Is Germany a corrupt country?

Wikipedia defines corruption as ‘spiritual or moral impurity or deviation from an ideal’. It continues, stating ‘political corruption occurs, when an office-holder or other governmental employee acts in an official capacity for his or her own personal gain’.

It is difficult, that one. Fact is, in Germany, people in politics are constantly changing into the private sector and people working in the private sector are constantly, at least for a time, changing into politics or a closely connected part of the public sector. They call it the revolving door, and though I assume that most of the change occurs for the enhancement of personal gain in the form of money or influence, that is only part of the problem.

In Germany, since at least the late 1990s, privately financed lobbyists from the media, from insurance companies and banks, from the car industry, the chemical industry and the weapons industry have been openly assisting ministries in drafting new laws. These laws are subsequently usually slanting towards the advantage of the private sector. If you ask me, that really is a problem. After all, democracy should primarily be about representing the interests of the voter, and not of those people who scratch your back. From all I can gather, things are even worse on a European level, because there is even less accountability towards the citizen there.

Adding to that, Germany is one of the few countries in the world in which parliamentarians may, without fearing punishment, receive money from pretty much anyone, as long as it is not directly connected to casting a vote. There was a mostly unanimous opinion among politicians against changing those rules, and it was argued that it would otherwise unnecessarily stifle politicians in their decision making.

The situation elsewhere is comparable. For all I know, many former employees of one of the world’s biggest investment banks are active in high-up US-politics. And coming to that, they are pretty active in the rest of the world, too. It is much the same in Britain, where Westminster and the City seem uncomfortably close. The argument for the revolving door will always be a similar one. These people are experts at what they do. Which undoubtedly is true. The question is, what exactly do they do, and in whose interest?

So can all this be called corruption, or at least corruptibility? When there is such great closeness between politicians, industrialists, journalists, consultants and lobbyists, with many openly displaying glowing friendships in the media, never mind covertly on the golf course, what in all honesty should you call it?

There is no easy answer. Friendships, relations and networks are a part of life, and more so in politics, I would guess. And even if this would amount to corruption, were it alright to call it so and thus the enabling system with it? According to paragraph 90a of the German ‘Strafgesetzbuch’, anyone who ‘abuses or maliciously defames Germany or its constitutional system is punishable by up to three years in prison’. While I am not doing anything of the kind, it does make me think about free speech. It shows that freedom is always a relative thing, which I guess must be in the nature of the matter.

Which brings me back to corruption. Germany has a great constitution, written by insightful people after a devastating war. The question is, is that constitution being respected today?

Light and shadow make up the world, and the world of politics, too

Light and shadow make up the world, and the world of politics, too


Hannover, green city of pleasant average

There is probably no city in Germany quite as smiled at by other Germans as Hannover. Unjustly, as I think, and usually by those who have never been there. Which is alright with most Hannoverians, who are content with their city in a quiet way. For many, it is simple: They have lots of green, two small rivers, a city lake and a zoo, they have the university and the trade-fairs, and they have a reasonable infrastructure, so what more could they need?

Hannover unfortunately cannot pride itself in having been rebuilt in any meaningful way after the war. There are too many buildings of the 50s, 60s and 70s, including large concrete blocks such as the Ihme Zentrum, which may have looked fine as a cardboard model, but not in real life. To compensate all this, modern art has for years been placed along the central city roads. The art is mostly annoying, but you cannot say this openly, as it would show you as uneducated and intolerant, and in addition would insult the well-paid civil servants responsible for making the choices.

Otherwise, Hannover is largely defined by easily being the greenest city in Germany. As the large urban forest, called the Eilenriede, forms a green belt of broad-leafed trees through most of the South, it is possible to walk or ride your bike for hours, while just occasionally crossing a road. Mostly adjoining or close to this green belt are two well-kept English parks, the Georgengarten and the Hermann Löns Park, both with flowing paths along green meadows, as well as the Tiergarten, which is home to deer and some porcupine. Internationally known for its firework competitions is the baroque garden of Herrenhausen. Along many of these green refuges, the quality of living is high and sometimes almost rural.

