what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Friday, May 31, 2013

Interest in the German model

This blog has referred several times to ‘the Scandinavian model’ of society and government (or “governance” in modern parlance) but it had failed to pick up the growing interest of the British “chattering classes” in ‘the German model’. More than a year ago, one of the British Think Tanks was drawn to observe that -
at some point in every generation, British policymakers look in envy and awe at the German economy. It last happened in the early 1990s, when the UK was recovering from the post-Lawson bust and the ignominy of forced exit from the exchange rate mechanism. Will Hutton’s The State We’re In captured the zeitgeist of this era brilliantly: a time when the Rhineland social market economy appeared to offer a stronger and fairer variety of capitalism than its rapacious, unequal and structurally weak Anglo-Saxon competitor.
The tables turned as the 1990s wore on. Anglo-Saxon economies boomed and created jobs while the German economy got stuck in low growth and high unemployment. Gerhard Schroeder talked about the ‘Neue Mitte’, in conscious emulation of the Clinton–Blair ‘third way’. Germany embarked on difficult structural reform of its labour market and held down real wages as it entered the euro.
The pendulum has swung back and the German model is now in vogue again. The TUC produced in early 2012 a detailed report on the lessons of Germany’s manufacturing strength, attributing its export prowess to deep institutional foundations in its social partnerships, apprenticeships and industrial strategies. Maurice Glasman regularly sings hymns of praise to Germany’s regional banks, vocational traditions (implanted, he argues, by Ernie Bevin after the second world war), and the fact that workers share fully in company decision-making. Meanwhile, shadow business secretary Chuka Ummuna has recently been on a study tour of Germany to mug up on how it achieves a more patient, responsible and resilient capitalism.
Germany’s appeal is not difficult to understand. Its famous Mittelstand of medium-sized family companies that export all over the world has long been admired. It has a superb apprenticeship system and huge investments in both physical and human capital. Its industrial social partnerships have proved a source of durability and strength in the era of globalised markets, not a weakness. Recently it has coupled an expanding service sector to its historic industrial pre-eminence.
What has attracted most attention recently, however, is its employment performance. Germany’s unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis struck, while in most of the rest of the OECD it remains high or rising. This is a huge turnaround from the position Germany was in barely half a dozen years ago.
I have always felt at home in Germany - my father was one of a few Scottish pastors who developed a “Reconciliation” mission in the post-war period there – focussing on Detmold, Heiligenkirchen and Bad Meinberg areas in Nord-Rhein Westphalia. He took us with him on at least one trip there in the mid 1950s and it is to this I owe my (mainland) European orientation and (in all probability) the direction my life has taken in the past 20 years in central Europe and Central Asia.

One of my fond family memories is of my father is his wading through the various parts of the weekend Die Zeit newspaper - printed on special thin but glossy paper - which was flown over to him. Not surprisingly I excelled at German and French at school - and started out on a language degree at University (which I changed half-way through to an Economics and Politics one)
In 1961 I ventured to a Polish student work-camp – via Berlin – and will never forget the sight from the train of a still-bombed out Wroclaw.
The next year I spent some weeks at a summer school at Gottingen University – where I was introduced to the post-war stories of Heinrich Boll
In 1964 I spent 2 months living and working in Berlin (thanks to the student economic association AISEC) where I encountered for the first time the fervour of an old Nazi – the mother of my girlfriend of the time.
And, as a regional politician, I visited the country several times in the 1980s becoming very aware of how civilised the coverage of German politics seemed to be compared with Britain and envious of the role and status of German regional politicians in national policy-making.

