Elon Musk. Berlin. Opinions.

In this episode we find out what people in Berlin think about Elon Musk. Musk has just been named Person of the Year by Time Magazine and is known as an entrepreneur and visionary but also for causing controversies.

On the outskirts of Berlin, he is currently building the European headquarters of his car brand Tesla – a good moment for us to find out what Germans think about Elon Musk. Our friend Emanuel from yourdailygerman is with us on the streets today to ask the people!

Interestingly, but not suprising, most of the Germans are negative about Musk: egocentric, unrealistic, etc. Whereas as the non-Germans are more positive.

“Given Silicon Valley is in Germany, you’d think the Germans would be more open to innovation and the fruits of capitalism. Hmmmm.” (a comment on YouTube. Irony at its best.)

Americans immigrants

The past, especially the recent past, helps us to understand the present. But it is only from the present, from the current starting point, that we can go down new paths, move in a different, perhaps even radically different, direction. All Americans are immigrants or descendents of immigrants. The historical consciousness of the American people is greatly influenced by the immigrant experience. Imagine what it was like for those millions upon millions of families to take that step, to leave their home and to risk the unknown.

For most of them not freely. For many it was a question of survival. For others it was about freedom. They wanted to decide their own fates, and wanted the same for their children. Nonetheless, the decision was very difficult. It meant leaving everything they knew, everything that gave them security. Once they left, however, the present and past of their native country would no longer be relevant. But what do human beings have other than their past and present? The unknown, insecurity and risk? Or do they have opportunity?

In such situations people have to make hard, tough decisions, about what they take with them from the past and the present. Of course all immigrant groups, including the waves of Germans who came to America, brought their language, customs and traditions. The older generations continued to speak their mother tongue. Foreign-language newspapers were published in all of the major American cities. All that they knew and brought over lasted, however, only for a certain period of time.

The everyday challenges of life in America rubbed and pulled away, layer for layer, the recent present and the past of the homeland. The immigrants took on, layer for layer, the realities of the current present in the United States, like having old skin replaced by new. It was painful. The time came in every immigrant family when the children no longer wanted, or no longer could, speak the language of the old world. 

Many parents who immigrated demanded of their children that they assimilate as quickly as possible, that they forget the old language, customs and traditions. They had decided to leave their homes, towns and homelands. They refused to get stuck between two realities. To move forward demanded that they leave behind what they had known. It was time to go down a new path. The cares, worries and chores of the day left them no other choice. 

That path to and in America was difficult, hard, rough. Many did not make, did not succeed. Every wave of immigrants had to fight for their future in America. Everything which weighed them down, every form of ballast, had to go. And that meant much that was associated with the homeland. For many, even for most, however, throwing overboard the ballast of the past set them free.

A German strength

Bonn. I remain standing. Ten or fifteen minutes. I imagine as best I can a summer day back during one of those years. What was life like in any of the houses, the homes, in that neighborhood? Just around the corner is the Karthäuserplatz, a small square, where I lived from 1991-95. In a three-room apartment on the third floor. 

On the first two floors lived three sisters, all in their 80’s, never married. Born in the early 1910’s they would remember the last years of the First World War, and most certainly all too well the entire Second World War. I imagine what it was like for them. Did they have brothers? Did those men/boys fight, kill, die? Catholics in the German Rhineland.

I imagine, see the pictures move by in my mind‘s eye. Three brothers. Second World War. Wehrmacht. The one dies in the early days of the invasion of Poland in September 1939. The second survives the 1944 Ardennenoffensive – what Americans call the Battle of the Bulge – only to then die in Vienna in early 1945, not long before the end of the war. 

The third brother survives the war, including several years as a prisoner in Russia. Their mother (the father had died in 1918 on the Western Front of WWI) and the three sisters pick him up one summer day in 1949 upon his arrival in Bonn by train via Berlin. Within a year and a half he would die of gangrene.

I am fifty-five years old. All of my brothers – two older, two younger – are still alive. None of us has killed or been killed. My son, Daniel, was born in May 1998. His mother is German. He is a German-American boy, more German than American. A school project in History. The fourth grade. 

The children are asked to find in Bonn the evidence, indications, the signs that once, many centuries ago, the Romans had lived in what became Bonn. He and his mother take a long walking tour. Bonn is a small town. Daniel is excited. He soaks it all in. My son, my boy, is growing up in Germany. My own flesh and blood. He is learning to think historically. He is learning to understand his present. He is being prepared to deal with the future.

This brief video is about the Romans in Bonn.

