Living in Germany Today

Between 1945 and 1990, Germany was divided into a prosperous capitalist West Germany and a poorer Communist East Germany. Nonetheless, people in East Germany lived better than those in other Eastern European countries. Most had a television, a refrigerator, and a car even if they were of poorer quality and came with a high price and a long waiting list. The basics of life, such as food and housing, were cheap and there was no unemployment.

Unification brought about both economic and social challenges as East Germans wanted to catch up with West Germany. The federal government tried to help in this process, but there was hostility toward the higher taxes placed on residents of West Germany to improve conditions in East Germany.

In 2006, the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) ranked Germany as the twenty-­first best country in the world in which to live. Germany has an excellent education system leading to apprenticeship programs in 380 different trade, business, technical, and service occupations. A smooth transition from school to work also leads to career advancement within specific occupations and lower levels of underemployment among those who graduated 10 years ago.

Germany grew on a history of worker and business cooperation. This was supported by low business taxes, a low unemployment rate, and an excellent welfare system. In recent years, this situation has changed due to both local and international conditions. Rising unemployment has forced the government to increase taxes and lower benefits. Companies faced with global competition have resorted to decentralization of production by contracting out much of the work, thus reducing the size and power of labor unions.

The change to a postindustrial society means more workers are in white-­collar jobs and union membership among white-collar workers is only 20 percent, as compared to 50 percent for blue-­collar workers. Young people are not joining unions, as they are more interested in career development. Women, today, make up almost half of the labor force. They tend to work in part-­time, nonunion jobs.

Working conditions in Germany are generally good. The German worker has a 40-hour workweek or less, with three to six weeks of paid vacation and numerous public holidays. National holidays include National Unity Day (October 3), Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun, the seventh Sunday after Easter. Corpus Christi and Assumption are celebrated in Catholic areas. There are numerous harvest festivals, wine festivals, beer festivals, and historical celebrations at the local and regional level.

The slowing of economic growth and increase in unemployment has put stress on the welfare system. In 1996, the age of retirement for females was raised to 65, and there was also a significant reduction in sickness pay allowances. Although somewhat reduced, the health and welfare system remains excellent. A government health insurance program covers about 90 percent of the population and about 90 percent of all health costs. Assistance is based on income and family size.

Private insurance is also available and is cheaper for smaller families. Doctors work for both the private and public systems, so there is no difference in health care. The government provides housing for low-income families. When a person has put enough money into a special government savings plan, he or she becomes eligible for government housing loans. Rented accommodations are subject to rent controls to prevent sudden increases. Special programs encourage the redevelopment of inner-­city areas.

In 1951, Germany joined the Council of Europe and in 1955, became a full member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Germany changed its constitution to allow it to have armed forces, and compulsory service was introduced in 1956. Men are required to serve either 18 months in the armed forces or 20 months in other types of service. Germany’s army, navy, and air force have become the largest component of NATO in Europe. Germany also has a coast guard and border patrol.

In 2001, the U.S. war on terrorism almost caused the fall of the German government. For the first time since World War II, the government proposed that troops be committed to serve outside of the country. The Green Party strongly opposed this action. As part of the government coalition, there was a fear that the bill might fail and the government collapse. When the vote was taken, the bill passed by just two votes. As a part of NATO forces, German troops have helped attempts to stabilize Afghanistan and, more recently, provided humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of the latest conflict in Lebanon. Ordinary Germans, often reminded by their own turbulent history, lean toward pacifistic means of solving world problems. Antiwar feelings and a strong desire for peaceful dialogue among world nations are widespread.

Germans are known for their love of travel. Half of all adults take at least one vacation a year and many take both winter and summer vacations. Some enjoy skiing in the German, Swiss, or Austrian Alps; others prefer to visit the war Mediterranean beaches of France, Italy, or Spain. Germans also love to shop and visit large cities like Paris. Germans make more overseas trips than the citizens of any other country. The opening of borders within the EU has both increased foreign travel by Germans and brought more foreigners into the country.

Infrastructure

Germany has an excellent road, rail, air, and water transportation infrastructure. There are 143,898 miles (231,581 kilometers) of paved roads, including about 7,581 miles (12,200 kilometers) of expressway. Even though the Nazis developed the system of fast roads, Germany’s famous autobahns, they turned out to be a brilliant transportation idea. Today we could not even imagine Germany, Europe, and many other regions of the world without such superhighways.