Such a federal system was, of course, the post-war creation of the Anglo-Americans - building on the older system of Laender. And the worker representation embodied in the cooperative system of Mitbestimmung was very much a British element. But the wider aspects of the "social market" (as clearly set out in chapter five of this book) and to be seen in the industrial role played by the state-owned regional banks; in the strength of the training system; in the constant emphasis given to savings were very German; and embodied in their neglected concept of "ordoliberalism" is specifically German. The role of social insurance in the funding of the health system (and of the churches in the management of schooling) are yet more examples of how pluralistic the German system is.
For those wanting something deeper on the subject of the German model - see the recent article on Ideas, institutions and organised capitalism

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The neglect of Germany

Despite the role and significance of Germany over the past century and in present times, any visitor to that country who wanted a good book on the country had, until recently, a stark choice – heavy academic histories or the Rough Guide. The 600 page Germany and the Germans which John Ardagh produced in the mid 1980s sadly went out of print after its final edition of 1995. In 2010, however, two large and serious books appeared - Peter Watson’s blockbuster - German Genius which is reviewed here and here
Watson has not simply written a survey of the German intellect from Goethe to Botho Strauss – nothing so dilettantist. In the course of nearly 1,000 pages, he covers German idealism, porcelain, the symphony, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, telegraphy, homeopathy, strategy, Sanskrit, colour theory, the Nazarenes, universities, Hegel, jurisprudence, the conservation of energy, the Biedermeyer, entropy, fractals, dyestuffs, the PhD, heroin, automobiles, the unconscious, the cannon, the Altar of Pergamon, sociology, militarism, the waltz, anti-semitism, continental drift, quantum theory and serial music.
The second book was Simon Winder’s Germania– a personal history of Germans Ancient and Modern which I referred to at the end of a blog last year but did not find an easy book to persevere with – by virtue of its idiosyncratic approach. I’ve drawn on some of the Amazon reviews to give a sense of its key features.
It’s the history of Germany in the broadest sense of that name - starting with the residue of the Roman Empire and ending with the founding of the Third Empire in 1933 when the author can't bear to continue. It encompasses cities from Brussels to Gdansk to Milan and all the way down the Danube, allowing the author to potter around old castles and cathedrals to his heart's content.A higgledy-piggledy mixture of more or less independent duchies, principalities and bishoprics coalesced slowly into modern states (plural - Winder uses Germania for Austria and Germany, and doesn't hesitate to visit other countries nearby). History as folly, incompetence and grudge; the author dismisses his own work as anecdotal facetiousness but it's far better than that. A flavour - "a slice through any given month in Germany's history turns up a staggering array of rulers: a discredited soldier, a pious archbishop, a sickly boy and his throne-grabbing regent, and a half-demented miser obsessed with alchemy".
This book is a travelogue (in the Bill Bryson style) fused with a cultural and political history of Germany. If you're looking for only one or the other, you will be disappointed. But if you just want to find out about Germany, and are ready to accept a few idiosyncrasies of style along the way, you'll love this book.
Neither book, however, deals with contemporary Germany - that's why the 1995 John Ardagh book is sorely missed, with its explanation of such important aspects of German life as federalism and the social market. The only bit of writing which I can unreservedly recommend about contemporary Germany is the long article on Germany written a few years ago by Perry Andersen.

