My home country is being pulled into familiar conflicts
“It’s like you’ve never been away,” my uncle said as we raised a glass of herb liqueur to toast my arrival at his home in the Thuringian Forest a few days ago. Due to Covid, I hadn’t seen many of my German family members since Christmas 2019, and he was right, at first glance, nothing had changed. We sat on the same sofa, told well-worn family stories and drank too much of the usual local brew.
But things were different. As evening turned into night, the jokes about “Stasi-like” state control turned into serious conspiracy theories. The tension in the room was palpable as vaccinated family members said they had still not fully recovered their sense of taste and smell weeks after a Covid infection my unvaccinated uncle had brought into the house. The situation caused deep and permanent rifts in the family that even comforting Christmas routines could not heal.
Perhaps a day trip to the little mountain town of Lauscha, known for its glass-blowing heritage and beautiful handmade Christmas baubles, might restore some sense of nostalgia. A childish grin spread over my face as I wondered if they still sold the marbles I had loved so much as a child. But it vanished instantly as I was barked at to produce my “FFP2 mask, scannable proof of double vaccination and photo ID” at the entrance of each and every shop. With Christmas markets banned we couldn’t even find the traditional Bratwurst anywhere. The quaint charm of Christmas in Thuringia had dissipated under the social and economic strain of Covid.
When I moved on to visit friends and family in Berlin, this seemed less of an issue. Berliners are used to conspiracy theorists shouting their dramatic warnings in public streets. It took about two minutes from when I set foot on Alexanderplatz, the old social centre of East Berlin, until a woman shouted “Good morning” at me (it was 4pm) and insisted that if “you arseholes ignore me, the chips in your arms will be activated”. In Berlin, nobody bats an eyelid at this kind of thing. Covid just gave a new theme to an old phenomenon. Mad prophets of doom are just a part of the city’s rich social tapestry.
But there is real political tension in the capital. Over 80 percent of Berliners live in rented accommodation, the highest percentage in Germany by far, but rental costs have risen by nearly 21 percent since 2016. Despite the (chaotic) election of a new state government in September, many of my friends and relatives believe nothing will change. The city will soon become unaffordable to them.
Rent is not the only thing on their minds. I watched with detached bemusement as my old friends in Brandenburg argued over the virtue of ‘gendern’ (literally ‘to gender’), which is when both the male and female form of a word is used to avoid the principle of male as norm. The decision to do or not to do this in daily discourse has become an obvious hallmark of one’s political identity — a fact that annoys many apolitical Germans who chose the most convenient way of expressing themselves rather than making a conscious political decision.
I had looked forward to catching up with the comforting rituals that accompany my annual Christmas holiday in Germany, but despite the beautiful crisp winter weather, feelings of nostalgia were hard to conjure up this year. It seems as if the endless continuum of the Merkel years is broken. Where there used to be mediocrity with half-hearted grumbling, I now find a nation seriously divided and anxious.
The post-Merkel regime will have to find a way to deal with Covid, the lack of trust and the perceived lack of direction. Germany certainly is in desperate need of some tangible New Year’s Resolutions.