Information: Readers 'Too small to change the world'
19 August 2011
When a pro-Europe article brings in storms of angry comments for an editor at Die Zeit, he decides to stop in on one of his critics. Where does the rage against Brussels come from? The answer he finds is both surprising and alarming.
I first meet M. after a colleague’s interview with Klaus Kinkel, the last foreign minister in Helmut Kohl’s cabinet. In the interview Kinkel praised Europe and declared that Germany must stand up for the poor countries of the monetary union. The piece attracted almost 200 comments.
Number 105 was from M.: "That's what happens when you abandon the field to boasters and soap-bubble merchants." He meant Kinkel. Europe was to throw open the doors and lay out the red carpet for people who "felt beholden only to their own bank accounts". M thinks that this typifies the way that those "at the top" treat the ones at the bottom -- "like dirt".
I click on the user profile. Readers often sign up under monikers like klüger (“Cleverer”), knueppelhart (“Rock-hard”), or Lügenpresse (“Liespaper”). M. goes by “jgmischke”. He has posted about 500 comments. Responding in one message to the declared desire of the EU Commission to compensate farmers for crop failures due to EHEC disease, he said: "The entire EU-cracy is getting worse and worse. It's becoming like a cash-and-carry." Taking the comments on the euro crisis as a benchmark, one would have to conclude that an overwhelming majority of Germans are against the euro. Why this disappointment, this fury?
I had written, asking if I could pay him a visit, to sound him out on why he’s so angry about Europe, so angry at the politicians. His answer came just two hours later. He had taken my message as spam, at first, as a joke. But then he began to find the whole idea "appealing". He sent me his address: a small town in Westphalia.
As we climb into his Fiat, I realise how surprised I am. I had imagined him differently: perhaps not quite normal, aggressive-looking. Maybe I even expected an unemployed person, someone obviously down on his luck, and I’m ashamed of the thought.
Over the next few hours M., 53 years old, tells the story of his life, a little nervously and without irony. Before he moved to the countryside, he worked in Dusseldorf at the fiscal authority. It was a job he didn’t really like. Eventually he and his wife bought a copy of Geo, because it listed Germany’s cities alongside their environmental footprint. Dusseldorf came out at the bottom, the worst of them all. The flat country in Westphalia, though, fared better. "So we moved here."
It was a turning point for him. He became a freelance programmer, and after they moved into the house two children were born. M. was at home and was around “when you had to thump on the table in school now and then". When he tells it, it sounds like a good time. In the meanwhile he was hired as a staff programmer in a medium-sized businesses.
M got out of politics a few years ago. Before then he had run for the local council, together with his son. For the Greens. It was a hopeless cause: the village had been ruled for decades by Germany’s CDU party. “I’m governed by idiots,” M says, “and that’s the problem." When M. speaks about politics he can talk himself into a rage, and he sounds as angry as he does in his comments.
Why is he so angry? “Powerlessness, in the long run, eventually makes you furious.” Far too seldom, he says, is he ever asked for his opinion. "It's like being on a train when the conductors are drunk, and you know it’s going to end in a wreck. But the carriage doors are locked and you can’t get off.” To hear M. speak about Europe, here in this living-room in the province of Westphalia, Brussels seems a very long way away. “The regulations about the light bulbs – ‘Oh, that won’t be discussed’," he says. Everything is just “imposed”. It’s always been like that, he says – first with the euro, and now with Greece, Portugal, and Ireland.
Politicians, he says, must be reined in much better than they are. He would even go so far as to say they could be prosecuted for bad decisions. M. dreams of more professionals in politics, of "teams" that would make the best decisions objectively, not out of political opportunism.
The longer I talk with M., the more I understand he's no misfit. Actually, he’s pretty mainstream – one of us. He’s not particularly badly off, has a job, a few cars, like most Germans.
Should one sympathise with him? Understand him? Reproach him for making it too easy for himself? After all, it’s not just that the politics have left him behind; M. too has withdrawn. He leaves the politics to politicians, so he can then despise them for their policies.
Towards the end of our conversation he tells me that he sometimes heads up to his roof to gaze through a telescope at the stars. Then he sees how small the planet is, and how trifling so much of what upsets him.
On my way home, one of his remarks comes back to me: “I'm just a bit too small to change the world."