Updated: Mar 29, 2020
By George Ruskin
Like every thirty-something, Germany ends the second decade of the twenty-first century in an identity crisis. For the past decade, it’s been the old-before-its-time member of the European friendship group: smug financial security and grown-up sincerity, taking the likes of Greece and Portugal home after they’ve been chucked out of the club by the fiscal bouncers.
Lately, though, there’s been more than the faintest whiff of an early midlife crisis creeping in to the national psyche: a study last year showed that Germans are generally less fearful than ever before, and a political willingness to throw caution to the wind resulted in 91 AfD seats in the Reichstag.
Although this identity crisis hasn’t been as spectacular as some of its EU (and soon-to-be non-EU) neighbours, it’s clear from the events of 2019 that Germany is at a crossroads with the omnipresent question of who will be at the steering wheel in the post-Merkel landscape. Although Merkel’s exit seems to be on the same timescale as Berlin Brandenburg Airport, the future of Germany has never been so hotly contested.
The event of most significance in 2019 was the 30th anniversary of the Mauerfall, a somewhat anticlimactic moment that serves as a paradigm of the decade Germany has had.
Commemorations were surprisingly muted for such a momentous anniversary and, in the international media, November 9th passed with, at most, a nice picture of the Brandenburg Gate. Authorities at local and national level seemed unsure as how to best commemorate a triumphant event steeped in tyrannical tragedy, especially as the crisis of east-west division that it caused is still largely unresolved three decades on.
Indeed, 42% of Berliners still feel uneasy about the process of reunification, nationwide a trigger for the AfD’s rise. The resultant gestures, or “decentralised storytelling locations”, failed to capture the imagination. The total bill for the commemorations came to just €10 million, which, compared to the £120 million set aside for the Festival of Brexit, is notably restrained.
Whilst understandably keen to avoid the somewhat chauvinistic national displays of Britain, France and America and fully resigned to the fact that in 2019 there was not one way to tell the story of the end of the cold war and the collapse of Soviet socialism that everyone could sign up to, commemorations were like meringue: delicately beautiful, yet lacking in substance.
This almost embarrassed display of national identity has angered those who want Germany to be playing with the populist big boys. Sure enough, the AfD harnessed this in late 2019, now running with the slogan “Vollende die Wende” (Complete the transition).
Nevertheless, Germany only really hit headlines twice last year. In November, the Dresden Heist, in which a ridiculous €1 billion’s worth of Saxon treasures were stolen, made Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen combined look frankly small-time. The international reaction of awe to the irresistible sexiness of a brazen heist enraged Saxony's President, Michael Kretschmer, who tweeted “not only the state art collections were robbed, but we Saxons.”
Hollywood glamour aside, the robbery was an immeasurable tragedy and the bumbling investigation by a clueless Polizei fuelled the barrage of memes, that, I would risk assuming, Merkel neither understands nor appreciates – she just doesn’t give off the meme queen vibe.
Further tragedy struck in the last few minutes of 2019, when a blaze killed more than 30 animals, including rare apes and monkeys, at a zoo in the western city of Krefeld. Caused by fire lanterns released by three locals who ended the last decade as reflective Mitbürgerinnen and began the new decade as public enemies number one.
Germany started 2020 in a nadir: a tragedy capturing international attention; and with every German’s waking nightmare: an economic wobble.
But if last year’s anniversary proves one thing, it’s that Germans are made of sterner stuff.