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Opinion: What happened to 'Vorsprung durch Technik'?

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

For Germanophiles, monitoring the recent media coverage of Germany has been bleak: the once-formidable, title-defending Turniermannschaft were roundly ridiculed for being knocked out at the group stages of last year’s World Cup; the once-undisputed Bundeskanzlerin has gone full-Theresa May, cobbling together the unsustainable Großen Koalition after the CDU’s woeful 65-seat loss in the 2017 election, before being removed like a tick from a dog’s hind leg - all before this week’s footage showing Merkel shaking uncontrollably at official engagements. This, of course, led to the easy metaphor of shaky hands at Germany’s wheel being used in the media.

Microcosmic of these incredibly 'ungermanic' headlines have been the humiliating failures of two of Germany’s pet building projects: Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, and the three-decade joke of Berlin Brandenburg Airport, now wearing dangerously thin. Both of these were devised as proof of Germany’s capability of large-scale prestige projects.

Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg. Photo: ASSY via Pixabay

Germans, perennially the kings and queens of efficient understatement, seem grateful that Britain has, understandably, been distracting attention as the satirical whipping boy of Europe – if not the world. Whilst Britain battles terminal, malignant Brexit, Germany has been enduring its own national scandals and embarrassments. My attention was first brought to these after Riccardo Muti, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, announced that he would, in future, be boycotting the Elbphilharmonie, once-hailed the jewel in Germany’s cultural crown upon its opening in 2017 at the cost of €850 million. The Vienna Philharmonic was quick to follow suit, as was German operatic sensation Jonas Kaufmann, whose performance in January faced audience protest over poor acoustics.

German newspapers have been unafraid to wade into the debate with their own criticisms of Germany’s ‘temple of music’: The Hamburger Abendblatt and Süddeutsche Zeitung in particular ran their own series on the controversy: the former interviewed Kaufmann, the latter concluded “each imprecision is enlarged grotesquely”. To add to this humiliation, the Elbphilharmonie’s director Christoph Lieben-Seutter was forced to admit that a quarter of the hall’s 2,100 seats suffered from “dampened audible impression” due to the very nature of Yasuhisa Toyota’s ‘vineyard formation’.

This macabre comedy of errors reached its zenith after several visitors dressed in their tiaraed finery tumbled down the hall’s sweeping white staircases, suffering broken bones. It could be irreverently argued that this brought the hyperbole of the Wagnerian opera onstage to the stalls, but, in all seriousness, the swift and flippant demise of the Elbphilharmonie’s reputation taps into the zeitgeist of a country we trust to make our appliances and cars with minimum fuss and maximum quality.

Even worse is the fact that the Elbphilharmonie, far more than being a regional concert venue had upon it pinned German hopes of making up for the ongoing humiliation of the Berlin Brandenburg Airport project, started in 1991 and still nowhere near completion. Whilst to a far lesser extent, the Elbphilharmonie project also overran with a spiralling budget.

What has caused this uncharacteristic wobble in Germany efficiency? White elephants have an uncanny ability to mirror the wider political stability of a country: cast your mind back to Terminal 5’s catastrophic ‘teething problems’ in the midst of the 2008 global financial crisis, or the ongoing construction of Barcelona’s Sagrada Família only passed the midpoint in 2010 after 230 years, reflecting Spain’s fragile financial and political situation, especially the running sore of Catalan independence.

As unimaginable as it would have seemed five years ago, Berlin has been rocked by such political instability. ‘Mutti’ Merkel, once seen as constant and uncontested a force as gravity has faced ever-growing opposition since adopting the widely hated ‘Open Door Policy’, taking one for the European team in response to the 2015 migrant crisis. This arose in direct correlation to the rise of sympathy and support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), who secured 12.6% of the vote in 2017, a gain of 94 seats.

This has been replicated on provincial levels as well, and as members of extreme parties have taken up positions at council and state levels, such building projects, both almost-exclusively reliant on state funding, have been contested at all levels by an increasingly conservative agenda, snarling up progress.

Compared to the escapades of the cast of Trump, Boris, Farage et al. Germany has been saved the international derision it might have suffered in other times, but this catastrophic series of ungermanic events hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed. Germany needs to return to bland reliability before its swept into the cesspit of Twitter diplomacy, reality-TV populism and political pipe dreams with the rest of us.


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