Category Archives: Germany

Germany’s Only Natural Resource Is a Bunch of Whiny Nerds. And That’s a Good Thing.

This week I’m reading Michael Porter’s The Competitive Advantage of Nations. It’s an investigation of why countries are good at certain businesses but crappy at others. Why is Switzerland  good at making chocolates, South Korea good at making TVs and the United States good at making laptops in China?

There’s a whole chapter on Germany. We’re gonna need a bigger highlighter.

In Germany, the engineering and technical background of many senior executives produces a strong inclination toward methodical product and process improvement. […] These characteristics lead to the greatest success in industries with high technical or engineering content (for example, optics, chemicals, complicated machinery), especially where intricate and complex products demand precision manufacturing, a careful development process, after-sale service, and hence a highly disciplined management structure. 

Porter says Germany is a rock star at high-grade manufacturing (think BMW, Bayer and Merck) because as far back as the 1890s, German labor was expensive, so companies had to train workers and automate production to get the most productivity for their money. Germany still has years-long apprenticeship programs, and factory floors are apparently more likely to resemble a Bjork video  than a Dickens novel.

Another reason for Germany’s tech-nerd prowess is its lack of natural resources. Without an infinite spigot of oil, minerals or farmland, German companies got good at wringing every last mark out of their imports. When the rest of the world began to demand conservation and efficiency, German companies were there to meet it.

So Germany is a world leader in high-level exports not because it had natural advantages but precisely because it didn’t:

Disadvantages, […] such as high labor costs or resource disadvantages, have created further beneficial pressure. […] A good example is in the agricultural field, where farmland is scarce and labor expensive. The result is a pressing need for high productivity, and Germany had the greatest number of combines per harvestable hectare in the European Community in 1983. German agriculture also placed a very early emphasis on fertilizers as far back as the nineteenth century.

So where does Germany suck?

[…] An area where Germany has serious weaknesses […] is in the consumer sector. The historical lack of television and radio advertising (the major television channels can show advertising only about 20 minutes per day, with commercials all bunched together, and not on Sunday), coupled with the technical orientation of most German managers, means that image marketing skills are poorly developed.

[…] It is rare that a German firm succeeds in an industry in which intangible brand images and mass communication are important to competitive success. This is in stark contract to the case in America, Italy, or even Japan.

Porter’s book was published in 1992, so the specifics are out of date, but the general point still stands. Germans are visibly less image-oriented than their Italian, French, Scandinavian or British counterparts.

My personal theory on this is that the total eradication of social structures after World War II basically took the class system with it. The primary reason people are interested in fancy clothes, reflective shoes and asymmetrical haircuts is to demonstrate their class status, and in Germany that concept doesn’t really exist anymore. In France and Britain all of your consumption, from your clothes to your groceries, is class-coded. In Germany everyone pushes a cart around the dollar store in their sweatpants on a Saturday afternoon regardless of their income.

I think this still holds true too:

German buyers, both in households and in industry, are sophisticated and extremely demanding. Quality is insisted upon, and no one is bashful about complaining if it is not delivered. Buyers in the United States are often early buyers of new products or services but are not particularly demanding by international standards. German buyers may be somewhat later, but are among the toughest in the world.

‘Early adopters’ in present-day Germany are the people with two-way pagers.

Porter blithely notes that Germany’s dominance in high-end printing presses as far back as 1900 was partly due to the tendency of German consumers to complain to newspapers if they got ink on their hands. American readers didn’t put pressure on the periodicals, who never put pressure on the printers.

So in conclusion, according to Porter, if other countries want to emulate Germany’s success, all they have to do is torch their farmland, dismantle their oil pumps, overpay their workers and start complaining. Maybe Europe has a future after all.

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You See The Weirdest Things In Small-Town Germany

Schulzendorf, Germany, March 23

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Corbusierhaus, West Berlin

This weekend I got a tour of Le Corbusier's famous apartment block. I'll tell you what I learned:

Four identical buildings were built, two in Germany and two in France. Each is slightly adapted to its setting.

The French apartments, for example, have slightly lower ceilings since French people are shorter than Germans. Corbusier wanted the ceilings low enough so that residents could paint them without standing on a ladder.

I know it sounds like I'm making that up, but it's true. Architects are weird little dictators sometimes.

The Berlin apartments were built in 1957, as ammunition in a war of aesthetics between East and West Berlin.

Corbusier is often blamed—fairly or unfairly, what the hell do I know?—for the trend of up-built project blocks surrounded by empty green space.

In spite of all the criticism that idea receives, our guide insisted that this particular model was successful. The apartments are all occupied, there's a long waiting list.

