Teuton the Introvert

February 23, 2010 Topic: Society Tags: SocialismCommunismWest Germany

Teuton the Introvert

Mini Teaser: Germany was once the most powerful nation on the Continent. Now it is spiraling toward mediocrity.

by Author(s): Jacob Heilbrunn

FREIBURG, A university town nestled in a valley at the foot of the Black Forest in southwest Germany, is where the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who wore a Nazi Party badge for the special occasion, delivered his notorious rector's address in 1933, exhorting German students to fulfill the Fuhrer's vision by supporting the "national revolution." The medieval city was heavily bombed during World War II and occupied by the French. After the Berlin wall fell and the remaining occupation force departed in the early 1990s, a motley crew of house squatters and hippies moved into the former French barracks. But within a few years, the local city council converted the space into a gleaming town for the middle class called Vauban. When you visit this eco-town, it quickly becomes apparent that Vauban resembles nothing so much as a tarted-up socialist paradise. It leaves you with the feeling of having seen a small replica of East Germany-except that it actually works.

The communal apartment buildings are constructed from recycled materials and painted in a variety of bright colors. The houses almost invariably feature an array of solar panels for heating and hot water. Outside, numerous trash cans stand proudly like soldiers at attention, waiting for carefully selected refuse. Consistent with Vauban's progressive ethos, all the streets are named after famous women like Rahel Varnhagen, a German Jew who ran one of the most prominent intellectual salons in Berlin during the early eighteenth century and was the subject of a biography by Hannah Arendt. Placards announcing feminist meetings, anticapitalist demos and protests against nuclear power are plastered on the walls. For those interested in burnishing their revolutionary credentials, every third week of the month features a sudsy meeting at the radical pub SUSI of the "Antifa Linke Freiburg"-the antifascist Left of the neighborhood, known to its adherents as the ALFR. Its motto is "class war" instead of the older German credo "fatherland." Meanwhile, a tiny encampment of anarchists is living in abandoned vehicles side-by-side this utopian dream.

In other words, Vauban, for the most part, epitomizes how Germany would like to be seen abroad-enlightened, progressive, reflective, pleasant and virtuous. And, in many ways, it reflects the tamed and docile West Germany that England, France and America hoped would emerge after World War II. But if Vauban is an environmental paradise, it may also exemplify the rather-complacent political orthodoxies that are sapping the vitality of a country that is urgently in need of renewal. It has something of a nanny-state feel to it since cars are basically verboten-and where they aren't, as in Berlin, anarchists have been torching them nightly. Even as some of Vauban's residents fume about capitalism and state oppression, they lead highly regulated lives that depend on draconian government laws mandating everything from energy efficiency down to almost the final turn of the water faucet. Its residents seek liberation from the free-market ethos by circumscribing their freedoms. It's all very German. It's also become somewhat problematic.

 

WHAT IS really happening from the borders of the Saarland to the hinterland of Saxony is the takeover of Germany by the Left. If America became enraptured with the global-capitalism gospel of the past two decades, Germany has experienced the opposite. The country has long been held captive by the communist program: first, through its division during the Cold War; then, as it tried to join its ailing East with its far healthier West. The Germans' failure to make themselves whole and equal again leaves their country increasingly insular and provincial.

To some extent, blame for the leftists' staying power rests with former-Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The stolid Kohl, a product of the centrist Christian Democratic Union, had promised East Germans a "blooming landscape" no sooner than the wall had fallen. It never happened. Instead, the West Germans who headed east to dismantle the ossified industries were regarded by the locals as invading colonialists. The bitterness has never subsided. East Germany is an economic basket case. It boasts unemployment rates reaching up to 20 percent. Despite massive subventions from the West, the East remains an object of contempt for its more prosperous brethren, though even the healthy parts of Germany are jeopardized by an aging population and the economic turmoil in Greece, Portugal and Spain, the latter of which is reducing the value of the euro. At times, Easterners have voted neo-Nazis into Parliament. But what has startled the Western parties most is the unremitting ascendance of the former-East-German, communist Socialist Unity Party, which morphed into the Party of Democratic Socialism, then into the Left Party.PDS and, finally, into die Linke . It has permeated all of German politics.

Gregor Gysi, who has just stepped down as one of the chairmen of The Left, managed the party's reinvention by grabbing hold of economic and foreign-policy issues. A clever and sinuous rhetorician, as an attorney he represented clients requesting an exit visa from the national prison known as East Germany. Oskar Lafontaine, who was until January a party co-chair, took up the mantle of empowering the masses' cause. Hailing from the Saar area, he isn't some hick from the East, but a polished Western politician who vacations in Italy and lives it up in his palatial home, a true champagne socialist. A former German finance minister and fiery orator, Red Oskar, as he is known, has always banged the populist drum. His campaign's mantra was "tax the rich." He ferociously attacked globalization. And Gysi and Lafontaine together tapped into the German antipathy toward free-market economics, in particular industry and the banks, both supposedly gouging workers. Professors and members of the trade unions, the latter the traditional bulwark of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), defected to die Linke .

Image: Essay Types: Essay