not getting to the point with the debate at hand. No wonder why Martin Schulz wanted a second TV debate as there were several themes not discussed during the first debate. A big plus for him.

Thirdly, the focus was for the most part on the refugee crisis and what went wrong. Merkel has been sandwiched between Schulz’s accusation of her not doing enough for them and the accusation of the AfD and even the sister party the Christian Socialists (CSU) in Bavaria for not enforcing restrictions on the number of refugees entering the country. There was almost no space for themes that are bigger than that, such as climate change, trade agreements with North America, the EU, the widening gap between rich and poor, etc.  While Merkel and Schulz were wrestling it out politically, the AfD fed off the lack of selection and frustration of the voters who eventually went for them to begin with.

Fourthly, there should have been a TV debate with the AfD, period. Following the Beutelsbach Consensus for Political Discussion in the Classroom (enacted in 1977), having Gauder, Höcke or even Petry as a spokesperson in the debate against Merkel, Schulz and other candidates would produce discussions for all to watch with the purpose of bringing out whatever they have for plans should they be elected. As chaotic as the party has been due to political struggles and controversial remarks from members of the party, this party could be a one-term party unless they have a clear platform that will win over voters, which the only platform they have up until now is to throw out the immigrants in favor of the uneducated- something that was seen 84 years ago.

Fifthly, the last argument has resonances from America’s elections last year: The election was based too much on fame and picking apart the candidates and not on the themes concerning the German and European population. We have Merkel whom many think she’s too old and naive. We have the Schulz effect which is like buying Levi’s jeans just because it is a brand. We have Petry who is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We have Göring-Eckhardt, who is the brains but not the support. OK, to be blunt, we have several flavors of Dithmarscher Beer but they all taste the same! And that is what we see with our candidates, period!

What Happens Next?

It is clear that Merkel will start her fourth term and is on course to outgovern Helmut Kohl before the next elections in September 2021. It is also clear that Schulz’s declaration of the divorce from the CDU and going on the opposition is final and that Merkel has just the Greens and FDP to form a coalition. The question will be how she will manage two different oppositional groups: the AfD, who will do everything possible with its 13 representatives in parliament to make her life very difficult, and the SPD and Linke, who will use all measures possible to fight the AfD and keep Merkel in check. For the first time since 1945, we have a right-wing party in power with a potential to repeat history, but this legislative period will feature three factions fighting it out in the German parliament: the far-right, the far-left and the traditional center. This will make things very difficult for Merkel’s coalition to pass any policies agreed on that would satisfy the population.  It is certain that Merkel cannot afford to ignore the AfD and has already declared to win back voter who had left her party to join the far-right. But in order to do that, Merkel will not only have to change her mandate and appease the voters, but she will have to face the AfD directly, consistently, at every possible convenience and especially, proactively.  She will not be able to be passive to the party as she did during the elections and even before that.  She will need to present themes that are complicated for the AfD to comprehend, let alone far-left. And she will need to use all legal measures possible to ensure that there is order in Berlin. She doesn’t need to be Margaret Thatcher, but in order to succeed in the next four years, she will need to go away from her passive approach and go on the proactive to ensure that her policies get through and her oppositions are in check. Only then will she be certain to break Kohl’s record and keep her party the CDU’s reputation as the party that shaped Germany. All other approaches would have fatal consequences for Germany, Europe and Democracy, in general.

For more on the election results, please check out ARD online, which will show you the results and the predictions of what will happen in the coming months. Link:

http://www.ard.de/home/ard/ARD_Startseite/21920/index.html

 

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Wir Schaffen Das: How the Christian Democrats Have Made German History

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A couple years ago, I had a political discussion with another expatriate residing in Germany about Angela Merkel’s willingness to open the gates of Germany to refugees fleeing the regions of Syria, Iraq and North Africa- areas that were decimated by war- just so they can start a new life in a different place, where they can be peaceful and not have to worry about war. A couple days ago, after having posted my preview of the German elections, where Angela Merkel is making a quest to run for her fourth term (and break Helmut Kohl’s record in the process), that same person asked me if her policies of allowing refugees into Germany have done the country good or not, especially with the social and cultural problems that they may have, which were his reasons for opposing opening the gates. We all remember her comments in an interview with Anne Will that has carried a lot of weight around Berlin:

and this in addition to her persuasion of her counterparts to not be afraid of the refugees but to help them…..