Close to the center of Hannover lies the Maschsee, an artificial lake with a footpath of six kilometers around, abundant with joggers and pedestrians. You can take a pedal boat and even sail here, and when you are thirsty have a cold drink and a bratwurst in the beer-garden overlooking the water. From here, it is just a few steps to the Arena which houses many games of Hannover 96, the local football club which at times surprises with its fluctuating success.

The new Rathaus, also not far away, is by some seen as slightly kitschy, while others love it. In any case, it is one of the few recognisable buildings in Hannover, and again borders on a park. Being the capital of the federal state of Lower Saxony, Hannover is a bustling, lively city with lots of culture, much of it tax-sponsored, including museums, several theatres and an opera house. There are concerts, festivals and sporting events here, plenty of them outside, with the Hannover marathon, the musical Maschseefest, the artistic Kleines-Fest-im-Großen-Garten and the big Christmas market around the Marktkirche church being some of the most notable.

The House of Hannover, or Hanover, as the English say, was actually some centuries ago responsible for refreshing the bloodline of the English monarchy, but today the most well-known descendant is one who drunkenly urinated in public at the Expo 2000. The Expo, by the way, was an outer-worldly expensive event, but it did have the great advantage of giving Hannover one of the nicest train stations in Germany. Which even won a prize, and that makes it official.

The people living in Hannover are in many ways similar to the city. Not over the top, but rather straight-forward and peaceful, at times edging towards the mediocre, with a quiet and dry humour. Being accustomed to it, many enjoy the green, and those who want more of nature can easily do this by driving 40 minutes westwards to the large Steinhuder Meer lake, or southwards for 20 minutes and more towards the woody hills of the Gehrdener Berg, the Deister and the Süntel, or for just over an hour to the Harz mountains, which are mostly covered in coniferous trees. Northwards you can reach the pleasant Heide landscapes in one hour, then Hamburg, and then the Baltic and the North Sea in just over two hours. Not exactly near, but easily done on a sunny weekend day.

Summing up, Hannover is not a city of life-style and flair, but for many, it is a pleasant place to live. And that can be more than it at first may seem.

The lift to the top runs at a tilt, but once you are up, you can look straight down

The lift to the top runs at a tilt, but once you are up, you can look straight down

Würzburg on the Main, and its people

The city of Würzburg is one of those places in Germany that is so perfect, it is hard to match. In many ways, it is like a piece of art or a meal with just the right composition of ingredients.

Würzburg lies in the Northern part of Bavaria, and thus is as much middle-German as it is South-German. In fact, quite a few Franconians there do not see themselves as Bavarians and could well imagine independence, or so they say. The city is sweet and beautiful, but at the same time brimming with real life, there is a large river running through it, and it is surrounded by softly rolling hills that are covered with fields, woods and vineyards. Sun and warm weather are plentiful.

The wine produced here is mostly white, as it is in many parts of the country, the typical types of grapes are Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus, Riesling and Scheurebe, with the latter offering a fruity and almost flowery aroma. In one of the many ‘Weinstuben’ you can enjoy a good glass, with two of the nicest places being the Eulenspiegel and the Alte Mainmühle, both offering small recluses on different levels, with a candle on a wooden table in front of you.

Although a university city rich in tradition, Würzburg, with its around 130,000 inhabitants is nonetheless large enough to offer a rich life  beyond the world of studying. There is culture everywhere, and so are churches, most of them catholic. It is hard to imagine that much of this city was rebuilt after the war, for though there are many newer houses, almost none seem displaced or modern in an overbearing way. Looking down on Würzburg is the Festung, a large fortress that can be climbed on foot or reached by car, and which then offers a magnificent view onto the town.

The Festung itself is best seen from the Alte Main Brücke, an old stone bridge over the Main river, with baroque figures on either sides. A drink or meal can be enjoyed in the adjoining Brückenbäck, a light-drenched café overlooking the river. Slightly outside and with a view on Würzburg lies the Schützenhof, a pleasant beer garden that offers beer, wine and regional cuisine.

There is a tangy taste at times, and that stems from its people. The Franconians are on occasion not completely cordial and may emit a slightly grumpy and resentful note, but it is one that you could also find in other parts of Germany, albeit in different variations. It is strange that such a nice place would not leave its people more content.

