• “Work is no pony farm,” Andrea Nahles, head of the Federal Employment Agency warned the younger generation recently in a statement that went viral on social media. The comment can be translated in English as “Work is no walk in the park” and the former Social Democratic Minister of Labour indicated that the young should prepare to work more.

    But they don’t want to. What they want is a better work-life balance. In a survey last year, 57 percent of young people between 16 and 29 said that their private life was more important to them than their professional career.

    With the retirement of the “boomer” generation, Germany will face a lack of seven million people from the workforce by 2035. This also poses a challenge to the financing of the pensions. The state is likely to fund large parts of the difference – and someone needs to pay taxes for this.

    Although German journalists are regularly insulted, mainly by right-wing activists, for being “state media”, most people here have no idea how a state media really functions.

    Three years ago, I spent two months working for a genuine example of such a press: Vaticannews – an online portal owned by the Vatican that disseminates information about the Pope’s activities, the Vatican, and Catholic teaching worldwide.

    As a journalism student looking for an internship, I thought Vaticannews would be an interesting place to learn my craft. It was certainly interesting. However, I didn’t learn so much about journalistic techniques, but more about the boundaries which journalists can face.

    Not surprisingly, my own report into the workings of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did not get very far. This is the successor authority to the Inquisition, responsible for keeping Catholic doctrine pure. A background discussion with one priest working for the congregation did take place, but led to little actual information.

    When afterwards, I sent a question about a pending case concerning the verification of an apparition of the Virgin Mary, I received a rebuke, more or less indicating me that I — as an intern of a Vatican media — should have been instructed by my colleagues not to report on such controversial issues.

    What I found surprising was that there were tangible diplomatic interests of the Holy See that we had to take into account in our reporting. Human rights violations in China? Difficult.

    The Pope has been trying to negotiate with China for best protection for Catholics in China who are recognised as being members of a sort of “official” Church by the Chinese state.

    In order not to jeopardise these negotiations, the bosses at the press told us to avoid criticism of China. This seemed to me to be grounded in a rather worldly consideration.

    Back in Germany, I felt relieved that finally again, I was allowed to devote myself to the sacred goals of critical journalism.

    Germans do not see strikes as an option for political advancement. Strikes for political aims are de facto banned. Withdrawing one’s work is considered only a means within a labour struggle, but not for any other goal.

    But last year, I learned that a strike once had a major impact on the political landscape in Germany: In March 1920 a giant pro-democratic general strike prevented a right-wing regime from coming to power for 13 years.

    I came upon this event in an autobiographical account by my great-grandfather, who was a mayor in a small German municipality during the First World War. Apparently, he was one of the co-founders of the local group of the far-right Deutsche Vaterlandspartei (German Homeland Party).

    In March 1920, the Treaty of Versailles obliged Germany to reduce its troops immensely. But some anti-democratic forces in the military refused to dissolve their troops and challenged the newly elected government in an attempted coup. As an anti-democrat, my great-grandfather supported the coup openly. The putsch failed, and he lost his job.

    Why did the putsch fail? That’s where we come to the striking part: on the one hand, the putschists had no common plan.

    Most significantly, 12 million pro-democratic workers stopped their work for several days, and showed that the infrastructure and means of production was in the hands of the people and the people did not support the coup. Without buses, trains, newspapers, telephones or mail, and in Berlin without water and electricity, the regime couldn’t hold onto power.
    In his text, my great-grandfather wanted to convey some doctrines to his descendents which to me seem rather frightening.

    But what I learned was something different: although I tend to be suspicious of the collective will of the German people, there was one moment when it performed a powerful, pro-democracy action.

    Markus von Willert is the editor of waldhilfe.de, an advisory website for private forest owners. He has also worked as a forest & sustainability expert for the Federal Association of German sawmill and timber industry (DeSH).

    What are the challenges for forest management in the face of climate change?

    The transforming conditions are mainly noticeable in changed rainfall, drought and heat. All this leads to stress and the weakening of the trees, which then allows bugs to invade the trees more easily. An example of this is the European spruce bark beetle, which has attacked huge stands in Germany in recent years. As a result, the forests are collapsing. So far, the focus has only been on softwood. Where they grow in man-made monocultures and at higher altitudes, they are very unstable. We knew that already. But now we are also seeing a weakening of forests where we would never have expected. Even near-natural beech forests are suffering from climate change.

