In Car City, a chic, lavishly funded theme park in the Volkswagen company town of Wolfsburg in Germany, there is a museum, and in that museum, there is something from Britain. Among the waxed and buffed automobiles of all eras spread out over several floors sits a perky white model with familiar curves.
A few days ago, I bent down to read the silver plaque riveted to the nearside wing.
“This AUSTIN MINI built in February 1965 is the MILLIONTH MINI produced by the BRITISH MOTOR CORPORATION LIMITED”, it reads.
My blue-blazered Volkswagen guide, Paul, was an insouciant Scot with a Geordie accent who has made Germany his home. “When we took over Rolls-Royce and Bentley, there was a museum, and this was in the museum. And we kept it, obviously. BMW keeps asking us if we want to sell it.”
At first glance, VW’s spiriting the Mini off to Germany seemed a cheeky bit of trophy-grabbing. It underlines the brutal fact that Britain doesn’t have a British-owned car industry any more, and Germany does. As I travelled through the placid unease of Germany this election-tide, I began to see it differently.
It’s VW’s tribute, certainly, to a world-class piece of design. And although VW surely never intended it this way, the Mini is a tribute to Britain of a subtler, stranger kind. As a relic of Britain’s vanished manufacturing might, it looks, to some Germans, like an emblem of success rather than failure; of a dynamic country that shed millions of industrial-age jobs and somehow replaced them with others—including those making BMW’s glammed-up new Mini in Oxford. (Britain today makes more cars a year than Italy.)
Germany’s postwar economic miracle is a distant memory. Its unquestioned economic, educational and sporting superiority over Britain, and so many other countries, belongs to a previous, more confident generation of Germans. The numbers suggest that it is low-unemployment, low-tax, post-industrial Britain, with its job-hopping, free-spending citizens and penny-pinching Treasury that is the success story now; high-unemployment, high-tax industrial Germany, with its rigid labour market, parsimonious populace and free-spending government, that is the failure. “Oh, you’re still building your own cars?” the 40-year-old Mini seems to say. “Yes, we used to do that. Now we just make them for other people.”
When I asked a publishing executive in Munich—still so overwhelmingly clean, so rich, so shiny!—what the feeling was in Germany before the election, she said: “Everyone is afraid.” Afraid, that is, for their jobs, for their future; so afraid that they are hoarding money at an extraordinarily high rate. “Fear” was one word I kept hearing; another was “honesty”, the idea that for years politicians on all sides have refused to say honestly to Germans how radically the country needs to change.
“At the moment, you have a situation where things are getting worse, little by little, and no political party in Germany has the courage to make a hard and painful cut, to say, ‘We don’t live in the world of the 80s, we have to adapt to new conditions’,” said Thomas Brussig, a novelist and screenwriter living in Berlin. “So a reform solves a problem for two years, or for a year, or for half a year, and then you realise it’s not enough, and that new cuts are necessary.”
The theatre director and establishment-goader Christoph Schlingensief told Die Zeit in August that he felt split in two: “On one hand I couldn’t give a shit about Germany and on the other I’m full of rage ... The general atmosphere of depression makes me furious, the utter idleness, this uptight existence. It seems to me that the whole of Germany is sitting on the toilet, groaning. You know exactly what has to happen for things to get going again but the German sits there cursing that there’s no toilet paper left and that’s why he can’t do it. That’s Germany.”
The spirit of Margaret Thatcher is abroad in Germany, wafting in from the sink-or-swim business cauldron of neighbouring Poland as much as from Britain. Dirk Grosse-Leege, the corporate voice of Volkswagen, told me about the book he had on his desk: Margaret Thatcher’s Shock Cure—A Recipe for Germany, by the German writer Dominik Geppert. It makes a comparison of the former British prime minister and Angela Merkel, leader of the centre-right CDU, who faces Chancellor Gerhard SchrÃ¶der of the SPD in Sunday’s election.
“As an individual, I just love this book, because it’s totally right,” said Grosse-Leege. “It’s the historical situation we are in. If she wins, Merkel gets a two-year majority in both houses of Parliament to do pretty much anything she wants… I think the country is ready for unpopular decisions.”
You didn’t need to be a professor of semantics to have read the code of Merkel’s campaign rally a few days earlier. If Britain had “Maggie”, hated or admired, Merkel’s supporters waved placards with the single word “Angie”. The themed colour of the rally was orange, the colour of Ukraine’s middle-class anti-cronyism revolution.
