On the way to a Grand Coalition (election story continued)

As I have written before, Angela Merkel and her right-leaning Christian Democrats (CDU) won the most votes in Germany’s election on 22nd September. 10 weeks have now passed, and still a new government is yet to be formed. From a British perspective, it seems to be taking a very very long time (the current coalition government in Britain was formed in about 5 days in May 2010). But in Germany, this lengthy process of forming a government is far from surprising.

Having failed to win an absolute majority (they got 41.5% of the vote), it was clear back in September that the CDU (along with their Bavarian sister party, CSU) for the sake of stable government would have to form a coalition with another political party. Coalitions are not unusual in Germany; indeed all governments since 1946 having been formed of two or more parties. Past experience of coalition negotiations (the negotiations for the Grand Coalition in 2005, also under Merkel, lasted two months) and the fact that the CDU’s most obvious (and existing coalition) partner, the right-leaing, economic liberals, the FDP, failed to get the prerequisite proportion of votes to have any politicians in parliament, suggested that this time round talks might take even longer. Continue reading

Without a voting card on Election Day

Yesterday – Election Day. I, as an expat, was merely a bystander. But that did not stop a familiar shiver of emotion running up my spine at the sight of people strolling to the local polling station, peacefully coming together to democratically express their hopes and dreams for their country.

Today – it is clear that Angela Merkel and her right-leaning Christian Democrats (CDU) have won, though no-one is quite sure as yet how the governing coalition will be formed. On that, there are commentators in abundance and my half-baked comments won’t bring you much. So instead, I’ll mark this rather remarkable day (or not, as some might argue) in German political history by writing about my personal impressions.  Continue reading

Election year – time to swat up on German politics

Before I became an expat I was well versed in politics. I read the broadsheets daily (usually at the top of a London bus on my way to work) and, when occasion called for it, I voiced a distinct opinion at dinner parties. So I find it embarrassing that after three years of living in Berlin, I remain relatively ignorant about contemporary German politics. I am well versed in the country’s history (19th and 20th centuries at least) but terribly vague about way the present state functions and current politic issues.

It could be that this is a typical expat experience. I know my American grandmother, who has lived in Britain for over 65 years, still prefers to read about American politics than that of our small fair isle. But now, in Berlin, the election is nearly upon us. The Euro crisis is bringing Germany’s role in Europe to centre stage. And everyone is talking about politics. It doesn’t look like we’ll be moving back to the UK anytime soon, so it is time, I think, to be able to join in.

In attempt to educate myself and to provide some useful information for other expats in Germany, in my next few posts, I shall attempt to tackle: (1) Germany’s political system; (2) the main German political parties and (3) Germany in the wider context of the EU. My musings will only fleetingly touch on the historic, and mostly be told from an expat perspective – that being what it feels important to me to know, rather than the nitty gritty of every last detail. And I hope these posts will not be quite as dry as they threaten to be.  Continue reading

The East Side Gallery and Berlin’s Benign Neglect

Berlin is often its own worst enemy. And this time we’re not even talking about the long-delayed opening of the BER airport. Now the controversy is over creating new gaps in the historic East Side Gallery, one of the last vestiges of the Berlin Wall. There is also an online petition to block further damage to the Gallery. All, typically for Berlin, too little too late.

As February became March 2013, suddenly Berlin – and the world – were paying close attention to the East Side Gallery, a little over 23 years after most of the Wall disappeared. Running along the banks of the Spree River, this 0.8-mile stretch of Hintermauer (“inside, ‘hinterland’ Wall”) blocks the river view from Mühlenstraße, the street that parallels the East Side Gallery. At least it did block the view until Berlin began punching holes in it. This piecemeal destruction of the Gallery took place despite so-called landmark protection granted in 1991.

The only reason this rare remaining stretch of the Wall is still standing at all is the artwork that first appeared on it back in 1990 – before the Berlin city fathers and mothers had time to tear down most of the Berlin Wall. Continue reading

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Part 2a)

Today I’m continuing my list of expat likes (the good), dislikes (the bad) and major gripes (the ugly) – all related to living in Germany. In Part 1 I began with “the bad,” but my “good” list has turned out to be even longer! So long in fact, that I need to split my “good” list in two. You can read the second half of the list in my next installment.

To reiterate: Germany is no more monolithic than the USA. Conservative Munich is not really anything like free-wheeling Berlin. But I have tried to list things that generally apply, and note those things that may be more regional in nature. Everyone’s good and bad list will be unique, but there are many cultural things that all expats in Germany can relate to. And, as I pointed out in my first section, I could make a similar list for life in the US. In fact, this German list is also a commentary in reverse on life in the US.

If you want a more neutral comparison of US and German culture, see our six German Way cultural comparison charts, starting with Driving.

My list is not prioritized! Since my “good” list has now grown to over 20 items, it would be even more difficult to rank them. For that reason, items in the list are not numbered. Okay, here we go, this time with the good… Continue reading

The German Past raises its ugly head

A couple of days ago I opened my local newspaper here in Reno and turned to the “Nation & World” section. Wow! A huge headline jumped out at me: “Germany links serial killings to neo-Nazi sympathizers: Turks are outraged by slow action.” The Reno Gazette-Journal rarely contains any news from Germany, but there it was – in bold print and with color photos!

I had been following this story in the German media for some time, but I was really surprised to see it so prominently displayed in an American newspaper, much less in my local paper, covering almost half the page. Labeled “Special for USA TODAY,” with a byline for Ruby Russell, the story began: “BERLIN – The first to die was Enver Simsek, 38, a flower vendor shot in the face in Nuremberg in 2000. The last was Halit Yozgat, 21, shot in the head in the Internet café he ran in Kassel, six years later.” Continue reading

Just When You Thought You Knew German

The first time I had ever heard of “Swiss German” was when I was preparing to move from Düsseldorf, Germany to Rapperswil, Switzerland. My German neighbors had me over for a farewell barbecue and they said to me: “Whatever you do, don’t come back and visit us speaking that Swiss German.” I was aware that the Germans had a somewhat love/hate relationship with their southern neighbors, but I had no idea the Swiss spoke some different form of their common language. In fact, I was quite confident with the German that I had picked up over my three years in Düsseldorf, and I figured it would be quite an easy transition from one country to the other.  I was wrong.

Continue reading

A 400-pound gorilla named Germany

Anyone who has followed the evolution of Germany and the European Union for as long as I have may be forgiven for thinking that Germany would always be the EU’s biggest supporter – in more ways than one. But lately, there have been signs that the gradual progression from the old Common Market of the 1960s to the EU and eventually on to a United States of Europe may be a much bumpier road than many once thought.

In the past, German policy regarding the EU reflected Germany’s history and the destruction of Europe caused by Nazi Germany. Along with the rest of Europe, German leaders realized that a unified Europe would help avoid the national conflicts that had so often led to European wars of conquest from ancient times on into the 20th century. In 1952, post-World War II German guilt and common sense led to the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) by six countries: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. That modest beginning would lead to the “Common Market” (Treaty of Rome, 1958) and the European Community (EC) in 1967. By 1993, only a few years after German reunification, the 12 EC countries formed the more robust European Union (EU). Today the EU has 27 member states with a total population of about 500 million. Continue reading