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Move Over, Col. Klink, It’s Time for Sgt. Schultz

Walter Russell Mead

Until very recently, Germany seemed to be more and more German every day. Bossing Greece around, lecturing Italy about austerity, telling France it was time for reform, upbraiding the U.S. about environmental policy and the need for tighter regulation of big companies, issuing demands to Europe about accepting more migrants—and smiling while they did it all.

But suddenly it’s looking a bit different. The VW scandal, which gets bigger and more embarrassing every day is taking the shine of Germany’s economic model, its commitment to green policy, its culture of honesty, and the competence of its regulators. The strong trumpet on the migration crisis is moving to something more, well, nuanced, with talk now about reducing benefits to immigrants. And mounting resistance to migrants around Germany is imperiling Merkel’s once impregnable position in the polls.

And then there’s the comic tale of incompetence, bad planning, and dolce far niente that is the Willy Brandt Airport in Berlin. Under planning since 1990, the airport wasn’t necessary because of a need for more plane space, or for economic reasons, or for anything so practical as all that—rather, it was supposed to be a grand symbol of reunification. As an excellent, darkly entertaining piece by Joshua Harris in Bloomberg in July recounts, the 2011 grand opening had to be delayed because of the discovery of design flaws that eventually numbered 150,000. 85,000 of these were deemed “serious.” The worst problems of all were related to its fire suppression systems, which were so dysfunctional that at one point the plan was just to have minimum-wage workers with walkie-talkies looking for smoke. Four years later, it looks like that still hasn’t been sorted out. The Times of London reports:

In the latest snag, officials have demanded that 600 interior walls be replaced as they are not fireproof.

Their ruling comes a week after the government ordered construction inside the main terminal hall to be stopped because the roof was in danger of collapsing under the weight of the ventilation system. The cost of delaying the opening of the Berlin Brandenburg airport — also known as Willy Brandt airport — is £15 million a month. It costs £100,000 a month just to clean the terminals that have yet to accommodate a single passenger.

The airport is now slated to open in 2017 at the earliest.

So is Germany becoming less German? Not really. The German national character, like all national characters, is complicated. The old American TV show Hogan’s Heroes, about U.S. soldiers in a German POW camp during WWII, featured two leading Germans at the camp: Colonel Klink, the disciplinarian, and Sergeant Schultz, who would always look the other way for a cigarette or a bottle of schapps. Clearly, the Brandt Airport and VW are more Schultz than Klink. The other Germany never really went away; Sgt. Schultz is still nursing his schnapps.

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