The German language has a remarkable knack for both precision and invention. I witnessed this in action the other day when a German complained to me about the prevailing sense of Vernunftsohnmacht here in Berlin. The term is a classic compound noun, melding Vernunft (one of two German words for responsibility) with Ohnmacht (somewhere between unconsciousness and powerlessness). It simultaneously conveys the numbing experience of trying to act responsibly over a prolonged period of time and the sense that acting responsibly does not seem to bring anything.
Vernunftsohnmacht captures the mood in Germany these days and particularly in its capital. Angela Merkel’s government imposed a “partial lockdown” on 2 November last year, with non-essential shops and services closed for most of the period since then, and has now extended it to 18 April. Even in normal times, winter in Germany is long and dark. Clouds hang low and snow is frequent. Before Covid-19, it was made cheery by Christmas markets, cosy pubs and beer halls, social clubs and societies and, in Catholic regions such as the Rhineland, by carnival. But this year all of that has been impossible. People are despondent, weary and fed up of acting responsibly.
Now the first glimpses of spring are coming. The crocuses are out. Every new sunny spell brings larger crowds to the banks of the canal close to where I live in Berlin, to mingle, swig beer and play table tennis. Despite tongue-in-cheek posters by the city’s transport authority (“Masks, put a Berliner on”), discipline is fraying. People are gathering more behind closed doors, breaking rules on contact between different households. The trickle of newspaper stories about illegal parties is turning into a torrent.
Where once most Germans approved of tighter restrictions, a survey by YouGov shows only 30 per cent do so now, while 37 per cent want fewer regulations. Yet the pandemic is going in the other direction: infections are up, the more infectious B117 strain (ubiquitously referred to as the “British variant”) is now dominant and vaccinations are proceeding painfully slowly. At the time of writing, the only German I know who has received a first jab is 90 – and that came only on 23 March. The government says the rate will soon accelerate. Still, while life gradually returns to normal in Britain, we in Germany may be in some form of lockdown or semi-lockdown well into the summer.
In December I heard a discussion on Deutschlandfunk, Germany’s answer to BBC Radio 4, in which the sociologist Hubert Kleinert was asked about a distinction made by Max Weber between a “Gesinnungsethik” (an ethic of conviction) and a “Verantwortungsethik” (an ethic of responsibility, using the second German word for that concept). Kleinert, a former Green Party politician, argued that “the demonstration of conviction plays a far too big role” in German politics and that Covid-19 had strengthened the ethic of responsibility, whereby actions should be judged not by their moral purity but by their foreseeable consequences.
I was reminded of the distinction when, on 15 March, Germany briefly suspended its use of the AstraZeneca vaccine over concerns about blood clots – a move immediately copied by several other European countries. German health experts and officials, devoted to the precautionary principle, saw it as their job to do no harm, so halted jabs while the vaccine was investigated. The Verantwortungsethik would have proposed a different approach: continuing with vaccinations to prevent future infections, and thus certain deaths, while investigating the possible risks of blood clots. Germany restarted AstraZeneca jabs on 18 March, but the damage had been done.
[see also: How the EU’s naivety led to its vaccine debacle]
A small joy of mine in the long drag of the pandemic has been to help out in a garden. Last month’s job was to prune the vines. Grapes appear only on wood that grew last year, so when cutting you have to think about the shoots that will produce grapes this summer, those that will produce them next summer and those that might grow next summer and produce grapes the year after; all without overtaxing the plant. Professional vineyards train vines precisely according to either the cordon method (where shoots grow off thick, older branches) or the Guyot method (where shoots grow off the trunks themselves). With garden vines, the trick is to work out the best pruning method for each in its position and growth, contemplating each option in terms of harvests this year, next year and the one after that. Brutal is generally better.
Next up are the roses. Pruning them too soon can produce new growth that is later killed by cold, stunting the plant. The rule is to wait until forsythias start blossoming, which usually comes in early spring. But it has been a long, cold winter, even by German standards, and so far the forsythias are biding their time.
It is a cliché, but gardening really does give you a sense of the seasons and improves your mental health. Watching the forsythias for the first signs of their annual display, or figuring out which vine cuts will produce the biggest, juiciest grapes this summer and in the summers of 2022 and 2023, is a fine way to put the ambient gloom in perspective and jolt oneself on to a longer, botanical timescale; especially for those of us who live in big cities. It is politically difficult to build housing on green belts. But in an age where pandemics may prove the new normal, would it be so unpopular to stud them with allotments?
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special