Cool Germany – really?

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Gordon Kricke (The Philippine Star) - April 26, 2018 - 12:00am

When I saw the title “Cool Germany” on the cover of one of the latest editions of the magazine “The Economist” I was curious to know what the story was about. “The Economist” is one of my favorite magazines. Sometimes I don’t agree with their political analysis, but their reports are always well-researched, thought-provoking and never lack that sort of typical British sense of humor. The special report on Germany was indeed very interesting and, I believe, in many aspects correct. It described a more plural and open country with a booming economy, a political landscape in transformation and its fair share of challenges and chances.

But I asked myself: “Cool Germany” – is that really true? I think that is not so easy to answer. There are places, like Berlin, that are definitely “cool,” have a vibrant art and cultural scene and a fascinating night-life. Berlin is one of the world’s foremost places for “startups” and attracts many young and innovative people from all over the world. It often seems everybody now wants to be “big in Berlin,” to try out something new in life and see if they can hit it lucky.

But then again, it is the same story in Germany like in the Philippines and in many other countries. Don’t think you know the country if you only know the capital. Metro Manila is in many aspects very different from the rest of the country and the same is true in Germany. Life, especially in small towns and villages, is worlds apart from what it feels like in Berlin. I mean, it is not necessarily better or worse, it is just different. I grew up in a small town in Germany and the mentality of people in the countryside is still very familiar to me. It is often more conservative and traditional, more cozy and picturesque and – maybe – more friendly than fast-moving Berlin which can be sometimes a bit rough-and-ready. Traditional German values like reliability, trustworthiness, punctuality and thriftiness are still very common there. But it is certainly less “cool” than Berlin and sometimes – when you are in a bad mood – it may even seem a bit provincial or parochial.  

To that extent it is similar to the discrepancy between center and periphery that you will find in many countries. However, what is special in Germany is that the capital of the country is not the economic powerhouse. It is just the startup community which has given a boost to the Berlin economy, which doesn’t have much of an industrial base to rely upon. Yes, the city may be cool and sexy, but economically it is much weaker than other less flamboyant places in Germany. The secret of the strength of the German economy lies elsewhere. You will find it in some big cities like Düsseldorf, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich, but you can also in the provinces. It is often in quite small and rather unknown towns where the famous German “Mittelstand” – the small and medium sized companies which are often world-leaders in their specific sector – are located. They rely on more traditional qualities like reliability and customer-orientation, but are also innovative and at the cutting edge of the technological progress.

Personally I think it is good that economic power is more evenly distributed in Germany and not so concentrated in the capital. The living conditions are more or less comparable in the different parts of the country, that is an advantage. But not everything is rosy. Unemployment is low and the system of social security is strong, but that does not mean that we don’t have a problem with social inequality, especially so in the big cities. That is of course a concern in Germany – as correctly mentioned in the “Economist” by the way.

But overall the balance between the capital and the provinces works quite well and this is also due to the system of federalism and local self-assertion which has deep historical roots. So, not everything is “cool in Germany,” but that is just as well.

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(Gordon Kricke is the Ambassador of Germany.)

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