    How do we need to transform the forests so that we can continue to harvest wood in the future?

    We need to find a way to still gain wood from trees, because we will urgently need them in the next decades, for example in buildings. On the other hand, we need to think about how to make them more resilient: Less vulnerable to stress from drought, heat and bugs. This will not happen quickly, however, because the choices we make for forests today will have to last for up to two hundred years.

    What do you recommend?

    Risk diversification makes the most sense: it is recommended to mix different tree species and also to include foreign tree species in the mix. However, this often clashes with conservationists, who classically only want native tree species in the forest. But our climate will no longer be “natural” anyway. Mediterranean tree species or those from North America may have a much better potential to cope with the climate in a hundred or two hundred years’ time.

    Building more is not the way to solve the housing crisis. Furthermore, it fuels another crisis: climate change. The building and construction sector accounts for almost 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Eight percent alone are caused by cement production. Maybe we simply should build less.

    There is not really a shortage of living space in Germany, but we are facing a problem of distribution instead: Elderly people are continuing to live in the houses where they have raised their children, and these children are struggling to find a flat on their own. The amount of single households is rising, and all of them need a kitchen and a bathroom for an individual occupant, which means a lot more square meters.

    Since 1960, the average available living space per person has increased by almost one and a half times: from 19 square meters to almost 48 in 2021. In Berlin, 25% more living space has been built since 1989, while the population has grown by only 10%. But even today, poorer people live in overcrowded apartments.

    What we need is a change of perspective: we need to look for solutions on how to share the housing space we already have. This could mean swapping apartments between those who need more space and those who don’t, and developing new models of living. If we push these solutions, we could build much less – and reduce climate pollution, which is urgently needed.

    Our house is on fire, as Greta Thunberg has put it. We should extinguish the flames burning the house we already have – by building less.

    Things are finally moving. The German government of the Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals is planning to liberalise the immigration law: naturalisation should be possible earlier and foreign professionals should be able to find a job in Germany more easily in the future.

    This change would recognise that Germany is an immigration country. It has been for decades. The strength of Germany’s post-war economy would never have been possible without the “Gastarbeiter” (“guest workers”) recruited in the 1960s.

    Acknowledging that Germany is an immigration country immediately calls on those who have nurtured their racism for years and have campaigned against more liberal immigration laws. A few days ago, a conservative politician complained that German citizenship should not be “sold off”. And the leader of the Christian Democrats said: “German citizenship is something very precious that must be handled with care.” Even within the government, the liberals are somewhat hesitant.

    It is striking, however, that leading business representatives are calling for liberalisation. Germany needs immigration: about 400,000 workers per year are missing. The boomer generation will soon retire, and then their labour will be lacking.

    What’s sad but true is that Germany’s prosperity is also based on some level of well-cultivated racism. How else could one comfortably justify allowing migrant workers to work under much worse conditions than their colleagues who are considered Germans? How else could one tolerate the gross violations of health protection of migrant workers in the meat industry during the pandemic? The blatant injustice of not paying workers at all on the construction site of the prestigious Mall of Berlin?

    So the conflict will not be so easy to pacify. Not only because a part of German society is simply so ideologically stubborn. But also because racism has a tangible function for the interests of the German economy.

    A few months ago, as I was rummaging through old stacks of paper I had stored in my grandmother’s attic, I found a letter from 2007 that the assistant to then Chancellor Angela Merkel had written to me and my sister.

    It was in response to an appeal for which we had collected 364 signatures in our high schools, asking Merkel not to put the interests of the German auto industry first, but to keep her promise and treat climate protection as a top priority.

    Kind words were the response, informing us how strongly Merkel is committed to climate protection. Reading this answer, one could immediately feel how shallow these phrases were.

    Today they seem to be even more superficial, as we are light years away from adequately protecting the climate. The crisis has worsened. This year’s October in Germany was 3.8 ° Celsius warmer than the average of any October since 1881.

    I see the activists of today and remember how desperate I was fifteen years ago. I remember the sleepless nights thinking about what I could do to raise awareness. How I decided to organize a conference for my school about the threat of climate change, to at least do something.

