Secret of Germany’s success

What the Washington Post could learn from Der Spiegel

Finding common ground between old and young.
Finding common ground between old and young.

The more I study German (the language) to better understand Germany (my adopted country), the more valuable to me is the German weekly, Der Spiegel ("The Mirror"). It's often dubbed Germany's equivalent of Time magazine, but Der Spiegel has far outstripped its American antecedent in both size and significance.

What made me realize this disparity is Spiegel's monthly student magazine, Uni-Spiegel, which is frankly designed to keep students subscribing after they graduate. Three regular features work their magic: aspects of student life, first jobs of recent graduates and finally, a profile of an outstanding professor.

The July issue tells the story of Abusar Ahmadi, a 27-year-old Afghani medical student who, with 15 other students, has moved into a home for demented old men. Cheap rent (about $335 a month) is their main motivation. But soon these young men learn to savor their contacts with the Golden Oldies. Five hours each week, Abusar spends social time with an 88-year-old doctor.

TV with the Oldies


Every evening Abusar and the doctor take a 50-meter hike. And once a month Abusar prepares an Afghani meal for all the students and their charges. They regularly share a shuttle bus into town with four women who work in the house, one of whom is a poet. Abusar puts copies of her work in their mailboxes.

In the evenings, Abusar often goes into the TV room and watches a program with the Oldies. Once an old lady complained that Abusar used all the water in the water cooler. But mainly the students make friends with the old regulars.

This civilized interaction between young and old reminded me of how most Germans deal with the problem of jobs for the young. They hire workers to learn a new job well and pay them. German businessmen invite union leaders to participate in their deliberations for the future, since both sides have a common fate.

Saving the middle class

Compare this with the union-busting tactics used by President Ronald Reagan after he took office in 1981. During Word War II Reagan had been hassled by lefties as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Perhaps for that reason, from the White House he broke the air traffic controllers' union and encouraged auto companies to move their operations to Southern states less friendly to unions. He also encouraged the offshoring of jobs to Mexico and China, effectively destroyed the American middle class dream of upward economic mobility.

German businesses and unions, by contrast, collaborate to protect both businesses and unions, to the benefit of their middle class. And publications like Der Spiegel teach university students civilized alternatives to the adversarial business-labor mindset.

This month a Spiegel column called "Bizarre Professions" spotlights the oncologist Julia Baer, who protects nature in isolated North Sea islands by spending a year gathering data in an island, then moving to another isolated island— a strange but also invaluable job.

National anxiety

Under Spiegel's rubric of "Germany's best professors," we read about psychiatrist Katharina Domschke and her research into her country's biggest puzzle: Germans' angst over their country's future survival.

At a time when mass-market newspapers are imploding and American journalism is drifting into narrow niche coverage, Der Spiegel's tradition of protecting the common good is an asset every complex industrial culture needs. Der Spiegel has created a style of journalism that protects essential attitudes if a country is to survive the uncertainties of the future.


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