2017 German Federal Elections: A Preview

Germans go to the polls on 24 September to elect their new Chancellor- A lot of questions still exists

After the US, Dutch and French elections, the German elections, which will take place on 24 September 2017, will be the decisive factor on how Germany will be governed for the next four years. Yet like the Presidential Elections that brought Donald Trump to power, this election will decide the fate of the European Union as well as the rest of the world, going forward, as there are several factors that will influence the voters’ decision on which party should rule the Bundestag in Berlin. Furthermore, given Germany’s economic, social and political leverage on Brussels as well as the United Nations, people are praying that whoever is elected Chancellor will be the one that will shape the country and take it into the direction that is the most desirable both nationally as well as globally.  Factors influencing the political decision among the voters include:

Germany’s role in terms of environmental policy– among other things, renewable energy, climate change and protecting flora and fauna

Germany’s role in terms of refugee policy, which includes integration of those qualified to live in the country and quick deportation of the unqualified and criminals

Germany’s role in international relations, especially within the EU and with the US. While President Trump would rather have Frauke Petry of the AfD (even though she is now on maternity leave) instead of the incumbent Angela Merkel of the CDU, Germany is trying to shore up relations with countries still loyal with the EU, while fighting fires caused by the far right governments of Poland, Turkey and Hungary, as well as Great Britain’s Teresa May.

Germany’s role in domestic policies and how it can close the ever continuing widening gap between the rich and the  poor, as well as improve on the country’s education system

Even more important are some thought provoking questions that are on the minds of all Germans, Americans living in Germany (including yours truly) and other foreigners living in Germany, for whoever rules the country for the next four years will have an impact on the lives of others, for each party has its own agenda that is different than that of the policies of Chancellor Merkel up until now. For some parties, this election could be make or break because of their struggle to win support. Here are some questions that are of concern as we bite our nails and worry about 24 September:

  1. Will Angela Merkel win her fourth term, thus be on the path to break the longest power streak of serving 16 years, set by the late Helmut Kohl (1982-1998; he died in June of this year)?
  2. Will the Martin Schulz Effect save the Social Democrats (SPD) or mark the beginning of the end of the centralist party?
  3. Will the Free Democratic Party return to the Bundestag after breaking the 5% barrier?
  4. Are too many windmills too much for the Greens?
  5. Will the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) continue its winning streak and roll into parliament? If so could it even overrun the CDU and even govern Berlin?
  6. Will the Leftist Party (Linke) serve as the counterpunch to the AfD or will it need help?
  7. Will this election mark the last for the Nationalist Party of Germany (NPD)?

These questions will be answered through my observations of the election, which will be after the tallies are counted and we know which parties will form a coalition and elect our next leader. We need to keep in mind that the German elections are different than the American ones as we elect two parties- one primary and one as second vote, and the new Chancellor is elected after a coalition is formed between two or more parties. Currently, we have the Grand Coalition, which features Merkel’s CDU and the SPD. Yet we have seen coalitions with other smaller parties. A party can have the absolute majority if more than 50% of the votes are in their favor.

To better understand the multi-party system, there are a pair of useful links you can click onto, which will provide you with an insight on the German election system. Both are useful for children, and both are in German, which makes it useful to learn the language.

Checker Tobi:  http://www.ardmediathek.de/tv/Die-Checker/Checker-Tobi-extra-Warum-w%C3%A4hlen-wichtig/Das-Erste/Video?bcastId=39903768&documentId=45989192

logo! on ZDF: https://www.zdf.de/kinder/logo/bundestagswahl-aktuell-100.html

Fellow American collegial column Leipzig Glocal produced an article on the multi-party election system and the number of parties that could run in the elections. Details on that can be found here:

Federal Elections 2017: party roll call

While I cannot vote on the count of my American citizenship (though ideas of switching sides have lingered since Trump’s elections) like other American expats, I can only stress the importance of going to the polls on the 24th. Your vote counts because we are at the crossroads. Can we do it, like Merkel said with taking on the refugees in 2015? Or can we afford to experiment and if so at what price? Only your vote will make a difference. So go out there and vote. And allow me to comment once there is a new Chancellor, be it another four years of Merkel (and the flirt with Kohl’s record) or with someone else……

Viel Glück und Glück auf! 🙂

 

 

Weimar Rendezvous 2015

Engelsberg Bookstore in Weimar's city center, one of the main events for the Rendezvous. Here is where the podium discussions and lectures took place. Photos taken in November 2015
Eckermann Bookstore in Weimar’s city center, one of the main events for the Rendezvous. Here is where the podium discussions and lectures took place. Photos taken in November 2015

