Shaggy politicians, Merkel meets the masses, German innovation takes off

This newsletter is a 6-minute read

Dear Reader,

Today we are asking why German news presenters are doing a 1960s tribute act.


Jörg & Axel

Four Things

  • The government has agreed upon a further round of financial aid to support citizens and businesses through the pandemic. Families will get a one-off €150 payment per child, restaurants and bars will profit from a drop in VAT until the end of 2022, plus €1 billion has been promised to the cultural sector.

  • Daimler has made a historic decision, announcing the division of its company into two new entities. Known for luxury cars, the business actually employs almost as many people in its two less sexy branches: trucks and busses. The cars are going to be split off into a new company and named simply Mercedes. Daimler’s CEO says that this will allow both sectors to grow more quickly.

  • Deutsche Bank has published its first black numbers since 2014. The lender has been troubled for years, going through several CEOs and bogged down in countless litigation cases. The €113 million profit came despite the bank embarking on a major restructuring programme.

  • The US Supreme Court has rejected an attempt by the heirs of Jewish art collectors to regain works that their forebears sold for a fraction of their value during the Nazi era. At the centre of the case was the Guelph Treasure, a collection of ecclesiastical art that is now owned by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

If you haven’t yet read our first deep dive, we’re looking at a unique aspect of Germany democracy: born out of the struggle against the Nazis, the constitution describes itself as “resistant democracy” - this fighting talk is key to understanding the sweeping powers of the country’s domestic spy service. We take a closer look!

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It’s getting hairy!

During our muffled conversation, I was increasingly surprised. My hairdresser is a free-spirited young man who looks like he’s just stepped out of the techno club Berghain. I hadn’t expected him to so vehemently support the government's strict lockdown measures from behind his immaculately-fitted FFP-2 mask.

That was last spring. And his views didn’t change much as we continued the conversation during subsequent masked visits. A small litmus test of public sentiment?

Unfortunately, we haven’t spoken since November, when hair salons had to close. 

Call me vain, but my support for lockdown seems to have an inverse correlation to the length of my mane! Hence I felt a sting of Schadenfreude when I saw that I wasn’t alone…

At the last Ministerpräsident press conference, it was hard to take Bavarian premier Markus Söder’s calls for caution seriously, given his weird hairdo. With his fringe gelled up into a defiant quiff, he looked more like a 10-year old Prenzlauer Berg skater kid at my local playground than a future Bundeskanzler! 

Söder, who in younger days sported a crew cut, doesn’t seem to care.

But Klaus Kleber, German public television’s hotshot news anchor, was visibly embarrassed as he trotted around the studio with a fluffy grey helmet on his head last Sunday. The man who normally looks like an elderly Prussian officer had to push the occasional, mischievous lock behind his ear. 

Ridiculous as they may look, at least they’re showing a bit of solidarity with the increasingly shaggy public. Footballers on the other hand...

“We have with great surprise noticed that on recent match days the majority of professional football players have presented themselves on the pitch with freshly cut hair: neat partings, neck and temple hair trimmed to just a few millimetres, clean contours: hairstyles that only professional hairdressers with professional equipment can cut.”

- wrote the Zentralverband Friseurhandwerk in a drily-worded letter to the German Football Association, a couple of weeks ago, asking the millionaires to show some respect.

I for one can’t understand why they’re allowed to play at all, while a generation of underprivileged children are denied what they need most - an education. If you have to play, then please do it like the eternally unfashionable Bayern striker Thomas Müller! 

Hair, it seems, is parting society... 

The next Ministerpräsidentenkonferenz on February 14th is drawing closer. I’m sure that Winfried Kretschmann wants his signature Bürstenhaarschnitt back, that Julia Klöckner doesn’t want to resemble her poodle any longer, and that Andreas Scheuer’s banker cut will self-ignite if he puts any more gel in it. Hence, there might be one or two senior politicians on my side, arguing that parts of the economy (hairdressers for example) should get back to business.

