About the size of Montana but home to Western Europe's largest population, Germany is in many ways a land of contradictions. 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. It's a country that 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. But Germany, which reunited 22 years ago after 45 years of division, is also a country in transition. The long-standing, unwritten taboo against displaying German flags lifted during the 2006 World Cup, and as the horrors of World War II, though not forgotten, recede, the country is in the process of working out a new relationship with itself and its neighbors.
During the "Wirtschaftswunder," the postwar economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s, West Germany invited "guest workers" from Italy, Greece, and above all Turkey to help in the rebuilding of the country. Because the Germans assumed these guest workers would return home, they provided little in the way of cultural integration policies. But the guest workers, usually manual workers from the countryside with little formal education, often did not return to the economically depressed regions they had come from. Instead, they brought wives and family members to join them and settled in Germany, often forming parallel societies cut off from mainstream German life. Unlike the United States, Germany is historically a land of emigrants, not immigrants, and the country has fumbled when it comes to successful integration. Today, Germany's largest immigrant group is Turkish. In fact, Berlin is the largest Turkish city after Istanbul. The Germans are now trying to redress the lack of a coherent integration policy that has led to a situation in which Turkish communities live in cultural isolation, and third- or fourth-generation German Turks sometimes do not speak German. These Turkish communities are now an indelible part of the German society—one blond-hair, blue-eyed German soldier deployed to Afghanistan famously said that the thing he missed most about home was the döner kebab, the ubiquitous Turkish-German fast-food dish. But young Turkish-Germans face incommensurate hurdles to professional and scholastic success. As the German population ages, the country is facing a population crisis, and a more inclusive, functional approach to immigration will be increasingly important.
Germany, the world's fourth-largest economy, was the world's largest exporter until 2009, when China overtook it. The recession hit Germany hard, 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. Germany is particularly strong when it comes to high-tech engineering and automotive exports, with 60% of their goods going to other European countries, though debt incurred by the extensive and expensive rebuilding of the former East after reunification is a source of concern to many in this traditional, don't-spend-more-than-you-earn culture. By far the most important economy in the European Union, Germany has a strong voice in setting the EU's economic agenda and has traditionally acted as a kind of rich uncle that other countries turn to when they need an economic bailout. With the Greek financial crisis in early 2010, Chancellor Angela Merkel made waves by being the first German chancellor to insist on putting Germany's economic interests first, though in the end Germany and France came up with measures to rescue the Greek economy from collapse.
The Germans are not big fans of Facebook. With good reason: with recent experiences of life in a police state under both the Nazi regime and the East German regime, 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. Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, and the mayor of Berlin are both openly gay. As Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's mayor, famously said in his public coming-out speech, "I'm gay, and it's good that way." The Green Party is a powerful player in the country's coalition government, and has enacted wide-reaching environmental reform in the past 30 years. 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) pairing 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 consistent if not overwhelming popularity and easily won reelection in 2009.
Renew, Recycle, Reuse
The Green Party, founded in 1980, is an established and important player in the German government. This makes sense for an extremely environmentally conscious country, 60% of whose citizens are against nuclear energy. But that's not all. Thanks to aggressive government legislation initiated by the Greens in the past decades, Germany today is a leader in green energy technology and use—in 2010, 10% of all energy used in Germany came from renewable sources. Importantly, the move to renewable electricity sources is paid for entirely by electricity consumers. Germans pay a hugely popular across-the-board renewable energy surcharge to fund these initiatives, which adds about 1% to the average customer's bill. Thanks to these initiatives, more than 15% of the electricity you use in your hotel room (and everywhere else in the country) comes from renewable resources.
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