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WEIMAR- In your opinion, do you think we are living in a society that is utopian? Does democracy and utopia co-exist, or is it dystopian or even an illusion? How does our environment affect our society and the way it is run? How many forms of topia exist or were invented? These were the questions that were addressed at this year’s Weimar Rendezvous. Every year since 2009, an average of over 1000 people, including students, intellects and interested people have attended the four-day event, consisting of presentations, podium discussions, films, exhibits and music festivals with a focus on a theme that is politically and historically relevant to today’s society.  This year’s event looks at the topic on “Utopia,” where presenters (consisting of historians, professors, politicians and members of civil society organizations) took a look at this topic, how it was developed and how it plays a role in our current society. This year’s event was overshadowed by the terrorist attacks in Paris (see the article in the Files by clicking here), but it did not stop visitors from listening to the topics and integrating the events in France into the theme of the weekend.

The Weimar Rendezvous was established in 2009, based on a similar event that has been taking place annually since 1998 in the French town of Blois. As Weimar is not only the place of multiculture and various forms of architecture (including Bauhaus), but it is the platform where democracy and literature came into frutition and blossomed. Goethe and Schiller met in the city and some of the works were based on their stay in Weimar. The Weimar Republic (1919-1933) was conceived in Weimar. Many greats of fine arts stayed in Weimar and used their experience as a platform for their careers. And with the Rendezvous, Weimar has been the platform for history and politics, as many current topics, laden with theory, science, architecture and especially history, have attracted many intellects, teachers, professors and students, in addition to others interested in history. Weimar is part of the Weimarer Dreiecks, where most of the themes are focused on the three European countries: Germany, Poland and France.

As a teacher of English, social studies and history, the Weimar Rendezvous is an excellent place to gather information on and deepen the topics of interest, thus providing some ideas for the next class session. Especially for the topic on utopia versus dystopia, for the latter was completed in 9th grade social studies class, where the group watched the film “In Time,” which depicts dystopia in the future tense. Here we compared dystopia with utopia in a theoretical sense, then compared them with how they were used in reality, using the examples of democracy and dictatorships that existed in history, and garnering some ideas to create the main idea of the meaning of democracy vs. dictatorship. Little do we realize is that utopia and its various forms have their roots dating back to the 1500s. Over the next 300 years, the concept branched out in several directions like a tree, each one shaping the way society is running in both a positive as well as a negative sense. Traces of the -topia can be seen today, as they have played a role in shaping our country and how their relationship with other countries. This includes the role of religion and the environment, two hot topics discussed during the Sunday sessions, as well as the African-American movement and its history and development in the United States from 1865 to the present.

Some highlights of the event from the author’s perspective include the following:

  1. According to the podium discussion on the history of Utopia, we found that Thomas Morus produced a book bearing the title in 1516. With his envision of utopia, which was a perfectionistic society with equality and uniformity, this was the seed that was planted which later bloomed into a tree with various forms of (u)topia.
  2. In another podium discussion on religion and utopia, the word apocalypse and its argumentive definitions, was used by the founders of the Churches to describe the replacement of a corrupt society in biblical proportions in favor of a utopian society. It was stressed more so by Martin Luther when he introduced his demands for reforms in the 1500s and later by his followers.
  3. During a podium discussion on the environment, there came a consensus by the speakers, when asked about the role of the media in influencing society’s thinking, which was as long as the public believes that the United States has less sunlight than Germany, as stated by Fox News, a staunch opponent of solar energy, no change will happen until it is too late.
  4. In a podium discussion on Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, never seen before photos of Rosa Park’s arrest and jail custody for sitting in the white zone of a transit bus, King’s speech and many Nazi propaganda posters against Barack Obama were displayed with a clear-cut message: America is (and will never be) ready for a non-Caucasian President, especially in light of the racial profiling and violence dominating the American landscape.
  5. In an evening podium discussion on architecture and utopia, the concept of modern architecture and futurama originated from the 1930s but was advanced further in the 1950s in Europe.

 

A book with a summary of the speeches from this year’s event will be published in the near future. However, highlights and photos of the events can be found in the Weimar Rendezvous website, which you can click here for more information on the event. A facebook page with photos of the event, courtesy of Juliane Fox Schwabenbauer, can be found here. The Files also has photos of the events the author attended, which you will find here.

A separate article on how to teach dystopia in the classroom is in the making and will be posted in the Files’ WordPress internet site.

