Rat, Rathaus, Vorrat

Rat (council, advice). Rathaus (town council building). Beraten (to advise). Hausrat (household goods). Vorrat (stocked goods). Gerät (tools, implements). All of these German words are oriented on being prepared. They are careful, anticipating, in a way defensive, cautious.

German suppliers, vendors, consultants are first and foremostly protective. They aim to minimize the downside, the risks. They anticipate mistakes and dangers. My German clients always want to test me and my work before agreeing to larger-scale projects. I understand this. Americans proceed step-by-step, also.

Helpful advice

Several of them have become friends, some even close friends. They talk about the complexities and challenges they face. We discuss my business model. They‘re Germans, so they give me advice whether I ask for it or not. It is implicit in our relationship. And their advice is always helpful.

„Herr Magee, don‘t move too fast with your German clients, especially the new ones. They will be careful and cautious. They want to avoid making mistakes. That‘s your job, to help them work across the Atlantic.“ My German friends remind me that Germans want first to avoid the pitfalls, before they consider how to take large steps forward.

Fortschrittsglauben – Faith in Progress

Fortschrittsglauben. Fortschritt, progress. Glauben, belief. Literally the belief in progress, or more in the sense of placing faith in progress, technical mechanical scientific.

The Germans are skeptical of Fortschrittsglauben. They almost instinctively question, challenge whatever is new – especially if it is in a fundamental area. It‘s not that they block, are against, „reject out of hand“ what is new. No, they want to take a closer look, do not want to accept it in a „blue-eyed“ (blauäugig, meaning naive) way.

It seems paradoxical, because Germans are so exceptional in the natural sciences, in engineering, in developing and making things. New, better, often breakthrough things. Germans are open to the idea – actually it is often their starting point – that new technologies, new ways of doing things are not always good, can actually be harmful, negative, even bad. „Just because it can be done, doesn‘t mean that it is good or that it helps us“, is a statement one hears time and again in Germany.

Reticence instinctive and immediate

It is in this point that they differ from Americans, who for the most part are more willing to try out what is new. And it is true that Americans – from the German perspective – are too fortschrittsgläubig (in progress believing, uncritically so).

Americans have difficulty understanding this particular German point of view. Not as if the Americans truly are naive, but because the reticence (Zurückhaltung) from the Germans comes so fast, is often the initial, instinctive and immediate reaction. It can come across as fearful, self-protective, „stuck in the past“, even backwards.

This perception is, of course, not accurate. It is too simple. For German society is highly sophisticated, technically, scientifically. And much of the modern world‘s progress has been German-driven or at least the Germans have contributed to it.

This subtle – often not so subtle – difference in the two views of Fortschritt (progress) leads to misunderstanding, to disconnects, in their collaboration. Especially when jointly imagining, envisioning, developing, testing and marketing products and services.

No Limes. No Irmensul.

Americans are, indeed, a young and often impatient people. But not all that young, for they are descendents primarily of Europeans. And the Americans of German descent are the largest ethnic group in the U.S., when separating out the British, Scottish and Irish.

In other words, an American, especially an American of German descent, who plays the piano well, including the most difficult works of German composers such as Beethoven (the child of Dutch immigrants to Germany), is just as much, if not more, an heir and descendent of that famous citizen of Bonn as those living in Bonn today who aren’t interested in classical music, who have never visited the house Beethoven’s was born and raised in, who prefer listening to heavy metal music on the MP3-players while sitting on the #61 tram from Dottendorf into the center of town. Americans and Germans are cousins, sharing to a large part the same history.

Here’s a story I heard a while back from a German woman I knew during my graduate studies in Berlin. She was on a flight to North Africa. Morocco or Tunesia. Sitting next to an American: jeans, sweatshirt, baseball cap on his head. One of those seemingly naive, carefree, smiling, overly-friendly Americans who Germans identify immediately.

She wondered what a guy like that – provincial, unsophisticated – was doing on an airplane to North Africa. Did he get on the wrong plane in Frankfurt? After a few minutes of small talk she realized that the “country bumpkin” was a tenured professor at an elite university on the East Coast of the U.S., spoke fluent Arabic, had high-level contacts in Egyptian politics, academics and culture. “Never judge a book by its cover.”

Another story. Similar. November 1995. In Washington, D.C. Watergate Hotel. Evening. We’re sitting in the lounge drinking a beer, after more than a handful of meetings in the American capital. The Majority Leader, his wife, his Chief of Staff, the Head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Washington. I had been asked by the Majority Leader to accompany him to the U.S. To advise him, and to play “fly on the wall”, to observe, then provide him with my analysis afterwards, on what my Americans eyes see, and American ears hear.

No Cologne Cathedral, but not country hicks.

Before the trip I rewrote his speeches. They had been translated from German into English by the language experts in the Bundestag. A bit wooden, overly structured, not how he speaks. I was also able to arrange for him to give a major foreign policy speech at Georgetown University, my alma mater. Pure coincidence. My uncle was, and is still, a Jesuit and professor of Theology at Georgetown. The university president – a close friend of my uncle – had done his Ph.D. in Theology in the late 1960s in Münster, on the great German theologian, Karl Rahner.

He spoke fluent German and had had several conversations with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a Catholic from Rhineland Palatinate. Kohl was known to be in close contact with Rome. The CDU (Christian Democratic Union – Kohl’s party) connection to Georgetown goes back to the days of Konrad Adenauer’s chancellorship, 1949-63. One of Adenauer’s sons had studied at Georgetown during the Second World War.