“For the first time I understand the Germans”

The history of Germany, as well as the historical consciousness of the German people, continue to impress and attract me. Today, just as strongly as a quarter century ago. You need only to go into a bookstore in Germany. Their books are not only solid, well bound and have great covers. The Germans have a very special relationship to books. There are always many older and newer publications about history, about their history. For those Germans who want to know their history there will never be a shortage of opportunities.

Every city in Germany, large and small, has museums in which history, but not only theirs, is told, is kept alive and relevant. In my early years in Berlin and Bonn I was astounded by how many fascinating and well-made documentary films were shown on German television. There was never a day without at least one in the evening. The German language is worth learning if only to read their books, to visit their museums, and to watch their documentaries. Although not a documentary, but one with the look and feel of one, was Heimat, by Edgar Reitz.

It was the summer of 1992. I watched episode for episode of Heimat. My eyes were glued to the television, my mind racing to understand every word, to pick up on as many nuances as possible. What an opportunity for me to gain insight in Germany of that time period, between the world wars. Time and again I had to turn to my then German wife to get the meaning of this or that word, for the dialogue was in the dialect of that region of Germany, the Hunsrück, along the Moselle River, between Trier and Koblenz. After every episode I was in a kind of trance, reflecting about what I had just taken in.

Then another time. I was in the car. Driving through Bonn. Evening. I turned on the radio. Deutschlandfunk. A book review was being read. It was about the immediate post-war years in then West Germany. The first sentences grabbed my attention. They flowed: complex, clear, rich, full of substance, critical, analytical, yet elegant. That feeling had come back, from when I was a student at Georgetown. History. German History. The history of another people. In another part of the world. And when I read the books by John Lukacs. Trance.

The reader continued. I was captured, drove further, but as if on a soft cloud just a few inches above the road. I think of the many war memorials in Germany. When I walk or ride my bicycle down the hill from the Venusberg in Bonn to the former government quarter on the Rhine, I pass through Kessenich where there is such a memorial.

It’s round, cement, encircling a lovely oak tree. Six pillars about eight feet high. Plenty of space between them to step in and out. The tops of all eight crowned – or held together – by a cement ring providing the tree with space to stretch out its branches. Just below the top each of the eight the face in cement of a German soldier with the iconic German steel helmet from the World War I.

Chiseled into the pillars, from the top to just about the bottom, are the names of the men who died in the two world wars. Six pillars, three sides each. Longs lists. Names. Of men, and boys, from that part of Bonn, from the neighborhood. Yes, boys, many no older than seventeen or eighteen years old. Sad. Especially sad for me, as one of five Magee boys, to read the same last names. Meyer. Schmitz. Leyendecker. Two, three, sometimes four of the same last names. Brothers. Cousins.

Imagine the deep, deep sadness of the mothers and fathers who saw their boys go off to war only to kill and be killed. 1914. 1915. 1916. 1917. 1918. Four long years for an entire continent. Then on the other sides of the pillars. 1939. 1940. 1941. 1942. 1943. 1944. 1945. Many of the same names. The sons and nephews of those fallen between 1914 and 1918. The Germans suffered, too.

“For the first time I understand the Germans.”

Unhistorical thinking

The Germans often consider Americans as a people to be either uninformed or uninterested in their own history, and equally uninformed about the recent history of given situations, allowing them to make decisions only based on the present. Americans appear to not think things through, not thoroughly. They can appear to Germans as Dünnbrettbohrer, literally people who only drill through the thinnest of boards.

From the German perspective their perception is not false. It’s what is behind the German cliché that Die Amerikaner gehen mit dem Kopf durch die Wand, that Americans try to go through the wall with their heads, meaning forcing solutions in situations which they have not fully understood.

But are Americans really so un- or a-historical? Partly, yes. I think of the region in which I grew up and the people there, me included. Philadelphia. Many of the most dramatic events of the American Revolutionary War against England took place in and around Philadelphia. Independence Hall in downtown Philadelphia is very well known and visited every summer by countless Americans and guests from other countries.

It is where the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were drafted, debated, passed and signed. Philadelphia was the capital of the insurrection, Independence Hall the meeting point of the conspirators.

Several critical battles took place in the area. On September 11, 1777 British troops defeated the colonists under George Washington at the Battle of Brandywine. Two weeks later, on September 26, Philadelphia was conceded to the British under General Charles Cornwallis.

On that day Washington and his troops counterattacked in Germantown, roughly five miles north of Philadelphia, against just under ten thousand British soldiers. It was an attack by night, from four different directions, with the hope of forcing a quick surrender. Because communications among four groups broke down, and due to shortages of munitions, the attack failed. Washington and his men were pushed back to White Marsh.

There, between December 5th and 8th, British troops pursued and attacked the revolutionaries several times. General Howe had hoped to end the war before the winter had set in. Washington‘s men held, though. The redcoats pulled back into Philadelphia. Washington and his troops moved into nearby Valley Forge.