Silhouette of the Statue of Goethe and Schiller in front of the Weimar National Theater. Photo taken by the author in Nov. 2015
Silhouette of the Statue of Goethe and Schiller in front of the Weimar National Theater. Photo taken by the author in Nov. 2015

 

The statues and the National Theater with flowers on memory of the victims of the terror attacks in Paris.
The statues and the National Theater with flowers on memory of the victims of the terror attacks in Paris.

Flensburg Files logo France 15

 

Flensburg: 23 May, 1945

German Naval Academy in Flensburg: Once part of the last Nazi stronghold in 1945
German Naval Academy in Flensburg: Once part of the last Nazi stronghold in 1945

Flensburg: 23 May, 1945. The war in the European theater was officially over. Hitler and Goebbels, along with many of his followers were dead. After signing the agreement of unconditional surrender of the German armies in northwestern Europe to British Field General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery near Hamburg on May 4th and Nazi Colonel General Alfred Jodl agreed to unconditional surrender to US General Dwight Eisenhower three days later at Rheims (France), millions of Europeans celebrated V-E Day, as Nazi Germany became no more.

Or was it?

On this day, 70 years ago, the last pocket of the Nazi government surrendered to British forces stationed in Flensburg, Germany. Jack Churcher had installed his post in the southern part of the city center at Norderhofendem 1, and British troops had taken control of the northernmost city in Germany. In comparison to other cities, Flensburg sustained minimal damage, and much of the city’s population was well-fed and dressed. They were for the most part aware that the war was coming to an end, and according to historian, Gerhard Paul in an interview with the SHZ Newspaper Group, “It was a matter of time before this absurd came to an end.” With the British troops entering Flensburg, the Nazi era had come to an end.

All except for the suburb of Mürwik, located on the eastern end of the harbor.

There, a small area in the suburb, extending for six kilometers and including the Naval Academy, was still under de facto Nazi control. Admiral Karl Dönitz had assumed power as the German president after Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels committed suicide on 30 April- 1 May, 1945.  Realizing that the war was lost, he and his remaining government officials fled the oncoming Soviet troops to Flensburg to set up a government there. The goal was to get as many fleeing German troops out of Berlin and out of reach of the Soviet troops and eventually broker terms of surrender to the western allies of the US, Britain and France. Originally they wanted to defend what was left of Nazi Germany, but they lacked the manpower and the ammunition for the efforts. After securing the agreements, it was a matter of time before the enclavement would be revealed, and the rest of the Nazi regime would surrender. Yet how they held out for so long until this date, the 23rd remains a mystery. Yet, as seen in the film produced by Pathé, soldiers of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, were in for a surprise when they found out not only how many people were holed up in Mürwik but who held out until the very end:

This leads to two main questions that are worth discussing:

  1. Why did Dönitz and his government wait for so long until they were discovered by British troops and were arrested? Could they not have surrendered to Churcher?

  2. As Dönitz claimed to have power in Germany, even after the agreements were signed and the war ended, would it not have made sense to declare 23 May as V-E Day and the end of Nazi Germany instead of May 8th?

Perhaps these questions will be speculated for a long time and may never be answered, but for Albert Speer, the architect of Hitler’s who received 20 years of prison time, “Flensburg was considered only the stage for the Third Reich, but nothing more than that.”  But why the town of Flensburg, of all the places Dönitz could have chosen? Was it an escape route for him and his people to flee the country through Denmark and the seas? Were there that many people sympathizing with the Third Reich, even though numbers indicate much lower support? Was it because of the navy, the rum, the beer? We may never know….

Today, Flensburg is a thriving city with many multi-cultural aspects. It still has the largest number of Danish people living there, along with many from other countries, even some from the US, Britain and Russia. The Naval Academy is still in business, and the city prides itself with its handball team, rum, beer, and other northern delecacies. But this 70-year old scar still remains, even if the city survived almost entirely unscathed by the war.  Time always has a way of healing, yet memories still remain, even on this day, when Dönitz and his men were arrested for their crimes, of holding the city (and in particular, one of the suburbs) hostage despite the war being over, and were brought to justice. This, in my eyes, was the real end of the European theater of World War II, and with that, a chapter in history we must never repeat again, period.

 

Note: Check out this documentary on the Flensburg Fiasco in German, as reported by SHZ, here. It was the last of the series written on the 70th anniversary of the End of World War II. A guide to earlier articles you find on the SHZ web, here.