When they look further east than east Germany, keen-eyed Germans see not only post-Soviet industrial ruin, but an enviable personal force and hunger.
Birgit Ulrich, a 26-year-old graduate from near Nuremberg in Bavaria, now living in Berlin, said: “Where I work, we have two interns, one from Hungary and one from Estonia. They’re so powerful and so optimistic. If you look at the Germans, they’re so lacking in energy.”
In the 1990s, when the extent of Germany’s current economic slump first became clear, Germans blamed the problem on the reunification of the old West and communist East Germany, which began with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. More recently, gloom merchants have pointed to the introduction of the euro. Birgit, who volunteered to act as my interpreter on part of my journey through her country, had a different take. The trouble was that Germany didn’t feel special any more; Germans could no longer feel superior to the new Europe.
“Everybody’s confused, I think,” she said. “It’s Europeanisation. Europe’s coming into Germany from all sides. When the European Union began it was like, ‘We’re making the union, we’re the big donors,’ and now we are trying to cope with the problems other countries went through before. It’s hard. We were so used to having this comfortable, luxurious lifestyle, where you never had to pay for the doctor.”
Taking unthinkable steps
Germany recently introduced a GP system, with a small quarterly fee that everyone, even the unemployed, must pay. There is talk of charging tuition fees at universities, of later retirement, of pension cuts. The truth is that, though it may be news to Britons who don’t read the business pages, Germany has not only been in relative economic decline for some time, but has for years been taking previously unthinkable steps to curb its munificent public spending.
The fact that both SchrÃ¶der and Merkel believe Germany won’t have more jobs until the state spends less money and it gets easier to hire and fire people explains why the elections inspire a sense of dread which seems independent of who might actually win. The changes might come more quickly and harshly with Merkel, more slowly and hypocritically under SchrÃ¶der, but they will come, and they have already started. If the Germans suspect they may get a Thatcher in Merkel, they know they already have a secret Blair in SchrÃ¶der.
One day, sitting in the light, high-ceilinged corner office of Gabor Steingart, Berlin bureau chief of the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel, I asked about something that confused me. If Germany was doing so badly, and Britain was doing so well, how come Britain still looked so scruffy and run-down, while Germany looked so smart and prosperous?
“I think the performance of the British economy is better than Germany’s, but you can’t see it on the streets,” he said. “What you see here in Germany is the accumulated capital not of the past year but of our economic miracle. It’s a snapshot of the miracle in the 50s, the 60s and the beginning of the 70s.”
Steingart is the author of a book popular among Germany’s pessimists, called Germany: Decline of a Superstar. In his office he grabbed a piece of paper and, with the kind of large, clear print a teacher uses for the first and simplest lesson, wrote a short series of numbers for me. Annual income of the German federal government, â,¬190-billion. Spending on pensions, â,¬80-billion. Spending on unemployment, â,¬40-billion. Debt servicing, another â,¬40-billion. Amount left over for everything else, from autobahns to German troops in Afghanistan: a mere â,¬30-billion. It was more than four decades ago that Germans last had enough babies to renew the population, so the number of pensioners is increasing, and the number of working-age taxpayers is falling. Yet the price of German labour—such as the 20Â 000 Volkswagen production workers in Wolfsburg—remains far higher than that of VW workers in the Czech Republic or Mexico.
Once, Wolfsburg was a proud emblem of the then West Germany’s extraordinary rebirth out of the ruins of 1945. Germany had sinned; it had been punished; it was reborn, humbler, duller, but glossier and immensely richer than before. Modern industrial towns such as Wolfsburg were the rebuke to the lesser achievements and the tyranny of the communist East. They seemed to be communities of the future, envied by the British left and provoking the annoyance of the British right, where workers and bosses cooperated with goodwill, were paid handsomely, enjoyed the consumer good life and gladly paid hefty taxes so that their children would be superbly educated in state schools, their health cared for by the finest state hospitals and their old age looked after by generous pensions. I needed to go to a town like Wolfsburg to see how a happy community of West Germany’s future had, by all accounts, become an unhappy community of the reunited Germany’s past.
“A trip to Wolfsburg is a journey to our history,” said Steingart. “It’s not our future you see there. The jobs in the Czech Republic are subsidising the jobs in Wolfsburg.”
Wolfsburg owes its survival after the war to a British army officer from Lancashire, Ivan Hirst, who put the bombed-out Volkswagen plant back on its feet with an order for thousands of Beetles for Allied occupation forces.
