Reflections along the Rhine: German society on parade

WHEN I was living in England, in the mid-'60s, I attended a lecture at Oxford University in which the professor compared English and German manufacturers. Visit a factory in West Germany, he said, and the director would point out all the recently installed new equipment and boast about how much more productive it was than the old. Visit a similar establishment in England, however, and the manager would proudly show you the machines built in the 19th century and marvel at how well they were still working. At that time, the idea of English industrial decline was just beginning to work its way into public consciousness. There were, to be sure, negative balance-of-payments reports in the press and some public worrying about the future, but the worst was still to come.

Some 20-odd years later, on a recent trip to West Germany, I walked down a street in D"usseldorf. A man stopped me because of the cameras I was carrying. I mumbled something in German about their being Japanese. ``Of course,'' he said, quickly shifting to English. ``I have a Nikon myself. I was interested in them because they're so old.'' And so, like a good English industrialist of the '60s, I noted proudly that my 1970 Nikkormat had never been repaired and was still working fine. But I had to admit that the 1972 Nikon F had just been in the shop.

Germany is not without its problems, but it looks, frankly, more prosperous than the United States. In Germany, even the taxis are Mercedeses.

Yes, one of my taxi drivers was a Yugoslav Gastarbeiter (guest worker) who had been laid off by the factory where he had first worked when he came to the country 18 years before, but he was economically OK now and content with his lot. He was also decently dressed, friendly, and polite.

I couldn't help comparing him and other drivers I met with an arrival in New York City where I had been hauled into Manhattan in a rattling junk heap driven by a surly young man in cut-offs and an undershirt.

``Junks,'' as we call them, are not allowed on the road in West Germany. Each car must be inspected for soundness every two years and, if found to be deficient, repaired. And people do not walk around in junk clothes, either. A Martian judging relative prosperity in the two countries on the basis of dress alone would also decide in favor of Germany, for Germans do not walk down the street, either out of choice or necessity, in rags. (Certainly there are social protesters in Munich who walk down the street in no clothes at all, but that's another matter.) Whether on weekdays or weekends, a uniformly high standard seems to prevail. This is most noticeable during that ganz typisch deutsch institution, the Sunday promenade.

I happened to be in Cologne on a Sunday afternoon, walking along the Rhine, when I realized that I was part of a stream of hundreds, if not thousands, of people out for a stroll. Everyone proceeded at a measured pace, the men in suits and ties, the women similarly dressed up. Middle-aged couples held hands, while the young people had their arms around each other. Children trotted alongside their parents, and all ages and classes could be seen lingering over ice cream purchased from the sidewalk vendors along the way. It was a scene in constant motion but perfectly soothing. Georges Seurat's ``La Grande Jatte'' is alive and well in Germany. Americans have nothing like it.

Certainly US city dwellers rush to the parks and beaches on weekends, but theirs are generally individual pursuits. A German promenade is different. It gives off a sense of social cohesion, solidity, and strength. This was especially brought home to me by the presence of the young people. While dressed more informally than their elders and even sometimes moving in the direction of the outrageous, they were nevertheless there with the rest of the society, taking part in its rites.

The reverse side of the social-cohesion coin, of course, is conformity, and those nudists in the Munich parks are making the ultimate protest against that. But the US doesn't have to worry about conformity. We are a nation of incredible diversity. In the past we have been able to turn that diversity into a strength. But today we are a country where one of our cities, Miami, has 119 nationalities represented in its school system. We are a country where the quality of our schools varies from superb to impossibly bad. James Fallows, in an illuminating series of articles written from Japan for The Atlantic, has pointed out that, educationally, the highs there are no higher than ours, but our lows are so much lower. This means that we are a nation of incredible extremes of wealth, education, and power, and this is a serious problem. As Abraham Lincoln pointed out a century ago, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

President Lincoln was willing to wage war to preserve the political union. Today we must be similarly committed to the idea of bringing all residents of this country into the mainstream of society. Only a socially cohesive society will have individuals willing to work together for the common economic good. Only a socially cohesive society will have the moral strength to make the sacrifices that may well be required to solve some of our pressing trade and budget problems. The warning signs are there, just as they were in England in the 1960s.

If we do not face these issues, I won't be the only American wandering through the world pointing proudly to outdated equipment that, glory be, still works - assuming we still have enough money to travel.

Carolyn Ulrich is a garden columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and teaches English as a second language in Chicago.

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