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Christmas Market Tour 2013: Berlin- Gendarmemarkt

Located two blocks south of Unter den Linden at the square surrounded by Französische Strasse, Mohrenstrasse, Charlottenstrasse and Markgrafenstrasse, the Gendarmenmarkt is one of the most popular of market squares in Berlin-Mitte, and a symbol of the German-French Friendship. It features a concert hall, built in 1821 and which houses the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, and is flanked by two different cathedrals on each side. On the right features the French Cathedral, built in 1705 and now houses the Huguenot Museum. On the left, the German cathedral, built five years later and now houses the Museum of German History. At the center of the market stands a statue of one of the greatest German poets of all time, Friedrich Schiller. The place is where music comes to life and given its proximity in the French Quarter, one will see signs of a French-German relationship which has withstood the test of time and remains strong to this day.

This is why the market, named after the French regiment Gen d’Armes which was stationed at this site until 1773, is a really popular attraction for people passing through. And when Christmas time comes around, the market becomes an attractive beacon, luring people into the site filled with rows of white canopy tents topped with a yellow star each. When you pay one Euro to enter the market, one will have a taste of French delicatessen in the form of apple chips, cheese products and other French entrées, as well as other international dishes from regions in Europe, while being awed by some classical music and dancing by several local artists and groups. Most of these concerts take place in front of the steps leading to the Concert Hall and people can stop by and stay as long as they please. And this is in addition to the concerts that are held inside the building itself, which makes it an even more attractive destination for music lovers.  Yet at night, it is even more attractive as the Concert Hall and the two Cathedrals are lit up with various arrays of colors, which makes it a very attractive site for photography, especially for those who happen to stop by at this spot after spending time at the Opernpalais, which is 300 meters away.

The idea of charging for entry to the market is a rather smart choice. One has to look at the fact that the Gendarmenmarkt is one of the smallest of the Christmas markets in Berlin. taking up only two thirds of the space that is offered at the square in general. Leaving it open for people to enter and go as they please would have resulted in the tents being trampled and the people selling goods being overwhelmed. So in a way, a fee would not only stem the flow of people visiting the market, but provide more income for the market and its vendors. Yet a substantial portion of the money raked in from sales and fees goes to charity, as the organizers are engaged in projects benefiting the poor and disadvantaged living in Berlin. With a 10% unemployment rate and half of them being homeless, Berlin is in the top three of all the states and city-states in Germany, competing with Mecklenburg-Pommerania and the city-state of Bremen. Yet they are going out of their way to make sure everyone gets a chance to learn and develop, especially the children of those affected by poverty. Some examples of how the market is helping these children can be found here.  Given the problems Germany still has with poverty, problems with the education system and the inflexibility of the job market in hiring people, such measures can go a long way to ensuring that people can succeed.  But if that is not sufficient enough, one can look at the advantages of charging fees to enter a Christmas market as a way of controlling the crowd of people entering. especially at night, when things can get out of hand because of too much alcohol consumption. Can you think of a Christmas market that has this scheme or should have one, and if so, why?

I would like to end this entry with a bang! That’s right, the Gendarmenmarkt will end its 11th annual run with a concert and fireworks on New Year’s Eve with a celebration at the market place. Up until 1am in the New Year, people can celebrate, watch fireworks and sing along as the market comes to a close. A fitting way to end it for this rather small but very popular market, that is until next year, when it opens again in November.

More about the Christmas market here can be found via photos (here) and facts (here and here)

Single and Businessman Bahn: No Children Allowed!

ICE Train on the Berlin-Munich route at the Saale River Bridge near Grossheringen (Thuringia)- Photo taken in June 2011

 

 

 

 

After getting bombarded with non-column-related commitments in the last weeks (which explains my reason for my absence from the Flensburg Files) and almost losing it in the entire process, I decided to flee the world of academia and all the proliterian politics that went along with that and spend my Pentecost weekend at the Baltic Sea again, this time in the northeast corner of Germany on the island of Usedom, where I was able to enjoy a good dip in the water and a good bake in the sun for the entire time I was there, no matter where I went.

Going roundtrip by train to this destination was a bit of a challenge, though. While I had to put up with crowded people going north to my destination, feeling scrunched after being surrounded by women sitting across from and next to me on the first leg going from Erfurt to Berlin via Halle and a bit displaced sitting in the supposedly good carriage provided by the Deutsche Bahn on the EuroCity to Züssow (where I got off to board my train to Usedom), even though the Czechs provided more luxurious and sexier coaches and food, going back to Erfurt was an experience not worth forgetting, but worth writing about.

