The Germans and their Cars
In Germany the car has become so much part of national identity. An apostil by Roger Boyes.
Not since the days of the Old Testament, of Job and Noah, has there been so much talk of natural disasters. Floods will soon sweep away cities; droughts will dry up lakes; skiing holidays will have to be cancelled. In the old days badly behaved children would be threatened with ogres and monsters that drank blood out of the skulls of infants. Now they are scared by the monsters of Climate Change. But the most frightened people of all are the men and women that make up the German government. Because the one true disaster that no-one wants to contemplate is the possibility that the ordinary German motorist might have to change to a smaller car. Or even walk to the supermarket. Any German government that asks such a sacrifice of its citizens is doomed. German chancellors have survived much in the past – corruption scandals, the scrapping of the Deutsche Mark, divorce and deceit. But no leader could persuade a German that his manhood works independently of the horsepower of his car. And any government that tried to challenge the speed limit fetishism of the Germans would lose an election.
The German male, let us face it, is in love with machines. Listen, in the pub, to men discussing how they take their cars for repair; an engine fault, a broken windscreen wiper is described with as deep concern as the broken ankle of a daughter. Women swap the telephone numbers of doctors and cosmeticians. Men – German men – discuss the merits of their mechanics. Only the very best are trusted with their cars. If a German man had the choice he would be buried with his Audi, his faithful steed. As for the purchase of a new car, the ecstasy resembles that heard in a maternity clinic. You can picture the scene: the midwife is urging the unfortunate mother to push harder and harder. Until, at last, she can announce to the proud father, “It's…it's a…it's an S-Klasse!”
German women have always been more pragmatic about cars. There is a famous saying: “For women, the car is a means to an end. For men, it is an end for which there is sometimes not enough means”. Yet it is a little bit more than that. For women, from Bertha Benz onwards, cars have been a way of establishing independence. No feminist revolution in Europe was so linked up with the car as that in Germany. The 1991 road movie Thelma and Louise showed American women how they could establish their own identity by driving a car – and escaping from traditional expectations and responsibilities. But the German woman had discovered the possibilities of a car long before Hollywood. Percy Adlon's Out of Rosenheim starred Marianne Saegebrecht as a Bavarian woman who begins a new life by getting out of the car of her husband on an American highway. The German man sees the car as an instrument of control over his life – and his wife. Hence the hidden aggression of many sayings about women in cars: “Frau am Steuer, das wird teuer”; or “Frau am Steuer – Ungeheuer.”
Tensions between men and women about their relationship to cars exist, of course, in other countries. Yet they seem to have a special quality, a particularly bitter edge, in Germany where the car has become so much part of national identity. There is a central paradox in Germany. On the surface it appears to be a country obsessed by the Autobahn; not just the lack of speed limits – though it will never cease to amaze me that tourists from China travel to Germany for the sole purpose of driving a Porsche at its maximum speed from one town to another. No, there are the high-speed trains, the ICE, the Transrapid. The whole engineering industry is built around the principle of maximising speed, rather than saving energy. And yet, and yet, there is no more immobile society in Europe than Germany. People would rather be unemployed and stay in their village than move 100 kilometres for a new job. The social system encourages stasis. Rent-laws make it unprofitable to move house. The different school systems make it almost impossible to transfer a child from a school in Berlin to a school in Bavaria. And the absence of whole-day schooling makes it difficult for women to commute to work. German men preach the benefits of an accelerated society but keep intact a system that has made Germany one of the slowest-moving cultures in Europe.
Cars have not always been an object of worship in Germany. Right at the beginning, there was a deep scepticism. Eugen Diesel, son of Rudolph, remembered how the people of Munich used to lament: “Und an Automobil is a Wagn, der net will.” That was in 1905: cars were stalling, exploding and falling off the road. Later, of course, the car became more sophisticated, more accessible and a symbol of the competition between men. But perhaps the scepticism is about to return. Not because cars are particularly dangerous to the individual – accident deaths are relatively modest in Germany thank, perhaps, to the airbag – but because their environmental damage could hurt our children. The first cars – Mercedes! – were designed to honour the daughters of inventors and engineers. Now, the climate protection propaganda is so strong that British politicians are cycling to work (although admittedly followed by a chauffeur driven car containing their documents and briefcases). Soon, perhaps in a generation, children will be mocked in Kindergarten because their father has a big car. New technology means that business meetings can be held by video-conferencing, without the need to hurtle down autobahns. And there is nothing glamorous about the traffic jams on the autobahn that mark the beginning of every school holiday in Germany.
And so the era of the big fat limousine may be about to pass even for the German man. How will he now measure his masculinity? By the size of his bicycle pump? With a gold Bahnkarte? There are difficult times ahead for the Germans behind the steering wheel.
is Germany correspondent for the London daily “The Times”. He has been living in Germany for 13 years and is author of the column “My Berlin” in the Tagesspiegel. In his book “My dear Krauts” he describes the peculiarities of everyday life in Germany with typical British humour.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion
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