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BERLIN

Can Berlin ever overcome its image as Germany’s eternal problem child?

When most Germans think of their capital, they picture a city in debt that seems incapable of organising something as fundamental as an election, let alone an airport. One of the problems is bureaucracy. Can it sort itself out?

A picture of central Berlin
Berlin's administration: a permanent construction site. Photo: dpa | Christophe Gateau

Berlin is used to being the butt of many a German joke.

First, there was the seemingly never-ending series of construction failures at its new international airport. Now in operation, BER is still running anything but smoothly.

Then, last month there was the chaos on election day, when ballots went missing or were mixed up in some 200 voting stations around the city. Voters had to stand around for hours and sometimes left without having had the chance to cast their ballot.

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The state election committee determines the final results of the elections to the city senate on Thursday, but the election commission has already said that it will challenge the results in court.

‘Amazed at the patience of Berliners’

In the lives of ordinary Berliners though, it’s the smaller things that can be most frustrating.

On Wednesday, anyone trying to book an appointment online at the Bürgeramt (citizens’ office) for an ID card was told that everything is fully booked until December 10th. But after that date the online calendar stops.

Obtaining a birth certificate, registering a car or a new address – it’s all a matter of luck in Berlin because nothing seems to go to plan. 

People wait in line to vote in Berlin on September 26th.
People wait in line to vote in Berlin on September 26th. There was chaos in the city with some polling stations running out of ballots. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Monika Skolimowska

The pandemic revealed even more weaknesses, especially regarding digitisation. Only one in 10 public employees in Berlin was able to work in home office due to a lack of laptops.

“These are simply scandalous circumstances,” says Wolfgang Seibel, an administrative expert from Constance in southern Germany.

“I’ve always been amazed at the patience of Berliners. Waiting in line for days to get a Kita (childcare) spot, failing to get an appointment at the Bürgeramt or for a birth certificate – these are inconceivable conditions. One can only be surprised that people put up with it.”

Seibel, who was a member of a commission which presented proposals for improving Berlin’s administration in 2018, said that a radical reform of the city administration was the only solution.

READ MORE: Centre-left SPD candidate Giffey wins Berlin mayoral race

“As long as district administrations are not integrated into a unified city administration, Berlin’s problems cannot be overcome,” he says.

Seibel describes the power given to district administrations in Berlin as “completely absurd” and completely different to how things are done in Munich, Hamburg or Cologne.

“If I have one recommendation for the new city Senate, it is to bring in constitutional reform,” Seibel says, before admitting that it would be tough to do. “The districts don’t want to be deprived of their power.”

He adds that the government has a responsibility to its voters to change things. “Only the strong can afford a weak state,” he says.

‘Permanent construction site’

In 2019, the Berlin Chamber of Commerce launched a campaign called “One City – One Strong Administration” that pushed for the creation of a single city administration.

The trade association’s assessment of the impact of its campaign highlights the positives.

Administrators now listen more carefully to advice from the business community, they say. There have also been improvements to the time it takes to register a vehicle for commercial purposes.

On the other hand, some procedures appear totally out of date. For example, building applications need to be handed in in paper form – with up to four copies required.

“The modernisation of Berlin’s administration remains a permanent construction site,” the Chamber of Commerce concludes.

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LIVING IN GERMANY

REVEALED: The most commonly asked questions about Germans and Germany

Ever wondered what the world is asking about Germany and the Germans? We looked at Google’s most searched results to find out – and help clear some of these queries up.

Oktoberfest
Hasan Salihamidzic, the sports director of FC Bayern, arrives with his wife at Oktoberfest in full traditional dress. Photo: picture alliance/dpa |

According to popular searches, Germany is the go-to place for good coffee and bread (although only if you like the hard kind) and the place to avoid if what you’re looking for is good food, good internet connection and low taxes. Of course, this is subjective; some people will travel long stretches to get a fresh, hot pretzel or a juicy Bratwurst, while others will take a hard pass.

When it comes to the question on the bad Internet – there is some truth to this. Germany is known for being behind other rich nations when it comes to connectivity. And from personal experience, the internet connection can seem a little medieval. The incoming German coalition government has, however, vowed to improve internet connectivity as part of their plans to modernise the country.

There are also frequent questions on learning the German language, and people pointing out that it is hard and complicated. This is probably due to the long compound words and its extensive grammar rules, however, as both English and German are Germanic languages with similar words in common, it’s not impossible to learn as an English-speaker.

Here’s a look at some of those questions…

Why is German called Deutsch? Whereas ‘German’ comes from the Latin, ‘Deutsch’ instead derives itself from the Indo-European root “þeudō”, meaning “people”. This slowly became “Deutsch” as we know it today. It can be a bit confusing to English-speakers, who are right to think it sounds a little more like “Dutch”, however the two languages do have the same roots which may explain it.

And why is Germany so boring? Again, probably a generalisation, especially given that Germany has a landmass of over 350,000 km² with areas ranging from high rise, industrial cities to traditional old town villages and even mountain ranges, so you’re sure to find a place that doesn’t bore you to tears.

Perhaps it is a question that comes from the stereotype that Germans are obsessed with being strict about rules, organised and analytical. Or that they have no sense of humour – all of these things being not the most exciting traits. 

Either way, from my experience I can confirm that, even though there is truth to German society enjoying order and rules, the vast majority of people are not boring, and I’m sure if you come to Germany you’ll meet many interesting, funny and exciting people. 

READ ALSO: 12 mistakes foreigners make when moving to Germany

When it comes to the German weather, most people assume a cold and cloudy climate, however this isn’t entirely true. While the autumn and winter, especially in the north, come with grey skies and sub-zero temperatures, Germany can have some beautiful summers, with temperatures frequently rising above 30C in some places.

Unsurprisingly, the power and wealth of the German nation is mentioned – Germany is the largest economy in Europe after all, with a GDP of 3.8 trillion dollars. This could be due to strong industry sectors in the country, including vehicle constructions (I was a little surprised to find no questions posed on German cars), chemical and electrical industry and engineering. There are also many strong economic cities in Germany, most notably Munich, Frankfurt am Main and Hamburg.

READ ALSO: Eight unique words and phrases that tell us something about Germany

Smart and tall?

Why are Germans so tall? They are indeed taller than many other nations, with the average German measuring a good 172.87cm (or 5 feet 8.06 inches), however this may be a question better posed to the Dutch, who make up the tallest people in the world.

Why are Germans so smart? While this is again a generalisation – as individuals have different levels of intelligence in all countries – this question may stem from Germany’s free higher education system or their seemingly efficient work ethic. Plus there does seem to be some scientific research behind this question, with a study done in 2006 finding that Germans had the highest IQ in Europe.

So, while many of the questions posed about Germany and Germans on Google stem from stereotypes, we can confirm that some aren’t entirely made up. If you’re looking to debunk some frequently asked questions about France and the French, check out this article by our sister site HERE.

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