But how many natives of the Philadelphia area are familiar with these events? I certainly did not hear of them during grammar and high school. I don’t recall any school trips to the battlegrounds or to a museum. Nor did my parents interest us six children in them. Nor have I ever seen a documentary film on television about those battles in and around Philadelphia, my home region.

Why? Perhaps because the United States and England (UK) have been close allies in two world wars. Perhaps we Americans don‘t like reliving bad old times. Perhaps because the events, regardless of how momentous, go back to the 18th century, long before any of my ancestors immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, Scotland and primarily from Germany. That part of American history was not a part of their history.

If Americans indeed have a less developed sense of history than the Germans, maybe because change in American history and culture is so ever-present. Maybe Americans, in comparison to Germans, are more tolerant of – open and willing – to embrace change, to drive change. 

The momentous decision in and of itself to immigrate to America, to leave the homeland behind, makes almost every other decision in life seem far less dramatic. Change is less intimidating to Americans. On the contrary, the more change is accepted as a fact of life, the less relevant are the past and continuity with the past, and all that much more important it is to be able and willing to adapt to new situations.

“Make an Englishman shit”

This is also a reason why it is anecdotes, if well told and timed, are enormously persuasive in the American cultural context. For Americans anecdotes are empirical. They are reality experienced, the opposite of theory, which is often seen as abstract and unrealistic, separated from reality.

An anecdote says: “I know what I’m talking about. I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. This is no theory, it’s reality!” Any American politician, for example, speaking in their legislative district or in the media about a difficult issue, such as the war in Iraq, will come across as especially convincing if they can claim to have visited that region.

Like aphorisms, anecdotes transport deeper-lying wisdom. Isn’t that what the Bible – Old and New Testament – does via one story after the other, communicate the deepest-felt, and therefore most complex, beliefs of a people, of Jews and Christians?

Isn’t story-telling the highest, the most sophisticated, form of activating (speaking to) the human imagination? Truly persuasive communicators in the U.S. plan very carefully when they draw on anecdotes. This is why we all listen so carefully when our grandparents tell their stories. They have the years of human experience.

The historians are in agreement. That Abraham Lincoln was the most masterful storyteller in American history. It has been written that he could hold audiences for up to four hours at a time.

“a tremendous whack”

“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.” This statement is attributed to Winston Churchill, whose mother was an American.

“… an idiot could lead”

“I’m looking for companies which an idiot could lead.” Warren Buffett. May 2015.

Buffett is an American investor, businessman and philanthropist. With an estimated $72.7 billion he is estimated to be the third-wealthiest person in the world. 

The majority of that wealth is in Berkshire-Hathaway, the  investment firm he founded and leads. Stocks in Berkshire are the most expensive in the world.

His formula for successful investing: He looks to buy stocks in companies that are so successful that an idiot could run them. For sooner or later one will. Buffett has a few basic rules. One is investing in companies whose business model is immediately and intuitively understood.

Strategy Consultants

The approaches used by strategy consultants – also known as management consultants – are advanced versions of those taught in business schools: data-driven analysis with some degree of attention given to the non-quantifiable human factor. The goal is the standardization of best practices within client companies, drawing also on insights gained from other clients.

The management consulting sector has grown dramatically since the 1930s, when the Glass-Steagall Banking Act was passed, limiting affiliations between commercial banks and securities firms. Management consulting grew out of the demand for advice on finance, strategy and organization. In 1980, only five consulting companies existed, and each had 1,000 consultants worldwide. By the 1990s, however, more than thirty firms entered the market each with at least 1,000 management consultants.

In 1993, McKinsey had 151 directors. This figure dramatically increased to 400 by 2009. From 1993 to 2004, McKinsey revenues more than doubled with 20 new offices and twice as many employees. McKinsey grew from 2,900 to 7,000 consultants scattered across 82 offices in more than 40 countries. In 1963, Boston Consulting Group had two consultants. By 1970 1980, 1990, 2000 BCG had 100, 249, 676, 2370 and 4800 consultants on its payroll respectively.

The Lords of Strategy

Written in 2010 by Walter Kiechel, former managing editor at Fortune magazine and editorial director of Harvard Business Publishing, best-selling The Lords of Strategy describes the history of ideas in the field of management strategy over the past forty years through the rise of the strategy consulting firms McKinsey, BCG and Bain, as well as notable business schools.

A reviewer – Jeffrey Swystun – wrote on amazon.com that Kiechel “sees the best strategy consultants as objective intellectuals who see patterns of evidence and put them through conceptual frameworks to produce pragmatic insights“.