German precision then and now


Recently I passed another natal day, a sobering reminder that I’ve seen a lot of summers (69 years on the planet).  My first sensation on awakening, as always, was deep gratitude and love for my parents.  Their hard work and kindness got me off to a great start in life.

My lifelong love of travel, though, came to me without a parental pedigree.  What, I pondered on my birthday, have been the big changes I’ve witnessed traveling the world and America these past seven decades.  Change has been a constant in my life, as constant as travel, and I am comfortable with it.  However, I struggle sometimes to understand some of it.

No sooner had that question floated into my brain than the morning news presented a stark example:  The new Berlin Flughafen (airport) is currently five years late and at least $5 billion over budget.  This Bloomberg story is just one of many telling the sad tale.

Reading it, I was mystified to grasp what has happened to German efficiency, something I thought was hardwired into the culture, leading me to reminisce about my time among the Teutons. The year and a half that I lived in Munich in 1975-76 was a very happy experience, and as the time approached to leave, I considered making Munich my permanent home. I really liked the Germans and their country.

It was then a mere 30 years after WWII. In those days I’d still hear the Horst Wessel Lied (Nazi anthem) being sung by 50-something men coming out of beer halls drunk late at night, men who’d fought for Hitler in their teens and early twenties and had perhaps been among the throngs at the infamous Nuremberg amphitheater Nazi party rallies called by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, “the cathedral of light”.

At the time hearing that infamous melody was very creepy to me, raising the hairs on the back of my neck, and I would cross the street to avoid them.  But now I don’t think those men missed the Nazi era as much as, fueled by strong Bavarian lager, they were remembering their shared experience as soldiers in battle when very young men.  The bonds developed under fire are universal and lifelong, regardless of flag or cause.  Some of the men who’d been raised in Nazi Youth groups and fought on the Eastern Front befriended me when I lived there.  They would somberly raise a sardonic toast on April 20 to thank God that Hitler’s birthday was no longer a national holiday.

Everything in Germany worked in 1975-76: the trains, the trams, the post, the Gesundheitamt (health department), the Polizei.  The ordilessness that the Germans were famous for ruled everything, down to the exact time each day when the street sweepers would be on each Straße (street). Everyone drove the precise speed limit in town and as fast as possible on the Autobahn. Everybody used their turn signals and drove on the right on the Autobahn (huge billboards warned: “Rechts Fahren!” Meaning “drive right!”) and wore their seat belts (I was stopped by the police only once when I lived in Deutschland, and that was on the Autobahn near Nuremberg in 1976 for not wearing my seat belt). Every damn thing worked down to a gnat’s behind.

Now, I thought, it’s 42 years after I lived there! And 72 years after the war ended. So of course Germany has changed.  Just the same, how could they so botch the construction of a symbolic airport in their capital and landmark city, Berlin?  I never imagined their deepest core value to obsess to perfection–the epitome of Germanness: making sure that everything worked, by God!–would ever dissipate. To me, it’s as shocking as if the British were to suddenly outlaw cricket in favor of American baseball.

Back for a visit several years ago I traveled Frankfurt to Munich to Nuremberg and back on many high-speed ICE trains (Inter-City Express).  Many of the trains were late, and some were even canceled due to labor, track, equipment, or unspecified reasons.  It was as if I was in Italy where such glitches are the norm, but never in Germany!  Even some of the buses, trams, and S-Bahn commuter trains in Munich were late, unheard-of in the 1970s.

An American friend who worked two weeks in Hamburg in the 1980s told of staying at The Atlantic, a very fine hotel. In those days the airport bus would stop at the corner by The Atlantic and was scheduled to come about every 25 minutes. Every time he was in the room over those two weeks he would look out to see how early or late the bus was running.  He was amazed to observe that the bus was never early and never late. It pulled up at exactly the minute the schedule had, not a minute before or after. But today no bus runs there at all.

The Berlin airport isn’t the only tardy German scheme. The Hamburg opera house in Hamburg was six years behind schedule. The “Stuttgart 21” rail project was first proposed in 1995 and is now projected to be completed in 2021, if ever. Lack of precision seems a systemic German problem in the 21st century.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that such undesirable changes must be balanced against Germany’s achievements in the past fifty years.  The country integrated the impoverished East Germany while maintaining its stellar growth and EU primacy in economic strength—a feat nothing short of a miracle.  In 2015 alone, Germany absorbed 1.1 immigrants, the most of any EU country except Turkey (  Musing on my birthday, I concluded the German culture maintains deep-rooted strengths of compassion, mastery of industry, and devotion to hard work.  These values are more admirable than efficiency alone, and I need to cut the Germans some slack.  I am confident that German efficiency remains in their nature.  It will be back.

2 thoughts on “German precision then and now

  1. I loved your story, which reminded me of German efficiencies I have benefitted from in the past. Yet I must disagree with your conclusion: I fear the Germany we knew in the last century will NEVER RETURN. Yes, accommodating the East Germans was an heroic action, but these people were Germans also. The millions of new refugees now flooding their country are not Germans and – by all appearances – never will be. That is, to me, the saddest part of the story.

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