Hello Berlin, goodbye optimism: why is Germany’s glass half empty?

The jubilation of Germany’s 2014 World Cup victory seems a long time ago. Photograph: Markus Gilliar/AP
The jubilation of Germany’s 2014 World Cup victory seems a long time ago. Photograph: Markus Gilliar/AP

German angst is back, or at the very least consulting its lawyers about a reunion tour. I have just moved back to Berlin, after a total of 18 years away from the country in which I grew up, and can’t help being struck by the relentless reliability of my birth nation’s appetite for pessimism.

Self-doubt is writ large across the counter at my local newsagent: “Countdown for the chancellor: How long does she have left?”; “Can she still save herself?”; “Have we Germans gone insane?” (Die Zeit).

Never mind that austerity here is mainly something that happens in other countries. Never mind that beer and bread are cheap, that the cost of living is lower than in most of northern Europe, while wages are higher than in southern Europe. Never mind that Germany is the reigning football world champion, and that it added a European handball championship title and a Grand Slam tennis title to its trophy cabinet last weekend. Talk to people in the cafes and bars, and they will tell you that the country is going down the drain, or if it isn’t, it is about to.

This is even more surprising, given that what the German novelist Jean Paul christened Weltschmerz has seemingly been in steady decline for the last 10 years. Only a year and a half ago, a survey announced that Germans had remodelled themselves into the world’s optimists, with over half of its citizens saying they were extremely satisfied with their lives. Only 2% described their contentment as low.

Weltschmerz looked like a relic of the past, kept alive only out of ironic affection, as the success of Nein Quarterly, a Twitter account by the US academic Eric Jarosinski that has spawned its own column and books, seemed to prove. (Sample tweet: “Go ahead: try defeatism. Won’t work.”)

Even the archetypical painting of German melancholy, Caspar David Friedrich’s moody The Monk by the Sea, has recently been restored to its more uplifting original glory. “The thunder clouds have gone,” remarked one astonished art critic.

But ever since Angela Merkel spelled out this newfound optimism, proclaiming “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do it”) in regards to the refugee crisis, the real pessimists have been out in force again. In the current edition of the political monthly Cicero, the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk warns that Germans need to relearn not just to appreciate closed borders, but to reacclimatise to what he calls phobocracy. For too long, he says, Germans have lived sheltered from the terrors of the modern world; now the time has come to “submerge oneself into the subconsciousness of the phobocratic mechanism”. Which sounds fun.

Return to Faxland

On a more cheerful note, my childhood football club, Hamburger SV, is being ridiculed for failing to tie up a deal for a new player during the transfer window. An email sent from Switzerland was too big for the club’s server, and didn’t arrive until four minutes after the transfer deadline. Hamburg is a repeat offender: in 2011 another transfer broke down, because the manager couldn’t work the fax machine.

I sympathise. Moving back to Germany has come with a reminder that even though this country leads the way in so many fields of engineering its attitude to information technology is stuck somewhere in the late 90s. To order up documents from the Stasi archive, you must fax a form. To get accredited to the Bundestag, you have to fax a form that has been rubber-stamped by your office manager. No emails are accepted. Flat-hunting in the old west of Berlin – once the calling card of western hypercapitalism, now a vision of a quaint protectionist past – I spotted a vast shopping emporium selling rubber stamps, and two shops offering photocopying and fax services, all on the same street corner. I now understand why.

Wine for Hamburgers

Talking of football, the sports pages of German newspapers are always the best place to pick up new phrases and colloquialisms. Hamburg, who have been in the top tier of German football for longer than any other club, are a bit strapped for cash this season, but their manager confided to one of the papers that he was hoping to soon get “a good gulp of English wine”. Which in modern footballing parlance means selling mediocre German players for big bucks to clubs in the English Premier League. No German angst there.

Philip Oltermann is the Berlin bureau chief, and the author of Keeping Up With the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters.

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