    And I remember resigning myself a little later because nothing was going to change anyway as a result of my desperate “activism”. That I was a lonely teenager who had no influence on political decisions.

    For today’s young activists, it must feel even more like it’s too late and too little. For me, however, seeing their actions feels like a relief. Worrying about climate change is no longer an isolated perspective. Today’s fight for climate action is being waged collectively and is more powerful. It’s the fight of a generation that is willing to use more radical means to make its voice heard. That gives me a little hope. Even if the shallow phrases about not acting still sound much louder.

    Last week, 24 deputies of the governing Green and liberal FDP parties published an appeal calling for more German initiative in a European restructuring of the weapons deliveries to Ukraine.

    However, not a single member of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s SPD signed the appeal, even though its chairman, Lars Klingbeil, acknowledged a day earlier the party’s misjudgments toward Russia in recent decades as clearly as never before.

    Even today, the party is still struggling to come to terms with its own “Zeitenwende”, the historic shift in German foreign and security policy declared by Scholz on February 27.

    Matthias Quent is a sociologist and expert on the far right. He teaches at the Eastern German University Magdeburg-Stendal, where he also co-founded the Institute for Democratic Culture.

    Concerning the recent rightist demonstrations in the eastern part of Germany – are they rather a “grassroots” uprising or organised by some central players?

    It’s a bit of both: on October 8, we had the big demonstration called “Energy security and protection against inflation – our country first”, organised by Germany’s far-right party AfD with more than 10.000 people in Berlin. It was the only big demonstration in recent times: we mostly see decentralised gatherings being part of networks which have emerged during the pandemic.

    Can the huge financial aid from the government help to keep rightist protests down?

    What we see just now are no social uprisings, we see nationalist uprisings. They are campaigning against migrants as well as against covid prevention measures and mixing it up with the energy topic.

    Of course, good social politics is extremely important to prevent discontentment among those who do not yet identify as far right, a discontentment which may be instrumentalised by nationalist players. However, nationalism is present anyway, it doesn’t need an energy crisis to emerge.

    There will also be real social protests during the upcoming weekend by left-wing groups trying to differentiate themselves clearly from alleged social protests of the right.

    How strong is Russian influence over the German far right?

    It’s difficult to say. On October 3, Björn Höcke, a right-wing exponent even within AfD, held a speech in Gera where he explicitly stood up for a pro-Russian agenda. Of course, one popular argument of the far right doesn’t work anymore now: the call for opening Nord Stream 2.

    Although there is no renewed proof of concrete Russian influence in recent times, it doesn’t seem that the far right is dependent on it so much: it is strong in eastern Germany anyway.

    Johannes Hillje is a political consultant with a focus on pan-European communication and author of the book “Plattform Europa”, in which he elaborates his vision for a vital European public discourse.

    Mr. Hillje, you are critical of the way public spheres in Europe are still generally organised on a national basis. Why?

    Although there is a lot of reporting on European issues in different national media, it is nearly always filtered by national interests. In most cases, the preferred perspective is: What is ‘our’ national benefit from a decision? But not: How does it serve our common European interest? 

    What are the risks?

    Overall, this causes a democratic problem because we are living in a common political system. The nation states have handed over a considerable amount of decision-making power to the EU. Our common political institutions make decisions influencing the lives of all of us on a daily basis. But we don’t have a common and public democratic debate in which we could discuss these decisions together. 

    In addition, national governments will continue using this absence again and again for a blame game: Responsibility for unpopular decisions is often blamed on Brussels, while popular decisions are claimed to be taken by the national capital. There is hardly anyone correcting the stereotypical depiction of the EU or the other member states. So you can easily nourish anti-European sentiment. 

    What do you suggest?

    In general, we need more shared communication spaces and truly European mass media. I also envision a real big shot: A common, publicly-owned digital European communication platform providing the infrastructure for a pan European discourse. It should provide not only news on European matters, but also entertainment and cultural content advancing a European identity.

    We should have political talk shows with European politicians and series, which tell stories of Europeans living together, for instance in border regions, during Erasmus or Interrail. And it could enable a truly pan European exchange including artificial intelligence-supported translations or virtual reality meetings.