Election Day September 2017September 26, 2017 by Thomas Tatum
The airport in Tegel is old and crowded and grubby but I still like it, ever since my days as a young fellow flying out of what was then West Berlin.
The train station is the exact opposite, all futuristic glass and light and no sense of claustrophobia even though there are probably more people running around there than in most small cities. Just a thirty-minute bus ride through some of the sections of Berlin that don’t turn up very often in tourist brochures and you’re there. The buildings here line the streets all grey and brown, lots of trees and sidewalks full of bicycles and cars parked every which way. Most Germans probably only pay attention to this part of town when they’re on their way to Charité to die or to have their tonsils removed, otherwise there’s no reason for them to venture far from Charlottenburg or Mitte. Every other store marquee proclaims something in a language different than German with lots of Arabic to be seen here these days. It’s all about restaurants and laundries and phone shops and PC doctors and travel agencies and grocery shops. There are no big-name retailers on these streets, no recognizable names on the fast-food shops. And while the people here stoically go about their business, they seem to pay no heed to the hundreds of election posters lining the streets, put there by the so-called alternative, the AfD, with pictures of beautiful blonde Arian-looking women praising bikinis or burgundy instead of burkas. Nazis and narcissists. But, yes, the young women on the posters are very attractive. And the message is that they’d prefer to remain among themselves. Maybe that’s what the Fatherland needs more than anything else these days? As if inbreeding were a solution to the perils of modernity.
The regional railway – the S-Bahn – used to be an East German institution, its hard wooden benches rattling through the western part of the city and reminding us and our butts of the supposed virtues of the proletarian revolution. Nowadays, though, the trains are mostly from Bombardier, a Canadian company which builds great trains – modern, comfortable and quiet – but usually only makes headlines here when they close a factory or lay off personnel. Hop off at Savignyplatz and descend the stairs to street level, then you’re in the heart of gentrified (formerly West) Berlin. The many arches of masonry beneath the elevated railway are home to an assortment of cafés, galleries, book shops and pubs. Turn the corner and there’s an equally gentrified polling station in one of the gorgeously understated houses where, on any other day, you’re more apt to find a boulangerie instead of ballots. It’s still early so the lone cameraman standing there with his hands in his pockets does what he can to ward off the chill. He’s positioned before Elvira Bach’s anarchic and frivolously colorful paintings in a shop window located directly next door. It’s Sunday, though, so there’s no point in expecting the door to open. The bikinis-instead-of-burka beauties are nowhere to be seen here, the Fatherland has receded to the horizon here – not completely gone but reassuringly unobtrusive for now.
Crossing the Kudamm is a challenge today. The city is not only the focal point of national elections but happens to be hosting an annual marathon race event as well today. All the main thoroughfares are cordoned off this morning, getting anywhere by car is next to impossible. Crossing the streets as a pedestrian is possible but only allowed at specific points under the supervision of safety watches who keep an eye open for the speedy hand bikes careening around the corners when one least expects it. The main event, the actual race, isn’t until later, maybe the runners have to go to the polls first, otherwise no starting gun? Thus, the streets and spectators belong to legions of handicapped cyclists, at least for now. When the main happening comes around, sponsored by BMW, they will be nowhere to be seen, just hordes of lean and mean athletes running through a city where everyone is holding their breath, although the rain will stop, just as it always does. The signs on the city buses proclaim “COME TO BERLIN. YOUR CHILDREN WILL LIVE HERE ONE DAY ANYHOW.” A bit presumptuous but probably true. Will this happen because the future feels closer here? Or because it feels younger, maybe because of the kind of reigning craziness which Munich or Düsseldorf would never dare to tolerate? A steel band drums furiously every time a hand bike approaches, rows of onlookers make a lot of noise and a small kiosk finally has a good and compelling reason to sell beer on Sunday morning.
A fellow named Kipchoge wins the marathon, running the 42-kilometer race in just over 2 hours and 3 minutes and the sun comes out. It’s a normal, warm Autumn day by the time afternoon comes around. He name was Kipchoge, not Müller or Meier or Schmidt. Normal? It’s still election day so it’s also a very distinct day, even though we like to tell ourselves that elections are normal in any democracy: after all, a serious responsibility goes hand-in-hand with the privilege, that of participation and involvement. Worldwide, millions of people are on the run because the institutions of basic democratic rule have been hollowed out, fallen apart or were just never existent. Disregard for the principles of equitable and legitimate government is one of the major reasons the Mediterranean Sea is peppered with boatloads of people every day. Boats full of people desperate to reach Europe, fleeing war or just plain poverty. And, ironically, at home, it’s those loudly disputing the validity of democratic institutions who are most fearful of or resentful toward those seeking shelter or asylum.