Winder's focus on history gives some good insights:
  • The role the earliest centuries and the Middle Ages play in the imagination of the Germans in all sorts of ways; and how much medieval architecture remains in Germany
  • Why the Holy Roman Emperors, with no proper capital before 1533 when Vienna was declared the capital city of the Habsburgs, never managed to overcome the extraordinary fragmentation of Germany in the way in which the English and the French managed it many centuries earlier. There are delightful vignettes of the courts of tiny principalities, often presided over by dotty or self-indulgent rulers. Due to the frequent absence of primogeniture, many of them had hyphenated names, like Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg which provided the wife for Edward VII: the more hyphenated, the tinier they were.
  • How weak Prussia was between the end of the reign of Frederick the Great in 1786 and Bismarck's Danish War of 1864. Winder asserts that "Frederick's actions DID NOT LEAD (his italics) to Bismarck's empire." Winder doesn't think much of Frederick's achievements, but admires Maria Theresa and her "adorable", "fun" husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I.
  • And after all the tomes that have been written about the Prussian - later German - armies, it is interesting to see Winder rather debunking their achievements "outside the delusive little seven year period [covering the Danish, Austrian and French wars between 1864 and 1871]". He also debunks the German navy. He lays into some conventional views about the run-up to and course of the First World War with a zest reminiscent of A.J.P.Taylor. He makes a case for saying that Germany between 1871 and 1914 was militarily less aggressive than Russia  Britain, France or Italy during the same period. He sees the French as the main trouble-makers in Europe from Louis XIV onwards. But then he had decided from the start that his book would "bale out" in 1933. (He does not completely manage that: reference to the Nazi period are dotted throughout the book.) He told us at the beginning that he wanted us to look at pre-1933 Germany free from the hostile mind-set which has been created by the two World Wars, and which had been quite absent from Britain for almost the whole of the 19th century. For him there was no German "Sonderweg": for him "Germany in 1914 had been a normal country, espousing much of the same racism, military posturing, and taste for ugly public buildings that bedevilled the rest of the Continent."
  • This is more of an impressionist account, though, like an impressionist painting, consisting of many brilliant and highly coloured individual brush strokes. It is basically, but not always chronological; and it is interspersed with digressions and bits of autobiography which increase in length as the book proceeds. Winder is having fun: "fun" used as an adjective occurs frequently in the book, which is light-hearted, often hilarious, discursive, never short of an opinion and indeed sometimes opinionated and over-the-top: he calls Weber's book on the Protestant Ethic "famously idiotic"; Napoleon III is rebuked for his "sheer childishness"; the word "mad" occurs with a somewhat maddening frequency; he describes the successor states of the Habsburg Empire as "a mass of poisonous micro-states". It is also quite serious, in many ways insightful, cultured, affectionate but also critical, and fantastically knowledgeable.
The book certainly has made me (and others- it has 100 reviews on the Amazon site) think. It has more than 100 bibliographical references and, significantly, half are literary or cultural.  
As it’s a public holiday in this part of Germany (the fourth this month – it’s Corpus Christi for Catholics and several hundred parishioners have just passed by with a brass band under my balcony) my internet is working very well even mid-morning and I’ve been able to surf the internet for articles about Germany. I was quickly rewarded with a book about the country written by an American whose German family background in Pennsylvania led him to a European trip in the 1970s which led to a 14-year stay in Germany and the research which led to the production in 2000 of the book Germany – Unravelling an Enigma which seems to focus on aspects of social behaviour and explanations of the social market. 
I will read it with interest and perhaps share some of its sections with you…