But the Franconian way of softly moaning is quickly diluted by the large amount of young students from all around the country. Being a university town definitely has its advantages. And as with any work of art and any good meal, it is the combination that does it.

Water, sky, some green and a few historic buildings. That's the taste.

Water, sky, some green and a few historic buildings. That’s the taste.

On Thatcher, Blair, Schröder and Merkel

I had promised myself not to get too political on this blog, but the recent demise of Lady Thatcher has me wanting to just get a few thoughts off my mind, to whom it may concern.

While many Germans know the name of Margaret Thatcher and her being described as ‘the Iron Lady’, this is about as far as the general grasp of English politics of the last 30 years goes for most. Today, Mrs Merkel, several generations of politicians behind Mrs Thatcher, enjoys a similar standing in the rest of Europe or even the world. Not totally undeserved, I think. But the picture goes deeper, and it has a twist.

When Mrs Thatcher of the Conservative Party came to be Prime Minister, the power of the British labour unions was incredibly strong, you could say overpowering. At the same time, the economy was not doing especially well. So Thatcher killed the unions, privatised everything and introduced neoliberalism into the UK. Everyone was forthwith responsible for their own well-being. Which sounded great, and worked fine for those enterprising enough or already having something to call their own, and perhaps for those who bought and sold their council houses at the right time, but that is another story. Then came John Major, again Conservative, whom I guess no one will remember, and then Tony Blair, Labour, and both basically continued what Thatcher had started. Though Blair made it sound nicer and somehow more enlightening, not least by calling his party New Labour.

In Germany, before chancellor Gerhard Schröder came to power to succeed an ageing Helmut Kohl of the German Conservative Party CDU, things looked a bit different. Germany was basically doing fine. The Germans weren’t liked in the world, but they were respected. Back then, Germany was more of a welfare state than most countries. Thing was, there were some big clouds on the horizon. Most of all, the debts of German reunification were mounting up.

In addition, the great and uncontrolled flow of immigrants in the 50s, 60s and 70s, mostly from Turkey, and at the time basically demanded by a thriving German industry of the post-war era, did for some reason not plan on going home. Around the same time, and this perhaps accelerated by the arrival of private television, an increasing number of people had got used to comfortably using the welfare system to their own good. More than anyone, the people at the top of the food chain in Germany did not like this, as it was the taxes they weren’t paying that were being spent on a growing precariat. And their prayers were answered with the advent of Gerhard Schröder of the German Labour Party SPD, which wasn’t called New Labour, but could have been.

Following Schröder’s Agenda 2010, low wage employment was created. The industry thanked him, and with lots of advertising it helped convince many of the middle class and most of the petit bourgeois that all this was good and right. At the same time, the long beforehand planned expansion of the European Union towards the East brought in millions of cheap workers and made using cheap labour directly in other European countries a trifle. Meanwhile, the introduction of the Euro forced true wages down and made exports more profitable. The industry thanked again. Back then, it wasn’t clear to the broader public that with losing the Deutschmark, you had also lost the right to print your own money.  Next, the rules on banking were relaxed with the help of such people as Jörg Asmussen. Now it was the banks that thanked. Then, some pension schemes were privatised, and the insurance companies thanked, making such people as Carsten Maschmeyer to semi-billionaires. Around that time, Maschmeyer’s friend chancellor Schröder lost the next election to Merkel of the German Conservative Party CDU. On election night he appeared on TV, almost behaving like a coke-head, so agitated was he at the loss of power. And so the era Merkel started.

Angela Merkel was raised and socialised in the former German Democratic Republic, the DDR, mostly characterised by not being especially democratic. She apparently was in some junior role responsible for a job titled ‘agitation and propaganda’, whatever that means. Not that people can’t change. In fact, changing, adapting and always turning with the wind is probably one of Merkel’s most defining characteristics. After ending the end of atomic power that the red-green government under Schröder had initiated, she once again ended the ending of the end after the reactor accident of Fukishima in Japan. Talk about being populist. Having studied physics and coming from a clerical background, these characteristics however were and are instead emphasised in the same media that helped her become chancellor.

And then, with the reactions to the so-called financial crisis changing the face of society all around the world, Merkel proclaimed the need for a market-conform democracy. I don’t know what that is, but it makes me shiver. Today, for some reason probably having to do with Germany agreeing to pay all future debts of Europe, all eyes are on Merkel, either as mother, godmother or stepmother. I wonder which turns out to be true.