On the stretch from Berlin heading south via ICE, I saw an incident which if one has a child like I do, one can relate to it. In the children’s compartment of the train, which was a small room about 4m long and only 1 meter wide, a mother with a 2 ½ year-old daughter were boarding the train and wanted to move the baby carriage to the Bord Restaurant, which was next door, as there was some free space there and the little one wanted to play around in the child compartment. The ticket personnel, who saw this, ordered the mother to bring the carriage back into the compartment claiming that it was not allowed to park it in the Bord Restaurant and that there was enough space to store it- IN THE CHILDREN’S COMPARTMENT!  Why do I have the last ones in capital letters? Well, to elaborate more about the children’s compartment further, I should provide you with a further but brief description so that you have an idea what I’m talking about:

  1. Over half the space in the children’s compartment consisted of seating, which is almost impossible to reserve in advance- unless you book half a year in advance; almost like booking your plane ticket for a Trans-Atlantic flight.
  2. There was limited possibilities for children to play with their toys, let alone use the playground equipment provided on the train- there was one rocking horse and a puzzle board, whose pictures were missing. By the way, one should mention that it was made by a very popular puzzle company named Ravensburger.
  3. Most irritating was the fact that the armrest was all made of wood and NOT padded. That combined with the fact that the seat was right next to the rocking horse, it provided less space for the child to move around and more risk of a child bumping his/her head against the armrest, even if it is adjusted.

It was at this point that I concluded that the German railways should change its name from the Deutsche Bahn to the Single and Businessman Bahn (SBB) for its lack of sensitivity to the increasing needs of families with children. While one cannot use SBB, as it has been taken by the Swiss, they and some of the neighboring countries have done much better in terms of accommodating the needs of families.  Since the German government has introduced incentives to encourage parents to have children in 2006- by providing more financial incentives for mothers to stay at home to care for their children for 2-3 years as well as allowing fathers to stay home while the mother is working- the birth rate in Germany has increased in the last three years to its current rate of 8.3 out of 1000, up from its lowest rate in history in 2009 at 8.18 per 1000. While that puts the country still near the bottom of the rankings (the USA has a birth rate of 13 for every 1000, ranking it at 153rd), it does not reflect on the difference in regions where the baby boom is taking place. In the eastern and northern parts of Germany, the rates are much higher than those in the western part. Aware of the fact that the German population is slowly dying off (with one statistic from 2006 claiming that this far-fetched prediction will happen in 2080), there has been an attempt to try and increase the birth rate to offset the aging population.

Yet still, when looking at the current situation and the ICE incident as an example, it shows that Germany is not ready for change and more so for encouraging families to have children, despite initiatives by the government. For instance, jobs are going to regions in the western part of the countries, in places like Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart, and the Ruhr Region (where Cologne, Duesseldorf and Dortmund are located), where housing is scarce and expensive and the environment is child-unfriendly. More women are choosing a career over children, fearing that maternity leave would mean being a stay-at-home mom forever.  And when it comes to even the tiniest conveniences, like travelling by train for example, Germany falls flat on its face, although the country does a very good job in providing as much green as possible for children to go out and play, such as parks and other natural places along certain bodies of water.

It is logical that a train should not be converted into a jungle gym for children. But by the same token, more space for families with children is needed; especially on long trips when children become bored and ancy to a point where they do not sit still in the end. Children should be allowed to walk around and play with other children while they endure many hours of travelling. In order to do that, I do have a few suggestions that might be useful:

  1. Replace the wooden armrests with those made of cloth for more protection against head injuries

  2. Fewer seats and more space in the children’s compartment of all ICE trains, while at the same time,

  3. Add another compartment in the ICE train making each one have two of them

  4. Provide more space for baby carriages so that the children’s compartment is not used as a parking lot

  5. Empower the families to ensure that the train crew keep to the rules and respect the wishes for more space for the children.

The problem with these plans is the fact that many of these trains will be replaced with the new InterCity trains, which will be larger, with half of them being double-decked. The first ones will be rolling out by 2013. Other ICE models, like the one in the picture above will be modernized to prolong its service life even more. Whether these suggestions will be considered remains to be seen. But it is a foregone conclusion that should the Deutsche Bahn continue with its current policies, then families will resort to the last form of transportation that is really expensive (because of gas prices), which is the car. Then the DB can change its name to SBB, for after all, most of the passengers are either single, a couple with no children, or businessmen who love to travel in comfort. This will make neighboring countries shake their heads; especially the Danes in the north, as their trains are more spacious and more child-friendly than that of the Bahn. Perhaps a trip with their trains to Copenhagen and points to the north and east will testify to that argument. If not convincing enough. then I’m sure the French, Swiss, and even the Englishmen can help in that department.

 

Now that I’m finished bashing the Bahn, it’s now time for some rum……

 

Some useful links:

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,3804991,00.html

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,4527195,00.html

http://www.indexmundi.com/germany/birth_rate.html