I’m curious about my next conversation with my hairdresser. Will the young man still be a staunch Merkelist, or have the long, hard winter months turned him against her?


Meeting the masses

The secret to Angela Merkel’s longevity? She realized long ago that the temptation to kiss babies in the streets so as to win the “people’s princess” tag can quickly backfire.

She rarely talks to the press and only comes in contact with the general public on the rarest of occasions. In doing so, she has won herself an air of all-knowing, inscrutable mystery.

Certainly, on the few occasions that she has met the masses, this veil of omniscience is pulled back fairly quickly. 

In 2015, a question and answer with school children in Rostock spiralled into disaster when a young Palestinian girl told her that she wanted to be a doctor but lived in constant fear that her family would be deported. Ms Merkel’s response was to tell her that Germany unfortunately couldn't help everyone - leading the girl to break down in tears.

This week she has been on an unusual “listening learn tour” - a sure sign of dipping polls - to understand the concerns of the ordinary Otto during the pandemic. On Tuesday, she gave an interview to broadcaster ARD about the vaccine rollout, and on Thursday she did a digital town hall meeting with concerned parents.

Once again, things soon took an uncomfortable turn. 

I tuned in just as the Chancellor was telling a father that there were also “good sides” to being able to spend so much time with one’s children. He politely agreed but said that he’d got to know his children well enough a few months back.

The next questioner threw a spanner in the works. The woman explained that she came to Germany as a refugee in the 1980s and now works in Bremen with a charity that supports refugee mothers. Visibly upset, she described how these women, most of whom speak limited German, and some of whom are illiterate - are completely overwhelmed by the task of home-schooling their children.

In 2015 alone some 270,000 refugee children arrived in Germany, so the concerns this woman raised are a pretty big deal. That is a quarter of a million children missing out on crucial classroom time in a situation where they are already trying to catch up with their German classmates.

Ms Merkel’s response sounded like the reply of someone thrown a curveball during a job interview.

She said something about government information being available in various languages and wondered whether this needed to be more visible; she assured the woman that she would talk to her Families Minister. And then the masterstroke: “If there are any volunteers out there in Bremen who are listening, please do get in touch,” she said, rather hopefully. “Let me know if anyone contacts you,” she added.

Surely the government has more of a strategy than a random call out on morning television to volunteers in Bremen?

As we have reported recently, other countries have done detailed studies on the impact school closures have on poorer families - and decided to keep them open. This type of investigation was never done in Germany, despite the mammoth task involved in integrating refugee families into society.


The flying cars are coming

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters” is a classic quote from German-born entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, lamenting the decline in global innovation.

But guess what, the flying cars are coming! And from Germany, of all countries, where there supposedly hasn’t been any exciting tech invention since SAP was founded, half a century ago!

According to a study by the Lufthansa Innovation hub, two of the leading companies in the race to take over the skies with so-called eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing) are German.

Munich based Lilium, and Volocopter from Karlsruhe have spent billions of Euros developing prototypes of their dream machines. Volocopter hopes to have its first commercially operating machines ready for the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024 and Lilium is building “Veriports” in Florida, which the company hopes will already be in use in 2023.

The two German companies are developing quite different models. The Lilium-Jet is more ambitious and, according to some pundits, a pipe dream. With a 300-kilometre range, it’s main use case is intercity transportation, competing with trains and cars. 

The Volocopter, which isn’t much different to a normal helicopter, just cleaner, cheaper (eventually) and - not to be neglected - quieter, aims to put taxis and limo services out of business by shuttling passengers to and from airports.

Dieselgate, Tesla and now this….as if the German automakers didn’t have enough troubles.


If you haven’t yet read our first deep dive, we’re looking at a unique aspect of Germany democracy: born out of the struggle against the Nazis, the constitution describes itself as “resistant democracy” - this fighting talk is key to understanding the sweeping powers of the country’s domestic spy service. We take a closer look!

Get 30 day free trial

Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph. Formerly in the Middle East. Classicist; Masters in International Politics & Arabic from St Andrews.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011