Wolfsburg today is a town of 120Â 000, looking a little like Milton Keynes. It is hard to exaggerate the degree to which VW and the town are one and the same. Bernd Rippert, a journalist on one of the local papers, Wolfsburger Allgemeine, showed me a list of members of the local council. “The leader of the CDU, he’s from Volkswagen,” he said. “And the leader of the SPD is from Volkswagen. The mayor is the owner of a big transport company which only works for Volkswagen.”
And the Greens? “The leader of the Greens works for Volkswagen’s marketing department.”
Once, this could have been seen as an example of benign social democracy in action. There was real democracy, but rival parties worked together for the common good; there was a real market economy, but unions and bosses respected each others’ needs and worked out their differences to mutual advantage before it came to conflict. In Germany’s present mood of self-flagellation, that harmony begins to look like complacency.
I called Volkswagen to say I was coming and they laid on their standard tour. It is meant to impress, and I was impressed. First, the canny extravagance of Car City, Autostadt, the â,¬440-milion theme park where the millionth Mini is lodged, where concrete reality has a computer-generated cleanness to it. I saw an elderly man in a spotless blue boiler suit lovingly combing the lush, precisely trimmed grass there like a servant running a brush through his master’s hair.
Every year almost a million Germans come here to collect their new Volkswagens. They pass through one of a dozen 30-tonne glass doors. They walk past neat ponds and channels, carp and lilies in summer, artificially frozen in winter for skaters and mulled wine. They giggle as they watch, on thermal imaging cameras, their friends and family blunder their way through a tunnel of artificial fog.
They direct a robot to plant a cress seed that will be labelled with their name and address, grown to maturity, sent to a factory in another town, processed into ethanol (a biofuel that can be used to run cars), put in a sealed glass phial, sent back to Wolfsburg and posted to the original planter. Finally, they watch as an automatic fork plucks their new car from one of two 20-storey glass towers for collection.
For those who have simply come to gawp, however, Autostadt is the hors-d’oeuvre. For Volkswagen’s roofed-over factory space here spreads across an area the size of Monaco. A guide drove me around in a modified Golf convertible. The workers use bicycles. Inside the assembly halls you see what it means to produce a new Golf every 30 seconds. It is impossible not to anthropomorphise the assembly robots. They snatch and thrust and twirl components like gigantic disembodied forearms. Muscular forearms, with the sleeves always rolled up, never tiring, never getting bored, always focused; they stretch for miles.
In the press room, presses weighing almost 6Â 000 tonnes rise up and crash down on sheets of galvanised steel. The ground trembles. Twelve new Golf door panels move on. You cannot understand how this vast carousel of consumer goods whose income feeds Wolfsburg could ever stop.
Yet ask around, and a sense of impending doom hangs over the town. “The biggest problem is pessimism,” said Rippert. “Volkswagen employees earn more than almost any normal worker in Germany. But they don’t spend it, they’re just saving it, because of the feeling ‘I don’t know how long I’ll have my job, I don’t know what will happen in Germany, maybe Volkswagen will be sold to Toyota.’ How is a big economy like Wolfsburg going to survive when nobody spends money? We’ve got the biggest savings rate in Wolfsburg now since the second world war.”
Yet Rippert went on to admit the pessimism was justified, for VW manual workers at any rate. “You can be unable to write your name, get a job putting windscreen wipers on a car and still earn four times as much as a baker or a hairdresser. Now the management is beginning to cut this difference.”
Wolfsburg is, in a literal sense, Germany in miniature. It was here that the notorious Peter Hartz made his name when, as Volkswagen’s personnel director over the last decade, he introduced a series of radical changes in working practices. These had the overall effect of paying VW production workers less money for the same amount of work. Naturally, it was never sold to the workforce this way; the changes were promoted as the salvation of threatened jobs. Hartz then did a similar task for Chancellor SchrÃ¶der when he rewrote Germany’s welfare system, paying the unemployed less money and trying harder to prod them into low-paid work.
The reforms still carry Hartz’s name—dole money is known as “Hartz Four”—which makes Germany now the only country in Europe where unemployment benefit has the same name as a character in a tabloid sex scandal.
Hartz resigned from Volkswagen in July over his involvement in a system whereby union leaders on the VW board, supposedly there to represent workers’ interests, indulged themselves in free holidays and, it is alleged, free prostitutes and Viagra at Volkswagen’s expense.