During the U.S. occupation of Germany, Dwight Eisenhower was so impressed with the efficiency of such roads that upon becoming the American president in 1953, he ordered the creation of our own road network of interstate highways. Traffic congestion is a problem around German cities and the government is trying to encourage rail travel and public transportation. Downtowns often represent a transportation headache, because the centers of old European cities were not designed for automotive transportation, but for horse carriages to pass through narrow, winding streets.

Germany has 29,329 miles (47,201 kilometers) of rail lines. On some lines, trains travel as fast as 155 miles per hour (250 kilometers /hour). In fact, these trains can compete successfully with air travel within the country, because distances between cities are short and it often requires more time to drive to the airport than to reach the railway station. In recent years, the companies ThyssenKrupp and Siemens have been developing a new rail system that would revolutionize ground travel. They built a train capable of reaching almost 300 miles per hour while levitating on a magnetic monorail. Unfortunately, the first test ride ended in a disastrous accident in September 2006. Germans are, however, determined to continue with its development and implementation.

Navigable natural waterways and canals total 4,640 miles (7,467 kilometers) and allow travel from the North Sea to the Alps and from the Rhine to Berlin. In fact, one can travel by waterway from the mouth of the Rhine in the North Sea all the way to the Black Sea by the main European inland waterway system that connects three rivers: Rhine, Maine, and Danube. This waterway network is economically useful not only to Germany, but to all other countries on these rivers, from Austria to Romania in the east to France and the Netherlands in the west. There are 554 airports, 332 of which have paved runways. Frankfurt (FRA), Germany’s main international airport, is one of Europe’s three busiest. Road and rail systems in the east have been modernized and integrated with those in the west.

Entertainment and Leisure Time

Germany has the most technologically advanced telecommunications system in Europe, using cable, microwave towers, and satellites. There are about 55 million telephones, nearly 51 million Internet users, and some 80 million cellular phones. Germany has both private and public radio stations, including 51 AM radio stations, 787 FM stations, and Deutsche Welle, which broadcasts to the world. There are also 373 private and public television stations in Germany.

Germans also enjoy reading. Every large city has a daily newspaper with special Saturday and Sunday editions, and there are thousands of weekly publications. Laws prohibit any company from trying to gain monopoly control of the media. Most papers do not support any specific political party. There are more than 2,000 publishers producing more than 68,000 book titles a year, which ranks Germany among the world’s leading publishing nations, not far from publishing heavyweights such as the United Kingdom and the United States. The annual Frankfurt International Book Fair is the world’s leading book festival, attracting publishers from more than 110 countries. The largest publisher in Europe is the privately owned Bertelsmann Group.

On weekends, Germans like to attend spectator sports, or take an active part in sporting activities. Soccer and automobile racing are particularly popular. Germans also excel in track and field and in winter sports such as bobsledding and skiing. In fact, German athletes are among the most successful in the world and top performers in the Olympic Games competitions. Soccer, however, is king. The National team has won several world championships, but could only manage a third-place finish in the 2006 World Cup competition that Germany hosted.

Germans often visit friends and relatives and have meals together. Traditional elements of the German diet include meat, potatoes, and cabbage with rye and oat breads. Processed meats are also important, and cities such as Hamburg and Frankfurt got their names from this industry. Beer or wine is consumed with meals. Increased wealth means that today Germans also eat a wide range of “foreign” foods, including many American items. Postindustrial status has brought many positive improvements, such as a wider variety of available foods, in the life of ordinary Germans. Obesity, unfortunately, is not one of them. It is becoming one of the growing social and health-related issues throughout western Europe. The problem of obesity, omnipresent in the United States for many years, is rapidly spreading throughout the postindustrial world. Less-healthy diets and major lifestyle changes that make people increasingly sedentary and physically inactive have made the Germans feel the pressure of the expanding waistline.

Germans attend live entertainment as much as Americans do. Most cities have well-­known operas, symphonies, and live theater presentations that include both traditional and contemporary German, as well as foreign, plays. There are many art and film festivals throughout the country. Germany also has more than 2,000 museums and many libraries with historic collections; many are housed in fine examples of buildings from the medieval and baroque periods, which have survived the country’s many wars. Many new buildings have also been built. Much of the center of Berlin has been reconstructed over the past decade. A monument to honor Holocaust victims is being built on the site of the former headquarters of the Nazi secret police.

Although Germans face some problems, their way of life today is one of the most comfortable in the world. In the final chapter, we will gaze into a crystal ball and see what the future may hold for the country and its people.