But in order to answer that person’s questions, I’m going to take the Taylor Mali approach and give it to him with a little history- not about her or the refugees, but about her party, the Christian Democrats and their slogan “Wir schaffen es!”

Since the creation of the Bundesrepublik in 1949, the CDU has had a chancellor ruling Germany for 48 of the 68 years of its existence. Of which, if we count Merkel in the mix, three different politicians have ruled the country for 42 of the 48 years!  Before Merkel, the previous CDU chancellors had been the late Helmut Kohl, who ruled from 1982 until his defeat in the hands of Gerhardt Schroeder in 1998. The first chancellor of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, ruled what was then West Germany from 1949 until his resignation in 1963. He died four years later at the age of 91, having won the Award for eldest statesman to ever govern a country.  The secret to the successes of the CDU under these three people had been until now made their promises of “Wir schaffen das!” (translated bluntly as We Can Do This) realized through calculated risk-taking, realizing the consequences of these actions and providing a buffer zone between external factors on one hand and Berlin and the rest of the country on the other. It is like the game of chess- the situation is presented on the chessboard, and it is up to the politicians to take the risk that will produce the maximum result to their favor, while figuring in the possible consequences that could happen. Of course any foolhardy move could be fatal, as we are seeing with many far-right politicians in eastern Europe, Turkey, North Korea, the UK and even the US. But each chancellor has had their longest chess game during their time in office; each of which has its own theme. Let’s have a look at each legend’s ability of making it work and bringing Germany to fame.

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Konrad Adenauer (1949-1963) Photo courtesy of the German Archives (Bundesarchiv)

“Wir schaffen das allein!”

When Adenauer took office on 15 September 1949, Germany was still in recovery mode after having been in shambles because of World War II and was all alone with the European countries and the US all hesitant in building any relations with the country. Furthermore, Germany was already split between the democratic western half that had been occupied by the Americans, British and French and the eastern half that was controlled by the Soviets. While Germany was considered a chessboard between communism and democracy, Adenauer began to redevelop the country economically, thus making it the economic miracle and later the powerhouse of western Europe with one of the lowest unemployment rates in history (averaging around 2%). The population got jobs and could spend money on new items, including the TV and modern furniture. His policies were based on liberalism and thus showed Germany’s willingness to ally with the US, Britain and other western countries, thus making the country’s integration into the United Nations, NATO and the European Economic Community easier to achieve. His mentality of “Wir schaffen das allein” (we will do it alone) had to do with the fact that Germany’s metamorphisis from a state in shambles to an economic miracle with a modernized socio-economic infrastructure and westernized institutions with policies that are based on conservatism and no experimenting with anything that is new and foreign. Even the elections of 1957, which he won his third term in office, his campaign slogan of “No Experiments!” won overwhelming support because of three factors that led Adenauer to win the hearts and minds of the German population: 1. The reestablishment of relations with neighboring France which used to be the country’s archenemy. With that came the reintegration of the Saarland and the recognition of minorities on both sides of the border. 2. Despite having zero interest in reuniting with East Germany or even having contact with the communist regimes, Adenauer made  agreements with the Soviets to release as many as 10,000 Germans who were prisoners of war, so that they could return home.  That combined with encouraging immigration from parts of the Middle East and Asia to fill in the gaps left behind by the fallen soldiers contributed to Germany’s success as a country as a norm. And thirdly, the people followed Adenauer’s policies because they enabled them to restart their lives again and not allow for external influences and military conflicts to rule and ruin their lives again. If it meant integrating people from outside willing to work in the country- making them open-minded- make it so.  Adenauer’s idea was in order to make the country a powerhouse again, it must work to restore its identity while mending ties with and reassuring other countries that it is different than the Germany under Hitler: It was not power-greedy but a democratic country willing to cooperate for similar causes. Anything that is fattening or potentially risky- anything that does not match Adenauer’s vision of Germany- was simply left behind. This was the reason why Adenauer went with his slogan West Germany first, then we’ll talk about the East. His hard-line policies against Communism combined with his willingness to grow together with other countries made him the most influential politician of modern German history.

