So I’ve been here in Berlin for coming up on three months now and I still can’t quite get a firm grip on who Germans are. I can watch the people I see on the streets, chat with the people I meet at school, make notes on arguments at my local checkout line, but none of these views give me any clear vision on what it means to be German. They’re gruff just as much as they are warm, courteous as much as they are rude, plain as much as they are bright. I doubt that Germans themselves have much of an idea of who they are either. The German state as a concept dates back only to 1871, and German unity last came about in 1990 – Germany as a cohesive nation still hasn’t had much time to coalesce a Nationalsgefuehl, especially since every time Germans have tried to unite under a nationalist-based cause they’ve been broken back up again. Looking at political dialogue since 1945, one won’t find many pleas to some kind of mythical Teutonic state. At best there are the Bundesrepublik’s Greens who, at least until the mid-1980s, injected a bit of an emotional backdrop to otherwise straightlaced governmental proceedings, but even they were extremely cautious of any touting of a uniquely German spirit. Though official channels don’t hark towards a singular germann-ness, that’s not to say Germans never try to export such a notion of unity.
Even before 1871, Romantic composers and poets wrote in a singular tongue and tone that would flow smoothly from the Rhein to the Baltic and down again to the Alps at a time when Germany was composed of countless duchies and small states, every one of which had its own border crossings and tariffs. One hundred years after Bismark started his politicing for union under Prussia, not only was making a trip from Magdeburg to Berlin and on down to Munich just as complicated as it was before, another batch of Germans were sending out sermons of unity: the automobile companies. For example, though they started out in the 1950s, by the 1970s Mercedes Benz had established the three-pointed star as a kind of figurehead for the notions of quality, precision, and efficiency. Their cars had prows, not grills. Their smoothed silver sides were like those of modern frigates and from Stuttgart sailed an armada, exporting that idea of a German spirit that the political scene could not and would not appeal to.
Over the next while I’ll look at a few interesting cars from Germany’s period of modern division and how these machines address their homeland’s dischord. Just as with the varied faves and voices of the German pople, finding a running motif through the Teutonic automobile is trickier than it may at first seem.