Collect the Shards
While a singular, first encounter may set the tone for an experience, it’s a series of encounters that ultimately composes a symphony of revelation.
As time passes here in Berlin, I’m finding myself increasingly intertwined in a complex web of global perspectives. It’s like I’m collecting debris of conversations that have already taken place and of issues that just want to be worn out but are forced to endure. Amidst the rubble, however, there are strings of connectivity begging to be yanked into view of those averse to them.
On a day trip to Leipzig last week, NYU professor of Sociology, Thomas Ertman, led our group on a bit of an ad-hoc city tour. He guided us on a whirl-wind tour of the Saxon city, answering our questions between landmarks. Toward the beginning of our walk, he’d given us a quick debriefing on the previous, thriving fur industry that supported Leipzig’s economy. Jewish Leipzigers, actually, were the propellers of this long-running fur trade, but emergence of the Nazi power put an end to it around 1938. The talk of Leipzigian industry, however, got me thinking about the city’s current means. Clearly having moved on and away from trading fur, what’s Leipzig’s most prominent industry today? After passing a large construction site on our tour—the site of a future commercial shopping mall and the birthplace of famed Richard Wagner—I directed this industry question toward Professor Ertman: If not fur, then what?
Well, he said, much of Germany’s production is industrial. (But, um, not so much Leipzig). The Germans are highly skilled in the making of specialized parts and equipment necessary for large-scale manufacturing. They export intricate mechanisms that aid in the production of commodities elsewhere—in China, for instance.
In that moment, globalization—Germany’s regarded economic stability—clicked for me. Of course, it was just one very small insight into the driving forces behind the country’s success, but it was nevertheless satisfying: Germany produces the kinds of machinery that China—one of the world’s leading exporters of material, manufactured goods—needs. Demands. Absolutely must have. What a niche, Germany has!
Having felt the little bzzz that one gets from making a worthwhile realization, I was then excited to learn more about Leipzig’s—Germany’s—history on an afternoon museum tour. It was informative and necessary to hear the historical experience of the previously communist-run society, but my attention was still economically-oriented. At the end of our museum visit, I asked our new guide (no longer Professor Ertman) of Leipzig’s post-reunification recovery: How is the economic state of the city today?
Leipzig is colloquially known as Germany’s Capitol of Poverty (so, um, not so industrial). It has an extremely high unemployment rate, many homeless and even a fair number of neo-Nazis.
Really? I had no idea. The time-warped city masks its misfortune well, as architecturally-speaking, parts of Leipzig look rather grandiose. But alas, its façade is just that—a fancy, gilded expression…baroque exteriors that exude opulence in the midst of disparity.
I left Leipzig with a better sense of Germany’s 20th century struggle only to hear of its 21st century problematic: the residual.
Politician Hans-Ulrich Klose, former President of the Bundesrat (Federal Council), current member of the Bundestag (Germany’s parliament) and overseer of German-American affairs, spoke to our NYU bubble today regarding the two countries’ interconnectedness. He began by emphasizing the ability and need for one to view and reflect upon himself from the eyes of another; to attempt an alternate perspective—however unfavorable—in hopes of approaching a new level of understanding.
Hans gained this kind of exteriority—a heightened self-perception—after spending a year as a high school exchange student in the US. His peers raised questions that revealed a shocking degree of separation between the two nations; “Do you have electricity in Germany?” was one such question, baffling the teenager.
Since his time in America though, the politician has seen ties tighten. America, with over 160 billion dollars invested in German affairs, and Germany, with over 180 billion dollars invested in America’s success, have found themselves absolutely bound to one another. Such is the result of globalization, of course, but the alliance goes beyond economic expansion, resonating on an emotional level. Emotional and militaristic, that is.
The Berlin Airlift, for example, sustained Berliners through the dire situation imposed by the Soviet Union, and in more recent history, the German Bundeswehr has taken part in Operation Enduring Freedom. Though there isn’t much public support for this rare venture abroad, Germany’s simply decided to pinch its nose, turn its head and march unwillingly in the face of obligation. Parliamentary members such as Christian Schmidt have referred to German involvement as a “robust peacekeeping mission,” and nothing more. But an effort to keep peace with whom though, one might ask. Regardless, Germany marched and has hitherto sustained amiable relations with a fairly troubled United States.
While the United States’ aid during the Berlin Airlift and Germany’s participation in the War in Afghanistan are just two examples of the countries’ past—and present, actually—dependences, I mean to convey a greater like-mindedness…intimate engagement between the two that Klose hinted at in his talk. Each power commends the other’s progress and forward motion yet they are each hoping the other takes more initiative in addressing their problems; the US should be more readily handling its finances and implementing policy, while the Germans should be harnessing their central geographic and economic position and leading the EU. Responsibility, essentially, is the topic of debate.
And so here I am, sorting through experiences from a day trip to Leipzig and reverberations from a talk by Hans-Ulrich Klose, trying to turn the shards of pointed arguments into a more telling mosaic. To expose those strings of connectivity that I mentioned before. But I can’t quite make anything of them just yet; we can evaluate German-American relations, but then throw the Chinese on the playing field and we’ve got a thwarting, Eastern ideology and economy to address. In the most reductive of simplifications, I could say: Germany provides China with the manufacturing equipment that then allows the US to go forth, outsource and produce, but that triangle is far too closed-off to suffice as any sort of conclusion. So, call it a cop-out, but I’ll end with questions:
When faced with a harried past and an uncertain future, how does a nation navigate, or negotiate its next move? Who’s even in the market to negotiate? And what country’s people have the optimism and understanding to endure such negotiation?
Hans said he wanted America to remain the world’s leading power. He voiced a fair amount of optimism today—citing an American history of prowess and prominence. But how do you see the dots connecting?
Leipzig. Industry. Labor. Manufacturing. China. East. Production. Outsourcing. Whole-sale. Commercialization. Globalization. Expansion. Dependence. Inter-dependence. Resources. Market. Policy. Democracy. War. Leipzig.
Encounter. Engage. Experience.
Articles worth reading: