Posted by: Raphael Orlove | November 12, 2009

Dem Deutschen Volke

Mercedes S-Class

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.

Glas 1700GT


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.

Wartburg 353



  1. interesting…I had known that Germany achieved political unification relatively late, but I never pondered the effects of that late unification on its transportation network. Did France and Britain, unified earlier, build a national network of railroads and roads earlier? I know it was a huge deal for the Norwegians to build their first rail line from Oslo to Bergen.

  2. Good question – It seems that among the three states GER, UK, and FR, rail progressed at a fairly similar rate. Construction started in the 1830s, boomed in the 40s, continued upwards and onwards through nationalisation in the 1930s and 40s. National character, however, does shine through. In England, private ventures founded the train system, conglomerating into four big companies that held on to a monopoly of railway lines until 1948. France, predictably, kicked off its railway progress with a centrally-issued state decree, coming in 1842 and organizing a fairly national system. Germany had, in contrast, a mix of the two systems, having both many seperate, yet state-run railway organisations. The Laenderbahnen were organized kingdom-by-kingdom across fragmented Germany. Not until the 1880s did Prussia bring the multitudinous companies together into the Prussian state railways, and even then did the once-separate firms act as if they were still operating in isolation, with each local railway line in charge of its own construction and development. I think that should answer any of your questions, but who knows? As to what all of this means for the German character, or what it reflects of that teutonic psyche, I can not say.

  3. It’s interesting to think…how much of this is character, a kind of mindset, or a way of perceiving and responding to situations, and how much of it has to do with institutions that mobilize people, money, information.
    And of course these questions come to the fore at present: how do different countries mobilize for more sustainable, less greenhouse-gas-emitting transportation systems?

  4. The Germans didn’t have an official unified language until 1875. I was wondering why that was…

    Until then, it was just a bunch of dialects. And now the dialects are dying out.

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