BERLIN – It’s state election season in Berlin. Canvassers stand outside U-Bahn stations, stuffing leaflets into the hands of annoyed commuters ahead of the vote on 12 February. Campaign posters are affixed to lamp posts across the city, airbrushed faces on multi-coloured backgrounds smiling down on passers-by like municipal guardian angels.
Except this election was already held in September 2021. But the vote was so incompetently organised, with so many irregularities – mainly because the Berlin marathon was held on the same day, overwhelming state officials – that a court ordered the capital to rerun the vote a year and a half later.
Welcome to the real Germany. Brits too often perceive their Teutonic neighbour as an efficient, no-nonsense powerhouse. Whether as the leader of the free world or the cheerleader of a tired globalist model that has had its day, the British see Germany as a country where things get done, for better or worse. But the reality is that this is a land of staggering incompetence and bureaucratic inertia – with consequences far beyond Germany’s borders.
Inefficiency affects every aspect of daily life. Take the housing market. The under-supply of housing in many cities combined with strong tenants’ rights means that people tend to stay in their flats for years. As a result, newcomers are locked out of the official housing market even if they can afford the rent, and are instead forced into bouncing from illegal sublet to illegal sublet for years on end. (My own game of whac-a-mole lasted two years and four sublets.)
Without an official rental contract, tenants cannot perform a bureaucratic procedure known as the Anmeldung (registration). The Anmeldung is usually required for tasks as varied as receiving a tax ID (which you need to get a job) to opening a bank account (which you need to pay rent). And without a job or a bank account, signing an official contract for a flat is virtually impossible. My voting papers for the local elections were delivered to the address of a friend who took pity on me after a year and a half without an Anmeldung and registered me at his flat, which I have never lived at. Kafka may have lived in Prague but it’s obvious why he wrote in German.
Baffling contradictions define the national character. Germans are obsessed with fresh air (frische Luft), to the point that many rental contracts require tenants to air out their properties daily. But incredibly, there is no national smoking ban in Germany, nor any plans to introduce one. Most bars allow smoking inside, even in the most confined spaces, meaning evenings out almost invariably end with my eyes stinging and hair stinking of smoke.
Only three of 16 German states ban smoking in bars. Unsurprisingly, these lax laws result in high smoking rates. Twenty-two per cent of the German population report smoking every day, the fourth-highest number in the EU, in an otherwise health-minded nation obsessed with organic agriculture and wholegrain bread.
The contradictions don’t stop there. Germany has one of the strongest environmentalist movements in the world. The Green party is a member of the governing coalition. But that same government is sticking to its plans to phase out zero-carbon nuclear energy even if it means burning more coal. Because Germans regard speed limits as a human rights abuse, Germany is the only European country without a maximum speed on motorways. Vehicles driving at 220 kilometres an hour (130 miles per hour) on the Autobahn are commonplace. Data from Germany’s Federal Environment Agency (UBA) showed that a motorway speed limit of 120km/h (75mph) could cut total CO2 emissions from passenger cars and light commercial vehicles by about 6.7 million tonnes annually – or roughly as much as El Salvador emits in a year.
At the root of Germany’s idiosyncrasies is its political system. A prominent example of British envy of this system was John Kampfner’s 2020 book Why the Germans Do it Better. Kampfner effusively praised Germany’s political culture, which prioritises “stability” and “consensus”, writing that “German governments look as much as possible for buy-in to all major policies.”
But another word for consensus is groupthink. Stability can bleed into complacency. Germany’s catastrophic decision to make itself dependent on Russian energy is a case in point. All major parties bear their share of responsibility. The former chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats championed the construction of the Nord Stream pipelines; the current chancellor Olaf Scholz’s SPD was in government with Merkel; the Greens preferred burning Russian gas to coal and nuclear. None of them acted on warnings from allies that making the German economy reliant on Moscow would backfire.
After a year of scrambling to replace imports from Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, the federal government now loudly touts that it is “independent” of Russian energy. It rarely mentions that it was Moscow that turned off the gas, not Berlin that stopped buying it.
Even Germany’s famed “memory culture” is not quite as some admiring foreigners may present it. Germany has loudly proclaimed “never again” for decades. But when faced with a near-fascist aggressor invading a neighbour, Berlin spent much of the war fretting that Russia would cut off its energy supplies. Only yesterday (25 January) did it agree to provide Ukraine with the weapons that could help it win the war, such as advanced Leopard 2 tanks.
Germany has many achievements to be proud of. Sectors such as car manufacturing and biotech are world-leading. The welfare state is generous. It is the richest of any big European country on a per capita basis, a feat achieved despite absorbing its formerly much poorer eastern half just three decades ago.
Nonetheless, there is nothing quite like living in Germany to disabuse one of any belief in German efficiency. That’s something I’ll be reflecting on ahead of Berlin’s Groundhog Day election next month.
[See also: Where did America’s recession go?]