Our Man In Cologne



Thomas Greuel


The King is dead, long live the King


Walking through Cologne these days reveals an unfamiliar sight. Content and almost happy people all over the streets. Happy people in Germany? The world champion of discontent, the proverbial antonym to ars vivendi or joie de vivre?

Alright, a foreigner revisiting the country will hardly be able to tell a difference. It's one of those tiny changes that only natives or those that know the culture by heart can tell. Foreigners will see the same grumpy Germans that are impolite, always in a hurry and do not even bother to apologise when they step on someone else's heels on the High Streets of any German city. However Germans will see something else. A country cheering up, looking forward to the nearer future, anticipating and almost having acquired a lust for life. Well, almost at least.

So what has happened that we Krauts are so happy for once? Have we all won in the National Lottery? Not quite. Did we capture the world championship in soccer? Unfortunately not. Has Michael Schumacher won the Formula One season? Not yet. The answer is much simpler, less outrageous but still surprising. Germany has just held a general election and changed their government.

When listening to conversations these days, you will occasionally hear someone say: "The new government will fix it." And while this statement is filled with a fair amount of experience and hence sarcasm, you can also hear a very slight, certainly perceptible and definitely irrational hope that they will really mend some things. This statement is irrational in the sense that the first commandments of democracy go something like:

A country is represented by its government and the government consists of its representatives. Hence, without twisting JFK's words in the least, we must ask what we can do to please our politicians and not what they might intend to do for us. When you are asked to do something for your country, it is most likely something unpleasant, like paying more taxes or even fighting and consequently dying in wars the public was not asked about. So how naive are we?

But this discourse is futile, and you know that just as much as we do. It doesn't matter whether the government under which you live is elected or came into existence under other circumstances. The result is about the same. There is a tendency of elected politicians to believe that they are chosen -- chosen not only in a political sense but also in an almost divine way. After having been in charge for some time politicians seem to think that only God Himself is above them. This seems to be the attitude that the Christian-Liberal coalition has finally acquired. So we voted them out. Of course the new government will not be better, but we have faith that it will take some time for them to learn about their divinity.

Till then we will continue to hope for the best and expect the worst. We might even consider apologising when stepping on other people's heels in the High Streets of any German city. Although we are gravely misunderstood by the world. The apparent impoliteness that results from the lack of a proper apology is definitely no sign of a lack of manners. It is a sign of utter efficiency. Germans safely assume that both stepping on someone's heels and being stepped on one's own heel is neither done on purpose nor a particularly pleasant feeling. Since both the perpetrator and the victim acknowledge that fact, there is no need to waste any time on lengthy and superfluous apologies.

But let me get back on topic and bore you with some facts about the election. After sixteen consecutive years, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, his Christian Democrats and their partner the Liberal Party have not been re-elected into office. Instead, now the Social Democrats and the Green Party are in charge and Gerhard Schröder will be the next chancellor. This news is hardly exciting and does not seem to justify the euphoria. After all, democracies should be about change. And a political change once in a while is certainly desirable. The Italians do it almost annually and the Irish change their government regardless of how well it might have done. For Germany this is a novelty. This is the first time in their short history of democracy that a completely new government will be formed. So far in every election there has at most been a change within the coalition, with one party replacing another coalition-partner. This time it is different. For the first time both partners are no longer in charge and have been replaced by two parties from the opposition. For the first time it is a proper change of politics and policies.

So what was so bad about current chancellor Helmut Kohl? Nothing really. However, Helmut Kohl is one of those sovereigns that receive more credit and respect abroad than within their own country. Surely we appreciate his endeavours in bringing about the European Community -- although we still haven't made up our mind whether we want it. Sure, we equally appreciate his impact on bringing the Wall down and reuniting the two parts of Germany -- although at times we might curse the costs. But regardless of that, there is something more important. In the last few years, namely after the reunification, unemployment has risen significantly. Social welfare plays a very large role with public pension schemes and free health care. All these services have become very expensive and are becoming harder and harder to finance. There has been a staleness in politics, a lack of bringing about the necessary changes. The reason for this is partly based on the structure of the two houses of parliament. Both led by the two big rivaling parties blocked each other and were afraid of compromises and maybe even successes. Thus none of the crucial decisions required to shape the nearest future were made. All this has changed with the Social Democrats now in the majority in both houses. Although the new coalition has not yet taken over, they have already proposed significant changes.

However, there is also a fair amount of uncertainty since the Green Party are outright spoil sports. They have already claimed to propose a general speed limit on motorways - something just as unthinkable and terrifying for Germans (although sensible) as gun-control in the US (although sensible). The idea that Germans may no longer be allowed to pace with 250 km/h (150 mph) over their motorways is horrifying and suppressing the God-given privilege to speed. Some of us might even see an abuse of human rights. It is unknown whether Amnesty International has been called to investigate by concerned road warriors, but it is not unlikely that someone has tried to contact them. After all, who in the world is going to buy our great cars if there is no longer a nation-wide test area available? And where will future F1 champions come from, if they do not get the opportunity to practice?

Equally revolting is the thought of an "ecological tax reform" which would increase the prices of fuel and electricity significantly to encourage manufacturers to build cars that consume less gasoline and thereby cause less pollution. After all, can you imagine buying a German car that can go 100 km (60 miles) with three litres of fuel but that cannot go faster than 100 km/h (60 mph)?

So there is a fair amount of uncertainty in the ways of the new government. Their focus on the environment, their determination to shut down all nuclear power plants and to raise the prices of gasoline to 5 DM (US$ 3) per litre is frightening. However, this is the first time in ages that politics is not just about the desperate attempt to make ends meet, but that there is actually an attempt to shape the future significantly.

In the end, the feeling of hopeful anticipation will not last. In only a few months we will be just as discontent with our government as any other country in the world. They will have the same old quarrels, raise our taxes, ask us to do something for our country and indulge in scandals of all sizes and manners. But at least we will not have to change our behaviour when stepping on other people's heels on the High Streets of our rainy cities.


Thomas Greuel can be reached at greuel@geocities.com