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Helmut Kohl (1982- 1998)           Archiv für Christlich-Demokratische Politik (ACDP)

“Wir Schaffen das Miteinander:”

If there was one description that would best fit Helmut Kohl, the chancellor who came into power after the fall of Helmut Schmidt in 1982, it would be that he was the Face of Europe, not just a Unified Germany but simply a Unified Europe. While Kohl was perceived as folksy in terms of his appearance and manner, his ability to be eye-to-eye and down-to-earth with many of his international constituents made him more of an international celebrity than that of his German counterparts in Bonn, which was the federal capital during his 16 years in office. It also helped him in terms of working together with his international colleagues for two of the most important goals on his agenda: To end the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and to reunify West Germany with its eastern counterpart.  While the former was beginning to unfold from within, thanks to the revolutions in the east that toppled the Communist leaders and quickened with the Fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November, 1989, the latter Kohl proceeded to do through cooperation with Soviet leader Mikail Gorbachev, US President George Bush Sr., British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterand. Despite the hesitation that was expressed by Mitterand and the rejection that was made clearly by Margaret Thatcher, Kohl’s actions in reuniting Germany within a year between the Fall of the Wall and the date of 3 October, 1990 (which we still celebrate this date today) received full support and cooperation from Gorbachev and Bush Sr. for several reasons:

  1. Kohl acknowledged that he had no intention of expanding his country to include the Suedetenland in western Czech Repubic and areas in Poland that  had once belonged to Germany before 1945. This Oder-Neisse Agreement confirmed the eastern border and resulted in good relations with the two eastern neighbors.
  2. Kohl agreed that Germany would be a full participant in NATO and the European Economic Community (later the European Union) just like it was when it was West Germany. Furthermore, it would maintain strong economic and political ties with ist allies and be ready to play a larger role on the international stage.
  3. Kohl provided start-up funding and financial support for the former eastern states. With much of the industries in ruins, Kohl presented a program to encourage business development, modernization of the infrastructure, educational support and further education training for the unemployed and reform the retirement system- all with the purpose of bring it up to the level of the western half.  This process has been long and painful, but it has been working to the advantage of People in the East; especially the younger generations born right before the Fall of the Wall.
  4. With a reunified Germany, Gorbachev and Bush Sr. agreed that having a Cold War no longer made sense. Gorbachev wanted the eastern countries to go their own way, and Bush provided those who were trapped behind the Iron Curtain with an opportunity to have a better life without the political connections and influence from the state security police. All they needed was someone in Germany with the same point of view and they found that in Kohl.

The German Reunification and the concessions needed to make that a reality came with criticism from within the German Population and his own Party, the CDU, claiming that the process went too fast and that many displaced Germans from the east were unable to reclaim their regions back. Furthermore, the recession of  1995 as a result of the cost for Reunification resulted in the rise of unemployment. Yet when looking back at this, Kohl looked for the people who were willing to go through with the plan of reunification, taking all the risks that are involved and cementing the Germany that we know today. With that in mind, the idea of “Wir Das Miteinander ,” became “Wir Schaffen Das Zusammen” over time, for whatever the crises, Germany was able to pull through with the support of its people, the CDU and its allies from outside.

Helmut Kohl was given a European send-off at the time of his death on 16th June, 2017 at the age of 87. The procession, which was on 1 July, took place in Strausborg and Speyer, where he was interred.