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Stunde Null

When you're in the centre of Koln, you don't need much of an imagination  to sense what life was like here in the dying days of the war. The place has been completely rebuilt - such was the scale of the bombing. In the first week of my occupancy of the flat I have taken in a pleasant Koln suburb, television had black-grained images of American troops edging in March 1945 into the rubble of the the outskirts and centres of Bonn and Koln. And these continue to be shown - although May 9 is well past. Postcards with scenes of this rubble and destruction are also prominently on display in the city centre's kiosks.
In 1961 I spent a few summer weeks on a German course at Gottingen University – where my core text was Heinrich Boll’s Der Zug Kam Punktlich which described powerfully but laconically the journey to the eastern front of a German soldier in 1943 or so who knew he would meet his death and simply wondered which of the station names which flashed by would be his resting place.
Boll's bleak post-1945 novels made a big impact on me and it was therefore with a sense of serendipity that I picked up for free at some bookcases near my Clinic his The Silent Angel .
Heinrich Böll's The Silent Angel was one of only a handful of postwar novels that depicted the aftermath of intensive carpet bombing of Germany in the second world war. Though written early in Böll's career, the novel was not published in his lifetime due to the subject matter that was perceived by his publisher as unpalatable to the German public. Isn't it inappropriate to dwell on a topic that brings home the very episodes one wanted to forget? After so much destruction and suffering, is it not perhaps best to move on to cheery stories?
Böll described the wasteland of war-torn Germany right after the end of the bombings. Amid this tortured landscape the characters moved like zombies, traumatized by their experiences and haunted by relentless hunger. The lack of food and shelter consigned the majority of the citizens to the status of refugees. They lived only to survive hunger, scrounging for the rare bread and provisions that came at high prices.
At the start of the novel, Hans, a German soldier who lacked proper identification, stumbled into a hospital and was offered a bread loaf by a nun working there. The reader was given a first taste of the novel's subject.
Quickly he broke off a large piece of the bread. His chin trembled and he felt the muscles of his mouth and jaws twitch. Then he buried his teeth in the soft, uneven place where the bread had been broken, and bit in. The loaf was old, at least four or five days old, perhaps even older, plain brown bread bearing some bakery's red paper label; but it tasted so sweet. He bit in even more deeply, taking the leathery, brown crust into his mouth as well; then he seized the loaf in his hands and tore off a new piece. While he ate with his right hand he held the loaf fast in his left, as if someone might come and try to take it from him, and he saw his hand lying on the bread, thin and dirty, with a deep scratch that was soiled and scabbed
Physical hunger and destroyed landscapes of the city inhabit the tissues of the novel. Hunger (and destruction) was so pervasive as to go beyond the realm of the physical. It crossed the threshold of the characters' physical state, to become the hunger of their souls, the debilitating poverty of spirit. It became the very fires in their belly that drove them to resist that very same hunger.
Böll was able to illuminate a time that was barely recorded, even consciously avoided, according to Sebald—erased from memory, sanitized and repressed by German writers. It was not a popular subject but it was necessary to keep a record of destruction of cities and its effects on men and women. Sebald found in The Silent Angel not only an important subject but a quality of writing that he felt approached the gravity of the subject.
Sebald's essay ["Air War and Literature"] takes to task the postwar German writers for failing to record the destruction wrought by wars. For Sebald, the books of Ledig, as well as that of Heinrich Böll and Peter Weiss, among others, are a rare exception to this apparent defect in the German letters. Sebald champions the kind of novels that speak plainly and precisely, and with unpretentious objectivity, as opposed to novels full of "aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects." He favors the concrete and documentary style of writing over the abstract and imaginary. For Sebald, accounts of suffering must be commensurate to the magnitude of the human loss; these are the kind of novels worth writing about in the face of total destruction.
In The Silent Angel, the imaginary was given up in favor of the imaginative.
The curtains had been pulled open, and in the large, black window frames stood the fantasylike image of the ruins: smoke-blackened flanks of buildings, cracked gables that seemed about to fall—overgrown mounds that had been ripped apart a second time, leaving only a few spots where the green was mossy and peaceful. . . . (91-92)
The above passage described the image of the ruins as "fantasylike" but the real view of destruction made the image un-fantasylike. The qualification of the smoke-blackened, cracked, overgrown, andripped objects could not deny the direct harms inflicted to the people on the ground.
Likewise, Böll's similes and imagery were purposefully constructed. An open piano in a corner "stood like a monster with a thousand false teeth" (39). In a particular ruin could be seen "only naked destruction, desolate and terribly empty, as if the breath of the bomb still hung in the air" (86). That lingering "breath of the bomb" was sufficient to convey the utter "nakedness" of the damage.
A most powerful description of destruction was that of the silent statues in a church.   
His gaze remained below: the altar was buried in debris, the choir stalls had been toppled by the blast. He saw their broad brown backs inclined in what seemed sarcastic prayer. The lower rank of saints on the columns showed gaps as well: abraded torsos and flayed stone, hideous in its mutilation and painfully deformed, as if it once had been alive. He was struck by the demonic grotesqueness. A few faces grimaced like furious cripples because they lacked an ear or a chin, or because strange cracks deformed them; others were headless, and the stone stumps of their necks thrust up horribly from their bodies. Equally disturbing were those who lacked hands. They almost seemed to bleed, silently imploring, and a baroque plaster statue was oddly split, almost cracked like an egg: the pale plaster face of the saint was undamaged, the narrow, melancholy face of a Jesuit, but its chest and belly were ripped open. The plaster had trickled down—it lay in whitish flakes at the base of the figure—and from the dark hollow of the belly straw spilled forth, saturated with hardened plaster. (119-120)
This posthumous horror was probably one of the most indirect and one of the most graphic descriptions of the aftermath of a night of "successful" bombing run a reader will encounter in fiction.
Despite the depressing, vivid images in the novel, the reader could not fail to detect the deep sense of the novelist's humanity. He did not reduce his characters to virtual zombies. Instead, the novelist kept intact their human strengths and failings. Amid the the piles of debris in the city, the white powder chalk and plaster, signs of renewal of vegetation started to shoot up from the ground. From these bleak surroundings, Böll's beautiful prose was able to yield a comforting quality of tenderness. The words had lightness and softness, like sweet bread. It was not really all black smoke and white dust: 
He stood up, walked quietly over to the door, and opened it cautiously. Light was coming from the kitchen. The old, blue coat that she had draped over the windowpane let large, yellow beams of light in through its tattered holes, and the rays fell onto the debris in the hall: the axe blade gleamed somewhere and he saw the dark logs, their split surfaces glowing yellowly. He approached slowly and now he could see her. He realized he'd never seen her like this before. She was lying on the couch with her legs drawn up, wrapped in a large, red blanket, reading. He saw her from behind. Her long, damply shining hair seemed darker, tinged with red; it fell across the arm of the couch. A lamp stood beside her, and the stove was lit. A pack of cigarettes lay on the table, together with a jar of marmalade, a loaf of bread that had been cut into, and beside it the knife with its loose, black handle. . . . (130-131) The colours and sheen (blue, yellow, gleamed, dark, glowing yellow, red, damply shining, darker, tinged with red, black) were so lovingly spread over this description of domestic setting and minutiae (coat, windowpane, axe blade, logs, couch, blanket, "book", hair, lamp, stove, cigarettes, marmalade, bread, knife handle) as to drum up the characters' expectations of a return to peaceful, normal circumstances. There was a flicker of love in that passage, a sense that all was not lost. The sense that hunger (physical, spiritual) does not go unfulfilled. The intermittent pangs of hunger only served as their amulet.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The torture of choice