Spreading your wings to catch the sun only works till it gets dark

Spreading your wings to catch the sun only works till it gets dark

Some lakes to see near the sea

Up in the North of Germany, close to the Baltic Sea and spreading over the two federal states of Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, is a green, loosely populated area covered with small and medium-sized lakes. The Germans call them ‘Seen’, which could be slightly confusing for the English-speaking, as a sea is called ‘Meer’.

From West to East, the most well-known lakes are the Plöner See, the Ratzeburger See, the Schaalsee, the Schweriner See and the Müritz. Bordering on these are often large nature reserves and some sweet little cities, though these are maybe not quite as quaint as more southwards in Germany.

As the area along the lakes is mostly flat, going for extensive bike tours is definitely an option. Because even though the people there call it their own ‘Schweiz’, or Switzerland, due to the softly flowing hills, that is a bit on an exaggeration.

Peace and tranquility, unless you are set on doing some heavy paddling

Peace and tranquility, unless you are set on doing some heavy paddling

On German media

My opinion of German media is not high. We have many privately owned newspapers, magazines, television channels and radio stations, but when you do a bit of fact checking, it basically boils down to a few huge conglomerates dominating public opinion and thus politics. First and foremost there is Bertelsmann, now owned by former secretary and mistress gone widow Liz Mohn, and there is Springer, now owned by former child-minding mistress gone widow Friede Springer. They are both befriended with German chancellor Angela Merkel, quelle surprise. Otherwise, and with perhaps a little less influence on the shaping of politics, we have Burda, Holtzbrinck, Madsack and Bauer, and that is about it on the private front.

Public media in the form of television, radio and internet coverage meanwhile has become a huge and expensive bureaucratic mess, too often trying to copy private media by mostly looking at how many people are watching and not at the quality of the content watched. Talk-shows full of lobbyists are everywhere, and the well-paid hosts are treated like omniscient priests. There are, however, some small special-interest channels like ZDFinfo or the German-French Arte that really offer superb, homegrown documentaries of all kinds. Then again, the public networks let themselves be forced by private industry to erase huge media archives once paid for by the tax payer, for reasons of unfair competition. In good German tradition, no resistance was heard. Go figure.

Often quoted on the magazine front is ‘der Spiegel’, once a superficial investigative left-wing magazine and since gone more or less neoliberal with more than a quarter of it owned by Bertelsmann, something few people realise. And then there is the public Deutschlandfunk radio, a pale soundscape next to the journalism the BBC produces. While the latter, at least when it isn’t pitching fluffy human interest stories, has features like ‘from our own correspondent’, the former has unresearched opinions put into pseudo-intellectual words, mixed with music nobody wants to hear, like it still were the Sixties.

So, all in all, my opinion of German media is not high. Coming to that, when I think of Berlusconi and Murdoch, neither is it of media in other countries.

Media at all times played a great part in the forming of opinions. This picturesque architecture stems from a time in Germany when public opinion in some parts was different, but not more informed.

Media at all times played a great part in the forming of opinions. This picturesque architecture stems from a time in Germany when public opinion in some parts was different, but not more informed.

Roaming the German countryside

One of the nice things in Germany is the almost total accessibility of nature. You can basically go anywhere you like. Take your car along a small road, park it on the curb and start walking along a field or into a hilly wood, for as long as you want.

This is somewhat different from other countries like England, where private property, high walls and fences often stop you from roaming freely and limit you to a few public footpaths and of course to the wonderful coastal path. The coast-line in Germany is nowhere near as long and as pleasant as this, but there still are some nice walks along the Baltic Sea.

And then there are the many lakes, some in the North and some in the far South, most markedly the large Bodensee and the Chiemsee, with the wonderful Alps nearby. Very inviting are the big rivers like Rhein, Main, Mosel and Donau, always with a path close to the bank for a day-long walk or a bicycle tour, often leading you from one historic village to the next.

The only thing to remember is where you parked your car.

This green footpath is near a city. But it looks like in the countryside.

This green footpath is near a city. But it looks like in the countryside.