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Angela Merkel (2005-present)  Photo by Armin Linnartz

“Wir Schaffen Das:”

It is very difficult to describe this theme with Angela Merkel without having to overlap on her counterpart’s slogan, but perhaps it doesn’t need a preposition to describe how she has overcomed her challenges as Chancellor and key player in the CDU. Merkel was presented with three challenges that reshaped her party, Germany and the population during her 12 years in Office. First was keeping Europe together and the Americans happy, something that for Germany as a central power in the EU it could be done by pulling on the leash of the members- in writing. Yet in the praxis, especially in the past 3-4 years, some member countries have tried to go their own way, especially in terms of the refugee policy and the deficits of some countries. The next was satisfying the Americans and finding common ground to carry out the policies that affect both countries and the rest of the world. This depended solely on who was in the Oval Office, and while she has isolated Donald Trump because of his erratic behavior (just like the other countries who have followed suit), her relations with George Bush Jr. was lukewarm at best but with Barack Obama, it was a dream team. 🙂 From an American expatriate’s point of view, Merkel achieved a lot with the right people in Washington, which has been received as a blessing, especially when it comes to the environment and the conflicts out in the Middle East, which has been ongoing for seven years now.  And while we are on the theme with environment, there is the refugee crisis and her handling of it, which makes it the third and most important point. The logic behind her policy of “Wir schaffen das” was quite simple: regions in the north and east needed workers and experienced professions because of the younger people moving to cities in the western and southern parts. The population balance in Germany has been very unequal since 1990 with the population in the north and east getting older, despite attempts to modernize the region. With this decline came the brain drain and the best way to end it is to fill in the gap with people wishing to live and work in Germany, even if it was for a limited time until they were able to return home. Learning from Adenauer’s success in bringing in immigrants and integrating them and Kohl’s success in restructuring the eastern half of the country, Merkel sent them to the regions where work was waiting for them, along with a better life. This has been met with partial success mainly because of the lack of forthcoming to accept them among residents in regions who are older, inflexible and lack the basic knowledge needed to get to know and even help them. This is one of the reasons for the creation of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), one of the main challengers that Merkel has faced and will be dealing with for years to come. However, if asked for why immigration has been successful in Germany, I can look at personal success stories of families who have taken German classes to get by, young people getting training at companies to learn a profession and even refugee children getting along with school children. Granted one doesn’t need to be best friends, but by having a peaceful co-existence and helping out when needed is something that Merkel had in mind, which has been a success if one subtracts the likes of the far-right.

Summary:

Taking a look at the three politicians in summary, one can see how Germany has been shaped. It is a country whose population has been taught to be calculated risk-takers, while at the same time, be open to not only people from different cultures and backgrounds, but also to the changes that are taking shape and affecting the Bundesrepublik. The idea of “Wir Schaffen Das,” regardless of form and circumstances has something to do with the will to try something new but doing it with insurance. That means the risks will be taken under one’s own conditions and with the assurance of a Plan B if all else fails. Many of the policies carried out by the CDU had been tried and true, learning from the successes of the forefathers and implementing them adaptedly to the situation. Germany has learned to adapt to the situation by looking at the options carefully, calculating the risks and benefits and carrying it out with some insurance protection.  Adenauer knew the risks of forming relations with other countries and rebuilding Germany and ensured that Germany wanted to be part of the international theater, by accepting the conditions imposed, bringing home the prisoners of war and encouraging immigration to repopulate the country.  Kohl knew the risks of German reunification and came up with a comprehensive plan to satisfy its neighbors and the population, especially in the East.  Merkel knew the risks of integrating the refugees and the opposition from both within the EU and its own country. Still she found ways for immigration to work in a convincing way.  Whenever there were the risks, they were calculated and carried out in an attempt to create a balance that satisfies everyone.

And this has made it difficult for candidates, like Martin Schulz (SPD), Christian Lindner (FDP), Frauke Petry (AfD) and others to overcome the German Iron Lady and the rock which has become the CDU.

Thanks to this notion of “Wir Schaffen Das,” Germany has become what it is- a nation that loves calculated risks, just as much as the people who live there- which includes the refugees, expats and other immigrants. There is still a lot of challenges ahead, but should Merkel win term number 4, it will most likely be due to the success of her in general, her party, and the forefathers who helped shape Germany to what it is today. If Merkel breaks Kohl’s record for longetivity as chancellor, then her theme will most likely be “Wir haben das geschafft.”

