Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Germany: How Christmas survived communism

East German woodcarvers who helped keep the Christmas market tradition alive are still in demand.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - December 25, 2013

BERLIN, Germany — Once upon a time, when there was a communist East Germany, a real-life Grinch stole Christmas and turned it into a “socialist festival for peace.”

However, the old tradition of Christmas markets continued behind the Berlin Wall.

Neither Jesus nor Santa was welcome in the atheist, anti-materialist East. And the authorities tried their best to decimate one of the region's long-thriving industries: the Christmas woodcarvers of Erzgebirge, the eastern Ore Mountains.

But the carvers kept their craft alive, continuing to produce nutcrackers, angels and even nativity scenes, albeit with new names.

Angels, for instance, were renamed “Jahresendflügelfigur,” or "winged year-end figurines."

“The names were rubbish,” says Dieter Uhlmann, who heads the Association of Erzgebirger Artisans and Toy Manufacturers.

But they enabled the trade to survive.

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Today, in Berlin's central Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market, Bavarian woodcarver Ernst Kraus slowly chips away at a life-sized and lifelike carving of a ram as throngs of holiday shoppers pass by. He says East German officials tried to turn Erzebirge's artists into factory workers who would make Christmas figures on lathes instead of carving them by hand.

“They wanted only industrial products for export,” he says.

But the communists failed to end Christmas and couldn't kill Erzgebirg, either.

The region’s woodcarving dates to the Middle Ages, when workmen flocked to its thriving silver and tin mines. They took to woodcarving to while away the long winter nights.

When the mines petered out in the 18th century, carving took over as the main industry.

Later, under communism, when the rest of East Germany raced toward industrialization with no eye to whether markets existed for factory goods, Erzebirg stuck to tradition.

“Business was good even in the GDR,” Uhlmann says of the German Democratic Republic, East Germany’s official name.

“There was a substantial export to the Federal Republic,” or West Germany, he says. “There were no restrictions because there was a clear demand.”

After Germany's reunification in 1990, management consultants brought in to evaluate East German state-owned industries found few of their products able to compete.

There was a two-stroke engine car made out of Bakelite, padlocks made from aluminum, and chicken hatcheries with more employees than birds.

Most of those factories were simply closed down and others forced to fire as many as half the employees from their bloated rosters.

But Erzebirg's wood carving business was an exception.

“After reunification, the state-owned carving units were reprivatized, but the scale of the industry remained the same,” Uhlmann says.

More from GlobalPost: Human rights: Is the EU failing one of its main missions?

Today, however, Germans from both sides of the former wall say Christmas faces a new threat: unfettered commercialization.

So much that the director of Rothenburg’s Christmas museum this year felt compelled to file an application to protect Germany's Father Christmas, or “Weinachtsmann,” from being overtaken by the American-style Santa Claus.

Across German cities these days, Christmas markets are more likely to feature plastic toysand amusement park-style rides than once-ubiquitous handicrafts.

But you wouldn't know that from a visit to posh Gendarmenmarkt, where there’s a steady flow of tourists and locals lining up to wind their way through a shop selling traditional Christmas handicrafts, a full display dedicated to carvings from Erzgebirg.

With a retail market of more than $150 million, Uhlmann says, “we're unable to meet the demand.”

Friday, December 20, 2013

Human rights: Is the EU failing one of its main missions?

Although the EU’s recent expansion into Central Europe was partly meant to improve human rights there, new members have been thumbing their noses at the old boys' club.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - December 20, 2013

BERLIN, Germany — When the Croatian soccer player Josip Simunic celebrated his team's victory over Iceland last month with a nationalist slogan from the country's World War II pro-Nazi puppet regime, thousands of fans roared in approval.

It sent a deafening wake-up call directly to the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels.

When the European Union expanded to include former Soviet bloc countries in Central Europe a decade ago, one of the motives was to speed the march of free Europe's ideas on citizens' fundamental rights into formerly repressive states once trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

Veronika Szente Goldston, of Human Rights Watch, says the accession process was the “single most important engine for change in those countries” at the time.

But a gathering storm of racial discrimination and ethnic nationalism suggests it may be failing.