In any case, I felt very comfortable in Washington, having studied at Georgetown just around the corner from the Watergate. That evening a member of the CDU in the German Bundestag walks in, their spokesperson on economic issues, also in Washington for meetings. He pulls a chair up next to the Majority Leader and says: “Wolfgang, it’s astonishing. The Americans are totally informed about our fiscal and economic plans, ours in Germany and in the EU!” Weeks after the trip it occurred to me: “Hey, wait a minute. Why is this guy so astonished?”

It’s true. Americans don’t have a Cologne Cathedral. They don’t have a Limes. No Teutoburger Forest. No Bavarian Purity Laws for brewing beer. No Irmensul. But are Americans, therefore, country hicks? Maybe it’s a tactical advantage to be considered such.

Cars and chickens

The American people have always benefitted from a very generous supply of natural resources. The United States in its over two-hundred year history has never known scarcity of resources. It is a land of abundance. And its economic history is one of constant growth.

Generations of immigrants were welcomed to support that growth. Dealing conservatively with natural resources was seldom a key to economic success, seldom a factor in the nation’s decision making. Far more important were such factors as innovation and rapid reaction to the demands of a competitive market economy.

The structure of American cities and towns is such that an automobile is required. Germany is different. It is the size of the U.S. state of Montana. German cities and towns – large or small – are well planned, well structured. They’ve grown based on structures going back as far as the Middle Ages with the core consisting of the church, the market square, the post office, perhaps a river running through or along it.

Over the centuries the towns grew outwardly, organically. Life and work were – and are still for the most part – integrated. Modern transportation and logistics adapted to the town’s layout. Trams (streetcars) linked the city’s neighborhoods. The underground (subway) did the same. Life can be lived in German towns and cities without an automobile.

A car in every garage and a chicken in every oven

In this, as in many other, senses, the quality of life in Germany is higher than in the U.S.. America experienced a huge growth spurt after the Second World War. Baby boom. People were tired of rationing. They wanted to consume. Eisenhower – and his military and civilian colleagues – were impressed by the German autobahn system and wanted the same for the U.S..

Not only because he saw it allowing for the rapid transportation of heavy military armor necessary in the case of defense of continental USA. A national highway system would make civilian transportation modern and efficient. It would further spur growth. The automakers in Detroit were thrilled. The automobile took over, pushing aside public transportation. “A car in every garage and a chicken in every oven” was the motto of the 1950s.

Then came the flight of white Americans from the cities (primarily in the North) to their suburbs. There were two main driving factors: First, families had more children, needed and wanted more space, in the home and in the yard. The automobile, and the building of streets and highways, made it possible. Secondly, more and more African-Americans migrated from the South to the North attracted to better-paying jobs. White Americans wanted to live among themselves.

Resources. I think of the family I grew up in. Mother, father, six children, a house with five bedrooms and two full baths, on a half-acre of land, in a neighborhood full of children (mostly boys): the Moses family with four, the Heidts with three, the Argyris family with four, D‘Aquila two, Bridi three, we Magees five.

“Don’t be wasteful” was only every said in terms of food.

Up the street lived the Plames. Mother, father, daughter. A few years ago I learned from my mother that Mr. Plame had developed the land and had built the ten or so houses, including ours. He had been a retired officer of the U.S. Air Force, his last years spent in Alaska.

“Hmm”, I thought, most likely Strategic Command, where the U.S. had long-rang bombers stationed in case of war with the Soviet Union. Then I read in the newspaper and online about Valerie Plame. The name was immediately familiar to me. Valerie attended grade school with my youngest brother, Tom. Valerie Plame: exposed (perhaps by the U.S. government itself) as a CIA undercover agent. Her husband, an American diplomat, was openly skeptical of the reasons the Bush administration took the country to war in Iraq.

Like most American families we were very active as children, which continued into high school. School, sports, visiting friends, all possible in the suburbs thanks to cars. As soon as three or four of us had our drivers licences we had three or four cars. This was the 1960s and 70s. One can imagine how much energy we used: water, electricity, gasoline, packaging for all sorts of products. And we were just one of millions of similar families. “Don’t be wasteful” was only every said in terms of food. That’s what the suburbs in the U.S. were (and are still) like.

 Cheap energy is the motor of American society.

They were built quickly. They had no center, no village old town. There was open land. Streets were built. Houses were built. Developments they were called. Whenever my mother visited Germany she marveled at the elderly women riding their bicycles from their apartment houses to the various stores. We did not grow right in the U.S., not thoughtfully. I doubt that there was a discussion back then among town, city or civic planners about how to grow (expand) intelligently, not only in the sense of impact on the environment, but also in terms of quality of life.

The two are not mutually exclusive: growth and quality of life. Jimmy Carter made an attempt in his speech Energy and the National Goals – A Crisis of Confidence on July 15, 1979. He spoke about limits, about energy policy. Carter was criticized heavily. Energy is the motor of American society. It makes our life simpler and more comfortable. In the last years, however, we have realized that we need to make some changes. Gasoline prices have climbed steadily over the years. The second Iraq War did not go well, to put it mildly. Russia uses natural gas as a weapon against the Ukraine and as a lever against Western Europe.

Dramatic environmental catastrophes have become a yearly – often monthly – occurrence: Hurricane Katrina, the forest fires in California and the Southwest, hurricanes in Florida, the rapid changes in temperatures. Think of the impact on the ozone layer by air conditioning set on high and running from April until October in countless homes, schools and office buildings in the states of the Southeast stretching across the Southwest to the Pacific Coast.

My goodness, what does it cost to heat those places?”, my mother always asks whenever we drive by so-called McMansions in the Philadelphia area, the houses built during the boom years of the 1990s: oversized, ugly, without style or character or imagination. Neureiche (noveau riche, new rich). Yes, people can do as they please with their money. Yes to private property. But individual interests often have impact on collective interests.