For the past decade I haven’t been able to decide where to live – a condition the Germans call “Die Qual der Wahl”, the torture of choice.
I’ve lived in more than ten countries since I left Scotland in 1990. Since leaving Kyrgzstan in 2007 I seem to have settled down – dividing my time between Bulgaria (where I had a couple of projects); Transylvania (where I have a mountain house); and Bucharest where I have access to a very small flat. But I need a flat in a city I enjoy – with proper space for my paintings and artefacts. And time is running out!

Scotland is ruled out for its weather; I tried the French (or rather Brittany) rural market briefly (in 2010) but realised that, much as I love the French language and culture, I did not need another rural place. I then considered, for their cultural treasures, Brussels and Vienna - but they are too pricey. At the moment I find Sofia the best location (I currently rent a place there); but have, for the past month, been in Koln – receiving medical treatment which is scheduled to finish in mid-July. Occassionally I have wondered about Germany as a place to retire to...
Much as I appreciate German culture and society, my experience so far would not suggest this as an option. It is simply too expensive (although I notice that property in many parts of Germany can still be bought at reasonable prices); the shopping experiences are too bland; and the Rheinland anyway far too cold and damp. I miss my Balkan vegetables and warmth! Little wonder that so many sunbed and physiotherapy services are on offer here!
Of course I am impressed with the neatness of residential areas (so much "touching up" going on); the profusion of greenery; the politeness; the cycling; the regularity and cleanliness of public transport; and the sheer number of old people who use it. But I resent the charges the museums and galleries make – 10 euros, for example, to access Koln’s permanent exhibition of the Expressionists. So my only taste of culture so far has been the great Kathe Kollwitz museum at Neumarkt. It was 1964 when I first came across Kollwitz (1867-1945) - and Georg Grosz - when I lived for a short time in Berlin. Both were a great inspiration for the Bulgarian graphic artists of the first half of the century - the piece which fronts this post is one of the series she did on the Peasants' Revolt.

The Wine festival which has been occupying Neumarkt for the past 2 weeks is, quite frankly, pathetic – with 2.50 euros being charged for 0.15 millitre glasses. What a contrast with the 10 euros 2-day ticket I bought for the Sofia wine-tasting in October when I could fill my face!
The german property market is supposed to be more sensible than (say) the British - but I was still disappointed to find that the cheapest flats I could rent here are 60 euros a night (although that does reflect reasonably the higher cost of living compared, for example, with Sofia where I pay one eighth of that; such proportionality is not the case for food!) .
And internet connections seem to be very slow - one of several reasons why I have not been posting recently.