The European Commission’s Vice President Viviane Reding admitted as much last year. Speaking at a conference on human rights, she said the EU was “very strict” when it came to criteria for joining the union.

“But once this member state has joined the European Union, we appear not to have any instrument to see whether the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary still command respect.”

Experts say that one reason is that the European Commission can’t be seen as a separate entity from the member states, meaning violators must effectively monitor and punish themselves.

As a result, the EU’s infringement proceedings — through which the commission can take member states to the European Court for violations — haven’t been implemented as often or as effectively as they could have been.

Article 7 of the EU’s recent Lisbon treaty enables the commission to enact sanctions against members or revoke their voting rights for serious human rights violations. But the rule’s widespread interpretation as a “nuclear” option of last resort has robbed the commission of one of its only enforcement tools.

“It’s never been used and it most likely never will be used because it’s formulated in such a way that the bar is set so high,” Goldston says. “Everyone’s shying away from it because they feel it’s too much. But there really isn't anything else.”

It's not just soccer hooligans causing headaches in Brussels.

Less than three months after joining the EU in July, Croatia faced the threat of sanctions — empty, it turned out — for refusing to change extradition laws that protected alleged war criminals who committed atrocities during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Serbia alleges that anti-Serb incidents are on the increase in Croatia following a ban on Serbian-language signs in the border town of Vukovar in November.

Croatia also banned gay marriages after a controversial referendum revealed that the public was keen on only the narrowest definition of the EU's “right to marry and found a family.”

Last year, Hungary repeatedly clashed with the EU over new laws that threatened the country’s judicial independence and freedom of religion in a battle many expect will resurface.

And new member states across Central Europe continue to draw fire for segregation and violent attacks against Roma. Amnesty International reported more than 120 beatings, shootings and stabbings over the past four years in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, where the authorities in one town built a wall to separate the Roma community in August.

Across the EU, social polarization, extremist rhetoric and ethnic tensions have increased both within and between member states, according to Blanca Tapia, spokeswoman for the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).

“Hate crime is a daily reality in the European Union,” Tapia said in an email. “No states are perfect.”

Rights watchdogs also warn that despite the headlines, rising extremism and discrimination and violence against minority groups can’t be ascribed only to new member states in Central Europe.

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The focus of attention on their performance has obscured shortcomings in the EU's internal monitoring system and the cultural biases of its older, western members.

In 2010, France forcibly evicted more than 1,000 Roma immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria and demolished more than 100 of their camps, drawing the European Commission’s ire for violating EU laws allowing freedom of movement throughout member states.

Greece, Italy and other older members have also drawn criticism for violations as the euro crisis has deepened resentment against immigrants and refugees from war-torn states in Africa and the Middle East.

“The EU seems to take human rights seriously only when it comes to candidate countries,” Goldston says. “I see it less as an issue about new member states than something that brings hypocrisy to light.”

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Germans worry Berlin is becoming too wealthy for its own good

A ban on Airbnb-style vacation apartment rentals is exposing differences over rising real estate prices and changing cultures.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (December 15, 2013)

BERLIN, Germany — Just like elsewhere around the world, internet sites for vacation apartment rentals such as Airbnb were booming here — until last month.

That’s when the city passed a new law banning the trade after residents complained that a spike in vacation rentals was exacerbating a housing shortage that has pushed up rents in a city famous for its relatively affordable real estate.

They also objected to what they said was an influx of rowdy tourists attracted by the city's famous, and famously cheap, nightclubs.

"We are creating the law so that the uncontrolled growth on the housing market is no longer possible," Michael Müller, the city senator in charge of urban development, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper.

That decision is raising objections from critics who say it will have little effect on rental prices, which they say are really rising because of the government's failure to encourage new construction.

But the issue reflects a wider debate about the kind of place Berlin is becoming.

Economically challenged since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 reunited the city’s two halves, the capital is finally getting rich.

This year, the economy grew faster than the national average for the first time.

The city that Mayor Klaus Wowereit famously called “poor but sexy” in 2004 may even soon work its way out of debt.

Those who oppose the ban on vacation rentals say it’s wrongheaded because it will put a brake on two of the main engines for economic recovery: the booming tourism industry and vibrant startup scene, which helped create some 30,000 new jobs this year.