Almost all of the apartments span two floors. Most of them consist of a narrow kitchen and living room above (or below, depending on which floor they're on) a big-ass bedroom.

The trim pattern is standard across all four Corbusier buildings, but the colors are customized to the location. These are apparently meant to evoke Northern Germany.

Indeed, staring at these you can almost smell a currywurst rotating.

All of the railings are specifically designed to be at chest-height of the average German.

The building is designed to face precisely north-south, to maximize the amount of sunlight that comes in.

The font is Corbusier's; the doodle, not.

The hallways have special corrugated roofs to reduce the echo effect you find in every other apartment hallway ever.

The walls between the apartments are thicker on the lower floors, since they're supporting more weight.

The apartments were built to isolate noise, but apparently Corbusier forgot about smells, and residents routinely complain about experiencing each others' dinners.

The laundry room was deliberately built too large for its purpose, so residents have to mingle with one another.

So the main thing I learned? If architects ran the world, our lives would be different in a number of ways. But mostly our laundry, our ceilings and our smells.

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Filed under Berlin, Germany, Pictures

World in Miniature

For some reason I've started taking long bike rides every Monday after work.

About 50 percent of the time I end up making it to Potsdam.

This is the bridge where West Germany met East for 46 years.

The thing I like about living in Europe is that all the cities look like model train sets from far away.

Up close, you see the effort in all the details.

and it makes you glad you took your time getting there.

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Filed under Berlin, Germany, Pictures, Serious, Travel

Sachsenhausen

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So Far So Goethe

Last weekend I went to Leipzig.

It's big and historic and charming, and you get the feeling that if it was in another country, it would be a majorer tourist attraction.

But since Germany is already so sardined with cute cities, it's like 12th on everyone's list.

The list of former residents reads like Germany's greatest hits: Bach! Mendelssohn! Schumann! Kafka! Wagner! Leibniz! Goethe!

The rich history informs current lifestyles. In the malls, all the dollar stores are called Faustian Bargains.

The bike share scheme is called The Ride of the Valkyries.

And the gyms have signs outside that say 'Metamorphosis!' in the imperative form.

OK, those are lies, but people here probably get those references.

Leipzig has the same basic biography as most of Berlin's surrounding cities:

City founded in random location un-near river, lake or major trade route.

City gains reputation through robust university and cultural life.

City significantly bombed in World War II.

City restored to snowglobe status by East German government.

The particulars are where it gets interesting. This is the monument to when Leipzig beat Napoleon in 1813. It's shaped like a middle finger, and the Latin inscription reads 'How's the weather on Elba, punk?'

The statues inside depict sullen teenagers, as a tribute to Germany's youthful soldiers at the time.

Shortly after this was built, Leipzig became famous for cotton production, pastries and Nazi resistance.

And you can still find two of the three here today.

In the '80s, Leipzig was a site of major resistance to the East German regime. Nowadays it's an overstuffed college town, full of students and artists gliding around on bike paths.

Only here they call them Bach lanes.

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Filed under Germany, Pictures, Travel

German Hospitals are Different

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Filed under Berlin, Germany

Berlin Street Art Walking Tour

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Filed under Berlin, Germany, Pictures

Living in Berlin Lesson #471

Germans react poorly to the salutation ‘hey punk’.

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I Live in a Socialist Dystopia

From a NYTimes article on Germany’s palsied domestic economy:

Now, German states can set their own shop hours, and most have lifted restrictions during the workweek — though Sunday is still taboo in most places. Florists and bakers are typically allowed to open a few hours on Sunday.

I cannot express how frustrating it is to live in a country where everything is closed on Sundays. I mean everything. Books, clothing, furniture, electronics, groceries: These are the things you will do without for fully 50% of your weekly non-working days.

When I first moved to Europe, I thought this would be something I would get used to eventually, like paying for plastic bags or  headlice outbreaks. But at least once per week I have the same inner monologue:

‘I need [household item]. I’d better stop at the store on the way home. Oh wait, it’s Sunday. … I’ll just do without that until next fucking Saturday.

The fact that florists and bakers are the only shops allowed to be open on Sundays somehow makes this even more insulting. It’s like the government is saying, We accept that human beings need items to live, including on Sundays. But we will only allow you to purchase supplies for government-approved weekend activities.

So if you want to read the newspaper, eat a croissant and fluff some tulips on a Sunday, the government will support you. If you want to fix your bike, get a prescription filled, buy furniture or make an actual meal, the government will  thwart you.

So enjoy it, America. Next time you wake up on a Sunday, buy a loaf of bread and make toast, you’re tasting freedom.

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Filed under America, Berlin, Germany, Personal