Better have that sherry and champaign ready for  Merkel’s fifth term on 26 September, 2021. 😉

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2017 German Federal Elections: A Preview

Germans go to the polls on 24 September to elect their new Chancellor- A lot of questions still exists

After the US, Dutch and French elections, the German elections, which will take place on 24 September 2017, will be the decisive factor on how Germany will be governed for the next four years. Yet like the Presidential Elections that brought Donald Trump to power, this election will decide the fate of the European Union as well as the rest of the world, going forward, as there are several factors that will influence the voters’ decision on which party should rule the Bundestag in Berlin. Furthermore, given Germany’s economic, social and political leverage on Brussels as well as the United Nations, people are praying that whoever is elected Chancellor will be the one that will shape the country and take it into the direction that is the most desirable both nationally as well as globally.  Factors influencing the political decision among the voters include:

Germany’s role in terms of environmental policyamong other things, renewable energy, climate change and protecting flora and fauna

Germany’s role in terms of refugee policy, which includes integration of those qualified to live in the country and quick deportation of the unqualified and criminals

Germany’s role in international relations, especially within the EU and with the US. While President Trump would rather have Frauke Petry of the AfD (even though she is now on maternity leave) instead of the incumbent Angela Merkel of the CDU, Germany is trying to shore up relations with countries still loyal with the EU, while fighting fires caused by the far right governments of Poland, Turkey and Hungary, as well as Great Britain’s Teresa May.

Germany’s role in domestic policies and how it can close the ever continuing widening gap between the rich and the  poor, as well as improve on the country’s education system

Even more important are some thought provoking questions that are on the minds of all Germans, Americans living in Germany (including yours truly) and other foreigners living in Germany, for whoever rules the country for the next four years will have an impact on the lives of others, for each party has its own agenda that is different than that of the policies of Chancellor Merkel up until now. For some parties, this election could be make or break because of their struggle to win support. Here are some questions that are of concern as we bite our nails and worry about 24 September:

  1. Will Angela Merkel win her fourth term, thus be on the path to break the longest power streak of serving 16 years, set by the late Helmut Kohl (1982-1998; he died in June of this year)?
  2. Will the Martin Schulz Effect save the Social Democrats (SPD) or mark the beginning of the end of the centralist party?
  3. Will the Free Democratic Party return to the Bundestag after breaking the 5% barrier?
  4. Are too many windmills too much for the Greens?
  5. Will the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) continue its winning streak and roll into parliament? If so could it even overrun the CDU and even govern Berlin?
  6. Will the Leftist Party (Linke) serve as the counterpunch to the AfD or will it need help?
  7. Will this election mark the last for the Nationalist Party of Germany (NPD)?

These questions will be answered through my observations of the election, which will be after the tallies are counted and we know which parties will form a coalition and elect our next leader. We need to keep in mind that the German elections are different than the American ones as we elect two parties- one primary and one as second vote, and the new Chancellor is elected after a coalition is formed between two or more parties. Currently, we have the Grand Coalition, which features Merkel’s CDU and the SPD. Yet we have seen coalitions with other smaller parties. A party can have the absolute majority if more than 50% of the votes are in their favor.

To better understand the multi-party system, there are a pair of useful links you can click onto, which will provide you with an insight on the German election system. Both are useful for children, and both are in German, which makes it useful to learn the language.

Checker Tobi:  http://www.ardmediathek.de/tv/Die-Checker/Checker-Tobi-extra-Warum-w%C3%A4hlen-wichtig/Das-Erste/Video?bcastId=39903768&documentId=45989192

logo! on ZDF: https://www.zdf.de/kinder/logo/bundestagswahl-aktuell-100.html

Fellow American collegial column Leipzig Glocal produced an article on the multi-party election system and the number of parties that could run in the elections. Details on that can be found here:

http://leipglo.com/2017/09/19/federal-elections-2017-party-roll-call/

While I cannot vote on the count of my American citizenship (though ideas of switching sides have lingered since Trump’s elections) like other American expats, I can only stress the importance of going to the polls on the 24th. Your vote counts because we are at the crossroads. Can we do it, like Merkel said with taking on the refugees in 2015? Or can we afford to experiment and if so at what price? Only your vote will make a difference. So go out there and vote. And allow me to comment once there is a new Chancellor, be it another four years of Merkel (and the flirt with Kohl’s record) or with someone else……

Viel Glück und Glück auf! 🙂