Overnight stays by tourists rose to a record 26 million this year, and entrepreneurs founded some 32,400 new businesses, according to the Tagespiegel.

Airbnb — which has demanded clarification about how the law will affect residents who use the site to rent their own apartments when they’re traveling — says its guests alone generated more than $130 million for the city over a one-year period.

But others say that by raising prices, the boom is threatening to change the face of a city that has recently attracted a population of bohemian, creative types that have made it into one of the world’s most vibrant places to live.

Living here has been so cheap because when Berlin was divided, the former West Germany more or less paid people to live here. Even after reunification, the lagging economy and a glut of buildings east of the Wall kept rents so low that for 20-odd years, artists, musicians and leftists didn't really need jobs to survive.

This year, however, rents rose by a stiff 8 percent, steeper than in any other German city, according to the German Institute for Economic Research.

Despite the increases, the cost per square meter for a Berlin apartment remains about a third of wealthier cities such as Hamburg and Munich.

But like music fans who rebel when their favorite indie bands makes it big, no one seems particularly happy about the city's new wealth or its hip international profile, which old-timers blame for driving up the rents and attracting legions of American poseurs.

The ban on vacation apartment rentals is part of a growing backlash that has seen protesters attack investors at a business convention and anti-gentrification activists vandalize a newly opened hotel.

Set to be phased in over two years, the law will push as many as 12,000 apartments back onto the rental market, the government says.

That's not enough to influence housing prices, while the potential blow to the economy could be much more significant, says David Eberhart, spokesman for the Association of Berlin-Brandenburg Housing Companies.

“In Berlin, you have 1.9 million apartments, 1.6 million of which are used for rentals,” Eberhart says. “Compared to that, 12,000 is nothing.”

Critics of those battling to stop the city from changing say they’re almost certainly fighting a losing battle.

Among them, a Canadian architect named Matthew Griffin bought a derelict building in 1999 and converted it into a vacation rental property.

“Holiday apartments,” he says, “have been totally scapegoated.”

Monday, December 09, 2013

The world's best engineers are losing their mojo

Well-publicized public project failures may be threatening Germany's reputation for excellence.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (December 9, 2013)

HAMBURG, Germany — The Elbe Philharmonic Hall may become an architectural marvel that will revive this city’s fading glory — or go down in history as one of the country’s colossal engineering failures.

Sipping espresso in a cafe opposite the building site in Hamburg harbor, Josephine, a 28-year-old banker, says Europe’s second-largest port needs “something special” to attract big ships such as the Queen Mary.

“But I'm very disappointed about the problems and the cost — which has exploded,” she says.

Builders now expect the Elbe Philharmonic Hall — once budgeted to cost around $325 million and expected to be finished by 2010 — to tip past $1 billion even if all goes well and open in the spring of 2017.

Renowned for companies like BMW and Daimler-Benz, Germany has thrived for decades on an export-oriented economy founded on the clockwork precision of its engineering. Infrastructure-related products and machinery account for half the country’s exports.

Even during the euro crisis, German firms have capitalized on oil-rich countries' appetite for superlatives and maintained a coveted trade surplus with China.

But a series of high-profile failures are threatening Germany's longstanding reputation for speed and efficiency.

"It's bad for our good image," Walter Boerman, spokesman for a German engineering association, told AFP earlier this year.

Hamburg isn’t alone.

Once forecast to cost a mere $1.6 billion and be finished as early as 2007, the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport has already cost more than $4.3 billion, and there’s still no opening date in sight because no one seems to be able to unsnarl failures in the fire safety system.

In Stuttgart, estimated costs for a new, high-speed railway station deep beneath the city have ballooned to $8.8 billion from $6 billion. Entrenched local opposition and unprecedented engineering challenges make it impossible to predict the final bill or when the project will be completed.

Back in Hamburg, Heinrich, a 63-year-old businessman, calls the philharmonic hall’s cost “unbelievable.”

Perhaps, but not inexplicable — and not actually the fault of Germany's engineers, many believe. Observers say politicians and bureaucrats are really to blame.

