Frankly … social  Does the trick all right

Parking lot with many cars on a meadow, seen from above
A large parking lot is created from nothing Photo (detail): H. Blossey; © picture alliance / blickwinkel

Observing a pretty big local sporting event in a German village one morning, Maximilian Buddenbohm is amazed at how well it’s run – and by volunteers at that. So why can’t the whole country do that too?

Sometimes I have to go out in search of a story, which may mean going to local events or aimlessly roaming the streets for days on end, eavesdropping on passers-by in downtown Hamburg or riding round and round in circles on the underground, ever on the lookout for something I can’t even put my finger on. I may have to think long and hard: What could I possibly write about this month? But sometimes I wake up in the morning and the story for my next column comes to me, for it just happens to be taking place right outside my window, unfolding there as if I’d ordered it or dreamed it up. Like today.

I’m in a little village, not in the big city as always. Most of the time there isn’t much going on around here, at least not in the way of culture and events. Around here there are cows grazing, pigs standing about in sties, rapeseed, potatoes and grain growing in the fields. Folks round here drive to work in the next town over, which isn’t very big either. There are no restaurants left in this village, haven’t been any here for some time now. Not even a takeaway joint, no café either, nothing of the sort any more. Not even a corner shop. At least there’s still one baker left, plus a pharmacy and two gumball machines. Which beats other villages where nothing’s left at all. But this baker, as I read in the local newspaper the other day, is on his last legs too, just barely scraping by. It’s not really worth keeping going.

Suddenly cars, voices, shouting, laughter

But something’s going on here outside my windows today – and there’s a lot going on! I’m woken up by car doors continually slamming shut. A noise you don’t usually hear in the morning around here: your average morning here, about one car drives by per hour, if that. Now I hear voices, shouting and laughter: what’s going on here?

The sports ground across the street is to be the main venue for some long-distance races today, including a half marathon. However many kilometres they run, each of the various age groups will be starting and finishing here at various times over the course of the day. First up are the little ones, primary school kids, who are all excited. A sports day is a major event in these parts. Lots of cars are now parked on the field across the street, which is ordinarily a cow pasture. The ruminants are now sizing up all this strange bustle from a distance – they’ve been moved back a ways and fenced in anew. As the morning wears on, more and more cars park on the grass, creating a sprawling car park out of thin air. This is a red-letter day for the locals.

Volunteers are directing traffic, pointing the way, explaining the routing scheme and where to find toilets, water and other stuff. This whole event is run by the folks from the little local sports club. There aren’t that many helpers here and it’s all thanks to volunteers from this little village, who do this in their spare time.


Later on, during the races, live commentary, cheering and announcements are carried by the PA system across the fields. There’s a big marquee set up for a party afterwards, and there’s music. There are the usual food stalls, a whole bunch as a matter of fact. When an event of this kind “caters for the bodily needs” of those attending, as the local papers still inevitably put it, there’s bound to be at least some sausages, chips and beer – the lowest common denominator of German festival fare. But this one has more to offer, including tarte flambée, steaks, soft ice cream and burnt almonds. It’s practically a fair here, replete with tombola and bouncy castles for the kids. There are some paramedics standing by – or rather, sitting in the sun in front of their car. I’m amazed.

I cross the small – no, tiny – sports ground, which is actually just a patch of grass with two portable football goals on it, that’s all. I’m increasingly amazed this morning at what I see around me. Because I can see – and it’s really quite remarkable – how well organized everything is here. How masterfully they’ve gone about putting on this event, and how smoothly it’s all running. Those people from the sports club – you can tell who they are by their matching outfits – have everything so under control that it’s actually fun to watch them.

I walk past two young fellows helping to direct traffic in the makeshift car park. They’re busy adjusting the barriers  and one of them looks around and says: “I think our planning and logistics situation is looking pretty good.” Sounds like a line straight out of a documentary film, but that’s really how he puts it. The other guy nods, looks around with a grin too and replies with north German reserve, “Yep. Does the trick all right.”

Organizing skills in this country

It’s not that these organizing skills no longer exist in this country, I think to myself. The talent and know-how, even the organizational “vein” is still there. That’s easy to verify, you can see it right here, for example, outside my window, right now. This definitely looks like too big an event for such a tiny sports club to run, and yet it’s going fine, they’re handling it simply and doing a good job of it.

Why then are we – not necessarily you and I, but we collectively – why have we on the whole got so bad at organizing our own country? When exactly did that happen? Or were we actually never any better at it? Are we victims of a collective idealization of the past, having merely imagined that we were remarkably well organized and regarded as a model by other countries?

I’ve been mulling this conundrum since 2015. I remember exactly when it first struck me: when Hamburg’s main station was packed with refugees passing through, with their children sleeping on the bare floor, and for a long time there were no half-decent efforts to see to their most basic needs, not even drinking water or electricity to charge their phones, which can be a lifeline for them. That’s when it first occurred to me that any old volunteer fire brigade, any old football club would be able to sort this out in no time, literally overnight, to provide the bare necessities and cope with the situation in a reasonably well organized way. I know they can do it because they’re generally competent, very “together” people, super organized with plenty of get-up-and-go. But my city wasn’t able to handle it at the time, as I could see for myself. Why not? This is not a political question, mind you, just in case your thoughts have been drifting in that direction since the hot-button word “refugees” came up. This is about problems with organizing stuff, not the partisan divide on powder-keg political issues.

The problem didn’t strike me as intractable at the time. It may well have been in other cities – I’m no expert on these matters – but it didn’t look like an impossible task from what I saw of it.

Where’s the breaking point?

I’ve thought a lot about this conundrum ever since, especially during the Covid years. Which is to say, the years in which it became plain as day how much is poorly organized here, how little is well prepared here to handle big jobs, emergencies, unusual contingencies, let alone – perish the thought! – a real do-or-die test of our coping skills. This country’s a disaster – many people have felt that way about Germany over the past three years. And this is still a non-partisan issue: it makes no difference what people on the right or left thought of which Covid measures and when – because the long and short of it is that too many of those measures were simply not well enough organized. We can agree on that, I reckon, despite all the differences we may have on other scores and which we could argue about till kingdom come.

I used to think lots of stuff was better than it actually was. I had higher standards. I guess I was naïve. I thought we were more capable. Again, I don’t mean you and me, I mean all of us.

We ought to find out where the line is. The line between this little sports club out in the countryside and our ever-expanding administrative offices. There must be an inflection point, a breaking point, where things start to snap and buckle. I reckon we should be able to make it out, to see that up to that inflection point we can do it, everything works out all right and we even get a kick out of it. But then suddenly, from that point on, there’s nothing doing, we can’t hack it anymore. Things clearly go south from there. So where is that breaking point?

We ought to find it and then... I don’t know what then. But I do have an inkling that breaking and healing go together. Or so they say in medicine, which doesn’t prove anything for our purposes. Though it does make sense.

“Frankly …”

On an alternating basis, our “Frankly ...” column series is written by Maximilian Buddenbohm und Susi Bumms. In “Frankly ... social”, Maximilian Buddenbohm reports on the big picture – society as a whole – and on its smallest units: family, friendships, relationships.