German reporters have tracked down and interviewed a Brazilian escort girl who, on being shown a picture of Hartz, declared “That’s my Peter!”; he is alleged to have flown her to a luxury hotel in Paris and to Sao Paolo on the VW tab. The union leader Hartz worked with to push the Wolfsburg workers to accept change, Klaus Volkert, also resigned after allegations of an expensive relationship with a Brazilian lady very much his junior. Both men deny these allegations.
Whether the allegations are true or not, the affair seemed to crystallise the German public’s doubts over the lack of straight-talking by their political and business establishment. Hartz and Volkert, manager and union leader, had cosily got together to promote a supposedly German solution to VW’s high labour costs which was, in fact, little more than an American-style exercise in cost-cutting. Hartz and SchrÃ¶der had introduced a preliminary exercise in Thatcher-style benefit cutting but didn’t have the courage to say so or to say that worse was to come.
The day I toured the VW factory, the management was putting the screws on the Wolfsburg workforce again: warning that its new 4x4, the Marrakesh, would be built in Portugal unless the union accepted lower wages on that production line. The next day, I went to see Wolfgang Schulz, one of the union leaders struggling to restore his organisation’s credibility with the workers. He was gruff and evasive but defended the union’s deals with management over the past decade. “It’s logical to find a collective decision that suits everybody,” he said. “What was the alternative? We don’t want it to be like what Maggie Thatcher did with the coal miners.
A week later, VW announced it was making 10Â 000 people redundant, a tenth of its workforce. Most of them would be in Wolfsburg. Those robots on the production line could work just as well in Portugal, or Mongolia, or anywhere with water and power and a few cheap bodies to oil their joints.
One warm evening, at a table outside a bar near the plant, I talked with Carmelo Allegrino, a 44-year-old quality control worker at VW who immigrated to Wolfsburg from southern Italy as a teenager. “I’m earning half the money I was 12 years ago,” he said. “As employees, we can’t afford to buy our own cars any more. We went to the bosses and told them and they said, ‘We don’t depend on you to buy our cars. We’re a global company.’”
Wolves began to resettle in Germany in 1998, when the first German pack since the turn of the 19th century established itself on an old military training ground south of the town of Weisswasser, in Saxony. The wolves swam across the river Neisse from Poland. Now there are two packs, with 16 wolves altogether. Sometimes at night in the old East German towns in the Spree valley, you can hear them howling.
Many people believe the wolves’ return is a direct result of the economic devastation and depopulation of the east after the fall of the Wall. This idea is, as Jana Schellenberg from the local organisation monitoring the wolves explained, quite wrong. The real reason wolf packs are now at large is that the wolf is a protected species in Federal Germany, but was considered a pest in the old East Germany. In that now vanished communist state, immigrant wolves from Poland were shot before they got a chance to breed.
Just as the wolf packs are real, so is the extreme economic upheaval Saxony has endured since reunification. But, as with the wolves, there are different interpretations of what it means. Many Germans accept that it is globalisation, rather than reunification, which is at the root of their present troubles. Yet I needed to see the extent of change in the east to understand better the nature of the mysterious new country that is reunited Germany. I took the train from Berlin to Weisswasser.
In Weisswasser, people and homes are vanishing, like a film being run backwards. When the Wall fell, the town had a population of 37Â 400, mainly employed in the local glass factories and in opencast mining. Most of the glass factories have since shut down, and the newly mechanised mining operations have shrunk their payroll. The town has lost 8Â 000 jobs; 15Â 000 people have moved away. Five schools have closed. One by one, the ugly six-storey apartment blocks thrown up in the 60s by communist planners are being pulled down.
Hartwig Rauh, the non-aligned mayor of Weisswasser since 2003, said the town had already destroyed 5Â 000 flats, and would go on destroying them for another seven years. The proportion of elderly people in Weisswasser has shot up; unemployment is running at 23%.
“If you’ve lived in a city with 37Â 000 people and then it shrinks, morale goes down,” said Rauh. “Low morale, that’s what I’m fighting every day.
“Unemployment is a chronic condition, not necessarily for the next 50 years, but for the next 20. We will have an unemployment rate of 15-20%. That’s not the bad thing. The bad thing is if people can’t live with it. That’s something we have to work on, by giving people a meaning in life.”