At 6pm, the polls close and we’re glued to the television, just like half the country, even though it’s actually a party. The idea was to see the projections and discuss them, watch the 8 o’clock news and then have fun. Things were different this time, sobering but not surprising or even particularly alarming. We’re following the election results in Marienfelde, a section of the city that was once slashed by the Berlin wall, the border between east and west. In 1990, the wall fell and the border became a fault line. Here were the supposedly smug westerners – contemptuously referred to as the Besserwessis – and over there, on the other side, were the Ossis, stuck in five brand-new Bundesländer in which nothing seemed to work. Germany’s chancellor at the time, Helmut Kohl, saw blooming landscapes and promised them to anyone who would listen. The old currency of the German Democratic Republic, as it was called, was scrapped and replaced by Deutschmarks traded at an irrationally favorable exchange rate – temporarily currying loyalty among the beneficiaries of this act of political largesse and guaranteeing a grateful response at the polls for the first few years after reunification. But in the subsequent years, expectations grew far faster than productivity in former socialist East Germany and a lot of its people, including a proportionately higher number of women who outperformed the men academically and professionally, quietly headed west. Starting in 1994 and lasting to this day, all Germans pay substantial additional surcharges on their taxes to finance the reconstruction of the former East, a solidarity charge resulting in new bridges, roads, energy projects and picturesque town squares. What didn’t vanish is a perpetual sense of dissatisfaction and disgruntlement due to supposedly disappointed hopes.
Germany can be an odd place. The contradictions evident in most industrial societies exist here, too, but those profiting from better education or good jobs in technically advanced industries live in their own bubble in which access is achieved economically. The disdain visible in other segments of society toward outsiders of all kinds in less visible here – the common denominator is belonging, whether it’s the job, the house or the sports club. Achieve these through hard work and you’re in; and happily, this is still achievable through universally accessible education which is academically good, sometimes excellent but never particularly cost-prohibitive. In other parts of society, by contrast, the sense of vulnerability is much more pronounced: the competition for lower-tier jobs has become fiercer even though these positions are paying less. Any newcomer willing to work more for less money – irrespective of the reason – is perceived as a threat. And when one considers that Germany’s attitude toward immigration and outsiders in general has always been strained, the appearance of refugees as perceived competitors in this economic segment adds an explosive element to the political atmosphere. Stories of lazy immigrants, who don’t work and live by simply siphoning off from a diminishing social safety net abound, alternating with the tales of those who are stealing jobs. Successful application for refugee status or the granting of political asylum is, in these circles, equated with some vague abuse of the German social pact.
And it is among some of the former recipients of this generosity that the resentment toward immigrants and other newcomers is strongest. This is equally true for ethnic Germans from Russia, hundreds of thousands of whom were welcomed into the country in the 1990s as well as the roughly 16 million denizens of the eastern states. For over two decades since then, every working German has been contributing financially toward the reconstruction of Eastern Germany (just imagine asking Americans to contribute 5.5% on top of their taxes for over 20 years to bring Puerto Rico or Mississippi up to speed!) while the direct beneficiaries of this politically forced investment – still lagging in productivity, mobility or overall education – invest their faith and their vote in xenophobic, right-wing parties whose programs question the viability and even the legitimacy of the same established democratic institutions they were so eager to join. Nationalistic horse-traders offering unrealistically simple solutions to complex issues which, in the long term, will determine not only present social or economic priorities but the kind of society it will be for generations to come.
The Alternative for Germany are the winners tonight, an anachronistic party with a penchant for scapegoats instead of solutions, whitewashed with those posters of sexy bikinis-instead-of-burkas models. It doesn’t have to stay this way, there’s no reason why the new status quo will necessarily be cemented into place. But it is disappointing to see how many voters are willing to give them their backing for a message which has no merit in the creation of the future of any country, not just Germany. Their front man, steeling himself for his upcoming parliamentary debut, stands before the cameras and dourly threatens to hunt down Angela Merkel, to call her to account for the numerous crimes she has allegedly committed. He announces that his party will win back this country along with its people, its Volk. Almost reflexively, Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator comes to mind.
We’re in our own bubble at the election party. It’s a wonderful house with gracious, curious hosts, books on the shelves and art on the walls. The children are making their way through school successfully and there’s no reason to assume that they and their peers won’t make a positive mark on their world as they start their careers and enter adulthood. The promise of the future on which they must work, the Germany and Europe and world which their generation will be entrusted with, isn’t dependent on walls or prejudice or ignorance. Locking the doors does not make them safe – it only isolates them.
Outside, in the dark of Marienfeld, there are supermarkets and warehouses, shops and restaurants where the Berlin wall once stood. It, too, was a lie, an illusion, a false promise, allegedly erected to keep out the spiteful enemies bent on destroying real socialism and tearing at the moral fabric of hardworking proletarians erecting their utopia in the so-called German Democratic Republic. But the winds of change blew over and around the wall’s concrete slabs; the only purpose it served before it ultimately fell was to keep its own people penned in while the outside world kept on turning.
As it turns out, every fifth former East German voted for the so-called alternative today. I couldn’t help but notice that the station house on this formerly East German train line was clearly renovated after the fall of the wall, including a quaintly attractive brick building in its midst, replete with colored mosaics integrated in the sepia-colored masonry that recalled a booming pre-war Berlin. As I departed the station, I realized that the S-Bahn whooshing me back to the city center was a comfortable Bombardier train. Many of those 20% cowering behind the bluster and language of the AfD use the train every day, too.
I’d be hugely surprised if anyone of them ever paused for even one second to just say: “Thank You!”