Germany is often lauded as an economic powerhouse. I often encounter foreigners who have an almost comical perception of Germany. They praise German engineering, Germany’s leading role in European politics, the (currently) very low level of unemployment, and sometimes even stereotypically German character traits, such as being conscientious, hard-working, reliable, and punctual. Reality is a bit different, however. I have been raised in Germany. Although I no longer live in Germany, I visit quite frequently, either for professional or personal reasons. The view from outside certainly helps me see how rotten a country it is.
As a primer on many of Germany’s issues, I recommend reading Oliver Nachtwey’s book Germany’s Hidden Crisis: Social Decline in the Heart of Europe (2018). Nachtwey is a German political scientist working at a Swiss university. He is a lefty, which is quite obvious when you read his book. (Its publisher, Verso, is furthermore known for its output of leftist, radical leftist, and “anti-fascist” catalogue.) References to leftist icons such as Marx, Adorno, Habermas, Piketty, and others abound. Yet, there is some very good content in it. In particular, I liked his breakneck coverage of the German economy, starting after World War II. He is certainly right that the intermittent economic book in postwar Germany had the effect that there was intergenerational societal advancement. In other words, the son of a carpenter had the opportunity to do to university and have a rewarding career in industry or public administration.
Fast-forward to the present day, we witness that the working world has gotten a lot worse for most people: the middle class is shrinking, government jobs are harder to get, competition for good jobs has gotten fierce. Privatization or public-private partnerships turned once lucrative jobs into much more precarious ones. What is worse, the once rather lavish welfare system has been cut back significantly. Downward mobility, as sociologists call it, is now more and more common. If you lose your job and can’t find a new one soon enough, you’ll quickly find yourself in the bottom rungs of society.
Change is coming, though. Nachtwey glorifies the amorphous lefty Occupy movement. I have visited some Occupy camps back then. What I saw was a bunch of parasites and vandals. Yet, for Nachtwey those protesters voiced legitimate concerns and raised awareness of the dangers of downward mobility. On the other hand, the conservative to right-leaning Pegida movement as well as the centrist party Alternative for Germany engage in promoting “irrational fears.” Nachtwey mocks them, claiming that their concerns are unjustified and unjustifiable. The nadir of Germany’s Hidden Crisis is when he, essentially, writes that people who are critical of Islam and mass immigration are deluded. He speaks of the “pathological belief in objectively false statements” (p. 201), referring to surveys according to which people believe that the proportion of muslims in Germany is 19%, when it is “only 6%. ” A much saner interpretation would be that there are significant problems with muslims when a minority of 6% is so visible that people believe they already amount to a fifth of the population. Indeed, if you visit any larger German city, you may feel as if you are in a minority. (I certainly felt this way on my last trip to Frankfurt/Main.).
While Nachtwey extensively refers to existing literature, he gets some basic facts wrong. For instance, he claims that Germany heavily benefited from “guest workers” from Turkey, who were sent home afterwards. What is true, though, is that those guest workers were never necessary and were only invited to Germany as some kind of a political concession to the government of their home country. Also, those people rarely, if ever, left. Three generations later, their descendants still underperform in the German school system and cause societal problem. On that note, in one of the leaked emails of leading Democrats surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Podesta stated that the Turks of Germany are rather similar to “our blacks.” This is just to put things into perspective. Turks are a big problem in Germany, and they are here to stay, quite obviously.
Another issue I have with Nachtwey’s book is that his analysis is very lop-sided. You could also call it myopic. He speaks of the problem that education is no longer a golden ticket to professional success. Yet, het does not point out that this issue largely afflicts people with degrees in the humanities, which, by far, outnumber STEM-degree holders. That being said, it is true that job security is a lot harder to come by and that academic degrees have been devalued. That is the result of leftist politics, a fact that Nachtwey does not dare to spell out.
The author also seems to downplay the role of automation, writing that even in the 1970s there were claims that we would run out of work, which he claims were misguided. Similarly, he believes that breakthroughs in machine learning won’t affect the labor market too much. Well, it seems he has not read his statistics properly, because from the 1970s onward mass unemployment has been a commonplace phenomenon in the West. Governments tackled this in many ways. Some governments suddenly chose to count the unemployed differently, using welfare and disability as cover-ups. I also have the impression that the expansion of higher education was primarily motivated by lowering unemployment numbers. Instead of sending people on the dole, we put them in degree programs that place few demands on them. I am rather baffled that Nachtwey seems oblivious of this, considering that it used to be the case that students in Germany spent most of their 20s at university. Nobody was overly concerned if it took you seven or eight years to get a degree. Nachtwey must have met countless such people when he was a student or a junior academic.
What I also miss is a discussion of the effect of the academic brain drain Germany has been suffering from. For over ten years now, there has been an outflow of the highly-educated. “Doctors and engineers” from Africa and the Middle East have been taking their place. As the saying nowadays goes, for German engineering you have to go to Switzerland — because that’s where many German engineers ended up. Others go to Austria, the Netherlands, the UK, Scandinavia, or the United States. The reason for that is the staggering high tax burden in Germany.
Indeed, the high tax burden leads to the more ambitious kissing Germany goodbye. That fact is not acknowledged at all, which is little surprise since lefty Nachtwey laments that there is not enough money for “redistribution, infrastructure, and so on” (p. 69). Note the order of the parts of this triad! That is the problem with the left. They are so obsessed with taking from the “rich” that they ignore that the better off tend to be better off because they work harder, and they can also pack up and move somewhere else, like I have done, and many of my friends, who thought that they are getting a raw deal in Germany.
Despite what you may view as rather harsh criticism, I recommend Germany’s Hidden Crisis: Social Decline in the Heart of Europe. I don’t agree with all of it. In fact, I disagree with quite a bit of the material. Yet, it was a quick and engaging read, marred by translation issues. Neither Nachtwey nor his two translators are native speakers, or fully fluent in English. You can still make it through the book. Quite a few sentences are rather awkwardly phrased, however, and some words mistranslated. Well, Germany used to be known for its excellent engineers. Its academics, on the other hand, were never known for their ability to express themselves fluently in English.
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