A failure of democracy
The proximity of Poland, a few minutes’ drive, is both worry and boon. Worry because its workers are cheaper than German workers; boon because Germans can slip across the border to buy food, petrol and cigarettes at a fraction of the German price.
On the Polish side of the bridge over the river Neisse an ad-hoc bazaar fashioned of corrugated steel, two-by-fours and tarpaulin has arisen, with twisting alleys demarcated by DVD hawkers, fag-packet mosaics and sheaves of blouses in every colour of the synthetic Chinese rainbow. I sat for a time with an unemployed 41-year-old German mother in a cafe—she declined to give her name—while she told me about life on Hartz Four. Mayor Rauh had already told me about one of the harshest changes Hartz and SchrÃ¶der introduced, which forces unemployed homeowners to sell their house and live off the proceeds before they become eligible for benefit.
“We’re not starving,” the woman said. “You can pay the rent, you can pay the health insurance. But a car’s a luxury already.”
Another feature of Hartz Four is that, if you live in the east, you get less benefit than in the west. “It’s different for every family. But an adult in the east gets â,¬290 a month. In the west, they get â,¬345. I’ve got three kids. Since they left school, none of them have had a job. I know that in East Germany my children and I lived better than now.”
Not all the Germans shopping in the Polish bazaar are unemployed, of course. In a restaurant, I talked to two waged couples from another east German town. They had decent jobs—one was a truck driver, another a bricklayer. They took it in turns to complain about how terrible life was. The prices. The bureaucracy. The fact the children had to go to the ends of the earth—to Munich!—to find work. Generally speaking, things weren’t what they used to be, that was for sure.
“I’ve never had so much money,” said Helge Schramek, the bricklayer, with bitterness, “but I’ve never had to give so much away.”
Life in Weisswasser is difficult. Yet compared to northern English districts which are experiencing similar losses of population, with similar mass dereliction of streets of houses, the transition in this part of Saxony is being handled methodically, rationally and with care for local people. It would be going too far to say that Rauh—an architect who moved to Weisswasser from the Ruhr and married a local girl—is an optimist. Yet he does feel that the town has touched bottom. It is the former West Germany that may now have further to fall. I asked him, a rare westerner-turned-easterner, what he thought about the future of Germany as a whole.
“I think that we lack honesty,” he said. “We have to say that we can’t go on like before, where we could take on new debts every year and think we could afford it. We can’t have all these expectations, that we go on having three vacations every year, a house for everybody, that we can study at university for free and so on. We can’t afford that any longer, and the sooner honest words are spoken from on high, the better.”
Thomas Brussig, the author in Berlin, said that reunification had failed not so much over economics but over democracy. The old West Germany transformed the East with money, but failed to seize the opportunity to transform itself. In 1990, he argued, newly liberated East Germany was alive with the same ferment of revolutionary energy and hunger for change that animated Warsaw, Prague or Kiev in their days of change. West Germany allowed that energy to run into the sands of consumerism. Now the country as a whole was paying the price of a missed opportunity.
A few months ago, Arno Widmann, an editor, translator and journalist, wrote an article for the Berliner Zeitung about the new Germany—after the Weimar republic and the Bonn republic, the Berlin republic. He pointed out that the generation of ‘68 had begun their political careers hating the bourgeois complacency of the old West Germany; then, just when they realised it was one of the nearest things to a workers’ paradise the world has ever seen, it was over. “The reunification caught them off guard,” he wrote. “No sooner had they made their peace with the Bonn republic than it lay down and died ... With the Berlin republic, our country has reached normality: the rich get richer and the poor poorer. That’s the real test for our democracy”.
An economy in trouble
National jobless: 11,5% or 4,7-million people—up from 3,9-million last year. Unemployment in eastern Germany: 20% (In 1976 the unemployment rate in West Germany was 5,8%. Rates began to rise in the early 1980s peaking in 1983 at 10,2% or 2,5-million unemployed.)
Labour force: 42,63-million
Labour cost per worker: â,¬27,3 western Germany; â,¬17 eastern Germany
Population: 82Â 431Â 390
Population growth rate: 0%
Birth rate: 8,33 births per 1Â 000 people
Death rate: 10,55 deaths per 1Â 000 people
Life expectancy at birth: 78,65 years (total population)
Government budget deficit: 3,6% of GDP (eurozone limit is 3%)
Public debt: 65,8% of GDP
Inflation rate: 1,9% year on year - Guardian Unlimited Â