In all three cases, city and state officials slashed budgets and moved up deadlines to get projects approved and win points with voters. In the process, they set their engineers impossible tasks, then ensured their failure by rushing the projects along.

For the Berlin airport, project planners scrapped a privatization deal that would have put a private contractor in charge of construction, liable for all the financial risk, in favor of creating a management structure that made it virtually impossible for the builders to succeed, says transportation and infrastructure expert Dieter Schneiderbauer of ECM Ventures.

“I'm positive that if they’d signed the general contractor agreement, the airport would have been opened in 2011 and would have run smoothly.”

Instead, a screwball contract structure put an inexperienced team of bureaucrats in charge of the builder and architecture firm.

Experts say the government set an arbitrary completion deadline for political reasons that had everyone scrambling.

When inspectors showed up to test the smoke alarms and ventilation system, no one could produce the right documentation or even demonstrate it actually worked.

“It was politicians mingling with contractors and putting demands on them,” Schneiderbauer said. “It was simply poor management rather than poor engineering.”

The Elbe Philharmonic Hall faced similar problems.

A storied commercial and financial center since the Middle Ages, Hamburg remains one of Germany’s wealthiest cities. Confronted with the fading importance of its port, however, the authorities launched one of Europe's largest redevelopment projects — dubbed the HafenCity— in 2000.

The original scheme was to convert a forest of cranes and warehouses into a media hub that would employ some 40,000 people along with other businesses. But as the media business began to decline, the city targeted tourism instead, and plans for a simple shoebox were shelved in favor of a concert hall designed to do for Hamburg what the Opera House did for Sydney.

“We decided the HafenCity couldn't work without culture,” city cultural department spokesman Enno Isermann said.

First imagined as a modest cultural project, it was given a bargain-basement budget and assigned to the city's culture department rather than an agency more experienced in infrastructure projects.

As the blueprints expanded to incorporate a high-rise hotel, 45 multi-million-dollar apartments and three concert halls that would present an unprecedented engineering challenge, Hamburg put bureaucrats schooled in scheduling festivals sandwiched between one of the world's most renowned architecture firms and Germany's largest construction company, Hochtief.

With a new contract that makes clear that Hochtief is running the show, the company and the city say the project is now weeks ahead of its revised schedule and slated for rapid completion.

Still, the original plan has already cost the city millions of dollars in legal fees and years of delays as a spat between the architect and builder inched through the courts.

“This was the main problem for the whole project,” said Bernd Pütter, head of corporate communications for Hochtief. “It's so complex, not only in terms of the technical equipment but also in terms of the contract.”

Inside the construction site, observers can already see signs of breathtaking results in the bare bones of the steep-sided main concert hall and penthouse apartments, where peaked ceilings follow the contours of the building's tent-like roof and reflective, bubbled glass walls offer a panoramic view of the harbor and steeples of the city's many churches.

The entire 12,500-ton main concert hall rests on giant spring assemblies to insulate it from the vibrations of passing ships. And renowned acoustics expert Yasuhita Toyota had to design and redesign a special new material for the “white skin” of the walls due to the especially steep seating: The audience will surround and loom over the orchestra in another first-of-its-kind design.

“It's like an acoustic panic room,” said Joachim Mischke, chief culture reporter for the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper.

But setting the bar so high created serious problems, both in terms of project execution and public perception.

At nearly a billion dollars, the price tag is ten times the then-controversial $100 million bill for the Sydney Opera House, completed in 1973, and the $89 million bill for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, finished in 1997.

Despite the obstacles, there’s optimism the price will be worth it. More than a million people attend events at the Sydney Opera House and another seven million tourists show up to gawk at the building each year.

Hamburg arguably has both a larger audience to draw from and a more compelling claim to status as a center of musical culture.

Both Felix Mendelsohn and Johannes Brahms were born in Hamburg. Gustav Mahler was its opera director before he moved to Vienna to make his name.

Even the Beatles got their start in clubs on the Reeperbahn in the city's mammoth red light district. “I might have been born in Liverpool,” John Lennon once said, “but I grew up in Hamburg.”

“No other German city has such a large tradition and history,” Mischke says.

If all goes well, the Elbe Philharmonic Hall could be the next chapter.