Germany has a way of forcing adjustment on visiting Americans.
For the past week I've searched in vain for a Macintosh network
connection and have gotten up at 3 a.m. to watch the NBA Finals.
And then there's the traffic, which, in Germany, seems to have only
two speeds - Mach 1 or zero - depending wholly on whether the
Autobahn is clogged with one of its innumerable traffic jams.
Last weekend, cars slowed to a crawl as 350,000 people converged
on Bonn to stage the largest protest in the history of the Federal
Republic. From all corners of the country, protesters arrived on
foot, by ship, in 75 special trains, and in buses that, if parked
end to end, would stretch for 108 kilometers.
What brought them to Bonn? Unlike previous large demonstrations
against plans to station nuclear weapons, to join the Gulf war
against Iraq, or to tighten laws on political asylum, this protest
was directed not at the government's foreign policy but rather at
its domestic policy. Recently, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's
administration proposed cuts in sickness, unemployment, and
retirement benefits. The government insists that only by cutting
these costs can German companies remain internationally competitive.
But last Saturday, unions, women's groups, church groups, and
assorted leftists fought back, accusing Mr. Kohl of embracing an
"American-style" hire-and-fire system and a weakening of the social
spending that "makes the market economy tolerable."
Unemployment is the core economic problem in Germany, as it is
almost everywhere in Europe. Unemployment increases the ranks of
beneficiaries while lowering the number of payers. After two
post-World War II decades of full employment, Germany's joblessness
rate has risen steadily since the mid-1970s. It now stands at a
postwar high of 11 percent, or more than 4 million (another 2
million would like to work but are not accounted for in official
Germany badly needs to create jobs. Few people have pushed the
panic button - only one speaker invoked the specter of another
Weimar Republic - but hard times do have a way of turning
suspicions into grievances.
In short, the demonstration occurred because Germans are now
bringing their fundamental disagreements over what is fair and just
to the political forefront. The divides are deep; Germany can no
longer be considered a society with a broad consensus on social
policy. A host of German institutions - from wage bargaining to
vocational training - was built on this consensus that the weak
have a substantial claim on the resources of the strong.
The Bonn demonstration was, predictably, a sight to see. The
unions picked up the tab for buses, trains, and police while
ensuring, most importantly, that no price gouging occurred at the
sausage stands. Conventional wit, if not wisdom, has held that
Germans could never revolt since they'd then have to walk on the