Fanfare for the common good
The English writer Christopher Isherwood wrote “The Berlin Stories” about the late-’20s and the early-’30s, recounting his time in that city as the “brown shirt” bullies roamed the streets beating up Jews, labor unionists and anyone they considered to be enemies of the emerging Nazi Party. Isherwood’s stories became the basis of the play “I Am A Camera” and subsequently the musical “Cabaret.”
Berlin, during the time of the Weimar Republic, was a swirling cultural scene of the arts and alternative lifestyles. The great painters of the time, Max Beckmann, George Groz, Christian Schad, Ludwig Meisner, Otto Dix and others, chronicled the political and economic turmoil and the freewheeling social scene of sexual freedom, sticking a thumb in the eye of the militaristic Junker class. These great painters paid for their insolence by being declared “degenerates” when the Nazis came to rule the roost. The Nazi ascent to power was fueled by the draconian reparations imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty after WWI, resulting in mega-inflation and widespread unemployment – grist for the National Socialist mill. In a few years, in 1933, Hitler would come to power, and the rest is well-known history.
Today’s Berlin, 68 years after the end of WWII, under a democratic parliamentary system, is once again a ho-bed of artistic freedom and anarchistic experimentation. Artists squat in abandoned buildings and throughout the city, public art, murals and graffiti are inescapable – some outstanding, some merely at the level of inept scrawlings.
The underpinnings of this social democracy provide a quality of life that should be envied by most Americans. The German social contract is deeply steeped in the philosophy of the Common Good which is given more than the lip service it gets in the United States. In Germany, family values are more than the blah, blah, blah of American political opportunists who, once elected, propose cutting food stamps, temporary aid to needy families and, in the case of Vermont’s governor, earned income tax credits which help the poor. The idea of the Common Good is woven into the German social safety net which features universal, affordable health care, subsidized child care, strong unemployment and retraining benefits, and substantial paid maternity leave for both parents. The Common Good is also expressed in very affordable tuition fees at German universities, about $800 per semester.
Unlike the U.S., where organized labor is in serious decline and only 7 percent of the private sector is unionized, German organized labor still constitutes a vital countervailing force to unbridled corporate rapaciousness. The idea of the Common Good is expressed in the legal concept of co-determination in the workplace. By law, every corporate board must have members from labor and the government to monitor what might be arbitrary downsizing for short term profits. Unlike the U.S., corporations in Germany are restrained from outsourcing or simply fleeing the coop for some Third World country where labor rights are nil and salaries one step away from slave labor.
The most tangible evidence of the Common Good for the visitor to Germany, is the excellence of its mass transportation system. The subways, the light-rail trolley lines and buses all run on a tight and prompt schedule so that waiting for more than 15 minutes is rare. As a tourist, you can actually plan your day down to the minute for getting transportation to any destination.
And then there are the bike paths. Here in the U.S.A., we’re lucky to have a line signifying a bike lane sharing the roadway with 3,000-pound automobiles. In Berlin, the bike paths are on the sidewalk designated with a red brick surface which pedestrians ignore at their peril as cyclists come barreling along. Even in downtown Berlin on the automobile clogged Potsdamer Platz, the bicycle has the right-of-way — thousands of bicycles.
The powerful idea of the Common Good permeates the social democracies of Europe, whether Denmark, France, Sweden, Germany and others. It is the bond which infuses the citizenry with a sense of cohesiveness, a sense that abandonment is not an option, that regardless of your walk in life, you are valued as a human being. In the midst of the economic turmoil of the last half decade, both here in the U.S. and abroad, the degree to which the Common Good is nurtured is the degree to which each individual’s humanity is affirmed.
Al Salzman is from fairfield