Germany is a country in transition that is constantly looking for new ways to redefine itself. About the size of Montana but home to Western Europe's largest population, Germany has once again taken a leading economic and political role from its position in the heart in Europe, where it often bridges the divide between East and West. The land of "Dichter und Denker" ("poets and thinkers") is also one of the world's leading export countries, specializing in mechanical equipment, vehicles, chemicals, and household goods. Germany is both deeply conservative, valuing tradition, hard work, precision, and fiscal responsibility, and one of the world's most liberal countries, with a generous social welfare state, a strongly held commitment to environmentalism, and a postwar determination to combat xenophobia. Reunited after 45 years of division, Germany maintains an open dialogue about the darkest aspects of its history while simultaneously thinking toward the future.
In the 1950s and 1960s, West Germany invited migrants to come work on projects to rebuild after the Second World War and fuel the postwar economic boom. "Guest workers" from Italy, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, and above all Turkey provided cheap labor. The Germans assumed these guest workers would only stay temporarily, so they provided little in the way of cultural integration policies. But many of these migrants were manual workers from the countryside with little formal education, and often they did not want to return to their economically depressed home countries. Instead, they brought wives and family members to join them and settled in Germany, often forming parallel societies cut off from mainstream German life. Today, Berlin is home to the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey itself, and even claims to be the birthplace of the döner kebab, the ubiquitous fast-food dish. However, Germany has fumbled somewhat when it comes to successful integration. Germany is historically a land of emigrants, not immigrants, but its demographics are undergoing a radical shift: the country recently became the second-most-popular migration destination after the United States, and one in three children in Germany today is foreign-born or has a parent who is foreign-born. In recent years, anti-immigrant sentiment has given rise to far-right nationalist parties, but their demonstrations are usually wildly outnumbered by much larger counterprotests.
Germany, the world's fourth-largest economy, was the world's largest exporter until 2009, when China overtook it. The worldwide recession hit Germany squarely, though thanks to a strong social network, the unemployed and underemployed did not suffer on the level we are used to in the United States. In Germany, losing your job does not mean you lose your health insurance, and the unemployed receive financial help from the state to meet housing payments and other basic expenses. More recently, Germany has been a bastion of economic strength during the eurozone crisis, maintaining a solid economy while countries like Greece, Spain, and Portugal have entered into economic tailspins. By far the most important economy in the European Union, Germany, with its traditional, don't-spend-more-than-you-earn culture, has a strong voice in setting the EU's economic agenda. It took center stage following the euro crisis in its negotiations with Greece over further bailout packages. Germany was seen as taking a hard line against Athens for not repaying its loans, and many noted Berlin’s approach was perhaps best understood by the fact that the German word for debt, Schuld, is the same word for guilt.
Germany has a well-deserved reputation as a land of engineers. The global leader in numerous high-tech fields, German companies are hugely successful on the world's export markets, thanks to lots of innovation, sophisticated technology, and quality manufacturing. German cars, machinery, and electrical and electronic equipment are all big sellers. But recent years have seen a series of bloopers. Three major building projects in Germany—the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg; Stuttgart 21, a new train station in Stuttgart; and the new airport in Berlin—have run way over budget and dragged on for years. Of the three, the airport is the most egregious: originally planned to open in 2010, Berlin Brandenburg Airport has suffered delays due to poor construction planning, management, and execution (in 2012, the airport canceled its grand opening only days before flights were scheduled to begin). No one knows when it will open, and numerous politicians have expressed concern that failures like these will tarnish Germany’s reputation as a country of can-do engineers.
The Germans are not big fans of Facebook. With good reason: following recent experiences of life in a police state under both the Nazi regime and the East German state, they don't like the idea of anyone collecting personal information about them. Germany has some of the most extensive data privacy laws in the world, with everything from credit card numbers to medical histories strictly protected.
To the Left, to the Left
By American standards, German politics are distinctly left-leaning. One thing that's important to know is that the Germans don't have a two-party system; rather, they have several important parties, and these must form alliances after elections to pass initiatives. Thus, there's an emphasis on cooperation and deal-making, sometimes (but not always) making for odd bedfellows. A "Red-Green" (or "stoplight") coalition between the Green Party and the socialist SPD held power from 1998 to 2002; since then, there has been a steady move to the center-right in Germany, with recent reforms curtailing some social welfare benefits and ecological reforms. In 2005, Germany elected the first female chancellor, center-right Christian Democratic party member Angela Merkel. A politician from the former East Germany who speaks Russian, Merkel has enjoyed much popularity.
In the early 2000s, Germany began moving away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, a policy known as Energiewende—literally, “energy transition.” The transformation is a role model for many environmentalists, and thanks to aggressive government legislation over the past few decades, Germany is a leader in green energy technology. In 2014, 26% of the electricity produced nationwide came from renewable sources.
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