“Oh to be German, where the biggest news this morning is the decision of the leader of the sixth-largest party in parliament to quit social media.” Thus spoke Tom Nuttall, a British friend and former colleague (he now has my old job at The Economist). Indeed, as so often, non-Germans in this country aren’t sure whether to smirk or gape at what the German press herd decides is newsworthy. Today it is Robert Habeck.
Habeck, it must be said, actually is sort of interesting. As I mentioned yesterday, he is an up-and-coming leader of an up-and-coming party, the Greens (who are now second in the polls, behind only Angela Merkel’s center-right bloc). You might see him as vice chancellor or minister in a German cabinet in the coming years. He also just became a victim of a hacker who released the online data of celebrities. But that’s not why everyone is talking about him.
They’re talking about him because Habeck reacted to the hack by deleting his Twitter and Facebook accounts completely. And that is considered radical nowadays. The hack was only one motivation. Another is a mistake Habeck himself made, when he absentmindedly said on social media that it’s high time for Thuringia, a state in the former East Germany that holds an election this year, to become “an open, free, liberal, democratic” place again. Big no-no. “What sort of prison have I been living in?”, replied one Thuringian snarkily, as thousands of others revved up their Twitter accounts.
It will blow over. The more interesting thing about Habeck’s decision is his self-reflection. He has long noticed, he said, that Twitter makes people aggressive, brings out the worst in people, makes people overreact, and kills concentration and thus deep thinking. And, he realized, “I’m not immune”. In effect, he has prescribed himself rehab. I like that attitude.
He also talked openly about his fear, as a politician, of losing his direct communication channel to supporters and opponents. I, as a journalist, also know that fear. And I, too, secretly loathe Twitter and what it does to me, to my attention, to the way we collectively decide what needs to be talked about. Because of that fear, I’m still on Twitter, albeit half-heartedly, which is arguably worse. Similar feelings prompted me, long before it became fashionable, to delete my Facebook account. I wonder when I will feel safe enough to do a Habeck on Twitter.
Many of my friends at home in America assume it’s super-cool to live in Berlin. It often is. But Berlin has its own kinds of nightmares. For instance, housing. Until about a decade ago, it was dirt-cheap compared to London or New York. But now it is becoming scarce and unaffordable, and this is stressing many people out. Then there are the Berlin attitudes. The locals are notorious for being cranky and rude. Many also have some strange, illiberal and statist ideas. Some (the hipsters) have inherited these from the fashionable leftism of the “old West”, others from the brute collectivism of the “old East”. (Berlin is the only of Germany’s 16 federal states to combine a Western and an Eastern part.) And sometimes all those problems combine. This is the case with housing.
The main reason why housing is scarce in Berlin and other German cities is that Germans — and especially lefty Germans — have for decades made life hell for landlords. The attitude is: landlord = evil, tenant = good. That’s why, compared to other Western countries, fewer Germans have invested in (i.e., built) housing in order to rent it out. At some point, regrettably, real-estate companies, with small armies of lawyers, moved in to take the place of other landlords. That only made the activists step up their campaign against the perceived evil, with even more restrictions. The Social Democrats, in their infinite wisdom, pushed through rent controls, which they’re constantly dreaming of tightening.
But if Berlin’s lefties had their way, they would make the problem even worse -- and ditch the constitution along the way. There is a ballot initiative under way, called “Deutsche Wohnen & Co enteignen”. Deutsche Wohnen is one of those real-estate firms Germans love to hate. And “enteignen” means “expropriate”. Seriously. They want to expropriate owners. Starting this spring, they’ll be collecting signatures (they need 20,000 to put it on a ballot), and the measure could come to a vote in two years. And you know something? Our sister publication, Tagesspiegel, commissioned a survey. A majority of Berliners, 54.8 percent, would vote for expropriation. Support, unsurprisingly, is strongest among the left, and in the east.
Je suis AfD
If you’re a regular reader, you know that we don’t mince words about populists, whether they’re on the left (see above) or on the right, as in: the Alternative for Germany (AfD). But that is irrelevant today. We’ve just heard that one member of parliament for the AfD, Frank Magnitz, was beaten up on a street in Bremen. The criminals appear to be three masked men, who clubbed him with a piece of wood, then kicked him when he was down.
Prosecutors are on it, and they better be. This is an outrage. When people try to compare today’s Germany to “Weimar”, I usually roll my eyes. But one reason why Germany is NOT Weimar is that Germans no longer tolerate violence, no matter by whom or against whom. When rightist mobs in Chemnitz go after foreign-looking people, democrats must oppose them. When migrants attack locals, democrats must oppose them. When rightists bash leftists, or leftists bash rightists, or anybody bashes anybody, democrats must oppose them. You probably won’t hear me say this again, but here it goes: Today, we’re all AfD.
Pining for Alexander the Great
On a lighter note, let’s talk about Macedonia. If you’re like me, you can’t pronounce that word without thinking of Alexander the Great. And of his horse, Bucephalus, and of the Gordian Knot, and of it all …
Sorry. I’m back in the office now. My mind wandered because Chancellor Angela Merkel will be visiting Athens this week. In recent years, that was usually reason enough for controversy, because many Greeks see her as a stern Prussian mistress who threw poor Greeks into the euro-crisis purgatory. Now, however, the Greek press is saying that Merkel will also be talking to the Greeks about “Macedonia”.
Recall that Greece, which also has a region by that name, and the neighboring country of Macedonia have, for about 25 years, been arguing about who gets to use the name. That’s because everyone wants a piece of Alexander, understandably. But the fight caused real problems, because the Macedonians (formerly part of Yugoslavia) want to join the European Union, and the Greeks have been blocking them. Then, last June, they struck a compromise. The Slavic country was to be called “Republic of North Macedonia”. The (North) Macedonians confirmed this name change in a referendum, but turnout was low, and the controversy is apparently not over yet. Enter Angela. She’s good at mediating, you know. As for me, I think I’ll dust off my Plutarch and re-read the chapter on Alexander.
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