My trip to Germany was a total disaster. Not because of what Germany is but because of what it is not anymore. Coming to Germany means coming back for me and it basically every time comes down to a comparison of the present and the past.
Coming back to Germany is always an emotional roller coaster. It reminds me where I come from and where I have been going since then. It reminds me of the good and the bad. The unarticulated hardships, the schizophrenia between being at home and being outside of home, the ultimate disappointments, but also the good times. In the end, how much are we just a product of our experiences? And is this even a well-defined notion? Disappointments break some people, others become inured and adapt, yet others use these disappointments to fuel an insatiable urge to prove their past wrong. And in which category does one fit. Can one really reflect on these questions without being a victim to ones own believes? Quite a few questions that I haven’t been able to answer since… I stopped trying a while ago – yet they resurface and require attention…
This time I had planned to visit several old places to see what happened to them. While the general public (and completely incompetent news reporters) tend to present Germany as the big winner of the European debt crisis, putting all other countries under their yoke this is far from true. Apart from some fancy hotspots such as Munich, Frankfurt, (Berlin,) etc. Germany has a lot of problems and in particular the Ruhr valley, where I am from is essentially done. The Ruhr valley’s economic success was largely due to heavy industry. When the demand ceased, politics completely failed to provide alternatives for those people, in fact trying to put mine workers as nurses into nursery homes – you might imagine how successful such an attempt can be. The Ruhr valley is also heavily populated by foreigners and immigrants as a result of the need for workers in the good times. Now that things turned sour, there are many more workers than jobs creating quite some animosity towards the very people that where welcomed about 40-50 years ago. This effect is amplified by the fact that Germany simply sucks at integrating foreigners, creating some dangerous, smaller groups of people mostly defined by level of radicalness, political views, and nationality. The first picture shows a typical residential building very close to where I grew up. It is located in an area that has been developed in the late 60’s (together with two more close by). The official term of these areas would be translated as ‘Mega-settlements’. They virtually only consist of the match boxes that you can see below, but with more levels. The main goal was to provide quick, affordable housing to satisfy the huge demand for residential space generated by the buzzing industry, driven by industry heavy weights, such as Thyssen and Krupp, as well as later Opel (the GM daughter). The Ruhr valley failed to adapt and making Essen the European Capital of Culture of few years ago did not really improve the situation significantly. Think of the first picture as the old Ruhr valley (and see the last post for some more industrial views).
My second shot below is much more about the new Ruhr valley. After the politics-driven redesign of the Ruhr valley created more problems than it solved, people started to reinvent the area themselves. From heavy industry to a service industry was the idea. The .com-bubble in early 2000s helped to fuel the hope for a quick fix. And these were the really crazy times with concepts being copied from the US without understanding them, applying them as isolated efforts without understanding that it requires a whole mindset to be changed and the consequences of this new mindset to be implement across all levels, including the public sector. But it did not matter. At this point in time everything looked great. Almost every bar or club was full, almost any day of the week. You did not know where to go because there was simply way too much (in a good sense). Now you still do not know where to go to but because there is nothing left. So after the bubble burst a little later, a sharp economic decline, together with lots of retirement investments burned on stocks for puppet theaters that where worth more than large blue chips at times, set in. People became very demotivated and cynical. A phase of aggressive consolidation set in pulling larger shops into mall like setups and drying up smaller shops completely. The final result is that many city centers that were an integrated center for food, shopping, and nightlife completely died out leaving nothing else but zombie centers back with Detroit-like views of empty stores and abandoned houses. All innovative power has been zapped out.
In the end I ended up being completely disgusting picking my camera up only a few times. I just could not convince myself to present and document. I just did not know what to make out of my own personal connection, the decay I have been witnessing over the years, as well as a certain saturation with the place.
I am heading over to Lisbon tomorrow and I am a bit at unease, given all the senseless, pointless, and brainless discussions that I am expecting about Germany’s dictatorship in Europe, the renaissance of their nazi behavior, and how their only goal is to blow up Europe – on my last trip to Greece I felt more like a peace ambassador than a traveler.
I’m sorry you feel this way about Germany. I always love coming back to my home city Heidelberg from my travels.
I guess my experience is highly personal and location-specific. I lived some time in Nürnberg and Frankfurt (and have been to Heidelberg) and these two for example seem to not have gone through such a frustrating decay (sure there is Quelle etc).
I was about to make the Detroit comparison until I got to the end and read your reference to it. It is sad indeed that cities and regions like this just fall apart when the corporations run away or begin outsourcing. Detroit can’t even pay promised pensions to people who worked for the city for their entire adult lives. And the other day I heard the new “emergency manager” partially blame the voters themselves for the city’s poor leadership since of course, every voter should KNOW that a certain candidate is going to be dirty/incompetent. The only hope, especially with the publicity a place like Detroit is now getting, is that people at large realize how little corporations care about their people and their cities, and what can happen when it falls apart. Hopefully someday you can say that about your home.
Yes indeed! Politics in this area is a disaster. People are nice really either trust politicians or just gave up. Actual participation in the political process is very low. The politician on the other hand are often not fit for the job. They do not possess the necessary skill set to navigate through such dire straits and I am here only talking about the required skills, say, for urban planning and their actual qualification (not their views). Many of my old friends are either unemployed or hop from job to job lacking any perspective.